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Joseph Markovitch of Hoxton

October 16, 2010
by the gentle author

It was this hauntingly brilliant photograph – the reflection of a girl looking at Hoxton resident Joseph Markovitch drinking a cup of tea – that first drew my attention the work of photographer Martin Usborne. Within this single compelling picture, with its two figures that can barely be reconciled, is manifest the elusive relationship between those who have lived their whole lives in the East End and the young people who are drawn here through instinctive curiosity. Yet this fascinating photograph is itself the result of just such a relationship, Martin saw Joseph walking through Hoxton Sq one Summer’s day in 2007 and the two struck up an unlikely friendship. And in the following months, Joseph who has lived his whole life in Hoxton became a muse to Martin, the young working photographer with a studio in Hoxton Sq. The two remain friends today, and it is my pleasure to publish some of the tender portraits that have resulted from this remarkable collaboration, interspersed with Joseph’s own words.

“This is where I was born, right by Old St roundabout on January 1st, 1927. In those days it wasn’t called a hospital, it was just called a door number, number four or maybe number three. The place where I was born, it was a charity you see. Things were a bit different back then.”

“When I get trouble with my chest I have to stand still. Last Saturday, a woman come up to me and said “Are you OK?” and I said, “Why?” She said, “Because you are standing still.” I said, “Oh.” She said she comes from Italy and she is Scots-Canadian, and do you know what? She wanted to help me. Then I dropped a twenty pound note on the bus. A foreign man – I think he was Dutch or French – said, “Mate, you’ve dropped a twenty pound note.” English people don’t do that because they have got betting habits. They take your twenty pounds and go and put it on the horses. It’s good to have all sorts of foreigners here.”

“I worked two years as a cabinet maker in Hemsworth St, just off Hoxton Market. But when my sinuses got bad I went to Hackney Rd, putting rivets on luggage cases. For about twenty years I did that job. My foreman was a bastard. I got paid a pittance. He tried to sack me but his father said, “You can’t throw Joe out of the firm, he is too good.” I used to shout at the foreman. The job was alright apart from that. If I was clever, very clever, I mean very very clever, then I would like to have been an accountant. It’s a very good job. If I was less heavy, you know what I’d like to be? My dream job, I’d like to be a ballet dancer. Or maybe a clown. But I know what I definitely do not want to be is a funeral director. What a terrible job! Or what about those people that study the stars? That’s a very good job. I’m interested in the universe. In how things began and what’s out there on other planets and lumps of energy that are millions of miles away. It’s more interesting than rivets. Hey, if a meteor landed in Hoxton Square, you think anyone could survive?”

“If I try to imagine the future. It’s like watching a film. Pavements will move, nurses will be robots and cars will grow wings…

…you’ve just got to wait. There won’t be any cinemas, just computers in people’s homes. They will make photographs that talk. You will look at a picture of me and you will hear, “Hello, I’m Joseph Markovitch.” and then it will be me telling you about things. Imagine that!”

“My mother was a good cook. She made bread pudding. It was the best bread pudding you could have. She was called Janie and I lived with her until she died. I wasn’t going to let her into a home. Your mother is your best friend, you see. If she went to the butcher, even if she went early on a Friday, I left work early so I could go with her to the butcher. Your mother should be your best friend.”

“I like to go to the library on Monday, Tuesday and … Well, I can’t always promise what days I go. I like to read about all the places in the world. I also go to the section on the cinema and I read a book called “The life of the stars.” But I only spend thirty per cent of my time reading. The rest of the time, I like to sit on the sofa and sit quite a long way back so I am almost flat. Did you know that Paul Newman’s father was German-Jewish and that his mother was Hungarian-Catholic? You know Nicholas Cage? He is half-German and half-Italian. What about Joe Pesce? Where are his parents from? I should look it up.”

“A lot of young kids do graffiti around Hoxton. It’s nice. It adds a bit of colour, don’t you think?”

“I’ve never had a girlfriend. I think it’s better that way. I have always had very bad catarrh, so it wasn’t possible. That’s the thing, my health. And I had to look after my mother all my life. Anyway, if I was married, I might be dead by now. I probably would be, if you think about it. I would have been domineered all my life by a girl and that ain’t good for nobody’s health. I’m too old for that now. I would like to have had a girlfriend but it’s OK. You know what? I’ve had a happy life, I never starved. That’s the main thing, it’s been a good life.”

“Some things make me laugh. To see a dog talking makes me laugh. I like to see monkeys throwing coconuts on men’s heads, that’s funny. When you see a man going on a desert island, and he is stranded, the monkeys are always friendly. You think the monkeys are throwing things at your head but really he is throwing the coconuts for you to eat.”

