“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.

Heather John, Curly Queen

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“It’s the thrill of finding something in an old bag… then someone trying it on and it looks amazing.”


Old school Greenwich Market people remember Heather, and her big hair, very well indeed. But it turns out her story goes even further back – to Brixton, to Fournier Street, and back to Brixton again – for markets are in her blood. And as you pick through the items on her stall, or her tiny shop near Peckham Rye, you might find yourself thinking, As long as traders continue to care as much, our street markets can never die.

Explain the name of your stall, and now your shop, Chichirara…
When I was in Texas buying vintage clothes with my brother Ian in the ’80s I used have very big hair – and my nickname used to be Big Hair. When I was in Texas lots of women used to have big hair, then I read in a magazine article they used to be called Chichirara and it’s a name I just kept.

What fascinates you about old clothes?
That’s really hard. What is it? It’s history, colours, design, finding something and bringing it back to life. I’ve always been interested in fashion, I worked at a fashion magazine so the whole thing about design and style, the process about how it keeps evolving.

There’s a big crossover between art students and smallholder. Is running a stall a continuation of student life?
It could well be. I think if you’re an art student or a student, by necessity you’re looking for more creative things, because out of adversity you have to find it cheaply – and you feed off each other.

We were discussing how it’s somehow heroic to run a stall, to get up every morning and start over. But it might help to be also eccentric or insane. Fair?
I would say so. Not necessarily fitting into standard work-practice material, although you probably work a lot harder – you’re doing it for yourself and you don’t have days off sick. My first stall was at Brixton in the ’80s, that was an amazing place to work, people had been there a long time, fascinating people, and maybe some of them slightly criminal, they did really look out for you, and really help you out, I really enjoyed that, it was a great place to work. And Greenwich was the same, when we went to Greenwich from Brixton we thought it would be different but it wasn’t, everybody was really helpful, although they were highly competitive as well.

What do you look for when you’re sourcing clothing?
Anything that is beautiful or wearable from any period, and/or extraordinary. Or has the historic value, not in terms of money, historic value.

Tell me about some of your finest discoveries.
There was a fabulous Vivienne Westwood Witches Collaboration T shirt with Keith Haring. It was in a binbag full of old clothes. I recognised it straight away. I do think it’s extraordinary that  I managed to save it, it is a piece of fashion history from the last collection she did with Malcolm Mclaren, a really important piece – and sometimes these things are destined for landfill. So it was amazing to find. It went in a fashion auction. Yes, the price wasn’t bad. But that’s not typical, that’s not necessarily the main criterion. [There's] the thrill of finding something in an old bag and then somebody coming along and trying it on and it looks amazing. The other day I was driving down Gallery Road…   somebody had bought a dress the week before, she’s a well known makeup designer, Alex Box,  and I saw her walking down the road with her sleeves flapping -  ‘cos this dress had these amazing sleeves. Something she’s bought from me the week before, to see people wearing it in the street and obviously loving it, that’s just great.

Markets are in your blood, I hear…
I discovered that, when I did my mum’s family research, because she was fostered. I didn’t grow up in South London but I’d moved here – and my great-great-grandfather Thomas Moorehouse had a market stall in Brixton, selling hot potatoes in the winter and ice cream in the summer. And he was living in practically the same place, cause I  lived on the Barrier Block,  and his street was right by where I first started my market stall at Brixton. So there was this overlaying, generations of us trading in the same places. Some of them were born in Stockwell Street in Greenwich, over the Spreadeagle, and that’s where our market stall was – they weren’t posh, they were living in rooms. That was my great aunt.  And my grandfather, whose father was the ice-cream salesman, lived in Fournier Street in what was a young boys’ home.

Is that part of the fascination of markets? This resonance of the people who’ve been working in them, for centuries back through our history?
Definitely, I couldn’t have been more thrilled when I found those things out about my family, because we didn’t know. And I hope the markets will go on like that, and continue. But it’s a difficult thing.

Heather John is at the Dulwich Collectors Fair, last Sunday of most months; her shop, Chichirara, is at 18a Upland Road, Peckham Rye.

 

“I’ve always got a vinyl system at home. Two thousand watts.”

