Brenda Gerwat-Clark, Bear-carer

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“I think my current favourites are big monkeys”

 

In some parts of London, escapism is compulsory. Camden Passage is such a place; spend too long contemplating the once-wonderful Tramshed, a home for some of London’s best stalls until they were thrown out for a branch of Jack Wills, or other sites now devoted to chain stores, and you’ll start feeling blue. In which case, there’s a surefire cure  at the other end of Camden Passage by Islington Green. Brenda’s stall, with a shop behind, is crammed with cute, cuddlesome items, vintage teddy bears and other stuffed toys, with rather more refined, lavishly-attired French dolls at the back. Some of Brenda’s customers are cash-rich collectors, for whom these objects are investments, like gold or stocks. But spend five minutes chatting to her, and you realise this business is about love, not money.

How did you start dealing in teddy bears?
It started with the dolls, actually. How I got into it, I suppose, was when my mother gave me my old dolls when she was clearing out the attic. I had another career at the time, my husband was an antique dealer and I started looking at things in a new light, looking at the dolls, fixing them up and creating them, then they’d sell the moment I brought them into the shop. Then I started doing them up, because I did a doll and bear hospital, I was getting bears and dolls into repair, and it all grew from there.

How has the market for dolls changed since you started?
Of course, they are fairly expensive now and it really fluctuates according to which country is buying them at the time – at the moment the Japanese are buying them, for both China and Japan. It constantly evolves.

Dolls are both toys, and a kind of social record, as well as depicting the history of fabrics, aren’t they?
They do tie in to absolutely everything. And then with bears… for a lot of people, the bear is someone’s first toy that they can remember. Then they look at it later, as an adult and wish they hadn’t wrecked it, so they bring it  in to be restored and cleaned.

What are some of your favourite dolls at the moment
Well, I suppose the French Jumeau – they’re lovely, these ones date from about 1900 to 1910. Depending on the quality the prices range from £800 to £2,000. And I also love dolls’ houses, although I don’t have enough space to keep them on display here, they’re in my studio.

Tell me about the teddies – do you get too attached to them?
If I’m getting too attached to anything I take it home for  my collection. I’ve got a big room full of dolls and bears and miniatures. At the moment I think my current favourites are big animals, big monkeys, I’ve got several giant monkeys in my collection, I’ve rented them out to Vogue magazine sometimes, for fashion photoshoots, they date from the 1920s or 1930s.

What about the whole notion of Victorian dolls being a bit spooky?
Why would they be spooky? They’re among the first things that you cherish when you’re a little girl, or with a little boy it’s a bear – so why would it be spooky?

We’re seeing prices of items like Steiff bears increase steadily, will that continue?
Steiff actually started the teddy bear, in 1902. Teddy Roosevelt was taken on a shooting expedition and wouldn’t shoot the bear cubs, the story went all over the world, Steiff was a toy company and loved the story so it produced bear cubs and they took off – like mad! And their collectibility has continued to increase, the most expensive one I saw at Christie’s went for £125,000, I believe. Because they’ve become like a currency, it’s more secure than putting it in a bank, it’s  secure, it’s not like buying shares and seeing the company disappear. You’ve got this rare, wonderful object!

What’s the priciest bear here?
I’ve got  one over there for two  and a half thousand, he’s from 1915. And it’s condition as well, they’ve got to be in good condition.

My son has a Steiff  which he’s cuddled since he was a kid. The mohair has worn off his nose. Is that bad – do you disapprove?
Well, you can’t grow more mohair. But I don’t disapprove. This is a love object… they cry in their sleep and they’ve got this object they can hug.

You have a rather large bear outside – what’s her story?
She is famous in Islington, she was the Mothercare Representative about 40 years ago so she’s quite old. She’s made by Merrythought, our good company in England, they’re like the Steiff of England, and she’s much loved by local children, and has raised a lot of money for charity.

And the bear you’re holding – I believe he’s met Madonna?
Indeed. I rent teddies and dolls out for films and shoots. And for Edward And Mrs Simpson, the film Madonna directed, he’s in the film. They wanted a bear, I don’t know if it was a starring role, I haven’t seen it yet, and they had him for quite a while. He’s a 1920s bear.

Do you have a teddy you can cuddle, when times are hard?
My valuable bears are sort of locked away, in a secure room, which is alarmed. But I do have some big monkeys that protect me sometimes.

