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Markets: Many Stories Told….

Family  /  Food & Drink

I love markets by Stan Graham.

It could be inbred because when I was young I remember my maternal grandmother telling me that her father used to have several stalls on Pet Row in Kirkgate Market. She said that the family was quite well-to-do and lived in a large house which doubled as theatrical digs where acts would stay when playing in the city. Sadly it was never passed down as a legacy as her mother was an alcoholic and every night was party night so it was eventually squandered. 

It really all began when I was about nine years old and in the summer holidays I was shipped off to my aunt and uncle in Hemel Hempstead which, was being developed into a New Town to cater for commuters from the City. The reason I was fobbed off was, in part, that they had a girl of my age who was also an only child and it was thought that it would be good for us both to have some company. I think that my parents also enjoyed three weeks of privacy in our tiny slum! The problem with being an only child is that sharing is a foreign concept so, by about day three, we had usually fallen out. It was only a short walk into the town centre where there was an outdoor market and I would grab some solitude by wandering down there to watch the best free entertainment on the planet. 

For once the object of my interest was not food or drink, but the traders who sold household goods. In those days they didn’t just put their stuff on a trestle table and wait for someone to approach them, they would put on a show and shout about their wares. My favourite was the chap who sold crockery. He would begin by taking a huge carving plate and, whilst telling the assembled crowd about how beautifully made it was out of fine China (this was before the Trades Descriptions Acts) he began to arrange six matching dinner plates around the edge, he added half a dozen side plates, saucers and cups before throwing the whole lot about two feet in the air and catching it with nothing having been disturbed. He would then go into his spiel by saying that in Harrods or Selfridges this dinner service would cost over £20 but he wasn’t asking anything like that. His patois would go something like “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I charged you £20, even if I asked for £10 I wouldn’t sleep for a fortnight. Look, what about a fiver? No, missus don’t touch your purse yet, I haven’t finished. I am not going to waste your time and mine, who will give me three quid?” At this point two or three people would put their hand up so he would turn to one of his assistants and say, “Let those lovely ladies who raised their hands have a set for £1/10/-  (£1.50 – well it was 1959) and anyone else can have a set for two quid. Now, who had their hand up?” This is when the number of bidders increased from two or three to about a dozen so he would look in disbelief and scratch his head saying something like, “Blimey, I didn’t think there were that many, but I believe you, you look honest.” Pure theatre! You see much the same tactic used nowadays on shopping channels.

I am a city boy and a foodie so when I go away my destination of choice will not be a beach or mountain range, but a conurbation and the larger the better, where I will spend my time roaming the streets and stopping at a local bar or strolling round the market. I don’t do museums as you you can learn more about a place in half an hour from a bloke in a boozer than you can by spending a month in a museum. Also the latter will only show you what the place was like donkey’s years ago whereas fellow drinkers and the market will reveal the character and current state of the city and country in which you find yourself. 
I cite as examples two capital cities, one on each side of the Baltic Sea, Riga in Latvia and the Swedish capital Stockholm. Although the Soviet bloc was disbanded in 1989 the people of Latvia had lived under Nazi and Communist rule for over seventy-five years, both regimes relying on members of the public to inform on their friends, colleagues and neighbours should they speak ill of the government. When I visited in 2015 I still found the locals to be very remote, not making eye contact or even acknowledging my existence. The young people were more open but confirmed that they had been brought up not to trust anyone they didn’t know – and be wary of those they did. I point this out because Riga Market, the largest in Europe, housed in five ex-German Zeppelin hangars, is the only place I have ever been asked to stop photographing. This was a request by an old lady at a fish stall who took exception to my taking a snap of her wares. I apologised and showed her that I had deleted the picture from my phone. A shopper who had seen this confirmed the reason for her attitude. 

The way in which the produce is displayed in this market is totally different to anything I have seen before or since, especially in the fish section. The various species, which look fresh but are obviously dried or smoked, are stood on their tails, whilst the fresh versions are bent double.

