Songs T Taught Me and the Mystery of Charlie Chaplin

In the early 90s I worked London’s markets; the following is an account of true events (continued from: Horses for Courses):

In Croydon my attempts to give socks away were met with outright resistance:

‘He don’t like the ones with elastic at the top’

‘Too thick; will make his feet sweat’

Replying, ‘how about for another much loved and cared for family member, such as a cherished grandchild?’ did nothing to entice the taking of free socks.

There was nothing for it but the songs T had taught me:

‘Ow much you think I want for this top quality pair o’ socks?
Ten bob?
Worth it, I swear on me granny.
G’wan, have a touch; lovely bit o’ cloth
Eight bob?
Six bob?
Fiiive bob? . . .
I don’t want your uncle bob, a doner kebob
Not even a blowjob!
This very sock right here can be taken off my hands and put on a deserving foot for a mere (enter price here, so long as under five bobs obviously).

When even tried and tested favourites did nothing to improve fortunes, it was time to realise the fledgling indoor market was well and truly done before ever taking flight; a phoenix that just burned the money of stall holders.

In the café, I took a mouthful of strong stewed tea: the kind made across two urns; one packed with hot water and teabags for the ‘cordial’, the other just hot water added with a swoosh, ratio depending on how strong or not the recipient wanted it.

“The Lane,” said T. “We should stick to the Lane. With this recession everywhere will be as good or bad as anywhere else.”

‘The Lane’ was East Street market. Anyone local still called it ‘the Lane’ as many years before that’s where it had been before moving to East Street.

I lived just over the road; it was my neck of the woods. It might’ve been T trying to make a concession to get me onboard; no more here and there all over the place.

Still

Permanent pitches on established London markets were (and very likely still are) like gold dust, passed down to the next in line as family heirlooms. Much of the value coming from only needing to turn up a couple of days a week to rake it in.

That’s were us casuals came in; taking our chances and keeping the market busy with stalls the rest of the week.

If permanents didn’t turn up by a certain time, casuals could rent the pitch for the day on a first come first served basis with the twist that the market manager was obliged to ensure stalls selling the same things didn’t end up close together.

Being first to let the manager know you wanted a pitch was essential; while potentially it could count for nothing depending on how many of the permanents selling the same had turned up that day.

T would jump out the motor to go find the manager, while I tried to find parking near to the market as possible; from there a barrow (picture from Spitalfields) to get everything to the pitch.

“Min’ yer backs” hollered every couple of steps—the market already busy with early birds—then trying to get setup in the middle of those milling about. Many of who were there for that very purpose; to pick up a real ‘bargain’ while a stall holder was distracted.

The golden days down the Lane were weekends; casuals rarely tried then. But it was also approaching  Christmas, meaning permanents would gradually start turning up in the week too, making the position of the casual even more precarious.

Every morning would be manic just to be out in the cold. But if I wanted to make any dosh that was that way it needed to be. At least the Lane was a great market to work. At least, it had been.

There’s a plaque at one end of East Street:

(in the picture of the market entrance above, the plaque can be seen on the building to the right above the ‘JD’ sign.)

It allegedly marks the birthplace of Charlie Chaplin. When living there it was a shoe shop where, without any thought to blue circles on the wall outside (if it had even been there then), I bought a pair of trainers that turned out to be too small. Taking them back involved an audience with the manager in one of the upstairs rooms; I possibly stood in the room where Chaplin was born without the first clue I might’ve been there.

‘Allegedly’ as there’s uncertainty surrounding Chaplin’s origins, particularly as he didn’t have a birth certificate. That he referred to East Street as ‘the Lane’ in his autobiography is often given as evidence of his being from the area. But he also claimed to be from the borough of Lambeth when ‘the Lane’ is in the borough of Southwark.

The accusation is that he wanted to create an association with a certain London vibe (working class/cockney) to further his career, and in doing so confused ‘the Lane’ with another popular market (existing at the time) on Lambeth Walk. Fans tend to deny this, fearing it will paint him in a bad light. But other than the blue plaque there’s little to support his being born in Southwark, while evidence for a different location does exist.

After Chaplin’s death his daughter Victoria found a letter in his desk which accused him of lying about being born in London; his father, it said, had been a member of The Pat Collins’ circus troop and Charlie born in ‘Queen Henty’s’ caravan on the Black Patch (Smethwick, West Midlands).

I was born right on the edge of South London, didn’t start spending any time directly around East Street until about nine years old, always knew it as East Lane. For my money anyone coming to London in Chaplin’s day would’ve heard it referred to as nothing else but ‘the Lane’ and his doing so is evidence of nothing but a matter of course.

My dad was an Irish immigrant, coming to London when aged one (the last time he was ever on the soil of his birth) as the youngest of eleven.

Unlike most of his siblings, he never had an Irish accent. Still, he followed suit when all but one changed at least their forenames to avoid sounding too Irish (the only one who didn’t ironically being named Paddy).

If Chaplin lied it was to avoid the stigma associated with gypsies, not jump on Cockney coattails for the jellied eels and glory it might bring.

One thing for sure, he wasn’t born in Southwark and Lambeth, and for whatever reason he lied about both or one, the vibe he became associated with still existed during our first stint.

Pubs along the Lane had bustled with traders all day long. Nip in just to use the loo, it’s still a bit rude not to stop for a quick half, and if happening to see a familiar face—likely—then possibly ruder still not to be congenial by staying for a couple or three pints.

In the picture below, which I’d date early to mid 80s (and is how it still exists in my mind’s eye), 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 belonged to a pub. Looking at ‘street view’ today, it’s a grocers. The current layout would never suggest in a million that a roaring boozer was once there.

On Saturday nights it was like stepping into both a Tardis and a time machine. It felt both longer and wider inside, while had the feel of a miniature old time music hall.

At the far end was a stage where someone played piano, while customers sat crammed at rows of tables that made their way back almost to the bar; they sang along or roared with laugher at the jokes spat out like a machine gun inbetween songs, more often than not at someone in the audience’s expense.

An electric atmosphere for what turned out to be a dying ember from a bygone era once vibrant all over London long before radio and TV came along.

When we went back it was brutal

No one was spending. The once vibrant pubs desolate beyond a couple of people up at the bar or taking out the desperate times on one-armed-bandit fruit machines; the noises designed to entice that once would’ve been drowned-out by the raucous sound of South London laughter suddenly ringing loudly hollow.

Worst, the ‘music hall’. Last time I ever went there was to try show an Aussie backpacker an authentic slice of London.

Walking in it turned out getting sliced was the most likely outcome.

A Life of Crime vs. the Free Market:

A HUGE thank you to Tanya Lake Homegirl London for use of all images featuring the Charlie Chaplin blue plague; sincerely appreciated!

Thanks for reading 🙂

N. P. Ryan

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