Shopping for food in the UK is often not, for yours truly, a joyous experience, and this is due to the utter lack of variety. Honest, there’s more individuality in a pool of cloned cells than in UK’s supermarkets. Even the poshest Waitrose or M&S will peddle the same cuts of meat, same vegetables, same fruit juice flavours as the rest of the nation’s supermarkets. And nowhere is this fact more dishearteningly true than in the cheese and fish sections. Every week, without fail, I’d be staring at the usual display of six varieties of Cheddar. Or at sad circles of tuna meat, as wide as a tea plate, submerged in non-recyclable plastic and somewhat optimistically called steak. Every week I’d be staring at them, clutching the handle of my shopping trolley, and sighing. If only.
The cheese issue has its workarounds – mainly under the form of smuggling from abroad – but I’d long been struggling to find a workable solution to the fish problem. Every shop, supermarket and fishmonger sold the same produce, so much so that I’d become half-convinced that fish swam in the big blue sea either in breaded rectangles or already turned into kippers.
After a few fruitless attempts at turning the tide, my cogitations had reached a low point. It seemed that, in the capital of this island nation, no fish was to be found but the one that was served in batter with a side of mushy peas. But, as it so often happens, one casual Friday chat changed everything. It happened, obviously in hindsight, where all the best ideas germinate: the office kitchenette.
Kev isn’t his real name, but his dear mother made a mistake when he didn’t call him so. If there was a prototype for the ideal Kev – professional tea drinker, wheeler and dealer, knew everybody, wouldn’t pronounce the “r” at the end of a word not even under duress – he was it. Anyway, Kev was close to retirement, crossing out the days before he could ship himself down to Spain, so he was always game for a chat and killing time. I don’t quite remember how we got there, but on one quiet Friday afternoon, the floorplate barely half full, echoing only of keys being pressed, we got talking about how much of a tosser his old man was, and actually how much of a tosser was everyone who lived in his old man’s neighbourhood. To make his point, Kev mentioned the time when the Luftwaffe bombed the chip shop.
I’ll never, no matter how hard I’ll try, be able to give justice to Kev’s accent, posture, infectious humour and incredible sense of theatre, so I’ll just summarise the story. It’s the Blitz, and Kev’s old man – still a few decades away from being such, I guess – makes a dash for the bomb shelter together with the rest of the community. There they sit, a community of tossers all huddled together, whilst outside Göring is busy renovating their cobbled stone streets and mews, one bomb at the time. There they sit, eyes bulging out of their sockets, until a quiet moment in the fracas. The siren for the all clear hasn’t been heard yet, but being they tossers, they ignore it. One of them, the gutsiest of them all, goes up and steps into a scene worthy of Godzilla, if only it’d already existed. The streets are flattened. Buildings are on fire. The glow of the torched gasworks paints the night sky crimson. Faced by this Dantesque scene of disaster, our gutsy tosser has only one message to relay to the rest of the gang still sitting in the shelter. And there could be only one message, in fact.
“They bombed the chip shop”.
They all erupted out at once, sod the bombs, sod the Luftwaffe, sod the Blitz and the raid still ongoing. They all popped out of the shelter like corks out of champers bottle and, Kev recounted as we both chuckled, stood like the bunch of muppets they were, in a street reduced to smithereens, watching the big black hole where their beloved chippy used to be.
As the story ended and we both reluctantly returned to the inevitability of our desks, I asked Kev “Whereabouts was the chippy then?” to which he replied, somehow to my surprise since I knew he was a Brentford fan, that it was in Shadwell. “It was a good chippy, you see, because it was so close to Billingsgate fish market, which at the time was still near Monument. But it could’ve been fish from the Thames for all they knew”.
A fish market.
Fast forward a couple of months, precisely in the midst of the coldest March on record, I wake up at 3AM on Saturday morning. The irony of it doesn’t escape me – a few years back this was the time for me to go to bed – but if I want to escape yet another sad moment at the shops, this is it. Billingsgate opens at 4 and, you see, effectively runs out of the good stuff by 6. Yeah, the early bird catches the worm and all that. This isn’t the kind of farmers’ market that soccer moms would comfortably drive to after a good workout at the Bikram Yoga.
Night Tube is a blessing and, at this time, is also eerily quiet. Green Park station could feature in a Dario Argento film but only a small mouse, and not some vampire or bloodthirsty serial killer, crosses my path.
