Sunday, 8 July 2012

Listen to a lullaby of old Broadway

Women buying olives on Broadway Market.
This last two weeks have, apparently, been Love Your Local Market fortnight. As is entirely my norm, I was a tad slovenly in arriving at this particular party. But never mind a case of 'better late than never', this mat be the perfect timing.

Because our local markets need our love for the other 50 weeks of the year too. Even when, up and down the country, markets are not staging special events to try to tempt shoppers away from the industrialised, metal-box experience that is the world of the supermarket.

As usual, yesterday morning I made my way the brief distance to Broadway Market in Hackney to do my main shop of the week. It's not strictly a farmers' market - although there are a few farmers around - but a 'fine food market' (don't ask me why).

And, as is far from unique, it is a new development. I say "new", but that means around eight years now, which is just over half the time I've lived in the area.

Before the regeneration started – which started in a way that I can barely put my finger on exactly – Broadway Market was on the critical list. A piece of local graffiti noted elegantly that it was "not so much a sinking ship as a submarine".

Henry Tidiman the butcher kept one of the few shops left from a past that really was a different century. A proper family butcher.

There was a lone chain bakery, Percy Ingle, the delightfully old-fashioned Bradbury's ironmongery, a couple of betting shops, a couple of junk/second-hand shops that had themselves seen considerably better days.

Eels – in various ways.
Let's not forget Cooke's, the pie and mash shop that has been an ever-present since late Victorian times, and a chemist at either end of the street.

There was Turkish Tony's general store next to the doctor's surgery and Tony Francesca's greasy spoon just a couple of doors down.

An electrical repair shop existed simply to give two men somewhere to sit all day, rather than actually repair anything.

If you went in, they never had a clue about whatever item you needed repairing.

Spirit's Caribbean shop sold a little fish, together with a selection of ingredients for that cuisine.

The perennially red-braced proprietor of Off Broadway sold pictures. Kenny's newsagent struggled along, selling papers and magazines and crisps and pop. A dry cleaner's seemed to have been cleaned out since we'd known the area.

The Cat and Mutton sat at the north end of the street, opposite London Fields, was the sort of dump where the carpet was sticky with stale beer. The Perseverance at the opposite seemed an entirely fitting book end.

The Market Garden on the middle closed about the time we arrived. The Dove remained open, a strange harbinger of what was to come, serving good pub grub and a wide selection of Belgian beers, and run, when we arrived, by a Manchester City-loving rocker and biker.

A Turkish barber did business alongside a Turkish-run offy: the former appeared in the David Cronenberg picture about Russian mafioso in this part of London, Eastern Promises.

With the exception of one further small general store, that was about it.

Ah: from Tuesday to Saturday, John would pull a barrow out into the middle of the street and sell a selection of fruit and veg.

That makes it sound busy, but really, it was far from it. On most weekdays, it was nearly deserted. There were times you half expected to see tumbleweeds rolling past.

Yet it had not always been like that.

More than one person I've spoken to over the last decade or so describes something quite different.

There had been proper grocers, fishmongers, bakers and more butchers. In the plural.

So what had happened?

The one thing that always comes up when I ask that question is supermarkets. And no, I don't plant that idea. There's no need.

How did it happen, then?

One man I've talked to, of about my age, had been born at the back of the Dove and started his working life on the street, learning his trade in one of the butchers. But he didn't last long because the local butchers were already starting to struggle.

It happened, he said, when a Tesco opened locally.

At first, what they did was massively undercut the price of the fruit and vegetables sold locally. So the housewives went there to buy their greens.

And then, he explains, while the women were there, they thought they might as well pick up the Sunday joint at the same time. And the fish for supper. And the bread.

And so it began.

A street, once the hub of a community, became battered and nearly broken.

A bit of local Hackney colour.
It has taken the eastwards-moving gentrification process to change things. Although, in the case of this part of Hackney, it's more a process of trendification; a slightly safe Bohemianism.

The street started picking up slowly. If memory serves, a hairdresser was one of the first new businesses to open.

Now it's a thriving place: go up there on any day and the will be people at the cafes having coffee; conversing; reading papers; eyes down on laptops. In the evenings too, people flock to the bars and the caves and the restaurants.

Spirit lost out to the developer Roger Wratten, in - let's call them – dubious circumstances. The same for Tony Francesca.

But little else that was viable has gone.

Stephane opened La Bouche around seven years ago in small premises, and moved a few doors down when he could, as the business expanded. He's pessimistic though.

He says, with a Gallic shrug, that eventually landlords will drive the independents out and replace them with franchises - just as happened in Stoke Newington. I can't help thinking that it wouldn't happen in Paris.

Not all the old businesses were happy when the Saturday market started. Henry embraced it - and all of them have benefitted.

Not all the locals were happy either, although given the little that had been lost and the great deal that was gained, it's difficult to really feel a deal of sympathy.

However, much of their displeasure is about something deeper; the massive changes that have affected the area in the last 30-40 years.

The market itself has actually given locals more choice than they have had for many a year.

If people still want to wander along to any one of the seemingly millions of Tescos (and not a few Sainsbury's) that are dotted around the area - three of the former on nearby Hackney Road alone - then they can. There are more of them now than eight years ago.

Of the basic food shops that had managed to survive until the revival began, all but Spirit are still with us. So nothing has been lost in that sense.

The local ultra-left didn't like the market either, claiming that local people wanted a community centre instead. This was disingenuous claptrap, since nobody had been offered any 'alternative', and while the council had had some involvement in getting the market up and running, it is largely run by a group of private individuals.

But in spite of all that, here it is, nearly a decade down the line.

And there are plenty of young people who work on the market - many of them living locally. I know, because one of the joys of the market, for me, is the human inaction.

A week ago yesterday, I was stocking up on peas and broad beans at my main green grocery stall, helped by a delightful young woman that I have now been chatting with for some years.

"Hurrumph!" hurrumphed a woman standing nearby. "I've been waiting for ages..." and flounced off.

Selecting lemons.
Well, actually she hadn't been waiting that long. We joked about it. Why come to such a market if you want instant service? That's why Tesco exists.

Yesterday, I was at the same stall, and two young men, rather well spoken (that's code for 'posh') were commenting on the bunches of gorgeous young carrots - you could see how freshly-picked they were from the state of the fronds that topped them.

The pair were noting that 'they wouldn't last long'. The young man who was serving them pointed out that that was because they 'hadn't been dipped in brine' to preserve them.

They harrumphed too - and walked away.

No. Broadway Market is not for them. Or for that woman who was so impatient. But it is many things - and that includes being a place where you can find a human shopping experience and an humane shopping experience.

And, of course, it is also a place to find great food and drink.

There are issues around such markets - but it's inverted snobbery to suggest that they're they're 'middle class' - and therefore bad (and besides, isn't social mobility supposed to be good?).

Everyone should have access to good food. And Broadway Market - like many another of it's ilk - does increase that possibility.

As I said, there are issues: but the basic reality of a revitalised street is not itself the problem.

On a wider level, if you yourself either want to preserve or revive your own local market - then don't leave it until it's two late. Think about what you want: a range of shopping choices - or just a question of which tin box with poorly-paid staff and no real skills or choice.

In a way, I've been lucky, in that I've seen the before and the after of a dying market come alive.

And while the idea behind the Love Your Local Market fortnight is wonderful, markets, just like puppy dogs, are not just for a couple of weeks, but for life.

So go on: love your local market. It's worth it. And so are you.

* You can follow the markets campaign on Twitter  

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