Brenda Gerwat-Clark is at  Unit 3, The Annexe, Camden Passage, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Email klaregerwat-clark@tinyworld.co.uk

 

Bobby Bell, the Early Bird

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“Every item’s got its own story to tell”

 

This story, on a man who’s been involved in the hubbub of markets for half a century or more, is dedicated to The Government Inspector. For it’s one of the outrages of our time that the markets of London, which have been the beating heart of the capital for centuries, have no value in the eyes of those who oversee planning in our city.

Just over two years ago, this writer spent several days speaking at and listening to a public enquiry on the future of Greenwich Covered Market. Its owners, Greenwich Hospital Estates, planned to rip up the cobbles of the market, tear out the Edwardian roof, and create an al fresco dining area for a  “boutique” hotel within a new, tarted-up market. The enquiry, presided over by Mr Philip Asquith, a courteous, civilised Government Inspector based in Bristol, resulted in the saving of the floor and roof. But a market is more than architectural items – it is a leaving, breathing entity which, removed from its location for several years, is unlikely to survive. Mr Asquith had sympathy for some Georgian or Edwardian fittings but otherwise was content to see his fellow civil servants from GHE change this space from a vibrant, bustling area, to a polite adjunct to a hotel. To be fair, he was encouraged in this emasculation of Greenwich by the Borough’s MP (who, coincidentally, draws a £80K income from the building industry).  Occasionally, I try to tell myself that we at least saved the space itself, and that the market will survive its redevelopment – which could start towards the end of this year. But Bobby Bell, a well-loved figure in Greenwich, knows markets better than I do.

You’re an old Greenwich hand, but whereabouts did you grow up?
I grew up in Elephant and Castle and then my father bought a house in New Cross. Then when I got married I moved here, Greenwich, in 1964, 65.

And you started going to markets with your dad?
Yes, I’d go to Cutler Street Market in Shoreditch with my dad to buy gold and sovereigns. I can remember sovereigns being two pounds two and sixpence – he used to sell them, he was a dealer, and I used to get the two shillings and sixpence, which was half a crown, 12 and a half pence. He would deal in gold, coins, all that sort of thing.

You were at Brick Lane in the glory days, when it all started before dawn?
Oh yes – I’d started at Bermondsey, then Brick Lane about 35 years ago. It was wonderful. Treasures to be found. I’ve had stalls for the last 35 years. Although I’m retired basically, I still do the markets. It’s in your blood. No, you don’t earn fortunes but you grow to love everything about it, the clientele, the objects, the people. I still remember young Danny and old Danny, this whole family who would do Brick Lane; sometimes I’d be go out at three in the morning and I’d see the convoy of three or four Lutons going over Tower Bridge, they were all following Sue. When I’d get over there they they’d have this whole little stairway, and cul de sac, six pitches, that was all the uncles, the whole family. They were totters really. And when I used to go over to their house in Mitcham they’d have everything sorted, metal, rubbish, all the stuff for Brick Lane.

Tell me about your best Brick Lane find.
I’ve always done architectural items, architectural salvage. And I bought a marble bust and two fireplaces at Brick Lane for a song at three o’clock in the morning. And I sold them to a French guy who specialised in fireplaces in Shepherds Bush, called Gervaise. He used to go down Brick Lane too, but he missed them – I was the early bird. I think I gave £200. And I sold him the two fire surrounds – chimney pieces – for a thousand. But he didn’t realise I had the inserts as well, and that they were part of the deal. Then when he come over he said, How much are those two inserts?  I said, ‘a thousand’. So that was a nice profit. But it’s not just about money, it’s about lots of different things.

Because we buy things that people don’t want. And we sell them to people that do want them. Because one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure. I’ve bought lots of Georgian stuff and people haven’t realised it’s Georgian, or any period, they’re not interested in when it’s from. But there’s the patina, the beauty, the years of wear. Every item’s got a story of its own to tell

We’re lucky to live in London, aren’t we, where these objects have those stories attached?
They’ve all got their own stories. I used to clear this block in Victoria where the caretaker, if anyone passed away, he’d clear out the flats. And I used to get so emotional walking into  the flats that I would turn around and wouldn’t do it. Because I couldn’t throw anything away that’s someone’s history. That’s why I won’t buy photographs. I’ve still got a little leather shoe I found, Victorian. It’s useless to anyone but I can’t throw it out. I found it in a drawer. It’s a story – an absolutely beautiful little girl’s leather shoe, a girl about four, it’s wonderful and I couldn’t part with it.

