Brick Lane Market 3
This is John and his father Alf in the charismatic old shed they have just opened up beside the railway bridge in Brick Lane. Two stalwarts who have spent their working lives buying and selling all manner of commodities in the East End – Alf entered local lore when he bought a lion cub off a ship in the docks forty years ago and sold it at Club Row animal market, while his son John has always traded around Brick Lane.
“I used to to have the biggest railway arch here, then I was in Cheshire St and once I had the biggest yard in Bacon St.” he boasted, explaining that for the past six years he has lived in the tiny caravan nestled snugly at the rear of his shed. When you enter the tall red wooden doors leading off Brick Lane into the huge shack with a multiplicity of stalls and a tea stand, you enter John’s world where he sells “all and everything, from a-z.”
“Is this bric-a-brac or junk?” I ventured, casting my eyes around the ramshackle mixture filling the cavernous space, where Tom the weather-beatened and tanned sailor lurked in the shadows at the rear with his big black dog. Raising his brows at the impudence of my question, “It’s shabby chic!” John declared, twisting his stubbly features into the leery smirk of a showman – “’Shabby chic’ was invented in Brick Lane.”
“I used to come up here with my dad and it was like a day out. If you wanted something you could get it for pennies. This place is what Brick Lane was like twenty years ago,” he continued, introducing his personal view of the changing currents of the market. “Saturday is better for us than Sunday now,” he said,“People come to all the vintage clothes shops but I don’t know how they make any money. I reckon that’s why they call them ‘pop-up shops’ because they pop up and then pop off.”
Over a cuppa from the tea stall, I settled down to enjoy Alf’s lyrical stories of the old East End, of Spratt’s dog food, Twining’s Tea, Percy Dalton’s peanuts, and of the former magnificence of Wellclose Square and when Wilton’s Music Hall was a rag store, and of his poor old pet fox, and Quackers, his pet duck, that followed him around the streets. “I think it’s a more violent world now,” he confided in a whisper, “beyond Vallance Rd is a dangerous place with gangs and drug wars. I won’t go there.”
When John’s two sons arrived from school in their smart green uniforms, I asked them if they planned to continue trading here on Brick Lane but they both shook their heads in unison. “I want them to be traders in the stockmarket,” said John, accompanied by nods of enthusiasm from his boys, “I take them for walks around the Docklands and tell them which companies to work for.”
“You want them to be bankers?” I queried. “I want them to make money,” he confirmed, “A lot of successful people have come out of Brick Lane, Alan Sugar started round the corner and the old man used to sell records to Richard Branson.” And then, turning to his father, their eyes met in a moment of shared realisation. “Where did we go wrong?” he asked, raising his hands with a grimace of bewilderment.
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman