“I was the young one. Now I’m the old one.”
Some antiques, some junk items, are destined to stay on shelves. But the items on Albert Sabbah’s stalls are designed to be handled. His selection of vintage Leicas, Rolleiflexes or even 1980s camera are beautifully tactile, finely-engineered and are more likely destined, he says, to be used by students discovering the magic of film photography than to end up as shelf queens. Albert’s a practical man, his stall jutting out into the street, seducing you with its approachability; like many of his cameras, he’s led an interesting life.
I remember seeing your stall here for five or ten years. But you started out actually taking photographs, didn’t you? How did that start?
Originally, I’m from Syria. I came over to London in 1965. I was an apprentice, and then I was a photo-journalist and general photographer.
So you arrived in the middle of Swinging London, how was that?
It was beautiful, really nice. I went to the Isle of Wight festival, took lots of shots of Jimi Hendrix. I had a camera like this, a Mamiya C3. It was very nice, I loved it. If you’re a hippie as well… I was not really, except that one week in the Isle of Wight. It wouldn’t be my cup of tea now, but it’s all right when you’re 18 or 20, beautiful, nice music, staying in the tents, having all-day, all-night music. I don’t know how I’d feel now. But I love music. We stayed about one week.
Did you sell any photos from the festival? Are they with an agency?
I don’t have my photos with an agency, though – I was doing it all by myself, I didn’t really know anybody. My nephew is a photographer, he’s well known , he’s doing all right, and is meeting people, going to all these places. For me, to do that was difficult. So I ended up doing photos for antique dealers, the majority of my friends were antique dealers. Before they send the real item abroad they send a picture. So I’d take photos of carpets, baths, anything. Then when I stopped taking so many photos, I thought to come here to Portobello. And the other bits, this and that, you learn along the way. But mainly I’m on cameras.
So you were on Portobello in the 1970s. How was it in those days?
Truthfully, it was much better. There were real antiques, everywhere. Then I was the young one, but now I’m the old one. Most of what you see now is new and repro – I would say in my opinion rubbish. But in 1970s, all around you were genuine antique dealers, there were things to buy for ten thousand pounds, you name it.
Where did those people go?
I don’t know really. I suppose some stopped, some moved somewhere else, and then some new ones came. Really, if you are an antique dealer, when you see the next stall someone is selling new watches, ten pounds, 20 pounds, you get irritated! I was in a unit with five shops., one lady had been there 30 years, opposite the lady was at least 10 years. Then, in front of us, they put this stall was all new handbags. It almost covered up the whole unit. So this woman who had used to make lots of money, suddenly she took nothing. So she left. When she left, I left, the other woman left, the guy left. Then suddenly it was all new handbags. The owner, they don’t care, only about the money, they thought she wouldn’t move. But she did. And then I came here. But these things happen.
Everybody who has a stall has usually made one amazing discovery. What was yours?
I’m not a very lucky person generally! But I did find a few. For instance I was in West Ruislip auction, the guy had a box of cameras, he had an early digital, very clumsy and ugly. People were looking at that, but he had another box, with about 10 cameras, Instamatics, nobody was looking at. The auctioneer was, Who is going to pay 20 pounds?I put up my hand. Nobody else did. I said Allelulia. I picked it up. It was a Leica 1, one of the earliest, 1937. There are two models – if it was was the other one it would have been five six thousand, this one when I came home, I checked, it was about six hundred, seven hundred pounds. I put it on the stall, a Spanish woman came up, said, I’ll take it, straight away. That’s the only one, I didn’t have many others like that.
You mentioned that it’s not just older collectors buy your cameras, it’s younger people too?
Oh yes. Like look at this camera, 1860s, 1870, no speed, just aperture. And it’s still professional even now, it’s becoming a fashion, after they take the digital photos, the last pictures of the session they take with one of these. With an eight by four negative. The majority of youngsters, ‘cos they grew up with digital, to them it’s some sort of fantasy. They have the digital but they like to use film. Then there’s another category, people studying photography, they look at who used this camera, who used that, and they like to own it. When I was an apprentice photographer, I used to look at these cameras in shop windows. And now the situation is different, they have money, and they buy it.
“Rockers look better when they’re older than mods.”
There are many red white and blue stalls crammed around the bottom of Portobello Road; each of them represents some distinctly part of British Culture. That of Nigel Stark is specially vibrant, crammed with vintage leather biker jackets, ephemera, helmets, many of them manufactured by long-gone companies. So far, so poignant.
Yet, intriguingly, just as the glory days of British manufacturing were passing, the glory days of British Youth Culture were arriving. Today, the image of a British rocker, boot-boy or mod is an intrinsic part of the national iconography. If we’re being optimistic, the era they represent mark the point at which the UK’s exports changed from metal objects, to ideas. Does one make up for the other? According to Nigel, maybe they have, because we’ve got by. Somehow.
How did you get into selling biker gear?
I got into it ‘cos it’s extension of my own life, I’ve had British bikes since the 1970s, so I’ve been wearing the gear I’m selling for a long time.
What’s your bike?
