“It’s great to grow something out of nothing. Except, sometimes, it doesn’t grow out of nothing!”

 

The West end of Columbia Road is the loud one. Back towards Ezra Street, it’s refined, sedate (these things are relative). At Matthew Harnett’s end it’s boisterous, with countless polystyrene trays of plants being handed out, a constant blur of riotous colour. But it’s not all showbiz. Even at the other end, they tell me, the Harnetts’ is one of the key stalls on the street, with one of the highest turnovers, of the best quality local flowers. Matthew has mostly taken over day to day handling of the stall from his dad, FJ; together, they’re a cornerstone of Columbia Road, a market which has more camaraderie and unity, than most. Most markets, of course, exist in a state of friendly enmity with their local council. Columbia Road is a jewel in London’s crown, but that doesn’t give it exemption from bureaucracy, interference, or pressure from issues like parking, both for traders and their customers. In contrast to other markets, though, at Columbia Road they stick together; long may they see off their threats and long, we hope, will Matthew be getting up early in the morning, and falling asleep in his chair at night, and in between, waxing lyrical about autumn plants.

FJ Harnett are always said to be one of the longest-established traders on Columbia Road – for how long you been selling flowers?
When we started it was actually, not my grand-dad, it was my great grand-dad.They started around around the Walthamstow and Leytonstone area. My grand-dad, Frederick Harnett, died about five years ago and he was 91. And he told me he used to work on that stall when he was eight. Although I’ve got nothing to prove it, that would make it nearly 90 years!

And what about you?
I used to go up there when I was a kid, eight or nine. Then I got into booze and girls,so I stopped going from 14 to 20. And then I started again. And I’m 31 now.

How different was it, 20 or so years ago, when you were first here?
It was better, to be honest. ‘Cos anyone who went there, went to buy plants, it was a well known place, that was cheap – and good. Now we get too many tourists who are just there to look.

Looking at your working day… it sounds like a hard life?
It is a hard life, to be honest. Because it’s very tie-ing. If you are dealing with fashion or something like that, and you fancy a week away, you can lock up the van and go. But we can’t do that, ‘cos the plants take a lot of care, and all the stuff is grown by us, in our own nursery.

What’s the good side of it?
It’s great to grow something from nothing. Except sometimes, it doesn’t grow out of nothing! But it can be a really nice job to have, there’s no doubting that. In fact, it’s not a job – it’s a life.

Columbia Road, more than anywhere, reflect the seasons?
My favourite season is the autumn, I don’t like the spring and summer, it’s too much stress,  it’s a lot of hard work. Whereas the autumn is a bit more laid back – and I prefer the plants. I like the cyclamen and the winter flowering pansies, they all complement each so well and because there’s not so many varieties it’s easier. But in the spring there’s so many different varities, it’s a lot more hectic.

Your stall is loud and busy – there’s a kind of show-business aspect to it, wouldn’t you say?
There is in the spring. I don’t enjoy that aspect of it to be honest, that’s the time I find too stressful, it’s a lot of hard work to get those plants to the market before you even start. I don’t get any days off in the spring, either, but in the autumn I might.

So when you get home, Sunday night, what do you do to relax?
We either go out for a meal,  or if it’s in the spring, then I walk in the front door, straight out the backdoor and cut the grass. Then I have dinner, get in a couple cans of Strongbow, relax – and usually fall asleep.

How do you feel about the future of Columbia Road?
We’re fine, as long as we have George Gladwell here, and he puts our thoughts across to the council. George is the backbone of our market, he makes sure it runs smoothly.

So do the council appreciate the market?
I wouldn’t like to answer that, to be honest. I don’t get involved. I work, do my business and come home.

It sounds like a hard life. But, if push comes to shove to you, would you swap it?
I do enjoy it, yeah. The satisfaction is when you walk in the greenhouse, and every thing looks tip top. And I can think to myself: I’ve done a job here. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all me, there’s plenty of others work at it, too. But when I look at that greenhouse, I’m happy, yes.

FJ Harnett is at the West end of Columbia Road, on the corner of Ravenscroft Street, every Sunday. Get there early.


Comments

2 Responses to “Matthew Harnett, Cyclamen Showman”

  1. tony on February 27th, 2012 11:11 am

    Really useful site, have purchased from some of the traders but armed with this site will buy a bit more!

  2. Lou on February 28th, 2012 11:22 am

    You can’t beat buying something from someone who cares about what they are selling and has nurtured it especially for their and your satisfaction, something you can’t help but feeling is becoming a rarity these days. This blog reminds us that its still out there, alive and kicking. The vibrancy and colour of Matthew’s stall is wonderful. You can just see the devotion and effort. Something worth having. What life should be about!