“It’s difficult to say if an insect is happy…”

 

In recent years there’s been a trend towards the macabre in markets – skulls, anatomical models, spooky stuffed animals seem to have proliferated, perhaps in reaction to the well-scrubbed Mid Century look that’s been fashionable for the last two decades. On first glimpse, Benjamin’s stall at Broadgate market, packed with dead butterflies displayed in dark wood cases, embodies that look. But appearances can be deceiving. Benjamin’s love of butterflies predates any fleeting trends – and in his case, they’re a celebration of life, as well as death.

Why butterflies?
It’s always been a hobby and an interest. I’ve got no academic background in it, but ever since I was little I used to collect native species. and rear them through.It’s a fascination that’s never died away.

Do you grow these butterflies?
I do, but that’s nothing to do with this. I work at Stratford On Avon butterfly farm, a typical tourist place, and when the butterflies die, I pick them up from the floor. Unlike everyone else, who before they frame butterflies have killed them, mine have lived their life, albeit in captivity, in a good environment.

There is so much imagery around butterflies, the intensity of the colour and the shortness of their life, is that part of the attraction?
There are so many areas that are attractive. Obviously the whole metamorphosis thing captivated me as a child, all the different stages of their life-cycle and the incredible changes… that was the main thing. And as I got older there was so much to learn about them. As a subject, it seems to have all the beauty you find in art, the patterns in the wings and all the colour. And also scientifically there’s so much  you can learn about biological evolution, about mimicry. Whenever I feel like I need to go and learn I can dive into that again. For me it’s a subject that ticks a lot of boxes.

Where did you grow up, and how did you become obsessed with butterflies?
I grew up in Kings Heath in Birmingham. Every year I would go out find caterpillars, keep them, rear them and release them.

I think the first time I did that I was about eight. It’s a memory that really stays with me  I was out with my mum, she’d always tried to interest me in that kind of stuff,  and we saw a female comma butterfly. It’s quite a common butterfly, but a beautiful one, Polygonia Comma; it laid a single egg. And I watched the whole process from the first day the caterpillar emerged, right through to when it emerged from its pupa, then I released it. As an eight year old, that’s something that stayed with me. I did it every year with different species. And more exotic species you can import and do the same thing with.

Is there any one species you have a special affinity with?
It varies all the time. My favourite at the moment is Medusa Procris, a very, very beautiful, Asian butterfly, from a family, Limenitids, the patination on the underwings is perfect for my taste – that’s the species I like most at the moment.

There’s a dark, Gothic quality to butterflies in a case.. perhaps it comes from that Victorian attitude, of finding beautiful animals, then you shoot them and stuff them. You’re coming from a different place, but there is a special beauty to a dead animal, isn’t there?
Yeah, the macabre… but to be honest I prefer to see them in the wild, I like to go in the wild and take photos, to go and watch them, their behaviour. But it really helps to have specimens, just last week I was in the Natural History Museum, looking at all the British species to brush up on identification, and having them all in cases is a  great learning tool. But aesthetically I don’t think I’d cover my wall in dead butterflies. Here, their having died naturally makes a huge difference when I’m weighing it up in my mind.

You mount the butterflies yourself, is it difficult to work with them?
Yes – cutting the wings is the difficult part, because  they’re very brittle and love to tear about the wing veins.

Are your butterflies happy?
It’s a very good environment in Stratford, tropical greenhouses with waterfalls, tropical plants and trees. When assessing the quality of life, it’s difficult to say if an insect is happy. A good indication is their behaviour, and you see a lot of natural behaviour, mating, absorbing minerals, a good indication that they’re doing natural things. So from that point of view I’m pretty happy they’ve had a good life.

Benjamin Greenaway is at Broadway Market, Saturdays.

“The last of the Victorians were dying, so the house clearances were wonderful. There was so much gear about.”

 

Peter is “wanted in too many places” to give his surname, but if he’s supposed to be in hiding, he’s going the wrong way about it. You have to walk all the way down Deptford High Street and towards the Albany Centre to find his stall, but the easiest way is just to follow the noise of his high volume repartee and jokes with passers-by. And if this section is the epitome of a street market, then Peter’s is the epitome of a street stall; stuff packed high with all the important staples: old sewing machines, chunky wooden hi fi speakers, battered violin cases and those tempting, enthralling boxes of memorabilia,  letters and photos of people long forgotten. Peter, on the other hand, sets out to make sure he won’t be forgotten.

