Elegy For Paul’s Tea Stall
A month ago, the car park in Sclater St was closed off and boarded up prior to redevelopment, dislodging the Sunday market and destroying the congenial culture that flourished at Paul’s Tea Stall
For more than five years, Paul’s Tea Stall sat at the junction of Sclater St and Cygnet St, on the corner of the car park, selling a modest range of beverages and hot snacks at keen prices. It was a cherished haven for anyone who would rather pay 80p than the two pounds, or more, charged for a cup of tea in some of the fancy coffee shops proliferating on Brick Lane. Paul Featherstone’s burger van became a Spitalfields institution in just a few years. For those who did not have the time or spare cash to go into a cafe, and for those who preferred to take their refreshment en plein air, it was the centre of the world.
When the winter dusk fell in the mid-afternoon, the spill of illumination from Paul’s Tea Stall cast a glowing pool of light into the chill of the gathering gloom, as if to manifest the warmth of this friendly harbour in the midst of the urban landscape.
If you were working on one of the surrounding construction sites since dawn, this was where you escaped to get your cup of tea and bacon sandwich. If you were cab driver or a courier, driving around London all day, you could turn up and Paul would greet you by name, like a long-lost friend. If you sought company and you had little money and nowhere else to go, you were welcome here. Even a peckish schoolboy, skipping a duff school lunch, dropped by for a sausage sandwich on the way home.
All of these I witnessed at Paul’s Tea Stall in a couple of hours, perched on a stool and clutching a hot cup of tea to warm me in the cold, while enjoying the constant theatre of customers coming and going and sharing their stories. Always buoyant, Paul welcomed every one of his customers individually, fulfilling the role of host with conscientious good spirits.
With everybody leaning against the counter, sipping their drinks, and swapping genial banter and backchat along the line, the atmosphere was more like that of a pub than a cafe – and I was delighted to meet my old friend Tom the Sailor who was there every day with his dog Matty. And somehow, in the few quiet moments, Paul managed to fit in telling me his story too.
“I used to have a fruit & veg stall outside Staple Inn in High Holborn, I was there fifteen years from 1988. But I was brought up in a cafe in Harrow, even as a child I worked there for my pocket money – so I thought, I’ll open a cafe.
With the fruit & veg, it’s passing trade, you never get to speak much but here people stay and talk. You’ve got the community. You meet people like Tom – there’s plenty round here. I’ve been on the phone for them sorting out their pension and electricity. Someone needs to take care of them. My dad was a compulsive gambler and, while he was round the betting shop gambling our money away, my mother and I used to be feeding and taking care of all the waifs and strays in the cafe. I do the same here, when people come and say they have no money, I feed them up.
I haven’t had a day off in three years or a holiday in five years. Saturday is the only day I am not here and I like to spend it in bed, catching up on my kip, but my wife tries to get me to do the gardening. I leave home in Southend each morning before six to get here before eight and open up, then I leave again at six and get home around seven thirty or eight, depending on traffic. It does feel like all work and no play, but I’d rather be doing this than working for someone else. And it’s interesting here, you never know who’s going to turn up next. I like to chat with all my customers, many are friends now and I know all their names. I’ve never fallen out with anybody.
Most of the constructions workers are foreigners and don’t have wives to go back to, so I stay open late for them to pick up sandwiches and cold drinks to take home to their digs. I had a good first year, when they were building the East London Line the workers came here, but since they left it hasn’t picked up. So now I hope there’ll be more people coming to work on all the new buildings that are going up hereabouts.”
The tall red cranes that I photographed towering over Paul’s Tea Stall a couple of years ago were already harbingers of the time when his presence would no longer be welcome. Yet I believe Paul will be able to take it in his stride, because he has seen the East End change before – on leaving school at eighteen he became a van driver for a company supplying lining fabrics to clothing factories that are long gone. So now I am walking the streets in hopeful expectation that Paul’s Tea Stall may return in a new location to gladden our days.
Tom Finch & Matty
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