“I was the young one. Now I’m the old one.”
Some antiques, some junk items, are destined to stay on shelves. But the items on Albert Sabbah’s stalls are designed to be handled. His selection of vintage Leicas, Rolleiflexes or even 1980s camera are beautifully tactile, finely-engineered and are more likely destined, he says, to be used by students discovering the magic of film photography than to end up as shelf queens. Albert’s a practical man, his stall jutting out into the street, seducing you with its approachability; like many of his cameras, he’s led an interesting life.
I remember seeing your stall here for five or ten years. But you started out actually taking photographs, didn’t you? How did that start?
Originally, I’m from Syria. I came over to London in 1965. I was an apprentice, and then I was a photo-journalist and general photographer.
So you arrived in the middle of Swinging London, how was that?
It was beautiful, really nice. I went to the Isle of Wight festival, took lots of shots of Jimi Hendrix. I had a camera like this, a Mamiya C3. It was very nice, I loved it. If you’re a hippie as well… I was not really, except that one week in the Isle of Wight. It wouldn’t be my cup of tea now, but it’s all right when you’re 18 or 20, beautiful, nice music, staying in the tents, having all-day, all-night music. I don’t know how I’d feel now. But I love music. We stayed about one week.
Did you sell any photos from the festival? Are they with an agency?
I don’t have my photos with an agency, though – I was doing it all by myself, I didn’t really know anybody. My nephew is a photographer, he’s well known , he’s doing all right, and is meeting people, going to all these places. For me, to do that was difficult. So I ended up doing photos for antique dealers, the majority of my friends were antique dealers. Before they send the real item abroad they send a picture. So I’d take photos of carpets, baths, anything. Then when I stopped taking so many photos, I thought to come here to Portobello. And the other bits, this and that, you learn along the way. But mainly I’m on cameras.
So you were on Portobello in the 1970s. How was it in those days?
Truthfully, it was much better. There were real antiques, everywhere. Then I was the young one, but now I’m the old one. Most of what you see now is new and repro – I would say in my opinion rubbish. But in 1970s, all around you were genuine antique dealers, there were things to buy for ten thousand pounds, you name it.
Where did those people go?
I don’t know really. I suppose some stopped, some moved somewhere else, and then some new ones came. Really, if you are an antique dealer, when you see the next stall someone is selling new watches, ten pounds, 20 pounds, you get irritated! I was in a unit with five shops., one lady had been there 30 years, opposite the lady was at least 10 years. Then, in front of us, they put this stall was all new handbags. It almost covered up the whole unit. So this woman who had used to make lots of money, suddenly she took nothing. So she left. When she left, I left, the other woman left, the guy left. Then suddenly it was all new handbags. The owner, they don’t care, only about the money, they thought she wouldn’t move. But she did. And then I came here. But these things happen.
Everybody who has a stall has usually made one amazing discovery. What was yours?
I’m not a very lucky person generally! But I did find a few. For instance I was in West Ruislip auction, the guy had a box of cameras, he had an early digital, very clumsy and ugly. People were looking at that, but he had another box, with about 10 cameras, Instamatics, nobody was looking at. The auctioneer was, Who is going to pay 20 pounds?I put up my hand. Nobody else did. I said Allelulia. I picked it up. It was a Leica 1, one of the earliest, 1937. There are two models – if it was was the other one it would have been five six thousand, this one when I came home, I checked, it was about six hundred, seven hundred pounds. I put it on the stall, a Spanish woman came up, said, I’ll take it, straight away. That’s the only one, I didn’t have many others like that.
You mentioned that it’s not just older collectors buy your cameras, it’s younger people too?
Oh yes. Like look at this camera, 1860s, 1870, no speed, just aperture. And it’s still professional even now, it’s becoming a fashion, after they take the digital photos, the last pictures of the session they take with one of these. With an eight by four negative. The majority of youngsters, ‘cos they grew up with digital, to them it’s some sort of fantasy. They have the digital but they like to use film. Then there’s another category, people studying photography, they look at who used this camera, who used that, and they like to own it. When I was an apprentice photographer, I used to look at these cameras in shop windows. And now the situation is different, they have money, and they buy it.