How long have you run a market stall?
Twenty six years. It’s incredible how much has changed here. At one time this was a real  street market, then they knocked all the beautiful Victorian houses down and put us in the  square, over there. Now they’ve moved us to here, because they’re redeveloping…  but we want to stay here, it’s like the old street market, lovely. Deptford Market is one of the last old fashioned street markets. Now they’ve planted all these trees in to try and make a pigs ear into a silk purse. Which you can’t do. It’s a shame… I’m really probably the last generation going to do this for a living. I’ve got a couple years left but invariably we die in harness in this job.

How did you come to run a stall?
I was a surveyor. Do you remember East Street? These were all wartime demolition pitches, and over the years people fly pitched and put little corrugated fences up. And I was literally helping somebody with a jumble sale, took a few bits home, went and fly-pitched in East street… I’d been earning £15 a week as a surveyor and earnt my wages in three hours. Then I gradually went from Sunday, buying the gear, then I took the great big step in 75, with a mortgage, of doing this full time.This stuff you see here I wouldn’t have touched wiht a bargepole 35 years ago ‘cos there was so much stuff around. The last of the Victorians were dying so the house clearances were wonderful. There was so much gear about. If I’d have walked into a house then and seen what I have now I’d have walked away, said “this is a load of rubbish.” But unfortunately that generation’s gone.

Many market traders are showmen – and you seem to be one of those. Correct?
I march about, I wear funny hats, I shout and scream. When I first started out I was working with the Jewish guys; they told me, You make a noise, you shout and scream, people are inquisitive – it’s like a car-crash, everyone stops to look, they go, What ‘s going on there? And a percentage of them will buy.

Do you think you have to be eccentric or mad to run a stall?
Yes. Mad. Absolutely bonkers. The pressure involved, buying all this, loading and unloading before you can get away, the bad weather, it’s got to be a vocation rather than a living.

Do you feel… do you enjoy the resonance of the objects that pass through your hands?
No. Let me assure you, there is no intrinsic value to any of this! When you do this seven days a week all it is is… product. Like if you were stamping the lion on eggs a million times a day, you don’t care where they’re going. This kind of volume, it’s in and out.

What has been your finest discovery, the best bit of treasure you’ve ever come across?
This must be 25 years ago, I bought 20,000 used share certificates. All done up in brown paper with the string and the wax, in a solicitor’s basement, 20,000 of them, maybe more, all in little bundles. On the front it said 1911 shares, value $100, and on there was a great big American engine with a cowpusher, going across a bridge, over a river, the Rio Grande, right. A beautiful engraving. So I takes them out, takes them to East Street, and I started selling them for 10 pence. Then the next week we have a queue of people so we put the price up to 15 pence. They were buying a hundred at a time.

In the end, I was selling them for £1.75 each. Now, most had gone at the lower level, so I only sold about 6,000 at £1.75. And I sold them to a German guy, and they are now at Millers Antique Book at £15 each in the frame. And the joke is – I must have left 6,000 on the floor, in broken bundles. And I couldn’t be bothered to pick them up.
Peter is at Deptford Market, most often on Wednesdays.


John Andrews, Fishing Philosopher

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“It’s a form of time travel, that takes people back.”

 

Some market stalls have a unique resonance, embodying history, like a kind of tactile time travel. John Andrews’ is such a stall: tiny pieces of fishing tackle with instantly striking craftsmanship, books and ephemera with distinctive typefaces and colours that are instantly evocative. But they’re not stuffy – these are items designed to be used and handled. Fittingly, just as these items send the viewer on a journey, they have sent their seller on his own journey, one that tells of both modern London, and an older Britain.

Why fishing equipment?
I worked at Creation Records – I was marketing manager there. When the label folded at the end of 1999 I had been collecting vintage fishing tackle, rods and reels and bits and bobs for years, which I used to go fishing with. When I would go fishing I’d talk loosely with a friend of mine about writing a book and the idea was I’d write it when I got a lot older. The night Creation finished we went to the pub, and he said, Now you can write your book!  So I started writing when Creation stopped and got a deal for it. And off the back of that I started to do bits and pieces of freelance journalism on angling, and the social history of angling. And obviously I earned very little money doing that, so I started to sell bits and pieces of my fishing tackle collection.

Then, by chance we had a clear-out at home, took a stall at the old Camden Passage, and we sold general antiques down there, with my wife. Then when it got really cold I just carried on with the fishing tackle. I was at Camden Passage for a few years, then we all switched over to Spitalfields, and it’s grown from there.