How do you feel about the future of Greenwich Covered market?
It’s terrible, very, very sad. People used to come to Greenwich from all over. In the same way I would go to Camden, being a trader, I would go over to buy – and over the course of the years you meet a lot of people and it’s lovely. Whether it’s any fair up North or vice versa, we’d all become friends. I’d go to Brighton, and the Brightonentonians, we’d call them, they would have a dining table [at the market] with a candelabra, they’d be sitting around it, 11 or 12 of them, having a four course meal. It’s very sad to lose that – that’s why I’d encourage any new market that starts. There’s one at Lee Green starting, in a nice location, and I would encourage it.

What do you feel about the people who own this site, who wanted to get rid of the roof, the floor, put in a hotel, and move the traders out for two years?
They’ll ruin it. Any length of time a market closes or moves it will suffer. It will kill it  stone dead. Same as Covent Garden, that’s died off ’cause they put permanent stalls there.

It’s terrible that the Hospital people who are the curators of all this, or the Inspectors who make decisions on its future, or our MP, none of them seem to live here, or care about it.
That is it! Lots of boroughs are like that too, you have people in the council in Bexley, say,  and they don’t live in Bexley – if they did, they would take more pride in the area. To lose some of these places is a crime. If you think about Bermondsey, which was a trading centre where foreigners all over the world would come and buy: there were warehouses full of antiquities, collectables. The warehouses were worth more money [as housing] and they sold them. But it was the centre of antiquity in London. So we lost more than anyone gained.

Do markets die forever, or is change part of it all?
To be honest: they will die forever. I would love to turn round and say no . And to think of the people who created this as a market many years ago – it’s our inheritance we’re getting rid of. Which is sad.

Tell me about the item you’re holding.
It’s Italian, a Wheatsheaf chandelier, from the 1950s, they’re very in vogue in London at the moment, and they’re producing them again, But this is one of the old ones. Starburst mirrors, the clocks, all the ’50s stuff, it will all be repeated. Like there are people before me did this, and there will be people after me. But, like I said, Bermondsey was one of the centres of the world, and we’ve lost it – and when these things are gone, they’re gone.

 

Bobby Bell is at Greenwich Covered Market, Thursdays. You can also find him most days at All Our Yesterdays, 99 Blackheath Road, Greenwich SE10.


Darren Brown, Seashell-seeker

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“Some days, you can’t see three inches from your nose. It can be spooky.”

 

Borough Market has been a centre of foodie culture for a dozen years now  – but they’ve been years of turmoil, building work, the disappearance of many traders. Today, the offering is diverse, from glorified fast food merchants mainly reliant on tourists, to some of the most committed food producers in the country. Darren Brown has to count as one of the most crucial traders in the latter group. When you see him chatting to customers  on a Saturday afternoon, or pulling lobsters out a large tank to show inquisitive kids, it’s hard to credit that he’s often been up at dawn that morning to dive for scallops, before the long drive in from Dorset. Catching scallops this way is sustainable, unlike the dredging methods many rivals use, which can cause damage to the seabed which takes years to recover. We often mention here how market traders work harder than most of their peers – Darren has to count as one of the most extreme examples, but once you’ve tasted his scallops, you’ll agree it’s all worth it.

I’ve spoken to you some Saturdays and you’d been out diving at 5am – when does your  typical day start?
I don’t have a typical day! It depends on the tides and the weather, and also the light. Certain times of years it’s not light enough for diving till 8 o’clock, sometimes it’s dark at 5 o’clock, so you’ve just got to work around that. There’s so many factors – you can’t just go out there, dive and come back.

Is it a physically gruelling job?
You’re carrying 8 stone of tanks on your back, 32 pounds of lead round your waist, so it’s not for the average person.

How did you start diving?
I basically was a survival instructor and did survival equipment, and I tried to change to become a Royal Navy Diver. I passed through all the process – then I was told at the last interview that I was too old. So that was me out. So I decided to go; now the Royal Navy’s got to resettle you into a civilian job and I got them to pay for my Commercial Diving Ticket. So in the end I became a diver and they lost a diver. Then I lived at Lulworth cove in Dorset, and started doing diving back in 1983 as a hobby.  And we’ve been at Borough Market now for 13 years.