“It still has a kind of magic. ”
Some people say markets do better in a recession. One of them just did. Long-threatened by those entrusted with its care, Greenwich covered market has just had a welcome reprieve. The entire development scheme that threatened it was a hubristic notion, of a hotel complex that would open long after a plethora of other new hotels, big and small, in this corner of London. Now, thankfully, someone at Greenwich Hospital Estates has run a spreadsheet that reflects the current outlook and competition, and abandoned the scheme.
The market’s not safe for ever. But hey, nowhere ever is. So it’s a time for celebration – maybe with music, played on glorious old vinyl, by one of Greenwich’s longest-standing stall-holders, Mark Wilson.
How do you feel about the reprieve for the covered market?
It is good news. I’m here just once a week so I don’t always get to hear the full story, sometimes it’s all Chinese whispers without too many details. But the fact we don’t get moved out for two years, I think that’s brilliant. People often say this market is on its last legs, but it isn’t, is it? It’s never going to be huge like Spitalfields, it’s a smaller community, but that’s good. It’s unique.
You’re old school, aren’t you – you were a regular at our much-missed, Stockwell Street market. When did you start coming here?
That would have been about 1994, I was at Portobello too. That was probably when Greenwich was at its peak, then or the late 1980s. Everyone remembers the old petrol station. It’s long gone now – but everyone remembers it.
You started out running a stall while you were in a band, didn’t you?
I was in a band, yes. Last Great Dreamers we were called. We did one album, on Music For Nations. I started at the market ‘cos of my cousin who was our manager, he was starting something in Norwich and said, Have you thought about doing this between gigs? I used to work at PRS and I’d given that up to follow my dream, really, and we never made any money from the band so it seemed like a cool thing to do. And it snowballed. We could do it between gigs. We used to come to Stockwell Street market after gigs, we sometimes we’d get back here at six in the morning, kick the band out, and lay out the stall. But of course we used to have stuff stolen, while we were asleep on the stall.
So after being in Greenwich all this time, does it still have some of that magic?
I think it does still have that magic. You can always look back through rose-tinted glasses. It has changed. But it’s got its own merits, there are new traders, new people coming in all the time. I think it will maintain itself if it’s got some youth and new energy with it .
Ten or 20 years ago, some people thought vinyl would die out. Now people think it will outlive CDs.
There is still a market definitely. I don’t think as many people come to Greenwich specifically for vinyl as used to, maybe at weekends but not a Thursday. But it’s never changed to me – I’ve been doing it 15, 20 years, people always tend to want to same thing, meat and two veg, I don’t think it’s any different now.
And I guess a lot of that meat and two veg is Beatles records for tourists?
Exactly. They want to take a bit of Britain home for their teacher back in Barcelona. Or “I buy this for my lecturer, who loves Pink Floyd.” Or for their dad, or for themselves.
So we all dream of looking through the boxes at charity stores and finding a Beatles Butcher sleeve. What’s your best discovery?
Oh man… I usually hear these stories second hand from friends. But some time ago I went to a scout fete at a village hall up in Norfolk, got there as it opened with all the grannies ready to elbow each other to get in first. And there was a guy with a bric a brac stall with a box of singles underneath. And all of them were demos from the 1960s – run of the mill stuff, and also stuff I’d never heard of, plus The Action, The Creation, psych and garage stuff. Some unusual artists. And he said five pounds. I was thinking he meant each, then I realised he meant for the entire box, and there were about 200 in there.
So I go to every village scout fete ever since then, but never found anything good at one since. Just Jim Reeves records.
Yesterday was some of the most welcome news for market traders in a long while.
Five years ago Greenwich Hospital Estates – a semi-charity overseen by the MOD, which owns most of the land in the centre of Greenwich – announced plans to redevelop the market. The plan consisted of replacing the original floor, adding a modern plastic roof, rebuilding most of the postwar buildings and replacing some of them with a boutique hotel, and bulldozing period buildings, including Edwardian stables and a banana warehouse on Durnford Street.
