So Long, Sclater St Yard Market
Here are my profiles, illustrated with portraits by Jeremy Freedman, of some of the traders in the Sclater St Yard Market (on the car park between Sclater St & Bacon St) who will be displaced when it closes for redevelopment of the site after tomorrow’s Sunday market.
This is Jacqueline & Michael Barnes, who sell stationery together under an awning on the yard in Sclater St. “We’ve been here on this pitch about twenty-five years,” ventured Jacqueline proudly, welcoming me her to her personal kingdom of immaculately organised envelopes and felt pens. “I’m originally from Paddington, and Mike, he’s the same as me, from Paddington.” she explained, shaking her head when I enquired if she was a local, before revealing that the couple have been seduced by the East End, “We moved over to Stratford because we wanted a quiet life, and now we’re living out in the sticks.” Michael ran around serving customers with an eager grin, stretching for items with his long limbs while Jacqueline held court, chatting to me and the near-constant stream of regulars who dropped in to convey their week’s news and pick up some cheap biros and post-it notes. “It’s not been good for months and we just do it to keep ourselves amused.” she whispered discreetly, when there was a lull, “We are pensioners now, and I look forward to coming down here – all the stallholders, we have a laugh and a joke together.”
These three keen lads from Essex are Sam, Jack & Perry, two brothers and a pal, who between them run a long stall, selling a spectacular selection of cheap tools and bicycle locks, which stretches the entire length of the yard in Sclater St. “It’s my dad’s business,” explained Sam, the eldest brother who is in charge, taking a respite from the intensity of the milling crowd and his ear-splitting banter -“I took over this bit about three years ago.” It makes for a compelling drama, as with eagle eyes, the three of them watch over the thousands of tools piled up, exchanging wary glances and sharp patter, while a ceaseless parade of customers passes along the stall. Sam’s skinny little brother Jack has been here each Sunday for several years, though he is still at school for another two years. “I was brought up around it and I’ll do this when I leave,” he informed me with a blush, his grey eyes glowing in anticipation, “and hopefully we’ll still be here in thirty years time.”
This is Kevin and his dad Tom who sell men’s casual wear at bargain prices in the Sclater St yard.“I started setting up and taking down the stalls for the traders when I was still at school, and then at fifteen I started trading on my own.” Kevin admitted with to me relish, “I left school early because I was earning more than the teachers.” Kevin, a magnanimous gentle giant who overshadows his father, has been trading for twenty years now and since Tom took early retirement, he comes to help Kevin out. “I work six days a week, sixteen hours a day nowadays,” Kevin told me as we sat in the afternoon shade at the back of his van while his father stood out on the empty yard awaiting customers -”It’s a measure of how hard we have to try these days to keep the money up.” Yet Kevin is undaunted by the challenge of market life in the recession.“I don’t like being beaten, so I’ll hang in,” he told me, catching his father’s attention with a grin and a nod. “Who could ask for anything more?” he asserted, turning to me and spreading his arms demonstratively,“ I enjoy it, you’re busy out in the open air. And, when you’re making money, it’s happy days.”
Sneizana & Justin both came from Lithuania to Brick Lane. Sneizana has worked as a trader her whole life, but when the markets began to die in her country, she realised she could do better in London and took the brave decision to move here. “This is my holiday!” Sneizana declared to me with a weary smile, since she works the other six days of the week as a cleaner. And “This is my day off,” Justin announced too – not to be outdone – because he works all week on a building site. Yet in spite of this relentless routine of work, both were keen to emphasise how much they enjoy selling old clothes in the market. “It’s relaxing. People like us, and we’ve made lots of friends,” Justin informed me enthusiastically,“There are Italians, French, Portuguese, Polish, Serbians and Croatians – every country is here and this is good!”
This is Sean who sells vacuum cleaners and spare parts on Sclater St Market. “I’ve been involved in markets since I was twelve and then, in my mid-twenties, I decided to do it full time – and twenty-five years later I am still here,” he informed me with a bemused grin. Sean bought the business from the man he worked for who had been here since the early sixties, which makes half a century of trading in vacuum cleaners every Sunday on the same spot.
“I enjoy the lifestyle because I’ve done it all my life,” he declared – a man of extraordinary resilience, as swarthy as a seaman after working six days a week in markets over all these years. “I’ve been selling people vacuum cleaner bags so long, I’ve now got the children of my original customers coming back and reminding me of when they came here with their mum and dad,” he admitted shyly, “It’s a community, completely different from the High St. If people don’t have enough money, I say, ‘Pay me next week.’”
Like many of the stallholders, Sean is ambivalent about the tall buildings under construction that will soon tower over the market. “I think the new flats will regenerate the area, “ he said optimistically, gazing up to the sky, “unless they decide they don’t want the market anymore because it lowers the tone…”
“I am from a land where everyone’s very relaxed,” declared Albert enigmatically from beneath his green felt hat, when I went along to have chat at seven o’clock, after all the other traders had gone and his stall remained alone upon the empty yard, while Ernest Ranglin’s mellow jazz drifted off down Sclater St. Albert was speaking of his distant homeland of Vojvodina, but nowadays he drives to Spitalfields every week from Sheffield in his van full of curiosities. “There is a guy who comes each week to chat, he says, ‘I can’t afford to buy anything but I like your music’” Albert revealed to me, cherishing the delicate compliment.
“I used to do lots of things, I’m a furniture maker and I used to be teacher of geography – I like challenges,” he confided with gentle melancholic irony, whilst presiding upon the square of tables that defines his personal oasis of thoughtfulness. Albert is the philosopher of Sclater St market, who can always be relied upon to turn up intriguing finds, whether old cameras, photographs, tools, records, musical instruments, carpets, hats – or almost anything else you care to imagine – and accompanies them with superlative absurdist patter.
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman