Joe Lawrence, Traditional Butcher & Writer
There is a legend that Dick Turpin started out as a Butcher’s apprentice in Whitechapel before graduating to the role of Highwayman. Yet only now that I have read Joe Lawrence’s fictionalised memoir The East End Butcher’s Boy can I fully appreciate how one activity could be the natural outcome of such an employment.
In 1972, at fourteen years old, Joe fell into a Saturday job at a Butcher’s shop in East Ham and found himself unwittingly swept up into a criminal underworld only to emerge on the other side at nineteen – fully qualified in butchery and a street-savvy survivor. Joe quickly became complicit as his boss used the premises for trading in all kinds of stolen goods with accumulating success and escalating risk.
Returning to these seminal experiences in the light of maturity, Joe has crafted a compelling account which reads like a thriller and allows us to identify with the innocence of the narrator while also fearing for the consequences as he gets in too deep. The work is an impressive debut, possessing an unmistakeable authenticity and, in its human sympathy and complex moral scheme, recalling the work of Bill Naughton, a favourite writer of mine.
Part of the fascination of the book is how Joe describes an entire illicit subculture with its elaborate codes and relative sense of justice yet, at the end, you realise it has been an unexpected love story – a rite of passage, delivering the protagonist into adulthood and a complex relationship with the society he inhabits.
Contributing Photographer Alex Pink accompanied Joe on his daily trip to Smithfield Market before dawn recently and, later in the morning, I met with them both at The George on the Isle of Dogs where we enjoyed pints and plates of delicious bangers and mash, supplied by Joe. “I’ve always loved getting up early,” he admitted to me fondly, “I’m up at three-thirty, out of the house by four and at Smithfield Market by four-thirty.”
After his volatile start in butchery, Joe forsook the beloved trade for twenty years, working for the Post Office and then running his own courier business from Bermondsey. “In 2010, I realised I’d had enough,” Joe confessed, “I thought, ‘What was it I enjoyed more than anything else in the world?’”
Joe also wrote ‘The East End Butcher’s Boy’ in six months in 2010 and, encouraged by a positive response from a literary agent, set out to get it published. “I have written another book and I am halfway through a third,” he revealed to me enthusiastically. Thus, Joe has reconciled himself to his past through writing and returned to what he always wanted to do.
“I know there is still a market for a traditional English butcher,” he informed me authoritatively, “so people send me their orders and I go down to Smithfield and get it for them, all packaged exactly as they want.” Now Joe is his own man, doing what he loves best, making his daily runs that end up at The George and working on his writing too.
Joe runs a meat raffle on the last Friday of every month at The George
Photographs copyright © Alex Pink
You can obtain a signed copy of THE EAST END BUTCHER BOY from Joe Lawrence for £5 by dropping him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org Joe is also happy to make personal deliveries of meat and poultry at keen prices to any readers in the East End direct from Smithfield Market.
You may like to read my other stories of butchery