Council officers recommended the plans, which were supported by Greenwich MP Nick Raynsford – a spokesman for the building industry who banks tens of thousands in consultancy fees from the industry each year. A council committee threw out the plans, then against wide public opposition GHE took the a modified version of the scheme to appeal, this time retaining the cobbled floor and Edwardian market roof.
Ultimately the government inspector, Phil Asquith, upheld GHE’s appeal. It was this modified scheme, based around a boutique hotel which would, according to its proposed operators, use the cobbled floor as an al fresco dining area.
On Thursday night, GHE announced to Greenwich traders that they were dropping the scheme, and planned only to refurbish the floor and roof, together with some smaller-scale building plans. This is a huge reprieve for traders, who would otherwise have been moved to a temporary site for two years; it’s also important for preserving the eclectic architectural ambience of Greenwich, for the Edwardian market buildings, including the stables and banana warehouse, date from when traders brought their goods in by boat and horsedrawn transport.
It’s likely that the main factor in dropping the scheme is a new surfeit of hotels in Greenwich, with huge new hotels from Mercure and Premier Inn opened recently, plus the extension of the Hotel Ibis. Economics triumphed where the planning system failed. This is great news for all market traders, and anyone who loves Greenwich Market. More news on this when we hear it.
“Wabi Sabi is a kind of atmosphere in the air. It’s philosophical.”
Some market stalls are subtle. Yosuke’s stall is perhaps the subtlest of them all. On first glance you’ll see nice denim items – modern Japanese reproductions of American jackets in Wabash or denim. Then suddenly, an aged, ragged item catches your eye, an item which is impossibly resonant. There’s a large, long bag in a cotton duck, which looks like a piece of ancient American workwear – which turns out to be designed for making Sake. A military coat in a similar, coarse cotton weave is a variant of the traditional, thick work jacket, designed for firemen. This is history, subtle, resonant and, from the European perspective, strange. How lucky we are to have people like Yosuke to explain it to us.
Tell me about this object you’re holding, which makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.
This is a sort of kimono, particularly it’s called Sashiko. Which was worn by farmers, from a long time ago, actually 140 to 150 years old. It’s from, I think, the North of Japan. My colleague is collecting this stuff from antique markets and dealers in Japan.
And this is natural, plant indigo. And would you call this the Edo Ai period?
It is natural indigo. And that time in Japan, there are still samurai and of course Ninjas, even.
When did you move to London? And how do the markets here compare to Japan?
If comparing to Japan, the number of the lovely local markets, I mean not only antique market, is absolutely larger and it has roots into people’s life and culture of city or town in the UK. From the beginning of my life in here, market is always full of wired stuff I’d rarely seen. So it was really tough to hold myself back from jumping at them. I really like the scenery and atmosphere of London market, that people are wandering around with various faces, looking forward to discovering stuff. I’m really enjoying to stand in my stall every week. I appreciate organizer Mike.
How did you come to run a stall in Spitalfields?
I’ve been taking over this stall from my friend, Yuji, who had run A stall here for three years and he had took over this stall from his boss who was selling these sort of stuff in here. So actually I am in the third generation. Yuji’s coming back maybe next February so I hope that we can keep suppying interesting garments to our customers.
How did you get into antique fabrics and vintage clothing?
I’ve been collecting vintage clothes since when I was 15, it was the second vintage boom in Japan. Since then, I have loved stuff and garments which we can imagine something interesting story behind them.
We have lots of vintage clothing stores though, mostly they are selling the stuff has only particular style, specially American vintage has been still popular in Japan for ages. I thought it would be interesting,if I could create more chaotic space like a miniature of this world then I came here.
So you have a shop in Japan as well?
Yes. I’m planning to open my shop in my hometown.
When did you start dealing in Japanese, as opposed to American, clothing?
I still love both. I think in this three years this sort of stuff is getting popular especially in Europe, so maybe three years ago.
How do you find your stock?
In the antique markets of Japan. There are many local ones. Lots of markets. It’s difficult to say, each area has its character, it depends what your favourite is.
Tell me about these black coats, in a basket weave cotton, what are they?
