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Brick Lane Market 18

November 6, 2011
by Matthew Sweet

Christine Mattock

Turn left out of Shoreditch High Street station on a Sunday and you’ll encounter the long form of the Mattock family fruit and veg stall, which answers the contour of the Sclater Street viaduct with a parallel line of produce: sacks of purple potatoes; snow-white cauliflowers; gleaming aubergines; dark piles of chestnuts. Here, the mother-and-son team of Christine and Westley Mattock preside. Westley should have been Wesley, after the hero of the 1970s TV series Rich Man, Poor Man Book II, but the couple in front at the register office had the same idea, and Christine added a ‘T’ to mark the distinction. Her husband, Barry, is also part of the team – though a stroke has prevented him from hauling sacks of onions for a living. He now watches business at the stall from a car parked at the roadside. “He doesn’t miss a thing,” says Christine. It’s a friendly warning.

Christine’s father briefly kept a fruit and veg shop in Tottenham, but his heart, she says, wasn’t really in it. The trade really flows from Barry’s side of the family, who arrived from Poland, so the legend goes, after an incident involving a disrespectful ride on top of a hearse. Her mother-in-law knew the East End markets well, and remembered fly pitchers selling diamonds on the kerb. (“They’d brought them over during the war, hidden in the pom-poms on their shoes.”) But old Mrs Mattock’s experience of buying and selling went back even further – when she was a little girl she worked in her father’s kiosk on Drury Lane and the theatre staff would allow her to sneak into the back of the auditorium and watch the performances.

There’s an element of performance in Christine and Westley’s work – though the audience is changing fast. “It’s more of a tourist attraction now than a market,” says Westley. “We get more students and Yuppies these days. We used to supply thirty restaurants, but we don’t anymore. Business has folded in half in the space of a year. We just can’t buy our stuff cheap enough to give everyone a bargain.” The council, he suspects, would like to see the market wither away. Will he stay? “Of course I’ll stay. I don’t know anything but fruit and veg.” And that, he says, is a knowledge of which his customers seem less sure. “I had someone come here the other day who asked me why the potatoes had mud on them.”

Alan Langley & Ryan

Alan Langley sold his first bicycle nearly sixty years ago – and found himself taken down to the police station for his trouble. “When I was nine years old I used to do work for an old Jewish girl in Stamford Hill, lighting her fire for her and doing the housework on the Sabbath,” he recalls. “She didn’t pay me in money, she used to give me things. And she gave me this lady’s bicycle. And I came back and sold it.” A suspicious policeman, however, decided to intervene – and Alan found himself being asked a few stiff questions in more formal surroundings. His father was understanding. “He was the sort of man who would buy and old clock and clean it up and come down here and sell it, just for the buzz of selling something.”

Alan tried other trades, too: he had a spell in the Merchant Navy, he worked for a Fleet Street press agency – and had the pleasure of seeing the future Lord Snowdon sacked for turning in a bunch of sub-standard photographs. But Alan came back to bicycles, and stuck with them for half a century. In that time his pitch has migrated from Club Row to Chiltern Street to Sclater Street, and he has acquired fifty years’ experience of the commercial life of the East End. He remembers the market when you could buy dogs and budgerigars as easily as apples and pears; he recalls the days when fly-pitchers could avoid the attentions of the council by offering the right bribe to the right official; he remembers when Goanese sailors would arrive en masse to buy bicycles, load them up into a pantechnicon and drive it back to the docks. And he’s still here: freewheeling on Sclater Street.

Westley Mattock

Matthew Sweet’s Envoi

And this is where I pack up my stall and wait for the Gentle Author to reclaim the pitch. Rather unwillingly, I must say – it has been a privilege to spend a week in the Author’s shoes, wandering the streets of Spitalfields and bothering some of its most interesting inhabitants with impertinent questions.

I’m not a Spitalfields resident myself, though I grew to love this area in the late nineties, when I was snooping around the place looking for the remains of Victorian opium dens – and later, when I would pop over from south of the river to take my baby daughter to Rhyme Time at the Whitechapel Idea Store – the highlight of which, I recall, was an excellent re-enactment of the story of Ibrahim and Ishmael with Action Men. (Where you there too?)  I’m a Sunday visitor now, since London Transport kindly built an overground rail link between my home in SE26 and Shoreditch High Street.

But one day, if I can afford it, I hope to retire to Spitalfields. And if the Gentle Author’s successor is still padding the cobbles, I will force him or her to interview me, and I shall regale them with outrageous stories about how life used to be in the East End of the first years of the twenty-first century. And I will make it all up.

Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman

6 Responses leave one →
  1. November 6, 2011

    Oh dear! I’ve only just found this blog and only just got used to your voice (which I have been enjoying) and already you’re upping sticks and offing!

    I was directed here by a lovely Spitalfields resident who happened across my own blog at a point (more or less) when I was agonising over faux oak graining for a regency wreck I’m renovating in Sydney. So I came skittering across roofs and scrambling over chimneys and found the post, but far more than that I found an area I’ve lusted over for years, all spread open like a fan before me. Not in the vague, romantic blur it’d taken on since I left London but populated iinstead with the likes of Christine Mattock, Anjum Ishtaq, and the doubty Gwen Ingleton. It’s not the area I thought it was but actually I think it’s better and now I dream again of living there when and if I finally make it back.

    So thank you Matthew Steel and good luck with the book (which I shall check out) and I sincerely hope you do make it all up when you return.

    PP

  2. November 6, 2011

    Thank you! It’s been every bit as interesting a week as we’ve come to expect from The Gentle Author. I hope you’ll fill the spot every time it needs to be filled!

  3. November 6, 2011

    You did a fantastic job – really enjoyed your writing. Annette Albert

  4. November 6, 2011

    Thank you, I really enjoyed it. Good luck with your book (I have just ordered Inventing the Victorians).

  5. Joan permalink
    November 6, 2011

    I too have enjoyed your week here. Loved hearing of your Rhyme Time experience. There is something about those experiences with small kids – I guess its the combination of sleep deprivation and some really weird artistic ideas – that lend them a kind of hallucinatory quality. I have memories of some very odd family performances at the Albany in Deptford and the Half Moon in Whitehorse Lane. And for the first four years of motherhood I was living in Edinburgh which, of course, provided a shed load of performances aimed at tots. I have particularly fond memories of repeated visits to see an East European puppet show called ‘My umbrella is a balloon too’!

    Look forward to seeing you hear again some time.

    Best wishes,

    Joan

  6. November 7, 2011

    pleasure to have known you through the pages of one of the best blogs around

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