I am publishing my account of when Colin O’Brien & I went along to the Smithfield Christmas Eve Meat Auction as a timely reminder for those who have yet to bag a roast for the big day next week
The carnivores of London converged upon Smithfield Market, 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 fifties 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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As we brace ourselves for the forthcoming festive season, let us contemplate George Cruikshank‘s illustrations of yuletide in London 1838-53 from his Comic Almanack which remind us how much has changed and also how little has changed. (You can click on any of these images to enlarge)
A swallow at Christmas
A picture in the gallery
The Parlour & the Cellar
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s birth
Twelfth Night – Drawing characters
January – Last year’s bills
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“It’s a tribute to Sophie!” - John Claridge
When Contributing Photographer John Claridge summoned me to the crypt of the Church of the English Martyrs in Prescott St down by the Tower of London, I had no idea what to expect. It was already late in the evening as I descended the stair and rang a doorbell labelled Vout-O-Reenee’s. To my amazement, I discovered this was the portal to a hidden outpost of Soho Bohemia secreted in this unlikely corner of the East End, where John was waiting at the bar to greet me.
Named using the invented language of jazz legend, Slim Gaillard, this new members club is the brainchild of Sophie Parkin who wrote the official history of the Colony Club. It is a charismatic zany netherworld, where you encounter arms protruding from the wall holding lamps in the manner of those in Cocteau films and all manner of knowing Surrealist references, as celebrated by John Claridge in his playful series of montages which accompany this feature.
Instantly recognisable by her scarlet lips, black beret and sense of panache, Sophie presides regally over this subterranean nocturnal world with a feverish intelligence. “I’d like to be called Madam Parkin,” she admitted to me, “I always wear hats because I don’t like umbrellas.”
You can guarantee that if Falstaff returned to Cheapside today and discovered the Boar’s Head gone, he need only walk over here to discover a worthy successor to Mistress Quickly in Sophie, flaunting a flirty line in amusing backchat and knowing innocence.“Even if you’re famous, nobody’s going to ask for your autograph here,” she reassured me unnecessarily, “so you can leave your ego outside at the door.”
“At eighteen years old, when I was a student at St Martin’s School of Art, I got a job at the Zanzibar Club and I got jobs for all the other students too,” she explained, rolling her eyes significantly, “And it worked very well because we were good-looking and mouthy, which suited the customers who came to look at us – so we all had a great time. By the age of twenty-one, I was the manager and I got invited to open a club in Hong Kong – so I thought, ‘You can’t say, ‘No.” but it was a complete disaster.” Sophie gave a shrug and poured herself a glass of red wine, taking a sip as if it were the distillation of her experience.
“In the nineties, when I was bringing up my children by myself and writing books, a friend offered me the job of managing 1 Hoxton Sq,” she continued, picking up the story years down the line, “so I wrote a press release saying, ‘This is where all the artists are, the most fashionable place in London.’ Journalists are so lazy that it only took one person to print it and then the others followed suit, and we were booked solid three months in advance – ridiculous isn’t it?”
I nodded sagely, without being entirely convinced that this was the sole reason for Sophie’s success, and I took a sip of my whisky while she cast her eyes around the room from her commanding position behind the bar. “This is all my imagination, a small reflection of the inside of my brain,” she confessed, “I couldn’t contemplate doing Colony Club II, because what’s the point of that?””
“Soho has gone and it’s never going to come back,” she concluded authoritatively, taking another quaff of wine.
“Those people who don’t fit into Shoreditch need somewhere else to go and going into pubs is not possible for single women - but here everybody talks to everybody,” she confided to me proudly. “People keep asking when we’re going to open a restaurant, but I can’t be arsed. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of places to eat in East London is there?” she exclaimed suddenly, before adding fondly, “If you’ve got a drink, who needs a restaurant?”
I was just thinking that this seemed an ideal place to pass the long hours of a cold winter’s night when Sophie said,“I always worked at night when I was running clubs, I think my best time is about ten at night – it’s to do with the time of day you were born, I was born in the late afternoon.” As one who also works nocturnally and was born in the late afternoon, I was grateful for this explanation of my pattern of behaviour.
“I’ve always been drawn towards Surrealism as a style of expression,” Sophie declared unexpectedly in an urgent whisper, interrupting my reverie,“I think if you can’t get a laugh in a day you are living the wrong life.” And we raised our glasses to that.
Unto the dark tower came the Gentle Author….