They are firemen’s coats, very thick cotton. Of course it’s a very old one, I think 1960s. Again it’s called a Sashiko, and the reason it’s very thick is that when they go to a fire, they make it wet, to protect from the fire.
And tell me about this item, it’s in cotton duck or canvas.
This is dyed with persimmon. It’s called a Sakabukuro – Sake bag – when people made Sake they put the rice into here. And the liquid comes out of the bottom. I think it’s from before the war, this custom has been lost already and people’s using machine. I reckon maybe from 1920~40s.
This indigo Sashiko, with all the wear and repairs, embodies for me the notion of Wabi Sabi, it’s so beautifully aged. Is that why you like it? And how would you explain Wabi Sabi?
Haha, yes it does. If I explain about Wabi Sabi in my words, that is one of expression of beauty and a kind of atmosphere in the air around the object or space. It connects to Zen mind or Ku. It’s very philosophical and I need more practice to express or embody it.
Sorry, we won’t be updating Market People for the next couple of weeks, as we’re out and about.
Please visit Greenwich Market in particular – LOCOG volunteers, in their haste to move the crowds around quickly without bottlenecks, were directing them away from the Market this weekend; finally, they’ve announced they’re removing the barriers that separate the people from the town. The stalls and shops are generally quiet – you’ll definitely have space to browse and chill out.
“He was writing to another hangman and saying, ‘I hope trade’s brisk’!”
Ray Beckett takes the long view. I’d spent maybe a year or two looking over his selection of Georgian and Maritime prints, every week or so, before he asked if I was going to buy one. Now a beautiful print of Sweet William’s Farewell to Black Eyed Susan hangs on the wall of my work room. I admire his patience, and his skill at sourcing his stock. Prints have always been a key part of Greenwich market, but in recent years the quality has gone down, with more modern reproductions, and mundane, mass-produced Victorian prints. Ray’s stall has brought us back to those halcyon days, when you’re never quite sure what you’ll find – but know there’ll be something interesting.
I’ve always liked your selection of prints and paintings, and I know you’ve got a fair collection at home. So how many paintings do you have in your house?
Not that many that are framed… there a couple of really nice watercolours I bought about 35 years ago, Art Deco ones. But I have got a lot of unframed pictures around, I tell you, you wouldn’t believe how many.
And is your loft crammed with pictures and prints?
It is. I’ve got a lot of stuff but then I’ve been buying a long time, I bought these drawings of Wind In The Willows you can see here, but they came with a lot of other items. I’ve been buying and selling for so long – I’m forever buying, that’s the thing, and it’s the new stuff that sells most quickly.
When did you start out in Antiques?
That would have been 1975 – my circuit was Rochester Market and Maidstone, I started off in Maidstone casual, and just travelled around really. I was dealing in general antiques and then just specialised in prints – I actually prefer them, it’s what I like really. You stick to what you know, don’t you? I’ve been in Greenwich for three years now.
Are you looking forward to the Olympics?
No I’m not. I don’t think it’s going to be very good for Greenwich. Are people going to come here? You’ve got road closures already. I came here when they had the dummy run and the town was deserted. The restaurants were empty. My eldest grandson, I take him to Goodwood every year, to the Festival of Speed – you go and spend the whole day in there and when it’s over you just want to get away, don’t you?
You always have interesting captions on your prints, there’s often a story attached to them.
Yes, they have, and it’s interesting to do the research on them… specially the maps and the earlier prints. I’ve just sold a nice fishing print, I think it was 1686, very early fishing print, and I’ve sold one from the same period, on horology. They’re interesting, things you don’t see every day.
You’ve been researching prints for a long time, how would you do it before Google?
I would go into the library and dig all the books out, specially for prints and drawings, you’d have to go through all the Royal Academy books, and see who exhibited where. It’s made it a lot easier since you got the Web – but it’s not always true, is it? Google isn’t really proper research if we’re being honest. But I like to research, it’s part of the enjoyment.
What’s one of the most intriguing items you’ve found and researched?