 

Shepherds Bush remains one of London’s great markets – the stalls shoved close together, regular repartee between the stallholders, multicoloured fabrics, multicoloured food, multicoloured cheap plastic toys. The market has changed, along with London, but in the far corner of the covered section, one vital part of the atmosphere remains unchanged: Webster’s Record Shack. Now run by Lloydie King, it’s a motherlode of reggae – pick an artist like, say, keyboard whizz Jackie Mittoo, who most of us know via a single Soul Jazz compilation, and Lloydie can talk you through all of his early studio albums, each of which he has as a Jamaican import. He recommended Jackie in London. Lloydie, like the album, shows why London is reggae’s second home.

How did you came to run the stall?
I started as a Saturday boy when I was 16. In 1969. I just advanced from there, ’cause  I knew the music so much – so they thought, give him a shop, so then I was the manager. And they opened another shop in Brixton, and I used to stock the shops, I knew what was selling, and what could be sold.

And now you own this stall, Websters Record Shack, when did you take over?
Just last year.

You started young, went right through ska, rocksteady and then reggae… so what was the first record you remember buying?
Dancing Mood by Delroy Wilson. I play a bit of that still, all the different versions.

You’ve had a lot of the greats visit here – but one of the people you mentioned was Bob Marley, and how you saw his legendary show at the Rainbow. Tell me about that.
It was one of the mystical nights, you don’t forget it. It’s just printed in your mind -  one of the great moments. It was at the Rainbow. really hot and sweaty. I can remember drinking Cherry Bs and what not. I’ve seen other Marley concerts but that was just… he come in.. and gave his best. An absolutely mystical night.

For someone from Kingston, Bob was a part of London’s history, too, wasn’t he?
More or less, ’cause he was here most of the time, between here and Camden. He didn’t come into the stall but we met socialising. Which is amazing, what can you say about that? I’ve been lucky to meet these people…

When Bob passed away, how did that affect you?
Sadness. Right through the family. My kids.. they knew me and Bob was.. you know. They just felt it for me. Even now I have pictures of him all around my house. We have Marley sheets, curtains, bedspreads, all over the place.

You’ve still got a lot of old school reggae, Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, lots of Coxsone Dodd… what age are your customers, are they getting on a bit?
No, not really, they’re all generations. ‘Cause even the new generation, they’re buying like old stuff ’cause they want to know more. Folks like us are still buying but there’s new kids as well.

Is Bob Marley still popular with the younger kids?
They’re more into Steve Marley, Damian Marley, which is more or less that same sort of stuff.

And you do gospel as well, is that because you like it, or for your customers?
No [not for me], certain customers come for gospel and nothing else so I try to have as much as possible. Some of it’s modern, some of it is old stuff – American, Caribbean, Jamaican. All of them, even English gospel as well. The Jamaican gospel is pretty similar to American… but it’s more heart-ical. You feel it more.

Tell me about the pictures I can see up on the ceiling – ladies wearing bikinis. And the ladies are all facing you, the counter, not the customers?
No, no, they’re facing me. So I can see them. I deal with them.

So when it’s a quiet day…
I gaze at them.

You are a really important part of this market – we can hear your music all round this corner, it gives the place its vibe.
Well… all West London, more or less. We get customers from all over the world that come here.

What are your hot sellers at the moment?
I sell vinyl as well, but it’s mostly CDs. DJs and specialists buy a lot of vinyl. But what’s really selling now are the Strictly [The Best] compilations, they’re up to 45 now, various artists, they’re more like the Tighten Up! Trojan releases from the 60s, people tend to buy them more  ’cause they have different artists on them.

Are reggae CDs selling as much as they used to?
No. ‘Cause people download them for nothing. They should stop that. The artist doesn’t get paid, the producer doesn’t get paid, it messes up the business. But what can we do about it?

What about at home, do you have a vinyl system at home?
Oh yeah. I’ve always got a vinyl system at home. Two thousand Watts.

Really? What do the neighbours think of it?
Yes… the neighbours? They enjoy it!

Websters is at Stall 61, Shepherds Bush Market, Monday-Saturday.