In the past few years, you’ve diversified?
I stalk, I manage an estate down in Dorset where we control the deer numbers, and that’s another hobby that I’ve turned into a livelihood, so part of the business is game now as well as fish.

How do you feel, when you’re underwater most days, diving? Is it  strictly a job, or is it something you enjoy?
Well, put it this away – I wouldn’t go away on a diving holiday! It’s a busman’s holiday doing three or four hundred dives a year, it gets a bit tedious. Like going to the office. At the moment we’re fishing in Dartmouth, then we come back and work from June onwards back in Lulworth Cove. Some days it can be fantastic, then some days, you can see less than three inches from the end of your nose. It can be spooky. No disrespect to the average Scooby Doo, but they wouldn’t tolerate it.

You embody a certain ethic at Borough – whereas some people simply buy food in and sell it on, you’re bringing in something unique.
There’s only a handful, two or four of us, who are producer and providers. We go out and get it. And a lot of people don’t believe that, I have to show them pictures to prove it.

Does the Market appreciate that you’re offering something unique?
I’m concerned about it. Sometimes I think they’re pricing us out of the market. I don’t like passing on the large expenses – it makes us feel and it makes us look like a very expensive market. There has to be fair trading. How can I compete with someone in the middle of the market, and all they’re doing is buying and selling? So no, I don’t think those people are bringing anything to the table. You get people who come in and take advantage of the fact that you can get a cheaper pitch, come and take the good times over Christmas, and then run off. So there is a lot of unfair trading, I don’t think there’s a loyalty to the long-term people who are committed to Borough Market, and bring something unique and individual to it.

But with all this, the getting up early, the physical effort, the lack of independence, the weather, when you get home at day’s end – is it satisfying?
It is. Especially when you get people who really appreciate it. I’m dealing with some of the top restaurants who appreciate it, Jamie Oliver, Mark Hix, who I go back with a long way. But it is hard work. When you go home sometimes and you’ve lost money at the market that day you think, Why am I doing this? But staff comes first, and the rent’s gotta be paid.

Does it beat the Navy?
I am actually missing the Navy really – only because of the lads and the camaraderie and you can always rely on somebody. If you were in the shit you could turn around and there’d be somebody there for you. It doesn’t happen in civvie street I’m afraid.

Now, the crucial question: how do you eat your scallops?
I like them simple, maybe pan fried with garlic. Or simpler still, is to eat them raw on the boat, straight away, when I come up from a dive. You can’t get better than that.

Darren’s stall, Shellseekers, is at Borough Middle Market, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

“I get a lot of flak. It doesn’t bother me. I love it. I was used to that in the army.”

 

“George Gladwell is Columbia Road” is a phrase I’ve heard from more than one trader on the street. Others have mentioned, “if George packs in, so will I.” For decades, now, as chairman or traders’ representative, he’s looked after the interests of Columbia Road, the most ebullient, confident, and as he points out, happy market in London. Normally, on Market People, we try and follow convention and keep our interviews to 800 words or so – but how can you be so measly with a hero of horticulture, like George, who can give us the whole history of the market? He’s calm, fatherly, focused, and fun. Every market could do with a hero like him, and all of us Londoners owe him. His bulbs are excellent, too.

How did you come to run a flower stall?
I was going to go into farming when I came out of the army.  I served my time,  conscription, and rather than go back to a job I thought I’d go into farming. In those days I couldn’t get a farm as credit facilities weren’t available. So I went into the nursery business. Now there, the turnaround for getting cash was six months so to speed things up I just went directly into local markets. It was one of those things that just worked out. This was in Wickford, a little run-down market in Essex, at the end of 1949, 1950. And I progressed from that. I learned a few things from the public…

Which was what?
How to sell! When I started, we used to sell plants out of wooden boxes. I sold individual plants at a penny, tuppence each. Then I saw other traders selling whole boxes, half boxes, plants by the dozen I went into that. It was ffaster, and it just went on from there.

So I went on through the years, started in Wickford, then added Romford two days a week, then Epping one day a week and finally Rochester and Maidstone. So I covered every day. But it was all dead in Jan, Feb, July, August and late December, and top of that the winters were bad at that time. So out of season I got a job driving. When I finally found Columbia Road it was by accident – a friend of mine from Romford asked if I’d drive some plants up to Columbia Road.