It was in a box of memorabilia with other bits of pieces. It was a package with a homemade cover, made of plain paper with type on it, and documents inside, little pamphlets really. And they were signed Harry Houdini. One was the inaugural service in a Hebrew temple. The other was the inaugural wedding at the same Temple. And they were officiated by his father, Samuel Meyer Weisz in 1880 or so. He would have only been four at the time. They had to be family documents, because his father wasn’t well known… and he’d signed both of them Harry Houdini. And I ended up selling them to the Houdini Historical Society in Appleton Wisconsin.
It’s part of the business, but the research is part of the fun, too, isn’t it?
Yes, it is part of the fun. I like old documents. I bought one a little while ago, it was by a guy called James Ellis. He was the official hang man. This was 1920. And he was writing to another hangman, and he wrote, “I hope trade’s brisk with you!” Hahaha. And it said where he was going, that he’d be in Strangeways on Tuesday, and because the letter was dated I checked it up and it turned out he was on his way to hang a guy who’d murdered his sister-in-law on Christmas day. He threw himself in the river, the guy, they dragged him out… and then in the end, my man hanged him!
You mentioned how Harry Houdini kept archives, did research on escapologists, and would buy these items, because he wanted to put them back in the right place?
Yes, Houdini used to find memorabilia from the old magicians, put it back together in libraries or archives. Put it in its home. And that’s what I’m doing.
Ray Beckett is at Greenwich Covered Market, Thursdays. His prints may also be viewed at www.themaritimegallery.co.uk
“Rockers look better when they’re older than mods.”
There are many red white and blue stalls crammed around the bottom of Portobello Road; each of them represents some distinctly part of British Culture. That of Nigel Stark is specially vibrant, crammed with vintage leather biker jackets, ephemera, helmets, many of them manufactured by long-gone companies. So far, so poignant.
Yet, intriguingly, just as the glory days of British manufacturing were passing, the glory days of British Youth Culture were arriving. Today, the image of a British rocker, boot-boy or mod is an intrinsic part of the national iconography. If we’re being optimistic, the era they represent mark the point at which the UK’s exports changed from metal objects, to ideas. Does one make up for the other? According to Nigel, maybe they have, because we’ve got by. Somehow.
How did you get into selling biker gear?
I got into it ‘cos it’s extension of my own life, I’ve had British bikes since the 1970s, so I’ve been wearing the gear I’m selling for a long time.
What’s your bike?
I ride a 1970 Triumph 750.
What was the first classic bike you owned?
The first ever, and this was 40 years ago… was a Lambretta. Some of my mates are mods, but when you do these bike shows, you see lots of old rockers, mods, skinheads, all shapes and sizes, and some big fat ones. They’re most likely my age… and rockers looks better when they’re older than mods and skinheads!
So you changed tribe from mod to rocker?
Not really recently, it was more like 40 years ago. I lived in Edgware we lived in a nice rather rich estate, me and my friends, what we were really was suburban boot-boys. Other friends were suburban hippies, who like Cream as much as we like reggae. Then I suppose I swapped a Crombie, a skinhead coat, in 1972, for a Vivienne Westwood Teddy Boy Drape jacket – the drape jacket suited me much more. It was £30, which is like a kid now paying £500. My friends all thought I was acting a bit strange. Rock and roll was my punk – when I discovered it everybody thought I was mad. But a lot of original punks went straight into the rock’n'roll scene, it was cool, and the girls dressed up sexy.
Is there still a tribal enmity between rockers and mods?
No there isn’t.’Cos they both go to the same sort of runs, if there’s a rocker run, like this weekend from the Ace Cafe in Southend, there’ll be scooter parked up. But they don’t mix together and they don’t stand there drinking together, ‘cos they’re still two types of people.
You grew up in an era of British bikes… or rather, the era when British bikes were fading away.
With both cars and motorcycles, yes, the whole of British manufacturing disappeared.I suppose the motorcycles were the first to go. We’re talking about a 40 year period, the first decline was in the ’60s for motorcycles. And nowadays all the clothing, the leather jackets.. none of it is made in England. The motorcycles started the whole thing falling apart, and now we don’t make anything. Because the British didn’t reinvest after the war, they were making all these bikes up to 1986, but the basic engines of Triumphs went back to mid ’40s designs. Then the Japanese came in. And the rest is history.
