The Prophet of Neal's Yard

By Robson, David | New Statesman (1996), February 27, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Prophet of Neal's Yard


Robson, David, New Statesman (1996)


Nicholas Saunders didn't just sell good health food. He pioneered a way of doing business that was principled, innovative and very successful

On St Valentine's night, a gentle act of love. Dozens of people; bald, middle-aged men and comfortable-looking women, young men and girls with coloured hair and pierced eyebrows, little children, babes in arms; lots of beards and old cotton trousers and saggy shoulder bags. Not much make-up. Above them a clear night sky and around them a triangle of tall, friendly old buildings. At one end of the courtyard, which is small and intimate and crowded, stands a lavish bouquet of purple, pink, red and white flowers in an enormous bowl on a four-foot plinth. The bowl and the plinth, very beautiful, are made of ice.

What all these people, and this place, have in common is that their lives have been touched, or even transformed, by Nicholas Saunders, who was killed in a car crash in South Africa 12 days previously. They are here to celebrate what he was and what he did. Dead at the age of 60, he was a most uncommon man.

Had he emerged from the sixties counterculture and become simply a successful entrepreneur, he would have been of no consequence to anyone but his nearest and clearest, his employees and his bank manager; had he been a hippy carried away to the wilder shores of Zen-ish counterculture, he would have been lost in space. Tall and gaunt with a sallow complexion, Saunders looked like a prophet. But he combined soaring spiritual ambition with ingenuity, stamina, bloody-mindedness and down-to-earth practical skills. He was a man who caused things to happen and enabled others to do them.

In an interview for Jonathon Green's book about the counterculture he gave a resume of some of his sixties pursuits: meditation with the Maharishi, herbal tea and mysticism at Gandalf's Garden, a flirtation with a threateningly cultish outfit called the Process, a slightly sceptical interest in flying saucers. They all brought him into contact with many lost souls who were away with the fairies. If Saunders, who devised a spiral escalator and a machine to hold self-cutting screws, who was the first person in this country to confect Greek-style yoghurt, who devised imaginative and effective pay structures for the workers in his whole-food warehouse, had been "away with the fairies", he would have taught them how to solar-power the grotto.

In the past three decades he has had three major projects, all enormously successful in their own terms. The first was a book, Alternative London, which he published himself in 1970. It told you how to live, eat, shop, seek, protest and make love in the capital if you were not straight, rich or old. It sold 50,000 copies and made Saunders famous in a limited sort of way. In the introduction to Alternative London he wrote: "The subjects I have dealt with are those where up-to-date information is generally difficult to obtain in a form which is unbiased yet easy to absorb."

This was how he always saw himself: dispassionately passionate. And he never left any doubt about whether he was in business. On the opening page below the copyright line it says, very Saundersishly: "In order to trace illicit reproduction of material I have included insignificant errors throughout."

Neal's Yard, where his friends met in mid-month to remember him, is his most tangible legacy. When Saunders moved there more than 20 years ago it was derelict, a little space tucked into an angle between streets, where farmers had stored vegetables for the old Covent Garden vegetable market. It was not in the A-Z and it was scheduled for demolition. He bought a building for [pounds]7,000 and decided to open a health food store.

His aim for the business was clear and carried out to the letter: it would be efficient, cheap and sell excellent produce, and it would be a place where ordinary people, not just hippies and health food freaks, would be happy to go.

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