Cloud cuckoo land is a country despised by no-nonsense realists, a category of people that Margaret Thatcher felt proud to belong to. If anyone imagined that she would go to parliament and advocate the abolition of the pound sterling, she said, they would be living in cloud cuckoo land. Fair enough. But there again, according to the disputed account of her biographer Hugo Young, she also said it of anyone who believed that the African National Congress – “a typical terrorist organisation” – could become the government of South Africa: they too would belong among the cuckoos and the clouds. (She allegedly said this in 1987; Nelson Mandela took office seven years later.)
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called it Wolkenkuckucksheim, but the place is much the same in any language: an impossible utopia, a landscape of daydream and delusion. Schopenhauer believed philosophy spent too much time up there. More often, it was said to be home to the followers of those political and social movements that believed humanity was morally improvable.
It seems odd to write in the past tense. In the 1970s and 80s, when the crowds were at their thickest in Camden Passage, it was hard to imagine a middle-class future without scrubbed pine tables or oak chests of drawers; or the amusing things – a phrenology head, a tin toy, a stuffed canary – that might stand on them. Who could have foreseen that muted greys, clean lines and space were what people would soon be after?
The change in fashion thinned out the shops and the stalls, though buyers from Europe and the US still came, and vintage clothes did better than furniture. A kimono is an easier item to transport than a sideboard. Cloud Cuckoo Land wasn’t the only vintage clothes shop in or near Camden Passage – Annie’s, which is bigger and longer established, stands only yards away – and their future looked secure.
The shops had a loyal following. Kate Moss came to Camden Passage to buy an old handbag. Production teams from films such as The Great Gatsby would turn up to buy period dresses, and then, with any luck, the films would create a market for more of the same among the women who watched them. But soon these shops too will be part of the past. Cloud Cuckoo Land closed last Saturday; Annie’s is unlikely to last beyond the date its lease runs out, in December next year.
Rent, and not a change in fashion, is what has destroyed them. Cloud Cuckoo Land’s premises comprise a 16ft-by-10ft front shop, a 6ft-by-8ft washroom at the rear, and storage space in the floor above. For this, Chrissie Harper was paying £16,200 a year rent and £8,000 in rates. Recently her landlord gave notice that it was more than doubling the rent, to £37,680. She offered £23,000. The landlord refused negotiation and asked that the keys be returned on 13 September. “I was in shock. I thought they couldn’t mean it. I loved this shop. I thought they’d have to carry me out of it in a box,” she said this week, but by then the shop was empty and her husband was painting its interior, readying it for an inspection by the landlord’s agents.
The ultimate owner of the property lives some distance away. Nobody in the vicinity of Camden Passage, where some years ago one of his companies bought nine properties for what looks like a bargain price of £3.35m, can ever remember seeing him. Now, thanks to an illuminating report by Koos Couvée, one of only two reporters on the local freesheet, the Islington Tribune, we know him to be John Christodoulou, a Cyprus-born British property developer with significant interests in London’s Docklands, Liverpool and Manchester.
A billionaire, Christodoulou has appeared on the Sunday Times Rich List, and lives in the tax haven of Monaco. The Yianis Group, of which he is the sole owner, includes Yianis Holdings TC Limited, a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands and the sole owner of Islington Benwell 2 Limited, which in turn is listed in Companies House as the “relevant legal entity” controlling at least three-quarters of the shares of Islington Benwell 3 Limited, which has assets of £38m and takes rent from several premises including Cloud Cuckoo Land and Annie’s, where an annual rent of £53,500 will need to be paid until the end of 2018.
“Another nail in the passage’s coffin” was how the Tribune headlined Couvée’s story.