Below, two pictures of the Walworth Road entrance to East Street (Lane). I’d never seen the arch until I looked for a picture to use here. It strikes me as being at odds with how locals refer to the place – as though put there for no other reason than to enforce on them they’re wrong and living in the past by still using the original name of East Lane, as it was when the market was moved there from the Walworth Road.
Living so close I experienced the street empty and open to traffic far more than overflowing with market. Riding down there on a motorbike one night, the ground wet as in the picture, I lost the rear end taking a left thanks to a plastic lid from one of the polystyrene cups traders drank tea from.
Combined with the already wet tarmac, riding over it at an angle was like hitting a little patch of black ice that then stayed firmly under the wheel to ensure it kept going horribly asunder.
Lying on my arse laughing while suddenly looking up at the night sky instead of the road ahead is how I learned the Lane could be a potential minefield for anyone on two wheels if the market sweepers had had a bad or couldn’t-be-bothered day.
In the older pic it’s easy to see the pavement on the right being interrupted by a side street. Not so easy to notice are the overhanging lights on the building this side of the corner. They belong (or maybe belonged) to a pub.
I don’t remember its name, despite going in there a couple of times a few years before working the market. It felt a lot longer inside than it looked outside. A layout of stage one end and rows of people sat at tables facing it gave an old music hall kinda feel.
Except to the people crammed at the tables singing along with the guy playing piano and roaring with laughter in-between songs at the jokes he span off like a machine gun more often than not at someone in the audience’s expense.
For them it was electrifying. Anything but a final dying ember from a bygone era, once vibrant all over London in the name of everyday entertainment eons before the likes of radio and TV came along, even if the latter still liked to hint it was going strong.
It felt like I’d got there in a time machine instead of walking ten minutes from my front door.
Hard to admit today; there and then, I thought it funny to find people seemingly living so far in the past.
I was the last person to laugh: when coming off the bike, I was riding to the Newington Arms on King and Queen St to see bands part of a still very much alive, kicking and loudly revving Rocker scene that for by-far the most part was made-up of people who were there all the way back in 59.
Something I wished I’d been able to say myself.
Having a stab at justification by pointing out just how far back in time the music hall pub was trying to go doesn’t cut it; simply, it was case of horses for courses with me too blinkered to see my own contradiction.
Today I feel privileged to have experienced something firsthand that felt culturally original, instead of being some contrived recreation.
It wasn’t around much longer to touch.
When I worked the market, pubs once so full with lunchtime market trade they needn’t have opened nights for a good ol’ Knees Up Mother Brown to still be raking it in, were suddenly desolate beyond a couple of people up at the bar or taking out the desperate times on a one-armed-bandit fruit machine; the tunes and noises designed to entice that once would’ve been drowned-out by the raucous sound of South London laughter now ringing loudly hollow.
But that just seemed part and parcel of the economic times; it was far from the first time the market had had it rough and far from the roughest it’d had it.
A few years after working the market, I walked back in there looking forward to a fat slice of the authenticity on offer, only to find the place almost completely empty apart from five or six ‘chaps’ drinking and smoking round a solitary pool table down by the now hidden-behind-a-curtain stage.
Like all only-ever-seen-packed-before spaces, it was hugely smaller than it’d previously seemed. The look in the eyes of those playing pool was close enough to be impossible to miss.
It’d become one of those places where unless you knew someone already there, everyone there would assume you to be plod so worthy of a good stabbing-up.
In my experience, the last thing to do in that situation is turn tail and leave. I stood with the person I’d gone with having a pint at the bar as pool balls clinked loud in a stony silence down by the stage, the players suddenly on edge and wary about anything we might’ve been there to hear them say.
To really bring home the point we weren’t filthy rozzers on the snoop, we had another round.
My friend, though, was from out of town; while not quite a bumpkin, they nonetheless didn’t have the first clue of the dynamic going down.
When they cheerily suggested adding coins to the side of the pool table, so signaling our joining the queue of those already waiting to take on whoever was winner of the game before their turn (as is the general etiquette for London pub pool tables), it was a quiet, yet resounding enough to be well-beyond any point of being questioned nooooo . . . they got in return.
In the newer picture (link here to save loads of scrolling), the shop located front right corner is visible and likewise the blue circle with writing on it midway up its front. Blue plaques are found all over London; they mark places with links to the famous.
It used to be a shoe shop. I once bought a pair of trainers (sneakers) there. It turned out I’d somehow managed to buy a pair too small and had to take them back, something that involved having to talk to the manager in his office before an exchange would be made.
This meant I had to go upstairs into what once would’ve been a bedroom and so possibly the very room where the young Charlie was born – imagine that!
But as I discovered when looking for images of and links to the market, there’s controversy regarding Chaplin’s origins. He had no birth certificate, so things like him referring to East Street as Lane in his autobiography are sometimes considered evidence he did in fact come from that neck of the woods.
I was born in the London Borough of Merton and didn’t start spending any time around East Street until my dad got a flat there circa 1979. At first I went to stay at weekends, before moving there permanently in 1984. Still, I always knew the place as East Lane despite its name being changed to Street some considerable years before.
Though that alone wouldn’t have caused me to mention the uncertainty.
While in the process of writing about markets in relation to my fear of free, an old mate from school just happened to post on Facebook some excerpts from a book he was just about to publish (now published) about the history of his extended family.
Reading through, I came across a section talking about how after Chaplin’s death his daughter Victoria found a secret letter in his desk. In it, he is accused of lying due to autobiographical claims of being born in London; Chaplin’s father had been a member of The Pat Collins’ circus troop and Charlie born in Queen Henty’s caravan on the Black Patch (the book can be checked out here).
It seems Chaplin reinvented his origins to avoid an attachment to gypsies and the associated stigma.
Something I can loosely relate to: once living in London having emigrated from Eire, nearly all my uncles and aunts on my dad’s side, including him (there were about twelve/thirteen siblings in total – I don’t think anyone in the family is 100% sure) changed at least their forenames so as to avoid sounding too Irish.
Being robbed of my Chaplin-related shoe glory works out surprisingly well – shoeless, I’m left with my socks, which is exactly back where I need to be.
(btw: as for those Rockers and their oily, greasy jeans; they can still be found revving it up right here – ask nicely enough and they might just let you in)