… and descended to the crypt …
… where Jan Vink waited …
… to open the door to the netherworld (Portrait of Muriel Belcher of the Colony Club upon the floor)
“Jazz Musician Slim Gaillard wrote a dictionary of his invented language and that’s why the club is called ‘Vout-O-Reenee’s'” - John Claridge
Portrait of Sophie Parkin in the ladies toilet
Matt Johnson at the piano - “I knew his dad from the Two Puddings” – JC
Painted tiger rug on a painted wooden floor
“It’s a stuffed bird that I photographed in the Spitalfields Market” – JC
Giant ladybird on the ceiling
Joints of meat hanging in the toilet
“Molly Parkin’s paintings in the Stash Gallery – you have to explore it for yourself” – JC
“I pinned my founder member badge on this doll I purchased recently and that’s Sophie’s lips floating in a Magritte sky” – JC
“Although I photographed Sophie in front of Monet’s garden, this is another tribute to Magritte – with the brolley and the glass of water. Is she going to get wet?” – JC
“The Surrealists played chess all the time and I’ve put in the bishop with the cross because this game is in the crypt – it’s a checkmate” – JC
Homage to Marcel Duchamp in the toilet
“This is a portrait of Sophie from a few years ago and I’ve added the Dali moustache just as Duchamp did with the Mona Lisa, as a homage to the great Surrealist” – JC
Photographs copyright © John Claridge
Vout-O-Reenees & The Stash Gallery, 30 Prescott St, E1 8BB
Group exhibition of members’ work runs in the Stash Gallery until Saturday 3rd January – open from Tuesday to Saturday, 5-10pm
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There was no doubt whatsoever that the Christmas season had arrived in Spitalfields last week when a procession of characters from the nativity story advanced up Brick Lane accompanied by all the pupils of Christ Church School singing carols. Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I arrived at the school just as the final preparations were taking place.
In the hallway, school governors, members of the parent-teachers’ association and any other adults that could be recruited were changing into colourful biblical costumes. They were joined by the pupils, some of whom had been assigned specific roles in the drama and other who had opted for generic nativity outfits. Once we were all gathered in the yard at the front of the school, there was just time for a group photo before the unlikely procession set off up Brick Lane, singing carols enthusiastically to dispel the grim atmosphere of damp and cold.
The curry touts were astonished by this unexpected demonstration of seasonal goodwill and resisted their natural impulse to offer meal deals and free beers to Mary & Joseph, on the their way to Bethlehem via Brick Lane. In fact, the first destination was the Spitalfields City Farm where the holy couple were to acquire a donkey for Mary to ride on their journey. Although legend has it that farm animals gain the power of speech on Christmas Eve, the pig at the City Farm grew impatient and joined in loudly with the carol-singing last week, much to the delight of the school children.
After readings telling the nativity story and more carols, and once Mary had put on her safety helmet and was securely mounted upon Bayleaf the donkey, we were all set to continue on our Christmas pilgrimage around Spitalfields. The attenuated procession stretched the length of Allen Gardens, offering great amusement to passengers on the East London Line gawping in delight from the train windows as they sped by.
We crossed Brick Lane again and followed the perimeter wall of the Truman Brewery to emerge onto Commercial St. Passing along the side of Spitalfields Market down Lamb St, the procession entered Bishop’s Sq just as it was thronging with office workers at lunchtime. The line of singing children led by a donkey had come to invade the adult workaday world, as harbingers of the approaching festive season – they had come to remind everyone that in less than two weeks everything must stop for Christmas.
The procession assembles at Christ Church School
Advancing up Brick Lane
Arriving at the Spitalfields City Farm
Jasmin as Mary, with Mhairi from Spitalfields City Farm and Bayleaf the donkey
Mary-Jane played the drum with Eleanor on accordion
Hamza, Josh and Kevin as the three kings
Setting out from the farm
Joseph & Mary advancing along Buxton St
Janzaib as the angel
Photographs copyright Colin O’Brien
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Your last chance to hear me talking about Horace Warner’s Spitalfields Nippers this year is at Broadway Bookshop in Broadway Market, Hackney, next Wednesday 17th December at 7pm, when I shall be showing the photographs and reading biographies of the children in the pictures. This event is free and tickets can be reserved by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
“Adelaide Springett in all her best clothes” photographed by Horace Warner c. 1900
Adelaide Springett was born in February 1893 in the parish of St George-in-the-East, Wapping. Her father, William Springett came from Marylebone and her mother Margaret from St Lukes, Old St. Both parents were costermongers, although William was a dock labourer when he first married. Adelaide’s twin sisters, Ellen and Margaret, died at birth and another sister, Susannah, died aged four. Adelaide attended St Mary’s School and then St Joseph’s School. The addresses on her school admissions were 12 Miller’s Court, Dorset St, and then 26 Dorset St. In 1901, at eight years old, she was recorded as lodging with her mother at the Salvation Army Shelter in Hanbury St. Adelaide Springett died in 1986 in Fulham aged ninety-three, without any traceable relatives, and the London Borough of Kensington & Chelsea Social Services Department was her executor.
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