Peter Thomas, Fruit & Vegetable Supplier
It is my pleasure to publish these extracts from Craig Taylor’s fascinating new book published by Granta – Londoners: The Days and Nights of London Now – As Told by Those Who Love it, Hate it, Live it, Left It & Long For It – collecting together the myriad voices of the metropolis to create a panoramic oral history of contemporary London.
During one visit to the New Spitalfields Market in Leyton, I noticed a buyer who moved up and down the aisles with particular speed, wandering, looking, negotiating and ticking off his checklist. He walked up and down for hours. He never came to rest. I sought him out and tried to ask him a question; he waved me off. I persisted and he told me he’d been in this industry since he was sixteen. “You have to be the greatest actor in the world,” he said. “You have to say exactly the right thing at the right time.” He told me his name was Peter Thomas and when I asked him if I could accompany him through the market sometime, he said, “Sure, if you can keep up.”
Peter: Come on then. Here you are, Craig. (He deposits a box of asparagus in my hands.) Just put that asparagus on there. Nice and dry underneath. Smells okay. Got that crispness. Hear that? That squeak. This is Peruvian. This time of year it all comes from South America. English has just finished. You have your seasons, you see. (He turns to the guvnor, perched behind a podium.) Ain’t bad, John, is it. What’s the ecrip?
John: Tom Mix?
Peter: Okay, come and talk to you in a minute.
John: All right.
(The guvnor, John, wanders away. Peter looks over some courgette flowers and says quietly, mischievously:)
Peter: Now then, what I want to do, Craig … we might have some fresh coming in in a minute, see? But he’s only got three now. So I’ll get this, I’ve got to hide the courgette flowers somewhere.
Craig: You’re going to hide the courgette flowers?
Peter: Now at least I’ve got that, you know what I mean? Now when the fresh comes in, I’ll change it over.
(He hides the veg out of sight, straightens up, tucks in his shirt, and starts to walk.)
Peter: Keep up. Now over there I spoke to them in rhyming slang. I said, “What’s the ecrip?”
Craig: The what?
Peter: The ecrip. Did you hear me say, how’s the ecrip? That’s “price” backwards, so that you didn’t know what I was talking about. And he said to me, Tom Mix, which is rhyming slang. What’s Tom Mix?
Peter: Yeah. This was why the language was designed, so that I could talk to him and no one knew what we was talking about. “Carpet” means three. That one goes back to years and years ago, when people was given a prison sentence, and if what they got was it was either three months or three years, they got a carpet in the cell and that’s what they used to say. How d’you get on? Oh, I got a carpet. Oh, fuck me, did ya? And that’s how it was. It was either three months or three years, but I know a carpet is three. “Ben neves” is “seven” backwards. “Thgiet” is “eight” backwards. “Flo’s line” is nine, “cockle” is ten. “Bottle of blue” is two and then I’ll sling one at an Aristotle. An Aristotle is a bottle. Double rhyming slang. All veg has got different ones. Celery is “horn root,” because years ago they thought that celery was an aphrodisiac. And they said it gave you the horn. So they called it horn root. “Self starters” is tomatoes. “Navigators” is taters. “Boy scouts” are sprouts. “Tom and Jerry” is cherries.
Craig: Do you have different banter with people who aren’t English? Like the Turks?
Peter: Yes, it’s no good talking rhyming slang to them, is it? They just about understand proper English. One of the young Pakistani fellows learned the rhyming slang just so he’d know what was going on. (He gestures around the market.) Now these people are all salesmen and they’re all here to make as much money as they possibly can. They will try to get as much money out of me and I will try to get as much money out of them. There’s no friends in business. We’ll be talking about football and all of a sudden the business side comes to it, and that’s it. All the time we’re talking we know that any minute now, any second, it’s going to be, “How much is that?” Then we go back to being friends. You can’t drop your card.
Peter: Let’s go and see if those courgette vans have turned up. Come on. We’ll see Kevin. He’s one of the most experienced men on the market, Craig. There ain’t much he doesn’t know. Anything you want to know about business, that’s your man. (We approach a large stall.) Kevin, have you got any fresh courgette flowers to arrive?
Peter: No! Fibber.
Kevin: No, I forgot to order them! As soon as those words come out of your mouth I thought to myself, oh fuck! I’ve got no memory.
Peter: Okay, Kev. I’ll see you later. Don’t forget to order them for tomorrow, eh?
Kevin: Yeah, that’s right.
Peter: He forgot to order them. (We’re away) He forgot to order them. Now there’s a lot of winding up goes on in this market. One of the worst things is for a seller to come over and see what you’re up to. If a salesman knows you’re rushing about for something and you need it, then they get you at it. Now I’ve gone in there for courgette flowers and there ain’t none in and I need them for customer, an important customer, so I go to Kevin just now and I said, Kev, courgette flowers? You just missed them, Pete, I had them. That’s what he said, been and gone. I said, got any fresh, I see you’re out of them. See what I mean, it winds you up. That’s why I put those courgette flowers to one side earlier. See what I mean? Because at the other stall he had only three left and if he had none fresh come in I’ll bet them other two there are gone now. And I’d have gone back there and he’d have said, Pete, I sold them.
Craig: How do you know how to do all this? Is it like an instinct every morning?
Peter: I don’t know. You’ve just got to be on your toes. The minute I get out of bed I start thinking all the time.
(He tosses an apricot pit in the air and kicks it. He eats another apricot.)
Peter: I have a permanent stomach ache, Craig. What can you do? It’s fruit. You can’t change the fact it’s fruit.
You may also like to read about
and take a look at these galleries of pictures