In the early 90s I worked London’s markets; the following is an account of true events:
There we were, early hours of the morning, the market having been snowed off, in an illegally open workingmen’s club, surrounded by every one drinking there, having been led to a dark storeroom by the barman on account of our walking in laden with stock I didn’t want to risk leaving in the motor and T, in his quest for a sherbet, didn’t want to unload before going to the club.
They thought the gear was nicked; hot off the back of a lorry; perhaps one driven by a workingman mate and he’d get grief for it. Perhaps, in being workingmen who normally did an honest day’s work (allegedly), they simply didn’t like types who cut corners, did things at other’s expense in the name of a few bob.
It could’ve been tricky but for two things:
- I always carried the receipts from the wholesalers down Brick Lane in case plod ever pulled us with exactly the same in mind.
- The first thing out of any of their mouths was when one asked how much a shirt was.
T replied by asking him to make an offer. The amount turned out to be above what we normally sold them for by quite a few quid.
So be it.
Snowy London cutting it grim:
The buying frenzy that followed was like nothing known at a market. The steady flow of snowed-off workingmen arriving at the club was sent straight down the corridor to grab a bargain. A queue formed at the club’s payphone; blokes calling home to get sizes or to tell mates to get down the club too.
We sold out, had to go get more stock before heading back again; everything was selling at a price well above our normal asking, including those exact same socks I hadn’t been able to give away at the market in Croydon (Horses for Courses).
If there was a lesson in it all:
When life gives you lemons, claim they’re nicked and be minted or wind-up left hanging like one instead.
There was certainly plenty of irony: there we were in the middle of a recession, surrounded by people desperate to pay over the odds for things they normally didn’t want the first thing to do with buying.
So: wild guesses plucked out of thin air?
Not at all.
It all went back to that mention of ‘slim pickings’ in the last thrilling instalment Banned from the Pubs. This was a time when certain social structures were still commonplace. Men went out to work, while women relied on the money he gave them to sort out the home and kids. Any expendable cash she might want came from that, and he wanted all he could get for himself.
T’s sale pitch (Songs T Taught Me) had variations:
How much do you think this beautiful shirt is?
Twenty bob? . . .
It’d cost a lot more than that in any high street store
But I don’t even want fifteen bob
Not even twelve bob
Or, for that matter, eight bob
I don’t want your uncle Bob, a doner kebob
Not even a blowjob!
This very shirt here is a mere four-ninety-nine
And with quality like this, you’ll be able to tell him
It cost a whole lot more
The sexual reference was met (most of the time) with giggles and smiles; it was the idea a profit could be turned at home that really caught attention. Those clamouring to buy us dry in the club thought they were getting a bargain because they’d been told exactly the same sort of clobber cost a whole lot more.
She who laughs last?
Perhaps; but if the skimmed cash was only enough to go down a club that wouldn’t let women near the bar the rest of the week round (Banned from the Pubs), it was a small victory at best, not a war won.
Though, really, it’s not for me to say what it was to them.
Under such snowy roofs, these pricey fibs were told, though more so in the council housing, if one might be so bold x
What I can say is that it certainly played in to the lack of receipts handed out down markets; they weren’t wanted, but it only worked if they weren’t offered, otherwise accusations of losing them could be levelled by suspicious husbands. Traders had to play ball, be known for a reluctance to give them; which, of course, also just happened to suit them down to the ground too.
Last time I saw T, he’d gone back to Oxford Street; only this time not to stand out like a sore thumb hawking from a suitcase on street corners. Instead, by doing something that was soon to become endemic across the country, causing big problems for anyone with an empty shop on a high street.
I don’t know the ins and outs, just that—then at least—squatter’s rights could also be claimed in a shop, there was (like with houses) a process to get the squatters out and in the meantime they could legally open for business.
It was something that soon got a terrible reputation.
No one was ever going to be in one place too long, but whereas T would try drag it out much as before being shifted, some started off intending to be in a place no more than a couple of days regardless, so they could sell the likes of TVs and video recorders but actually only hand over a box with a couple of bricks in.
T told me that when in the middle of a sale—cash in one hand, item the other; place crazy with shoppers—a woman’s voice started trying to get his attention, pushily saying ‘excuse me’ over and over. That it was an American accent did nothing to stop T thinking it an attempted distraction robbery, so he kept his eye firmly on the ball, and replied, ‘Not now, love – I’m busy.’
Later, one of the other blokes he did the shop with told him it’d been Ruby Wax stood there, microphone in hand, camera crew behind her, making an episode of The Full Wax (a show where Ruby often ran around manically shoving a microphone in people’s faces to interview them ad hoc). Unusual for Wax, the rebuke was enough that she turned tail and left the shop and T missed his five minutes of fame on TV. I haven’t seen T for years now and wouldn’t have the first clue how to go about contacting him if wanting to. Wherever he is and whatever he’s up to, I hope he’s well.
A Life of Crime vs. the Free Market:
- Horses for Courses
- Songs T Taught Me and the Mystery of Charlie Chaplin
- Geezers and Goldfish Bowls
- Banned from the Pubs
- Mr T and the Art of Profiting from Snow
Thanks for reading 🙂
N. P. Ryan
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Header image (below) courtesy Benjamin Davies; the Houses of Parliament R Spegel; rooftops (Saint Elmo Road) Pornprom Lertwasana: thank you all x