Photographs copyright © Martin Usborne

18 Responses leave one →
  1. October 16, 2010

    What a surreal and surprisingly buoyant view of life Joseph has! Thank you for sharing his perspective.

  2. julie permalink
    October 16, 2010


  3. Jackie Cardy permalink
    October 16, 2010

    What a great start to my day. Thank you. I enjoyed this

  4. Anne permalink
    October 16, 2010

    What an amazing man, his words brought me to tears. The photographs tell their own story brilliantly.

  5. October 16, 2010

    I eagerly await your new Spitalfields post every day!

    Loved yesterdays’s – but today’s photographs surpass anything I’ve seen so far. Joseph’s story was so stunning – I hope he gets chance to se himself on the internet?

    Many thanks – Houdini

  6. Ken L. permalink
    October 16, 2010

    As a worker in the City, very often do I find myself caught up in it all and forgetting that every person is an individual, not a statistic. Some of your write-ups do invoke a sense of guilt in me. For example, I’ve seen Mr. Ali, the peacock feather seller, around and brushed him aside. If I were to meet Mr. Markovitch during the 8 a.m. rush hour, I probably wouldn’t even spare him a minute. Gentle author, thank you for helping me keep things in perspective.

  7. October 16, 2010

    The photo of Joseph on his own sitting between the two bods on laptops and the final photo showing the chap on his mobile whilst taking his dog for a walk, both seem to add to the sense of Joe being abandoned by those of us with far more interesting things to do than interact with an old man. I would, however, like to see more monkeys throwing coconuts at mens heads! What a great image.

  8. October 16, 2010

    Beautiful! I love receiving these emails every day, however this one is extra specially wonderful.

    As an aside, the gentleman in black with the dog in the final photo is a friend of mine named Alex. He was extremely pleased to have been featured! (Although commented that he looked like a cat burglar).

    With very best wishes,


  9. Rowena permalink
    October 16, 2010

    I found this so poignant, the pictures and Joseph Markovitch’s comments. Made my heart break a little.

  10. Cav39 permalink
    October 16, 2010

    Joseph’s shoes are well polished (first photo), a sure sign of a true gentleman, according to my late father.

  11. jeannette permalink
    October 19, 2010


  12. Annabelle permalink
    October 20, 2010

    I stumbled across your blog through Tired of London, and found this really moving. Your photographs are beautiful and his words are wonderful.

  13. January 14, 2011

    couldnt agree more

  14. Deborah Harvey permalink
    March 2, 2011

    My friend Rosie sent me this link, as she knew it would make me smile.

    We used to live behind Hoxton Square about 6-8 years ago. I would see Joseph and talk to him. It would upset me to see peoples narrow minded reactions to him, as many people brushed him off when he went to talk to them.
    Whenever I saw him, he would always have something interesting to tell me and a he is a truely genuine man.
    I love his positive outlook to things like Graffitti and change in an area he has lived in for so many years. A lot of people could learn a lot from Joseph. I am so pleased that he has a friend in Martin. The first photo is beautiful!
    I don’t live in Hoxton anymore, but I hope to catch up with Joseph one day to tell me more stories!

  15. July 27, 2011

    This is truly wonderful. Being from Hoxton myself (still live round there but I’m a novice in comparison to Joseph!) its lovely to hear of another native Hoxtonite’s perspective. I’m always getting surprised looks when I say I was born and brought up round there, as if its modern context is of purely a transient nature, and not in fact a place which is home, where people live and grow up.

    Beautiful photos of what sounds like a beautiful man.

  16. August 27, 2011

    “Anyway, if I was married, I might be dead by now. I probably would be, if you think about it. I would have been domineered all my life by a girl and that ain’t good for nobody’s health.”

    LOL i just love this!

    What an awesome post… that photo looking down from his forehead is just fantastic.


  17. John Kahlow permalink
    May 7, 2012

    It was good to see a piece about real Hoxton it brought back some memories,
    I was born 1935 in 204 Hoxton Street (St Leonard’s).
    My father born 1900 in Fanshaw Street.
    My mother born 1905 in Wilmer Gardens

  18. Stuey the time traveller permalink
    October 2, 2023

    Oh, the pathos! Both in the words and the wonderful photographs.

    All the more so assuming that Joseph is no longer with us and if that is indeed the truth, the fact that Martin no longer has him as a friend.

    Taking that thought one step further, who (or what) is Martin now taking his fantastic photos of…?

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