Columbia Road Market 58
It was the first cold morning of the season, and Kenny Cramer was in hasty conversation with some of his fellow stallholders when I arrived at the market. Once they had concluded their chat, I took the opportunity to speak with Kenny and in the course of my interview discovered that the chilly atmosphere in the market today was for reasons other than meteorological. But first Kenny outlined his family’s involvement in the market over the the last three generations.
“This business is family run, my grandad Bill before me and my dad Ron and then onto myself today. We’ve been here since the market began, over sixty years. I first came when I was six, it wasn’t what it is now, there were only about twelve stalls then. After finishing school at seventeen, I came down here to work with my dad. We run a flower shop during the week in Lodge Avenue, Dagenham and the only day I get off is Tuesday, depending on how busy we are with weddings and funerals.”
Usually stallholders speak with pride when they describe how their family history is interwoven with that of the market, yet I discovered a reticence with Kenny which I had not encountered before, so I asked about the next generation. “I’ve got one boy, he’s at college studying IT and computers,” Kenny explained,“But I wouldn’t want him to go into the market. Things are not going to last here.” And he revealed that all the traders had been to a meeting with the council on Tuesday where they were told that within weeks big changes are coming to Columbia Rd Market over which they have no control.
“Nobody’s happy. Nobody wants it. None of us has got no say. All of us went to the meeting, but everything has already been decided. It will be the end of the flower market,” he confided to me, his eyes blazing with withheld emotion. We stood for a moment without speaking in the midst of the market and then I walked round to the front of the stall to talk with Kenny’s father Ron to learn his opinion on this unexpected development. I found the senior Mr Cramer hard at work organising the flowers before the customers arrived, yet although he turned away from his task to greet me when I approached, I discovered the emotion of the situation was such that he could find no words to express his feelings adequately. He stood in dignified silence and looked me in the eye with regret, before returning to the consolation of his work.
Alarmed at what I had discovered and realising why the traders were in conference when I arrived, I crossed the road to speak with Carl Grover who was busy wrapping up bunches of Amaryllis for sale later in the morning. He confirmed what I had been told, adding that the market is going to be extended to each end of the street, trolleys will no longer be permitted on the pavements and there is the possibility of other traders being introduced selling different commodities. Most frustratingly, the flowersellers are not being informed yet of the specific nature of the changes thus preventing their objection. “There’s a question mark hanging over the future of the market.” Carl announced with a weary grimace, and a glance over my shoulder to check that his parents Mick & Sylvia Grover the herbsellers were not within earshot. “Show me a long-established market like this where they have made changes for the better. The age of traditional markets is coming to an end.” he added with a shrug.
It was apparent from everyone I spoke to this morning that this week’s “consultation” meeting had been used to announce changes which are being decided without the participation of the traders. Over recent weeks, I have been learning of the beauty of the human culture manifest in Columbia Rd Market and the families who have built it up over generations of hard work, turning up in all seasons to provide flowers to the people of the East End, and making a modest living but never a fortune. Unquestionably, these people have earned the moral right to decide the destiny of their flower market and the fate of their respective pitches that sometimes, like Albert Dean, have been in their families for as many as four generations. “Hopefully they will listen to us,” said Carl Grover with a bright grin of fragile optimism.
Photograph copyright © Jeremy Freedman