At the Smithfield Christmas Eve Auction
The carnivores of London converged upon Smithfield Market yesterday, as they do every year for the annual Christmas Eve auction staged by Harts the Butcher. At ten in the morning, the rainy streets were almost empty yet, as I came through Smithfield, butchers in white overalls were wheeling precarious trolleys top-heavy with meat and fowls over to the site of the auction where an expectant crowd of around a hundred had gathered, anxiously clutching wads of banknotes in one hand and bags to carry off their prospective haul in the other.
Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien met me there. He grew up half a mile away in Clerkenwell during the nineteen forties and, although it was his first time at the auction, he remembered his father walking down to Smithfield to get a cheap turkey on Christmas Eve more than sixty years ago. Overhearing this reminiscence, a robust woman standing next to us in the crowd struck up a conversation as a means to relieve the growing tension before the start of the auction which is the highlight of the entire year for many of stalwarts that have been coming for decades.
“You can almost guarantee getting a turkey,” she reassured us with the authority of experience, revealing she had been in attendance for fifteen successive years. Then, growing visibly excited as a thought came into her mind, “Last year, I got thirty kilos of sirloin steak for free – I tossed for it!”, she confided to us, turning unexpectedly flirtatious. Colin and I stood in silent wonder at her good fortune with meat.“We start preparing in October by eating all the meat in the freezer,” she explained, to clarify the situation. “Last night we had steak,” she continued, rubbing her hands in gleeful anticipation, “and steak again tonight.”
Yet our acquaintance was terminated as quickly as it began when the caller appeared in a blood-stained white coat and red tie to introduce the auction. A stubby bullet-headed man, he raised his hands graciously to quell the crowd. “This is a proper English tradition,” he announced, “it has been going on for the last five hundred years. And I’m going to make sure everybody goes away with something and I’m here to take your money.”
His words drew an appreciative roar from the crowd as dozens of eager hands were thrust in the air waving banknotes, indicative of the collective blood lust that gripped the assembly. Standing there in the midst of the excitement, I realised that the sound I could hear was an echo. It was a reverberation of the famously uproarious Bartholomew Fair which flourished upon this site from the twelfth century until it was suppressed for public disorder in 1855. Yesterday, the simple word “Hush!” from the caller was enough to suppress the mob as he queried, “What are we going to start with?”
The answer to his question became manifest when several bright pink loins of pork appeared as if by magic in the hatch beside him, held by butchers beneath, and dancing jauntily above the heads of the delighted audience like hand puppets. These English loins of pork were soon dispatched into the crowd at twenty pounds each as the curtain warmer to the pantomime that was to come, followed by joints of beef for a tenner preceding the star attraction of day – the turkeys! – greeted with festive cheers by the hungry revellers. “Mind your heads, turkeys coming over…” warned the butcher as the turkeys in their red wrappers set out crowd-surfing to their grateful prospective owners as the cash was passed hand to hand back to the stand.
It would not be an understatement to say that mass hysteria had overtaken the crowd, yet there was another element to add to the chaos of the day. As the crowd had enlarged, it spilled over into the road with cars and vans weaving their through the overwrought gathering. “I love coming for the adventure of it,” declared one gentleman with hair awry, embracing a side of beef protectively as if it was the love of his life, “Everyone helps one another out here. You pass the money over and there’s no pickpockets.”
After the turkeys came the geese, the loins of lamb, the ribs of beef, the pork bellies, the racks of lamb, the fillet steaks and the green gammon to complete the bill of fare. As the energy rose, butchers began to throw pieces of red meat into the crowd to be caught by their purchasers and it was surreal to watch legs of lamb and even suckling pigs go flying into the tumultuous mass of people. Finally, came tossing for meat where customers had the chance of getting their steaks for free if they guessed the toss correctly, and each winning guess was greeted with an exultant cheer because by then the butchers and the crowd were as one, fellow participants in a boisterous party game.
Just ninety minutes after it began, the auction wrapped up, leaving the crowd to consolidate their proud purchases, tucking the meat and fowls up snugly in suitcases and backpacks to keep them safe until they could be stowed away in the freezer at home. In the disorder, I saw piles of bloody meat stacked on the muddy pavement where people were tripping over them. Yet a sense of fulfilment prevailed, everyone had stocked up for another year – their carnivorous appetites satiated – and they were going home to eat meat.
As I walked back through the narrow City streets, I contemplated the spectacle of the morning. It resembled a Bacchanale or some ancient pagan celebration in which people were liberated to pursue their animal instincts. But then I realised that my thinking was too complicated – it was Christmas I had witnessed.
Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
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