Columbia Road Market 63
“We help out Carl and Mick – who I call dad – on a Sunday, selling the flowers, and we just love it. They’re my adopted family now.” explained Keith Manning proudly, speaking for himself and his brother Donald, when I managed to snatch a brief conversation with Keith round the back of Carl Grover’s stall. Keith, who magnanimously describes his baby brother Donald as “the good-looking one,” is renowned for his primary coloured outfits, always topped off by one of his collection of more than twenty hats. “I love bright colours and I find the customers like it too, ” he informed me enthusiastically.
For more than ten years, Keith and Donald have been coming to Columbia Rd to assist Mick and Sylvia Grover, the herbsellers, and their son Carl Grover, the flowerseller, at their adjoining stalls. “We get together at social occasions too, it’s a family thing. Since my dad’s passed away, Mick’s become like a father to me, and Carl’s got to share his dad with me now.” confessed Keith with a toothy grin, before revealing that this remarkable friendship between the Grovers and the Manning brothers came about quite fortuitously. “One day I was driving my black cab past Mick’s flowershop in South Kensington, when he gave me a bird of paradise flower and I put it in the front of the cab.” recalled Keith fondly. He is a colourful bird of paradise himself, and I realised it was this parallel that inspired Mick’s spontaneous gesture, which became the catalyst for their friendship.
“Then, coincidentally, we met again when we recognised each other at Columbia Rd,” continued Keith, “and me and my brother started doing flower deliveries for him on special occasions like Valentine’s Day. Then I began coming here every week to help, I started with flowers because my mother loves flowers and I help Mick pack up too.” As well as being cab drivers for thirty years and supporting the Grovers, Keith and his brother make regular trips to Gambia on a personal mission. “We collect clothes and other things, and we go out to the villages there and distribute them.” admitted Keith, who had just returned from Africa that week. On a cold morning, I was cheered by my chat with Keith Manning, illustrating the beauty of the random connections that can happen in the big city and the unexpected bonds of friendship which may result.
Photograph copyright © Jeremy Freedman