What was your role at Creation – did you ever consider staying in the music industry?
I was Marketing Manager – I worked with great artists, including Teenage Fanclub, the Super Furry Animals, The Boo Radleys. I never thought about going back – I made a conscious decision to leave [the industry],  mainly because I didn’t think I’d find another label like Creation. I’d worked in the business for 13 years and Creation was a highlight, it was where I wanted to end up. I thought, I’m not gonna have so much fun and job satisfaction, and work with such good artists and have such freedom and autonomy ever again.

Explain the magic of antique fishing tackle.
I think it’s do with with its reliquary. All the objects are artefacts. When people pick them up, and this applies not just to me, it’s a form of time travel, that takes them back to when they first used that tackle when they were younger, or a relationship they had with a father, or an older person who taught them fishing. They just have a kind of votive quality. It takes people somewhere else.

And the other aspect is, the tackle in itself is beautiful because a lot of it was made by hand in Britain by specialist makers, either in small cottage industry workshops, or large factories, where people made them for their entire life. In, say, the float department at Allcocks, you’d start as an apprentice at age 14 and work your entire life for the company. So there’s an  integrity to the products. And you have dozens and dozens of lost brands of tackle because as the 20th century developed the soul fell out of British fishing tackle-making, eroded by cheaper imports from the far East, and eventually most companies either went bust or were bought out by aggressive American companies whose marketing relied on cheap products at a low price. Whereas British fishing tackle had always relied on expensive product at a high price – and that represented, I think, better  value than buying cheap tackle. British fishing tackle makers, or Abu of Sweden, Mitchell of France, Dam of Germany and other Italian makers, they were all great makers.They’re now celebrated by collectors and dealers across the world. It’s like somebody buying a good brand of jeans. Why would you buy a vintage pair of Levi’s when you could go down to TK Maxx and buy something for a tenner? It’s about quality, integrity, where that item takes you on a journey in your head.

Tell me about fishing itself, how it makes you feel.
The reason people do it is very hard to describe to somebody who doesn’t fish. I think people have a fishing gene and it’s in them. It’s something that goes back generations, to  when in this country 150 years ago every adult male fished, pretty much, across all the social classes, it was deep in people’s DNA, their connections to the landscape, the water and all the elements. As industrial society grew people were removed from that. Now people are detached. Ultimately for me when I go fishing it’s like going through a door into another world. Once you’ve gone through that door you can’t ever come back.

Is there one item, that you’ve come across, that you particularly love, or that embodies all those feelings?
It was probably the first time I bought a cased fish. Taxidermy is quite a tricky area, mainly because there’s a lot of bad taxidermy out there, fake, reproduction and plastercast  taxidermy. But an original piece by an original maker has a real atmospheric quality, and can be quite possessing. And it’s an art-form that’s coming back – you have modern taxidermists like Polly Morgan reinvigorating it. The first cased fish I bought was was a pike. That had been mounted by PJ Horton,  of 112 Fernhead Road Paddington, a 20lb pike caught in 1928 on the Thames. I bought it at auction at Bonhams and I paid far too much money for it. It’s got a real presence. It’s on my wall with lots of other examples.

It’s places like market stall that help perpetuate this culture that you love. But how do you see the future of market stalls in London?
I think it could go one of two ways. I think there’s a renaissance in people visiting markets and using them to buy things, items for their lives, partly driven by food and farmers markets. Then the whole phenomenon of ‘vintage’ has created a new generation of people into fleamarkets. However, I think the traditional places where you’d have a fleamarket, a piece of waste land or abandoned parking lot, because of of the growth in the value of land they are now few and far between. Spitalfields is a really good example. When we started it was a big empty space, with multiple uses, a football pitch at night, then the house clearance vans would come in and there’s a full on proper market. And then.. they turned [the building]  really into a retail theme park.

The market sits in there and it works well because of the local community, the Bohemian feeling in this part of London. But it needs to be be managed very sensitively, so that the soul of the market, the style of the traders and the essence of dealing isn’t lost. We don’t want to become a theme park. It’s got to remain real. It’s got to be somebody with a van, with a load of gear, coming in, chucking it on a table – and people coming in and finding treasure.

John Andrews is at Spitalfields Antique Market on Thursdays. You can find his blog, on fishing and ephemera, at Andrews of Arcadia