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Brick Lane Market 2

March 6, 2011
by Sarah Winman


Had I walked this street on a Sunday in 1911, I would have had florins or farthings or halfpennies in my pocket, and I would have been in search of a linnet or a parrot or maybe a Japanese Nightingale to share my home. And this narrow road would have been packed with all variations of humanity, a dark heaving mass ebbing and flowing, searching high amongst the piles of cages for a feathered companion to add song to their days. And, according to George Sims in his book “Off the Track in London,” when you buy a canary off a road hawker “he puts it in a little paper bag for you, and you carry it away as if it were a penny bun.”

But it is not 1911, it is now, and I am in search of a woman called “Pickles” who has traded at the market on and off for the last thirty years.

Ahead of me, I see a petite woman, pretty, with a red flower in her hair. The colour cuts through the grey light like a burst of joy. She stands in front of her Aladdin’s cave, part-tucked into a wall next to an old railway chapel. It is filled with the clothes and trinkets of past lives; rows of beads and racks of shoes, of hats – once someone’s favourite skirt, favourite jumper – ready to live again on swaying bodies. A treasured hoard of glass and crockery, of books and purses, and a mother’s hand-made dolls, and all – all – so cared for by Pickles, and displayed as she once would have done in her shop, the one with the old-fashioned bell above the door.

“Every class of man and woman came to that old bird market,” says Pickles, “and the same today. Markets – they’ve always been a great leveller,” and she hands me a welcomed cup of tea.

“I was hit hard by the development of Spitalfields. I always thought that this was a place that if you fell upon hard luck, hard times, you could start again. But it’s been difficult. When the old bridge was taken down, I lost everything – home and livelihood. Change bulldozes everything. I wrote to Prince Charles, and even Prince Charles tried to save the bridge. Development has no place for the everyman history,” she adds, her green eyes flashing. And I feel the injustice, a force potent and understandable. A sense of wrongness, an awakening to a  world that is suddenly awry and unrecognizable.

“Even for kids, there are no discoveries to make anymore, nowhere to play,” Pickles adds. “Imagination is squashed – such a lack of creativity. I played on bomb sites when I was a child, and in the sink mud of the Thames,” she laughs. “I had a lot of freedom. Well it was after the war, and I suppose my mum had got quite desensitized, because of all the things she’d seen. She wasn’t overly protective. When I was nine, I got run over on the Wandsworth Bridge Road. When the policeman came to tell my mum, she said, ‘She’s dead, isn’t she?’ I suppose people were used to expecting the worst. When she came to see me in the hospital, I made out I was worse than I was and groaned and pretended to pass out. I had to stay like that till she’d gone – serves me right!” she laughs.

“Later I went with my mum and lived in a gypsy caravan. That’s where I learnt how to recycle things – make use of everything. Mum used to cut the zips and buttons off clothes and I‘d take them to the rag man and collect money. I’ve worked since I was fourteen. Played truant and worked as a waitress, a shop assistant in Woolworths, worked in a hat factory, started as a packer and ended up being able to make a block and hats. I’ve always done something, kept going. Always been a bit of an outsider too – I’ve lived up North, lived down here, lived wherever I could make a home.”

“Maybe it’s the gypsy caravan in your blood,” I venture.

“Maybe. But even my Nan moved a lot during the war. I think she was trying to outrun Hitler!”

“So what did you do after the development? After you were moved on?” I ask, and she points to the yellow van with the image of Mickey Mouse and “Pickles Parties” painted along the side. “I couldn’t do markets for a bit. A lot of stuff was ruined or in storage, and it hurt too much. So I did that. I made lucky dips and did face painting.”

And I marvel at Pickles’ spirit, at her passion and articulacy. Her tenacity and style is infectious. And as a sudden chill whips along the street, I’m about to cap my pen, when I stop.

“I have to ask you, you know,” I say.

“Oh Blimey, not my age!”

“No. Why are you called Pickles?”

“Ah,” she laughs, “that’s another story…”

Portrait copyright © Jeremy Freedman


My week is over and thanks are due. Thank you to the Gentle Author for the opportunity to spend time in Spitalfields Life – it is a beautiful and memorable world. Thank you to photographer Patricia Niven who has been with me all week and who has enhanced all I have written with the most wonderful and affecting  images.

Sarah x

Photograph copyright © Patricia Niven

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Ana permalink
    March 6, 2011

    Thank you Sarah. It’s nice to read history that would normally not make it in most history books. People are what make history, and by that, I mean ordinary people, the hard workers, the nomads, the creative, the small business people.
    I reached a point where I lost faith in a lot of blogs, but this blog has become my daily pitstop. I’ve never been to England, but it’s nice to think that there are places that most brochures have not yet touched upon, that are right here.

  2. Mel permalink
    March 6, 2011

    God I love markets and Pickles is a wonderful personality (and those woollen blankets look cosy). I’m a relative newcomer to Spitalfields Life and wanted to pat you and Patricia on the back for the interesting stories you’ve provided for our entertainment this week. I hope the Gentle Author enjoyed her time off too. Bravo!

  3. Joan permalink
    March 6, 2011

    Thank you, Sarah. I look forward to seeing you in these parts again.


  4. March 6, 2011

    Thank you, Sarah and Patricia, for your wonderful and moving stories and photographs. I have only recently discovered this blog and your stories and images have made me feel here, in Amsterdam, truly connected to life in Spitalfields past and present. Sarah, good luck on publishing your novel, I will look for it in the English bookstores over here.

    Natalie Koch

  5. March 6, 2011

    thank you sarah, it was wonderful hearing your versions of the stories that make up spitalfileds – pickles sounds like a great lass too

  6. Marci permalink
    March 9, 2011

    To have prevailed through so much adversity and still have a smile like that!
    Bravo, Pickles. Indomitable.

  7. Robert Green permalink
    June 24, 2013

    “Pickles” has been EVICTED.

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