Brick Lane Market 2
Had I walked this street on a Sunday in 1911, I would have had florins or farthings or halfpennies in my pocket, and I would have been in search of a linnet or a parrot or maybe a Japanese Nightingale to share my home. And this narrow road would have been packed with all variations of humanity, a dark heaving mass ebbing and flowing, searching high amongst the piles of cages for a feathered companion to add song to their days. And, according to George Sims in his book “Off the Track in London,” when you buy a canary off a road hawker “he puts it in a little paper bag for you, and you carry it away as if it were a penny bun.”
But it is not 1911, it is now, and I am in search of a woman called “Pickles” who has traded at the market on and off for the last thirty years.
Ahead of me, I see a petite woman, pretty, with a red flower in her hair. The colour cuts through the grey light like a burst of joy. She stands in front of her Aladdin’s cave, part-tucked into a wall next to an old railway chapel. It is filled with the clothes and trinkets of past lives; rows of beads and racks of shoes, of hats – once someone’s favourite skirt, favourite jumper – ready to live again on swaying bodies. A treasured hoard of glass and crockery, of books and purses, and a mother’s hand-made dolls, and all – all – so cared for by Pickles, and displayed as she once would have done in her shop, the one with the old-fashioned bell above the door.
“Every class of man and woman came to that old bird market,” says Pickles, “and the same today. Markets – they’ve always been a great leveller,” and she hands me a welcomed cup of tea.
“I was hit hard by the development of Spitalfields. I always thought that this was a place that if you fell upon hard luck, hard times, you could start again. But it’s been difficult. When the old bridge was taken down, I lost everything – home and livelihood. Change bulldozes everything. I wrote to Prince Charles, and even Prince Charles tried to save the bridge. Development has no place for the everyman history,” she adds, her green eyes flashing. And I feel the injustice, a force potent and understandable. A sense of wrongness, an awakening to a world that is suddenly awry and unrecognizable.
“Even for kids, there are no discoveries to make anymore, nowhere to play,” Pickles adds. “Imagination is squashed – such a lack of creativity. I played on bomb sites when I was a child, and in the sink mud of the Thames,” she laughs. “I had a lot of freedom. Well it was after the war, and I suppose my mum had got quite desensitized, because of all the things she’d seen. She wasn’t overly protective. When I was nine, I got run over on the Wandsworth Bridge Road. When the policeman came to tell my mum, she said, ‘She’s dead, isn’t she?’ I suppose people were used to expecting the worst. When she came to see me in the hospital, I made out I was worse than I was and groaned and pretended to pass out. I had to stay like that till she’d gone – serves me right!” she laughs.
“Later I went with my mum and lived in a gypsy caravan. That’s where I learnt how to recycle things – make use of everything. Mum used to cut the zips and buttons off clothes and I‘d take them to the rag man and collect money. I’ve worked since I was fourteen. Played truant and worked as a waitress, a shop assistant in Woolworths, worked in a hat factory, started as a packer and ended up being able to make a block and hats. I’ve always done something, kept going. Always been a bit of an outsider too – I’ve lived up North, lived down here, lived wherever I could make a home.”
“Maybe it’s the gypsy caravan in your blood,” I venture.
“Maybe. But even my Nan moved a lot during the war. I think she was trying to outrun Hitler!”
“So what did you do after the development? After you were moved on?” I ask, and she points to the yellow van with the image of Mickey Mouse and “Pickles Parties” painted along the side. “I couldn’t do markets for a bit. A lot of stuff was ruined or in storage, and it hurt too much. So I did that. I made lucky dips and did face painting.”
And I marvel at Pickles’ spirit, at her passion and articulacy. Her tenacity and style is infectious. And as a sudden chill whips along the street, I’m about to cap my pen, when I stop.
“I have to ask you, you know,” I say.
“Oh Blimey, not my age!”
“No. Why are you called Pickles?”
“Ah,” she laughs, “that’s another story…”
Portrait copyright © Jeremy Freedman
My week is over and thanks are due. Thank you to the Gentle Author for the opportunity to spend time in Spitalfields Life – it is a beautiful and memorable world. Thank you to photographer Patricia Niven who has been with me all week and who has enhanced all I have written with the most wonderful and affecting images.
Photograph copyright © Patricia Niven