The Fly-Pitchers of Spitalfields
When I first came to Spitalfields, at dawn one Sunday morning in Winter long ago, I was amazed to find Brick Lane full of fly-pitchers – people selling a few items directly off the pavement. Yet as the years have gone by, these pavement traders have been pushed further and further out until they find themselves at the very edge of the territory now, crowded together along the Bethnal Green Rd upon a narrow strip of pavement beside the site of new a shopping mall. Literally at the margins, these people are suffering at the heavy hands of market inspectors constantly harassing and threatening them, causing them to pick up their things and flee – only to return later and do a little more trading before the next purge happens, in a tragic ongoing game of cat and mouse.
Commencing in the early hours and sometimes gone by first light, the existence of these traders in unknown to many visitors that come to Brick Lane on Sunday. So, for the last month, Spitalfields Life Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien has been down there among the fly-pitchers and the result is this remarkable set of pictures which acknowledge the dignity of these people who are being subject to such unnecessary humiliation for sake of wanting to sell a little bric-a-brac.
“My name is Jason John, I’m writing you a damn good song” - these were the first words I heard when I came round the corner of the Bethnal Green Rd into Norton Folgate last Sunday morning, just as a street musician with curly dark locks appeared with theatrical aplomb from behind a telephone box, wielding his guitar and offering a tuneful accompaniment to the lively scene of pavement trading sheltered by the vast railway bridge arching over us. It can be a pitiful spectacle to witness the modest possessions that people are selling here, asking prices as little as 10p, and yet this market is remarkable for its vibrant life and sense of camaraderie that, ironically, has strengthened in the face of the current threat.
Over the weeks that Colin has taken his pictures, a stack of black sea-containers were put in place and the hoarding behind the fly-pitchers came down to reveal the pop-up shopping mall which will open here shortly. Now a fence with the logos of the international brands who will be selling their wares here in future serves as a backdrop to the fly-pitchers and the contrast between the two could not be more extreme. The developers who own the site are creating a temporary shopping mall to capitalise upon their investment whilst they raise the cash to construct a tower block for corporate clients and – for the sake of this – a few pensioners, the handicapped, those struggling on benefits and the dispossessed are being criminalised because they try to sell a few of their belongings to raise a little extra cash on a Sunday morning.
I spoke to a Jewish gentleman in his seventies as he arrived to place six worn shirts on the pavement for sale, casting glances nervously to either side. I bought one of his shirts for 50p in order to strike up a conversation with him, yet within minutes he was harshly moved on and my 50p proved to be his sole income for his effort that morning.“They’re trying to get rid of the poor people!” exclaimed one woman in grief, too scared to consent to a photograph by Colin.
The argument is used that the fly-pitchers are unlicensed and they are blocking the pavement. Yet the truth is that some have been coming to Brick Lane to trade for their entire lives, participating in the culture of unregulated pavement trading which has been in continuous existence in this corner of the East End on Sundays for centuries. And, if they are blocking the pavement now it is because they have been herded into this narrow space away from Brick Lane against their will.
Gina of Gina’s Restaurant in the Bethnal Green Rd, who started her first cafe in Brick Lane with her husband Philip Christou in 1961, opens each Sunday now to serve the same people who have been coming all these years. When they are ‘purged’ by the inspectors, they take refuge in her establishment and if the old people have failed to make enough money to pay for a Sunday lunch – which was their sole intent in getting up before dawn and coming down here – then Gina simply gives them a meal. It is a sombre experience to sit in Gina’s Restaurant among those who have taken flight and recognise that these spirited characters are the people who have been in the market longer than anyone.
The soul of the place resides with the fly-pitchers and their moral rights must be respected now – through the provision of a space where they can trade peacefully – rather than subjecting them to the current inhuman treatment which degrades us all.
Jason John, Street Musician
Mr Gil, Street Preacher
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
You may also like to take a look at these other pictures by Colin O’Brien