So the bikes were the start of it all.. a symbol of changes in both manufacturing and society.
They are. Because years ago, before the mid ’50s, motorcycles were the working man’s means of getting to work. Then with rock’n'roll, Elvis, Brando, the market started to change. But what really killed it was the Mini. Before that, working men would have sidecars and take their families out, but as soon as the Mini came out, that changed everything. At one time BSA was the world’s largest motorbike company – and that changed overnight.
Do you feel sadness for the passing of an industry?
I suppose so. But everything moves on. Everything else is not made in England. It’s a different world. It’s sad for the people who were in the industry. But everyone seems to have got by somehow. I don’t know how.
“They’re easy to get on with, they have two ends, a biting end and a back end.”
There’s an irony in the fact that Borough Market, once a leading symbol of the Slow Food movement, has now become a Fast Food destination, more popular with tourists than with locals. Thankfully, the market’s best food retailers are time-proven, and still hold their magical lure over true foodies. Sillfield Farm is a slow food champion, working to revive old breeds of pigs – and Alan is their porcine ambassador in London.
How long have you worked for Sillfield Farm?
Just about two years, I’ve been here at Borough about five months, then back there I work outside with the wild boars in the wood.
Explain the charm of pigs.
They just have that cute face, don’t they? They’re easy to get on with, they have two ends, a biting end and the back end, stay away from the biting end and everything’s ok. They are quite adorable really – they listen to you, they follow you round, as long as you’ve got a bucket of food with you they’ll do what you want. And they’re very intelligent, they know what they want.
Do they have personalities?
I suppose they do. They’re sort of blind in a way, they have tunnel vision, so if they see a figure coming towards them, instead of running away they actually charge at you… which is stupid in a way. But they do have personalities, for definite.
The business was started by Peter Gott, and his wife Christine, and you’re known for your rare breeds of pigs, correct?
Peter started up with rare breeds. He was renowned for Cumberland ham, bacon and sausages – then his brother bought him a wild boar as a joke for his birthday, I think, and now he has about 50 wild boar. We have a real variety of pigs, including the Middle White, and some crosses as well, and Gloucester Old Spot. Middle white are quite an old, rare breed, and we have the old Cumberland Sow which you don’t see many of.
There’s been a huge change in Borough over recent years, a move away from fruit and vegetables wholesaling, towards takeaway food that people actually eat on the spot.
There’s definitely a drop [in non-takeaway], and a lot of takeaway food around the market. But we still have us regulars, who come week to week.
I’m guessing you had to come to Borough and sell direct to consumers, and restaurants, because British farms are under such pressure in terms of prices, is that correct?
It’s true, British pig farms are under pressure, what you find now with the supermarkets is that it’s all cheap, pumped with water. Whereas our stuff, especially pork and wild boar, the pigs are normally bred for a 36 week minimum, whereas for the supermarket they have just a 12 week cycle, fatten it up and it’s on the plate that soon. Whereas we have more passion in getting a nice bit of meat on the plate, it’s quality over quantity, completely different.
The Sillfield Farm Shop is at Borough Market, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 7.30am to 6pm.
“I often wonder how they started out life, who had these things. You get this sense of history, of lives, all of that.”
Day by day, the Victorian corners of London are being spruced up, tidied, painted brilliant white. But the distinctive stall run by Shane Forrester and his partner Anna is defiantly worn, distressed, all browns and battered gilt. These are objects that have lived a life – a life that, in some cases, speaks to us from beyond the grave…
You started out rummaging round markets, even as a teenager?
I was born round the corner in Blenheim Crescent in Portobello Road, so the Portobello Road thing was always something I was aware of, there were always people round the corner selling things when I was growing up.
This area must have changed a lot – when did you start trading yourself?