It was quite an event because when I got there, there was nothing there, it was dark, and we sat in a cafe until about 10 o’clock, then we put plants out, there was four of us in the street. And we sat here hoping to get the money to come home with. By the time March or  April came round the market would fill up with traders – where they were from was mysterious – then they’d all disappear again in June, then you’d see them again in September… So it would repeat. And this went on through the 50s. But I went basically every week. If I was doing journey work I could get home in time to fulfil the Sunday market and double what I was earning.

Then the sixties came and there were changes – they pulled down the old buildings. At that time the shops were all boarded up anyways, all the cabinet makers in them moved out of town, into the home counties.The council brought out an order, if you have a trading licence you must appear once in four week, and consequently those guys who disappeared through that season had to appear – you had to have enough stock to do that even if it’s out of season. So by the end of the 1960s all licensed traders were out every Sunday.

At the same time, the trade had changed. At one time everything was grown in clay pots and then put into wooden boxes which were very heavy. It was a really heavy job – if you’d got 400 boxes of plants on a van you had to take them off by hand. Each hand we called a lift. If you have 400 or 500 lifts to unload, at the end you hoped you had no lifts to put back on. Consequently at the end of the day everything was sold off cheap, so you have an empty vehicle going home. Which is different to today.

In the ’70s the hydraulics came in, the tail-lift, that was followed with the Danish trolleys being invented. They’re the trolleys we use with four wheels, anything up to 10 shelves: that is loaded at home, goes on the tailboard and straight on the vehicle when you’ve finished, so you don’t have to rush and get rid of everything. By that time nurseries had advanced so it gradually came together. As it happens, by that time it came to the point where you could get credit for a farm. But by this time I was established.

Columbia Road progressed gradually… new faces came, old faces went, some died, some couldn’t make it pay. At the end of the ’80s we suddenly had more Dutch availability, where they could deliver without us having to put an order in weeks beforehand. Then I started advertising the market, then the media took notice, then film companies, then with the world wide web I was getting emails from different countries – which I still do. So it was all coming together. We had a problem  in the late ’80s or ’90s, the residents took offence at the noise, so a  committee was formed. We came to agreement with the residents, and now it’s gone into non-existence -  I’m the only committee!

I’ve heard so many impressive stories of how you’ve dealt with the council. Including an unbelievable scheme, if I got it right, to turn Columbia Road into a general market?
There was a fear of it. In that particular incident they put public notices in the paper to extend the market, stated the streets it was going to affect, including Ezra Street – but couldn’t give any definition of what it was going to do. But the Public Notice in that case was unlawful. So I challenged it – on behalf of the residents and the traders. Successfully. We had suspicions they were going to use it for another commodity market. We’re already not too happy to have shops here, we didn’t want a market with other goods – we are a specialised market, that’s why it’s successful and people come from all over the country.

Some traders complain there are now too many tourists, who take photos but don’t buy anything?
There are more people come who are tourists. The thing is, that can either be a disadvantage – or an advantage. The way I look at it, if they’re staying with people they often take something to their hosts as a present. And if they come to take photographs, they fill the market up – and there’s nothing worse than seeing an empty market, whether buying or not. You’ve got to look from a positive view. It’s easy finding things to blame.

You taken on a lot of extra work – do people appreciate it?
I think so. I take a lot of flak, I get moaned at, why can’t we park, why all the tourists… It doesn’t bother me. I love it. I was used to that in the  army.

Do Tower Hamlets appreciate the value of the market?
They have to. It’s there, and it’s obvious and it is valuable to them – it brings a lot of tourists into the country. But they won’t admit it’s valuable.

What’s your own favourite flower?
At the moment: bulbs.  Simply because I can go home with them, you don’t have to sell out, you can bring  them back and keep them on the vehicle all week. I’m getting a bit old, 82, with back trouble. It’s tough sometimes.

Do you have a garden?
I’m a nursery man – and I’m like a brickie who’s got no brick wall, I’ve got no garden. I have four acres, most of it orchard… We’re out in the sticks and I love it. And I love stinging nettles, wild plants, and I don’t cut any of them down until I have to.

After all these years – do you still love Columbia Road? Are you optimistic about it?
It will always be there. It will have its difficulties – but Columbia Road is a happy market. Not a miserable market.  If I go into any other market I think, ‘what a miserable lot!’  That’s what it’s like for the customers – they come there because it’s a happy market. And people come away happy, even if they go away skint!

George Gladwell’s bulb stall is around six stalls down from the West End of Columbia Road. Every Sunday.