Some may think that the term "Proustian" is over-employed these days, not least by this column, but once again I have to call on old Marcel for le mot juste. I can recall no volume that has had such a powerful Proustian effect on me as the new photo book Covent Garden by Clive Boursnell (Francis Lincoln, £20). "New" might not be quite the right word here, for the transporting images were captured between 1968 and 1974, when the market was still full of tumult and tomatoes, and forgotten by Boursnell for 30-odd years. I worked on the fringe of the market for some of this period. From the moment I opened the book, I was hurtled – whoosh! – back across the decades. My head filled with the smell – a mixture of ancient cabbage, fresh salad, Players No.6 and diesel exhaust – of the Piazza. I encountered this olfactory cocktail as I made my way, usually late, often a little the worse for wear, to my place of employment, a small publishers on Endell Street.
Of course, I remember the spud lorries from Lincolnshire that would arrive early in the evenings, the nets of sprouts, the boxes of floppy lettuce, the proliferation of cafés where I took onboard a life-saving bacon roll in the mornings and the vegetative débris that made walking so perilous. But the book also brought hazy memories into sharp focus: the lettering carved on the handcarts in looping 18th-century copperplate, the rackety porters shifting carts at alarming speed and whistling at mini-skirts, the beady-eyed salesmen in tiny sheds shuffling great wads of oncers (£1 notes). "You don't see types like that any more," said Mrs W when she skimmed the pages. "Both men and women look like Les Dawson."
Boursnell captured the market in the shimmer of summer, when the waft of decaying vegetation was particularly potent, and in the penetrating chill of winter, when snow dusted the carrots. No wonder the down-and-outs sprawled against the outside wall of St Paul's church (their empty bottles of Woodpecker cider and QC sherry-wine progressively filled a recess in the wall until it was intermittently cleared out) constantly kept a fire going under Inigo Jones's overhanging eaves. The more entrepreneurial sold spilled vegetables collected from the cobbles. Pathetic little piles – a gnarled swede, three or four tomatoes, half a cucumber – lay on scraps of newspaper awaiting purchasers who were more charitable than choosy.
From Boursnell's book, I learned that this "secondary article" was known as "cotchel", a word that fails to appear in any of my dictionaries. There was certainly no shortage of spillages in the Garden. A deluge of strawberries is being delicately recovered on page 160. I once saw a lorry carrying loose oranges inadvertently tip its load at the top of James Street. Thousands of fruit bounced down the hill in diminishing parabolas. The porters who observed this avalanche laughed so much that they could barely stand.
In the Central Market Building, described in Pevsner as "the best preserved late Georgian market hall in England", there is scant sign today of the trade that surged there for four centuries. The coat of arms of the Dukes of Bedford (the motto "Che Sera Sera" brings to mind Doris Day rather than stoicism), who owned the area, still hovers over an entrance and an ancient sign "Jas. Butler, Herbalist and Seedsman, Lavender Water" on one of the corner blocks can be seen, if much faded from the time that Boursnell photographed it.
I left Covent Garden in 1973. In the following year, Covent Garden Market left Covent Garden. Though it is generally accepted that Britain has become an infinitely more food-conscious place over the past three decades, the green stuff in the book looks wonderful: sparkling radishes, glinting fresh blackcurrants, lovely white Kentish cherries. Ironically, there is not a single food shop in the host of retail premises now occupying the old market.
But last week a barrow laden with an impressive display of vegetables stood outside No.1 The Piazza. It was there to publicise an exhibition of Boursnell's photographs. Inside, surrounded by images of an unnaturally empty Covent Garden (the ones taken on a Sunday look as if a neutron bomb had removed all humanity), was the photographer. Boursnell looked little changed from the time when I used to see him wandering round the area, Hasselblad in one hand, clay pipe in the other. Though we hadn't seen each other for 30-odd years, there was instant recognition. "Hello," he said. "Oh, they're all coming out of the woodwork!" It must have been the hundredth time that week that Boursnell had taken a stroll down Memory Lane with an old Covent Garden type, but he was full of beans. Like his wonderful cache of photographs, we exposed ancient yarns of WC2: "Do you remember when..."
It is undeniable that the wholesale market was untenable. Vegetables are bulky things and deliveries caused ghastly snarl-ups in the Seventies. Now, when traffic on the Strand is constantly at a stand-still, the decision to move seems even more unavoidable. It is immensely gratifying that, due to the efforts of a vigilant few, the main buildings have survived. (Someone wanted to knock down the whole lot.) Yet the thronged tourist and shopping Mecca of present-day Covent Garden, where the yells of street entertainers echo the barracking of the old porters, seems sadly barren. Interested more in leeks and broccoli than handbags and gladrags, I scarcely go there.