I started doing market stalls way way back in the mid ’80s, I always loved spending my pocket money when jumble sales were thick and fast, I’d go round flea markets, antique fairs et cetera and gradually stumbled across all the wonderful London markets like Spitalfields and Brick Lane. Gradually I found out that I really liked taking things apart, taking buttons off one thing and redesigning stuff, then I realised there was a possibility I could sell bits and pieces. And that’s how I started.
It was quite different here when I was growing up, it was actually a troublesome area, quite a volatile area round Ladbroke Grove, so I tried to ignore that. But the actual buying and selling was really great, there were a lot more antiques and bits and pieces around. The movement used to be Brick Lane, 3 o’clock on a Fri morning, then come to Portobello for seven, have breakfast, then sell what I’d just bought. There was a lot of trade then, whereas now there seems to be less trade and more tourists. Then I met Anna, Anna’s always been involved in selling, is very successful with vintage fur, and as the fur season ends we progress into all our bits and pieces. We do vintage fur when it’s very cold, so now we’re now almost approaching that time when the furs will fade out. We’ll always keep a few little nice bits on, short jackets, furs that go round the shoulder, but in general the fur will fade.
Your stall has a distinctive look, very Dickensian.
I just love Victorian, Dickensian stuff, for lots and lot of reason. I like the way things were made, the passion that went into things when they were being made, it’s culture, it’s history, it’s memories. We’ve got to keep hold of it.
What are the items that appeal to you the most?
I love hand-forged wrought iron, like the old blacksmiths used to do, I love old picture frames, whether or nor they’ve got a painting or mirror in. I like things that are deconstructed, not damaged necessarily, but worn, lived in, because that’s character in itself. And I love that whole London thing.
Your items look like they’ve lived a life.
That’s exactly it, that’s what catches my eye. Some things have a little too much damage, and we can restore them, take things to good condition again. But sometimes we just leave things because people just like things that are a little bit worn.
Who will buy your chimney brush?
Maybe I won’t sell it! Maybe I’m gonna give it to darling Anna for her birthday, who knows, I’m very tempted to keep it! I really am. There are one or two things that I really do never want to part with.
Do you have items like this around your house?
Yes. Everything we get we take home anyway, we go inside and look at it. It’s funny, when you put things inside a house, straight away they take on a different air, straight away they add warmth to the house – and you can relate that to the customer. That they are looking at something that at the moment is in the street, but when they put it in their own home, they won’t regret spending the money.
Your Victorian photos, in particular, are very resonant – do you often think about the lives those people led?
All the time. Anna picks up on the other side of life – she taps into the spiritual side of everything. Anna can go in a house and sense if it’s haunted. So we do think about that a lot, I often wonder how they started out life, and I wonder who had these things, especially when I’m out buying. Because when you’re doing house clearances you’re often going into people’s homes, and you get this sense of history, of lives, all of that. There’s a whole array of feeling and thoughts and emotions that go with one simple object.
Shane and Anna Forrester are at the bottom of Portobello Road, near the Westway, most Fridays and Saturdays.
“What could be better than sitting on a park bench with a few chips and a lovely piece of skate all wrapped in a newspaper? Brother, you are the King of England.”
Roger Barton is a piscine poet – speak to him about his beloved fishes, and your salivary glands will immediately be stimulated into overload by the textures, tastes and smells his words evoke. Yet in the mad bustle of Billingsgate he’s an oasis of calm, ticking off orders and pointing out polystyrene crates of Sea Bass, Bream, and especially the Tuna in which he specialises, while around him chaos reigns: shouts, smells, and trolleys of glistening produce being wheeled around at high speed. It looks like a tough, high-pressure job. But he loves it, and he loves his fish.
You’ve been in Billingsgate for 52 years – what were your first impressions of the place?
Well, I was a boy of 15 and it was the smell of fish. If you’re not used to you it kind of hits you, you think, Bloody Hell! Though you soon get used to that smell. Then there was the different varieties of fish, the way people worked , the way fish was hauled about by the porters, so many things you don’t know about, so you were learning about it daily. But it was the smell of fish, first… the men always smell fishy and unfortunately after you’ve been in the industry for some period of time, no matter how much you shower, no matter how much you bath… you could sit in a bath filled with champagne, and I promise you, you’d go out, and people will say – can you smell fish? It gets into your hair, it gets into your pores, there’s very little you can do about it, you can be the most cleanly person in the world, you’re out somewhere, it’s raining, and Bloody Hell, it smells again. I remember one day coming home on the train from Liverpool Street station, I was only a youngster myself, I made out I was asleep, and I could hear these kids.. going sniff, sniff, ‘can you smell fish?’ And out of the corner of my eye I could see one pointing to me. So there you are.