Markets have had a huge influence on British life through the ages. Cockney rhyming slang was developed by market traders in the East End of London so that the customers didn’t understand what they were saying. Not only that but they affected the laws of the land. I was at college in London in 1969 at which time the pubs had fixed opening times. One lunchtime a couple of us tried to work out how we could drink round the clock, a theory we never put into practice, and we discovered that the bars in Fleet Street, where the newspapers – and law courts – were based, were open all afternoon but had to shut at tea time whereas the ale houses round the wholesale markets of Covent Garden – fruit and vegetables, Billingsgate – fish, and Smithfield – meat, opened at midnight and didn’t shut until lunchtime to fit in with their trading times. Job done!

Like most of my food knowledge, the love of markets was passed down from my dad. We would go into Leeds most Saturday mornings for a coffee or breakfast at the Kardomah on Briggate where he met his ‘associates’ and we would go home via Kirkgate Market where we got the weekend vittles. 

Being adventurous, a regular stop was the delicatessen on the top row, this was in the 1950’s remember and a deli was a rare sight, where he would get gherkins, liver sausage and other goodies to make what he called ‘bits and pieces’ for us to enjoy whilst watching Saturday night tv. They were hors d’oeuvres really, served on triangles of toast. They took him a couple of hours to make and a couple of minutes for the three of us to devour.

He taught me how to buy the Sunday joint from Butchers’ Row. The first thing to look at was the strip light at the top of the inside of the window. If it was white then that was a good sign, if it was red then it meant that the colour of the meat needed enhancing so we would give it a miss. The other no-no was if the pieces of meat were in blocks as this indicated that it had been cut whilst frozen, Band Saw Butchers was the term he used. No matter what the others had on offer we would invariably end up at Wildbloods, a great name for a butcher I always thought.

The fruit and veg would be just as meticulously purchased after making sure that the trader wasn’t filling the bag with iffy stock from the back of the display rather than the good stuff on show at the front.
When I started grammar school in the centre of Leeds, and was used to wandering around town, I was entrusted with the Saturday market shop on my own. I enjoyed it a lot and would be told to get myself something as a reward. Nothing too extravagant as I was only given a pound to start with! It was a real responsibility, not only buying the weekend food, but basically planning the menus. I would sometimes get told off for buying chopped liver – again – but my favourite Saturday night topping was chopped liver garnished with crumbled hard boiled egg.

In the 1980s when I was married and we lived at the top of Scott Hall Road I revived this practice and would take the long hike into town and get the weekend shopping whilst my wife cleaned the house. I would end the morning by walking back down North Street, to The Eagle which in those days was a real ale pub, for a pint, before getting the bus home. Needless to say, I became newly single again in 1989. 
It was also in this period that I discovered the term ‘bag-up’. One Saturday I couldn’t get out until the afternoon and when I went to the market for the meat I was approached by several shoppers asking if the butcher in whose window I was checking the strip lighting, did bag-ups. I said that not only did I not know, I had no idea what they were. It later became clear when one of the butchers emerged from his shop with a selection of carrier bags, asking for £2 for the mystery contents. I had already got my purchases but asked one of the shoppers who had just purchased a bag, what was inside and she showed me a fine array of chops, a joint and sausages which must have been worth at least three times the asking price. I was disappointed that the butcher didn’t throw the bag into the air before asking for the customers to put their hands up if they wanted one at a knock-down price. Sadly, butcher’s Row has disappeared, being merged with Fish Row (as opposed to fish roe!) and even the combined section seems to be shrinking at an alarming rate. 

Life moves on and the food stalls have taken on a new vibe with stalls selling package-free goods, artisan bakeries, spice shops and traders displaying the more exotic strains of fruit and veg, what the greengrocers used to refer to as ‘queer gear’. The food court has been a welcome addition along with the more upmarket (pun intended) restaurants but even these seem to be shrinking in number. I realise that there are lots of non-food traders who seem to be doing well but I hope beyond hope that Kirkgate Market doesn’t turn into somewhere that you only go when you want a watch battery or a new cover for your mobile phone.

My most vivid memory concerning Kirkgate Market, however, is when I was driving home from work up the M1 on Saturday, 13th December 1975 when I saw a glow over the city lighting up the dark evening. It wasn’t until the next day I learned that it was the market which had burned down. The city was devastated especially because it was so near Christmas and food had been ordered for the big day, not to mention the potential loss of earnings for the traders at the busiest time of the year. Fortunately the facade was saved and the place still looks as impressive as ever. If it can survive wartime bombing and that fire it should be able to overcome anything.