Horses for Courses

In the early 90s I worked London’s markets; the following is an account of true events:

“What you reckon?”

T looked at me across the table of the ‘workingmen’s café’ he’d chosen to meet in for ‘a bit of breakfast’.

He’d been running up and down Oxford Street selling out of a suitcase; just he hadn’t been running fast enough. A three person operation (seller/fake excited buyer/lookout), T had decided he had enough winning charm not to need the second—granted, I’d give him that—and enough cunning and sly to outwit plod: wrong; numerous times too.

Plod had nabbed him so many times, part of his last fine had been the instruction not to be seen on Oxford Street again or he could face time.

Now he wanted to start working markets again. T didn’t need me; he needed wheels, having also been caught behind one after a tipple too many.

We’d done markets together before, gone all over the place; even so far as Kempton race course.

“C’mon,” T said, exhaling a fog of smoke. “Ain’t doing nothing where you are.”

T was older than me. One of my dad’s friend’s sons who I’d known since a kid and had always looked up to. We got on like a house on fire; just, his enthusiasm for earning a pound note could be a bit much.

Take the just mentioned Kempton. The last time we’d (I’d) driven all the way there, T had taken a look around while setting up and announced, “Nah!”

“Nah?”

“Not happening today.”

It was a nice day. “What isn’t?”

“Won’t be enough business,” T elaborated, like he just had to lick his finger and stick it in the air to know. “There’s no one here.”

“It’s not even open.”

“Setting up.”

“More customers for us, then.”

“Need a buzz,” said T, already reloading the motor. “No buzz means no spending.”

T was right. Even if it felt ludicrous to be packing up before we’d unpacked, a market lacking stalls is as much good as one without customers; everyone staying would have a bad day with little taken, barely if enough to cover pitch, tea and food, plus petrol to and from. 

It was T down to exactly that; always on the move. Surprised me he’d still been in the café waiting given I’d been twenty minutes late getting there.

The breakfasts got delivered. Toast, fried bread, beans, bacon, fried eggs, sausage, black pudding, mushrooms, fried tomatoes. Plus two more mugs of tea.

T smiled, tucked in; talked while he did. “You’ll never guess who I was drinking with the other night.”

“Who?”

“Babs Windsor.”

“Barbara Windsor? How’d that happen?”

“Was having a sherbet in a hotel up town, n’ all these TV n’ film people walk in. Turns out some award show after party is being held there. Told the blokes on the door I’m her nephew. Said I’d left the invite at home.”

“That worked?”

“Well . . .” T chewed, gave up and, mouth full, carried on anyway. “I could see her in the room. Talking to Nigel Havers. So I said, do me a favour, mate – go n’ grab her to vouch for me.”

Dame Barbara Windsor, DBE: legend of U.K. Film and T.V. 1937 – 2020

“So.” I thought it through. “They could risk interrupting the celebs they were there to protect on no more than the word of the sort of chancer they were there to protect them from; or risk making a celeb’s favourite nephew go all the way back home when she was just there to ask.”

“Exactly.” T stuffed another fork full of food in his mouth with smug satisfaction. “Free champers, the lot!”

“Didn’t they notice, you know, that your aunt was acting like her favourite nephew didn’t exist?”

“No. I was chatting to her all night. Told her what I’d done to get in too.”

“Fuck off!”

“Yeah, she laughed her head off; invited me back to the private party in her room after!”

T laughed. I’d missed his antics. No one had the gift of the gab like him; he’d probably been the life and soul: a Londoner cut from the exact same—oi! oi!—cheeky cloth as Babs.

A Parting of Ways

When I’d got word from another trader about a new indoor market opening in Croydon just over the road from the long-established Surrey Street market, I was all ears.

Surrey Street market: image from the top and taken a good few years before this tale took place.

The new market was round the back of the grey building crossing the street’s end.

Indoors with a guaranteed pitch as winter approached. In Croydon too, generally speaking a shoppers’ paradise; somewhere solid would surely be better as recession took hold – whereas T couldn’t bear the idea of keeping still so off he went.

The indoor market was a disaster.

Like that wasted morning at Kempton, it lacked buzz. Big time. Literally every stall holder there had come to it fresh from redundancy (recession having arrived long before anyone wanted to admit it had).

Much, if not all, of the redundancy payout had been ploughed into stock for this new venture despite no previous.

When things didn’t go as hoped faces dropped, enthusiasm waned—not the atmosphere any happy shoppers who were still out there wanted to walk into—and they all looked to the few of us who’d been working markets before for help.

The remaining ‘shoppers’ were mostly old ladies, husbands nowhere to be seen, uniform raincoats and dark demeanours as they shuffled through as though the place provided a short-cut to a local post office; not so much as even a look, never mind buying anything.

Some of my own fine range was a selection of socks; a winter type came in packs of six: wear one pair twice and there was a whole week’s worth! I broke packs open, intending to give pairs away; word spreading about free things to be had in the indoor market from there.

It was a tactic I’d seen T’s and my dads use. During the run-up to a Christmas circa 77/78 they’d somehow managed to secure a pitch at a busy outdoor market in Brentford, selling toys by using the stall as a platform to pitch from; a constant crowd maintained by the occasional throwing of something free into it.

For them it’d worked a treat . . .

A Life of Crime vs. the Free Market:

Thanks for reading 🙂

N. P. Ryan

Donations/tips are super appreciated; they can be made via PayPal to the email address npryan.tips@gmail.com or paypal.me/TipNPRyan

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