So there was the smell, the sheer variety, and the men. Now, they weren’t common men, they weren’t coarse men, but the language was quite.. colourful. Put it like that. For a young lad of 15, obviously, people F-ing and blinding was something quite new. Of course one soon got used to it and really it means nothing, it’s just the language of most markets. If I call you a bastard, it doesn’t mean anything – it’s the way it’s said. You learn that thing of life, when people calls you a bad name, it’s not what they call you, it’s how they call you it.
So, we talked about the smell of fish – do you still like fish?
I love it. I would eat it every day of the week, there’s such a wonderful variety of fish, specially now, we sell from Brazil, Australia, Sri Lanka, the Indian Ocean. When I started there wasn’t things like red snapper, yellow tail snapper, there wasn’t doctor fish… that’s because now there are so many people come from other countries, they want the fish they have been used to. And we got educated. When you think of meat, you have chicken, you have cows, you have sheep, and you come to a stop before you’ve got very far. But I swear to you, every fish has got its unique flavour, and I could feed you a different fish 365 days a year and every one I’ve served up you’d go, ‘that’s lovely’. And obviously it’s very healthy, it’s got oil in it, and you wouldn’t be fat, put it like that.
Arggggh, you’re making me hungry!
Precisely! Now you’d go down the old fish and chip shop, and what better to savour, the lovely smell of haddock, or a nice bit of cod or a lovely bit of skate. What could be better than sitting on a park bench with a few chips and a lovely bit of skate, all wrapped in a newspaper bit of pepper and salt and maybe a dash of vinegar? And, brother, you are the king of England.
Obviously, fishing was such a part of our industrial culture – as a kid I can remember all the trawlers on the River Hull, hundreds of them. Twenty years ago they were lined up at the side of water; and now they’re all gone. So that does reflect some profound changes in Britain?
It’s terrible. Terrible. If there’s another Dunkirk today, I’m afraid to say they’d have to swim home. We haven’t got the fleets, we haven’t got the boats. Now, you go could go into the political side of it and say Ted Heath sold the fishing industry down the river, maybe he did, I don’t know. But nevertheless at one time we had one of the greatest fishing fleets in the world but we gradually sold ourselves down the river. If you see what the Icelandic people have done, they put a 50 mile cordon around Iceland, and said, Gentlemen, outside that 50 miles, fill yourselves to your heart’s content, but please do not come inside that 50 miles, because this is our living, this is the survival of our country, we need our fish. And we should have done something similar.
All the more bizarre when we have things like spider crabs in our waters – and we send them all out to Spain or Portugal.
Exactly – the Brits don’t eat it. They must want their brains testing! Spider crabs, when you break the legs off, they’re all full of meat. All you need, in some restaurants they give you a little hammer, you just give it a little tap and all the meat comes out, it’s absolutely delicious. But it’s fiddly and some people, especially men, they don’t want to ponce around with it. But I bring a nice crab home at the weekend, I’ll sit there and it will take me two hours to eat it – and half the fun is dissecting it and getting the meat out!
Eating fish is both a history and a geography lesson.
Yes it is.Unfortunately if you went to nine out of ten men in this country and said, Would you like a nice bit of fish or would you like a T-Bone steak, we are a meat eating nation and they will go for the steak. But really they are bloody mad!
What is your Desert Island Fish?
That is a good question, a hard question. As a man that loves all fish, I think I might go for a turbot, or a bass, or I might go for a simple piece of haddock. I’d be very happy to be on the island with that.
Roger Barton is at Billingsgate Market, Trafalgar Way, London E10, Tuesday-Saturday, 5am-8.30am.