I ride a 1970 Triumph 750.
What was the first classic bike you owned?
The first ever, and this was 40 years ago… was a Lambretta. Some of my mates are mods, but when you do these bike shows, you see lots of old rockers, mods, skinheads, all shapes and sizes, and some big fat ones. They’re most likely my age… and rockers looks better when they’re older than mods and skinheads!
So you changed tribe from mod to rocker?
Not really recently, it was more like 40 years ago. I lived in Edgware we lived in a nice rather rich estate, me and my friends, what we were really was suburban boot-boys. Other friends were suburban hippies, who like Cream as much as we like reggae. Then I suppose I swapped a Crombie, a skinhead coat, in 1972, for a Vivienne Westwood Teddy Boy Drape jacket – the drape jacket suited me much more. It was £30, which is like a kid now paying £500. My friends all thought I was acting a bit strange. Rock and roll was my punk – when I discovered it everybody thought I was mad. But a lot of original punks went straight into the rock’n'roll scene, it was cool, and the girls dressed up sexy.
Is there still a tribal enmity between rockers and mods?
No there isn’t.’Cos they both go to the same sort of runs, if there’s a rocker run, like this weekend from the Ace Cafe in Southend, there’ll be scooter parked up. But they don’t mix together and they don’t stand there drinking together, ‘cos they’re still two types of people.
You grew up in an era of British bikes… or rather, the era when British bikes were fading away.
With both cars and motorcycles, yes, the whole of British manufacturing disappeared.I suppose the motorcycles were the first to go. We’re talking about a 40 year period, the first decline was in the ’60s for motorcycles. And nowadays all the clothing, the leather jackets.. none of it is made in England. The motorcycles started the whole thing falling apart, and now we don’t make anything. Because the British didn’t reinvest after the war, they were making all these bikes up to 1986, but the basic engines of Triumphs went back to mid ’40s designs. Then the Japanese came in. And the rest is history.
So the bikes were the start of it all.. a symbol of changes in both manufacturing and society.
They are. Because years ago, before the mid ’50s, motorcycles were the working man’s means of getting to work. Then with rock’n'roll, Elvis, Brando, the market started to change. But what really killed it was the Mini. Before that, working men would have sidecars and take their families out, but as soon as the Mini came out, that changed everything. At one time BSA was the world’s largest motorbike company – and that changed overnight.
Do you feel sadness for the passing of an industry?
I suppose so. But everything moves on. Everything else is not made in England. It’s a different world. It’s sad for the people who were in the industry. But everyone seems to have got by somehow. I don’t know how.
“I often wonder how they started out life, who had these things. You get this sense of history, of lives, all of that.”
Day by day, the Victorian corners of London are being spruced up, tidied, painted brilliant white. But the distinctive stall run by Shane Forrester and his partner Anna is defiantly worn, distressed, all browns and battered gilt. These are objects that have lived a life – a life that, in some cases, speaks to us from beyond the grave…
You started out rummaging round markets, even as a teenager?
I was born round the corner in Blenheim Crescent in Portobello Road, so the Portobello Road thing was always something I was aware of, there were always people round the corner selling things when I was growing up.
This area must have changed a lot – when did you start trading yourself?
I started doing market stalls way way back in the mid ’80s, I always loved spending my pocket money when jumble sales were thick and fast, I’d go round flea markets, antique fairs et cetera and gradually stumbled across all the wonderful London markets like Spitalfields and Brick Lane. Gradually I found out that I really liked taking things apart, taking buttons off one thing and redesigning stuff, then I realised there was a possibility I could sell bits and pieces. And that’s how I started.
It was quite different here when I was growing up, it was actually a troublesome area, quite a volatile area round Ladbroke Grove, so I tried to ignore that. But the actual buying and selling was really great, there were a lot more antiques and bits and pieces around. The movement used to be Brick Lane, 3 o’clock on a Fri morning, then come to Portobello for seven, have breakfast, then sell what I’d just bought. There was a lot of trade then, whereas now there seems to be less trade and more tourists. Then I met Anna, Anna’s always been involved in selling, is very successful with vintage fur, and as the fur season ends we progress into all our bits and pieces. We do vintage fur when it’s very cold, so now we’re now almost approaching that time when the furs will fade out. We’ll always keep a few little nice bits on, short jackets, furs that go round the shoulder, but in general the fur will fade.
Your stall has a distinctive look, very Dickensian.
I just love Victorian, Dickensian stuff, for lots and lot of reason. I like the way things were made, the passion that went into things when they were being made, it’s culture, it’s history, it’s memories. We’ve got to keep hold of it.
What are the items that appeal to you the most?
I love hand-forged wrought iron, like the old blacksmiths used to do, I love old picture frames, whether or nor they’ve got a painting or mirror in. I like things that are deconstructed, not damaged necessarily, but worn, lived in, because that’s character in itself. And I love that whole London thing.
Your items look like they’ve lived a life.
That’s exactly it, that’s what catches my eye. Some things have a little too much damage, and we can restore them, take things to good condition again. But sometimes we just leave things because people just like things that are a little bit worn.
