“You can’t beat Portobello. It’s the most famous market, isn’t it?”

 

Change is the lifeblood of markets, like it or not. Whether you’ve been going to London’s market for two years, or 20, each of us will have our own memories of the perfect stall that disappeared one day, gone without trace. That unpredictability is, of course, part of the attraction. But how wonderful to have one stall that’s been there for us, year in, year out: and this is Portobello on Parade, run by Paul Allen, and his friend John, for a number of years that, for reasons of state security, must apparently remain top secret.

How did you come to sell military gear, and when did you start?
Well, we’ve been here for a few years now and it’s military stuff all straight from the MOD. We just  happened to be in the right place in the right time, as you can discover from this little lot here.

But how long have you been here? Now, I seem to think you were here in my first visits to Portobello, 20 years ago?
We’ve been going a few years now. We’ve mixed it up a bit, haha.

I’m sure you’ve been here that long, though, maybe it was 25 years?
We have, yes…

Are you being purposely vague?
Well, we’d be giving our age away now, wouldn’t we? But we’re very well-established, as you can see!

What was the attraction of military gear and uniforms for you?
Just the quality. How nice, how well-made it all us, and how stylish. And it’s always in fashion, everyone loves it. All the standup collars are in fashion again now, and the girls love the hats.

You have Soviet military equipment, too – how does the quality compare?
We’ve got a lot. We’ve got a Russian comes over every 3 or 4 weeks, and he brings us hats, badges, coats, all from their military and navy. The quality is not as good, not at all. You can see why they gave up in the end. The badges are not all that good, and the peaks on the caps – on our ones you can lift them up by the peak all the time, with the Russians, they’re flimsier and they start to break.

It’s interesting that, even though we’ve lost so many good quality boot makers in Northampton, that the quality of military footwear is still great.
Yes. And that’s because, even though the factories have shut down they’ve still got a huge lot of storage – they’re bringing in things that are brand new, but it’s really from the ’70s or the ’60s.

Oh, so once those supplies are gone, the new boots will fall apart, like my old Clarke’s?
Now, you’re lucky to get leather-soled shoes. Only the officers’ shoes are leather soled now. The soldiers always had them – but now they’ve got  rubber. And, honestly, the new stuff, people don’t want it, they want the proper ones. So it’s changing, they’re making the ranks wear rubber soles and they’ll have to work with that. But the officers, they’ll be all right!

You have a wonderful variety of items – not just uniforms, there are old medals, memorabilia, postcards, quirky little items. Where do they all come from?
Yes, we cater for everything, we get lots of stuff come up, like all those walking sticks over there, they were from an officer’s mess and they were all put in to a big brass shell casing. It’s surprising what we get. It’s not so much auctions – when I get to the MOD I can sort through the stuff. We like to pick out the good bits. Like, look at the flight trousers on the mannequin here. Now that lacing on the front was covered, and I took the fronts off so you could see the lacing. Now they’re wearing them up the clubs, the girls are! And we hire things out as well. People do lot of photo shoots and all that, so we help ‘em out, and video shoots.

All this gilt, all this braid, it embodies so much history, you still get the feel of the Victorian era, the time of Empire…
True. The tourists absolutely love it. It’s a bit of English history and it states it everywhere you look – on the buttons, on the jacket, so they do like it.

You have an absolutely beautiful uniform up there, is that a Beefeater’s?
It is indeed, it came from a character who was a Beefeater. And in his cottage when it was cleared, there it was. And it’s come our way. It’s astonishing, a fella from Christie’s came by, he’s putting on a show for the Olympics, and he asked if I could put that in the display for him. And at the end of the display it will be auctioned off.

How much has Portobello changed in the time you’ve been here?
A lot. We used to have all the antiques coming in, the lorries, shipping. Now it’s all stopped, and there’s a lot of people complaining. But we just happen to be in the right place, a nice position, well-established and fingers crossed for the rest of them. But it is picking up. You can’t beat Portobello road. It’s the most famous market, isn’t it?

And you, as one of the oldest stalls, still get the younger kids in.
We’ve got ‘em coming through here all the time. As you can see, it’s a complete mixture, all the way through youngish kids to the old boys getting their bits of old  paperwork – the old boys love that, and the badges and the medals. Then we have the braided jackets, the guard ones – they’re very popular with the singers and the stars. Like Pete Doherty, when he was going out with Kate Moss, they both bought one, and they’ve had a number of things off of me. And Paul Weller was standing here chatting the other day about our American cape. We get a lot of people here, it’s amazing.  But we often don’t know who we’re talking to – until other stallholders say, Do you know who that was? It’s good.

Portobello On Parade is at the bottom of Portobello, near the Westway, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. They also hire items out for photo shoots. Contact:brigadier__@hotmail.co.uk

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