Canary Wharf is, surprisingly, a lot livelier. Two dapper men argue, in Italian with thick Roman accents, about whether a flat on sale for six hundred grands could go for three-and-three-quarter paid on the spot. The discussion escalates and, as I leave Canada Square, I can still hear their voices booming on the silent glass façades, one wondering if the other had spent too much on whores and the other replying not to worry, for his mother was giving discounts.
I walk briskly towards the river, passing the softly lit lobbies of many of finance’s big names. Fitch, Barclays, KPMG, Citi, Ernst & Young all parade beside me, deserted but for the security men, silent sentinels behind their desks, and the odd cleaning team. Almost without fail, they all are black.
After a roundabout the road swerves to the left, dancing on tiptoe over a canal and then precipitating towards another roundabout – decorated with a rather useless sculpture of a multi-branched traffic light – and an overpass. Floodlights illuminate a parking lot covered in white vans, whilst a squat building, styled in a way that could’ve been defined modern in 1982, welcomes a steady stream of men in overcoats and fork-lifts. Billingsgate Market.
Photography is allowed only if communicated in advance, and I hadn’t, so I stow my camera away, nod to the three officers of the City Constabulary standing outside and, gingerly, step into the place that I didn’t think existed in London.
Billingsgate Market is a rectangle of red bricks with a lime-green floor that glitters under the powerful white lights shining from the tubular structure of the roof. A cacophony, a white noise of sloshing water, voices and mechanical noises buzzes in the background. Details of faded yellow dash in front of my eyes. Stores line the walls, and three double rows of stalls run for the entire length of the building. Rows of Styrofoam boxes stretch to the end of perspective, bulging with ice and fish.
A man moves a case containing lobsters, the crustaceans still waving antennae and pincers whilst he chats animatedly with another. A worker sprays water on the floor. Another slaps some more ice on a box of sea bass labelled Cyprus. Voices echo across the hall, finalising purchases, discussing fish or simply chatting over cups of builder’s tea. The market is a fascinating mixture of ethnicities, so much so that I found myself as interested by the humanity populating Billingsgate as I am by the wares they were selling.
The stalls are decorated with names and simple slogans – If it swims, we sell it – and across them East London meets the Subcontinent, by way of the Caribbean. Rapid bursts of Indian languages mingle with that cockney parlance that I thought no longer existed in the Docklands, but evidently still does. Sure, those men had to relocate to those Kent satellite cities outside the M25, but here they are, dressed in white overalls and wellies, Stone Island beanie hats and gloves, cutting off every last syllable, skipping some middle completely, turning a’s into ai and calling me guv. “Tha’ll be a tennah guv” says one of them as he hands me a bag containing a kilo of yellowfin tuna.
The key ingredients of old English fish dishes – eels, cod, sole, turbot, whitebait – are out in force, joined in by mammoth salmons and trout so large that they’d need their own numberplates. Yet Billingsgate doesn’t just cater for the needs of Del Boy on a Lent Friday. There are tilapias; large, multi-coloured carps; snappers of all shapes, sizes and colours; brown groupers; entire dogfishes; and dozens of fillets of catfish, ordered in neat rows by a stall sitting under a series of flags – Nigeria, Jamaica, Barbados – being inspected by two ladies in Ugg boots and pyjamas. A bucket of severed salmon heads was on sale for £1. “Good for ya stock mate” comments a young apprentice as he sees me eyeing quizzically. That, or if you are the Simpson’s mad cat lady.
As I order a few snappers and bass it dawns on me that, with the exception of a maniple of Central European men doing the rounds for restaurants and delis, I’m the only white punter. Everyone else was either East Asian or of African-Caribbean descent. The bearded man who hands me the purchase nods “Yes, this isn’t a place for the English. I ‘spose having to gut ‘em fishes isn’t wha’ them do on a Saturday, know wa’ mean?” I do. Not for nothing Sainsbury’s only has fish fingers.
Once home, I unload my gooey, fishy bounty and begin the gutting, cleaning and filleting business. Another cloudy, snowy day starts over London and, by the time I finish, I’m pretty knackered by all in all happy. Later in the day, having managed to wash off the smell of fish from my hands, I try to convey my sense of satisfaction to some friends, over beer, but fail. Still, all I had to do was to try a slice of the tuna, cooked briefly in coconut oil and lemon, to know that it’d been well worth it.
Now, if I could solicit your help in naming this fishy fellow, I’d be much obliged.