Who will buy your chimney brush?
Maybe I won’t sell it! Maybe I’m gonna give it to darling Anna for her birthday, who knows, I’m very tempted to keep it! I really am. There are one or two things that I really do never want to part with.
Do you have items like this around your house?
Yes. Everything we get we take home anyway, we go inside and look at it. It’s funny, when you put things inside a house, straight away they take on a different air, straight away they add warmth to the house – and you can relate that to the customer. That they are looking at something that at the moment is in the street, but when they put it in their own home, they won’t regret spending the money.
Your Victorian photos, in particular, are very resonant – do you often think about the lives those people led?
All the time. Anna picks up on the other side of life – she taps into the spiritual side of everything. Anna can go in a house and sense if it’s haunted. So we do think about that a lot, I often wonder how they started out life, and I wonder who had these things, especially when I’m out buying. Because when you’re doing house clearances you’re often going into people’s homes, and you get this sense of history, of lives, all of that. There’s a whole array of feeling and thoughts and emotions that go with one simple object.
Shane and Anna Forrester are at the bottom of Portobello Road, near the Westway, most Fridays and Saturdays.
“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:email@example.com
“I don’t like anything mass-produced. One of everything is enough.”
Like any market, Portobello has changed over the years; chainstores, like All Saints “of Spitalfields” have moved in, while the antique and junk offerings get thinner on the ground. But at the bottom, underneath the Westway, everything gets more diverse. Julia Chettati’s corner, on the near side, is one of the most intriguing. Her own stall is filled with jewel-like, vibrant concoctions, crafted from vintage fabrics or brightly-coloured feathers. Julia is old school: like many of us, she’s seen her own area change, pressured by development and commercialisation. But again, like many of us, she’s still in love with the buzz of the market, drawn ever back like a moth to a flame.
How did you start your stall?
I was doing vintage shoes and dresses and saw a hole in the market – this was in Portobello. How long have I been doing this? I can’t remember – years!
How would you describe what you sell?
I’m just doing my own thing, right now I’m making all my headpieces. It’s bits of design I do myself, and I do up things. How would I describe it? Unique, I’ve always been different.
What are your style influences?
I just do it off the top of my head, really. I think parts of history influence me, different periods of time: the twenties, that period, the head pieces, that’s the kind of themes I’m working on now. I just like beautiful, nice things. I don’t get influenced by high street – I don’t go to the high street, I don’t shop in those shops, I’ve never owned a pair of trainers, I don’t wear jeans, I don’t like anything that’s mass produced. One of everything is enough.
You seem to have a thing for feathers?
I do like feathers. They’re a slice of freedom. I’m working with feathers right now, making up stuff, I’ve made a beautiful little hat with butterflies, the base is leaves, then it’s all butterflies, I’m pleased how it’s turned out, I do it from my head, there’s no pattern. Then I found some beautiful old Victorian trim, that would be nice thrown round the head like a garland. That’s what’s nice, making things… I don’t make loads of money, my stuff should sell for more, it’s very time consuming. But I’m grateful I can do that.
And how would you describe your customers?
A bit quirky, artistic, unusual, you have to get it.
Have they changed over the years?
The market changed years ago. It was when the Euro first started, really. You used to see exciting people, people from European companies, designers, make-up artists, models, intriguing people, really nicely-dressed people, bands, stylists. All characters. I don’t think you see people like that any more.
What was the cause? More chain stores?
The stores aren’t as nice, I suppose they have to let the bigger stores in, the coffee shops, it’s not what Portobello is about. Greedy corporate companies push all the good little interesting people out and that’s what kills it, because they are what makes it what it is. MacDonalds did try a few years ago, at least we got rid of them!
There’s still a real camaraderie in this corner though, isn’t there – do you look out for each other?
Yes, we do OK. It’s like a family, really – like it or lump it, we’re all used to each other! Don’t forget, it’s a business-place too, it’s stressful at times, and everyone’s all chasing the same pound. But the whole area has always had its characters, always been on the edge. That’s how it will always be. Everywhere has to change and move on… on the whole, we’re alright, there’s a lot of decent, hardworking people and fabulous stuff. I love it. I’ve always been a vintage person – you never know what you’re going to find, you never know how much you’re going to take, either. And that’s how life is, isn’t it?
Do you need a particular attitude to run a stall, as opposed to a shop?
Shops are very expensive, a big commitment, it’s cost, cost, cost. A stall’s less expensive, it’s like a little office anyway, people know you’re there. In a shop you wait for people to come to you, in a stall there’s a flow of people who will pass you anyway. When it’s cold, like now, you move around and it’s alright! It’s all cosy and cushy in a shop with no preparation – but I’ve always liked to graft. I make my stall like a little picture, every time I set it up I enjoy it. I’m a free spirit. I couldn’t bear sitting in a shop all day, how depressing, Oh God, no!
Julia Chettati is at the north end of Portobello Road, under the Westway, on Fridays; on Saturdays and Sundays you’ll find her at the Ladbroke Grove end, or on the far side of the canopy.