Part I: A Tale of Gratis Woe
It was with trepidation and a sprinkle of anxiety that I announced the giving away of three sets of books to mark the publication of The Bath Party: a bizarre reaction to something people should jump at, perhaps; but not quite so out of whack considering my experiences working London’s markets.
My tale of gratis woe took place in the early 90s during a still-farting-very-loudly backside of an economic downturn.
In that vein it’s a story best told arse backwards, starting where it ended: at an indoor-market in Croydon just over the road from the long-established Surrey Street.
A Shortcut to How I Got There
I’d started working markets towards the end of a summer. It wasn’t first choice or even second; I needed an income and someone I knew already working them needed a partner.
It wasn’t great, but getting up at the crack of when things (by UK standards) were still relatively warm was fantastic when compared to struggling for sales during the following gruesome snow-filled winter.
We’d started selling our wares (trying to, anyway) at numerous markets all over London, but a lack of customers and the onset of biting cold soon kept us firmly down East Street on account of then living just over the road from it (something meaning I always knew it as East Lane or simply ‘the Lane‘).
It was there that I heard about a soon-to-be opening new indoor market right next to the one I’d grown up near.
Amongst all the doom and gloom, something new gave credence to the few embers floating about suggesting things were on the verge of up.
Plus, a guaranteed pitch and indoors to boot would be a Godsend.
A Brief Tangent
Many of the landmarks on the map are new to me.
‘Cockneys of Croydon‘?
Genuine Cockneys who’ve nipped down to make good before returning laden with booty and the hearts of others’ loved ones . . . or yet more ‘mockneys‘ taking the piss; mere regular Croydon types without any of the special Cockney skills like wheeler-dealing or eel jellying trying to catch a free ride on the coattails of years of glorious Cockney history and achievement?
Misappropriated use of the word Cockney is an ever growing problem – one stabbingly dealt with in The Bath Party.
Where’s it all gonna end: the whole bleedin’ country thinking itself entitled to have a good ol’ Knees Up Mother Brown anytime it bleedin’ pleases?
Is that what Brexit was really about: the rest of the country getting its grubby hands all over Cockney treasures and jewels like Rolling out Barrels while Following the Van down the Lambeth Walk (though without all the style and panache possessed by real Cockneys, of course)?
The E.U. had rules about that kinda thing, like how it looked out for Cheddar cheese, Parma ham and sparkling wine from Champagne.
Back to the Market
Things started off brightly enough with nearly all pitches let, but the cracks were already there to see for anyone willing to look.
It was spread between two huge rooms with an opening the size of a double doorway between them, meaning half the market couldn’t be obviously seen.
But that, inconvenient enough, wasn’t the biggest problem with the dual space.
It was the couple of large stairs between the two rooms: the majority of customers were mothers with buggies, more often than not laden down with bags full of already purchased goods; they had little to no interest in hauling their entourage up the stairs and even less in trekking back outside to walk up the slope at the side of the building just to enter by the rear.
Even it being the location of the market’s ‘food court’ did little to encourage them.
A Special Mention for the Burger Van
(for it may very well serve as a wonderful metaphor for the whole sorry endeavour)
The people running it were probably the only people I ever met during my time working markets who were honest. Waaay too honest.
Their breakfast burgers, topped with a runny-yolked fried egg, were something to behold. Literally – as far away from the body as possible until all risk of squirt had past and any potential errant juice had come to nestle safe and warm in the soft white bun there to capture it, lest one wanted a very real, not to mention sticky, lesson in that whole ‘once bitten‘ thing.
The owners were a lovely married couple from ‘upt North’ (Sheffield, I think), who in desperation had decided to sink all their recession-related redundancy money into the van. Stuck out of the way as they were, they had little to do beyond make small talk with the stall holders as we were pretty much their only trade.
In being mobile, part of the plan was to take it such places paved with gold as London.
Who could fault their preconception? Pete Beale and the market on Eastenders carried on like the word recession had never been invented; while traders suffered and went under in the real world, TV showed a smiley-faced bastard not only with enough money for a couple of pints at lunch but also to spend most evenings boozing too!
The market was open Tues to Sat. There was no way they were doing the journey everyday. Never mind time; they weren’t taking anywhere near enough money to afford the petrol (gas) to get halfway home, let alone back again the next day.
But in that being the case, then likewise how could they afford to pay for somewhere to stay nearby?
One day, while happily chomping on a post-squirt breakfast burger, I asked.
Assumptions are terrible things, but when the answer is surely as simple as relatives in London, which would then inevitably lead to a bit of over-burger ‘banter‘ about the football teams they supported, what harm could it do?
The more I learned, the more my chewing slowed; once easy swallows fast becoming slow knotted gulps.
They slept in the van, only going home on the two days off (and I only had their word for that last bit). This was way before the internet and the plethora of wireless access to entertainment that comes with it. There really wasn’t much for them to do in there for entertainment beyond the obvious – right in that thin little gap between the serving counter and grill too.
At the news they both had a quick stand-up wash-down at the van’s sink before cracking on every morning, runny eggs fast became the last thing I was in the mood for.
Next, Part II: Songs Mr. T. Taught Me
Thanks for reading. 🙂
N. P. Ryan.