Thieves’ market labourers
The man in the trilby, braces and a tonic blue tie puts his arm round Grandad like an old mate and takes out a pair of scissors.
— Call that a tie Sir? Here, this is what we do with a tie like that!
— What the…
— That’s what we do; now take that off, and here we go… Now, that is a tie Ladies and Gentlemen! Now, you can have one of these beauts for three quid or two for a fiver.
I laugh and wander on, taking another bite of my beef and oyster pie, huffing steam into the chilled air, admiring our ties.
This is our patch.
Through the rough knocked up stalls selling crockery, past the vans auctioning off bags of chops, and slices of tripe.
Shoving closely down the Lane, pushing by duffle coated grandmas’ with fading head-scarfs and blue rinses as they jostle to get a hand up for bargains. Past stony-faced Irish guys in donkey jackets leaning, on the steps, black beers balanced on the siles of the green windowed pubs.
Blowing past pastel saris, gleaming teethed ladies with pink head scarfs selling rolls of material. Passing the van selling Jamaican jerked chicken and peas, blasting out some dub, dripping hot sauce and dreadlocks.
— Come on ladies, I’m not asking ten pound for these three joints, no, I’m not asking seven, I’m asking five quid. And I’ll tell you what, here Terry throw us a bag of Sausages. Here, three fifty for the lot! I’m selling me soul here people. Come on darling you know your old man’s going give you some loving when you serve him this lot. Am I right Ladies? You know I’m right girl.
The bloodied white-aproned men start doling out bags of flesh and grabbing cash from flapping hands.
Grandad winks, I smile back.
That’s how I remember it. Back in the day. All changed now though hasn’t it?
Well yeah, and no!
And I don’t mean all changed now though in that ‘back in the good old days’ kinda bollocks. I would say moved on, rather than changed.
Some stuff for the better, little bits lost.
You walk past the Bolivian shop selling candles and religious tat; past Mexican hairdressers coifing up the full bodied ladies hair; past the exchange office, offering help with forms for Spanish speakers; to get to the bleeding pound shop. Now, you go to the shopping centre for a bit of lunch, bloody nice lunch mind you; Ecuadorian ceviche and Peruvian empanadas. Followed by a Brazilian coffee, lovely!
Yeah, it’s changed. I love the newer style markets and stalls don’t get me wrong, and all the different foods and that, but the old London style is disappearing a bit too much, not the new guys fault.
Let’s just say not disappeared exactly but relegated a little.
I take it all in though, loving it all, remembering it all. My streets, our streets, gone, changed streets, but still mine.
I pop into the bookies, place an accumulator on the Columbian liga, and then rush round the corner to the site, just before the end of lunch.
I’m a Labourer, proud to be one actually. Proud too of where I live, a little corner of London, where life ain’t changed that much. Well, it has changed an awful lot if I think about it, some for the good, some not. I try to not get too sentimental about it, I love change, and I love the diversity, just wish we could hang on to some of our old ways, know what I mean, some things have gone for good and that’s a bit sad. But gotta embrace the new, and I do.
What makes London beautiful! The mix and the new! Always been a city of change, London; a melting pot like, and I love it for that.
I’ve always worked the sites since leaving school, with no qualifications of course. Followed me dad into the trade, and it is a trade; don’t let anyone tell you different.
Wanted to be a footballer obviously, but after getting a trial for Charlton, I busted me knee. Used to play in the Sunday leagues, but now I only turns out for the Queen’s head sometimes on a Saturday, when I don’t have an hangover, which is not often these days.
We grabbed a load of canvas bags and hooked up some lights and went down into the underbelly of the hospital.
The manager, the gaffer and the old foreman standing over the hole.
— How much is down there?
— It’s bad, real bad, could take us a while.
— OK, well, just get on with it then.
They really wanted to go down but they couldn’t squeeze their fat suited arses down there.
We all smiled, and crawled through the foundations. It wasn’t possible to kneel it was so low, but you could lie, and drag stuff. The dust was just bearable, the whole point was that we could keep the job going; we could keep our contracts going by hiding down here. At the end of the day we quickly filled the bags with hard-core and general shit and emerged looking battered and shattered.
We spent our day sleeping, chatting and taking the piss.
And me reading Memoirs of a woman of pleasure.
I read about Victorian orgies to a load of casual labourers.
Why? Cos I got pissed off with all the tits in the newspapers in the morning. All the comments and false boasts and the cut outs on the wall of the shed.
Some Uni lecturer I met at meetings lent me her book.
— Fuck me, and this was wrote when?
— Good job we are down here, with this babby’s arm pocking out the pram!
I was their leader. Their shop steward. Got voted in cos I was really interested in doing it; to be fair I had only taken the job to get a chance to be the shop steward.
I stood on a platform of yeah yeah, of course I’ll get the holiday pay in and I’ll get all the safety stuff sorted, no worries; basically all the day to day shit done.
But I was honest with them; I was interested in the politics too even if they weren’t. I wanted to get into that branch meeting and fight for stuff. My grandad had been a union bloke, on the old docks, my dad too, on the sites, he was in the Labour party too, made branch secretary. I don’t hide my politics; I get it out there, get it said. Fucking hate the Tories, big business, the establishment, even the royals, though I kept that one under wraps a little, the guys still held a little something in their pants for the Queen. But, the guys support most of the stuff I fight for, once I explain some shit to them. They get it, most of it.
To be honest they love my rants, always peppered with humour, and the more outrageous the better.
— It is an English tradition that we execute Kings called Charles. It’s my dream…
‘Ladies and gentlemen, tonight live from the new Wembley stadium, the be-heading of King Charles the third.’
— You should come down the common on a Sunday.
— I don’t know mate, Sunday league again!
— Mate, you could do with losing a couple a tonne, and cut down on the drink a bit. Do ya the world of good.
— Cheeky bastard. Alright I’ll come down and have a look.
I went down the common on a Sunday.
There was a carnival atmosphere down there; felt like a bit of South America had de-camped to South London. Columbians, Argies, Chileans, some Africans too; from a mixture of fucked up countries. Kids were running everywhere, ducking under trestle tables laden with tupperwares of mixed beans and ripe tomatoes, luminous avocados, soaked floppy peppers of red, yellow and green. Big bellied guys with aprons and shorts quaffed cans and used what looked like over-sized clown tweezers to turn ropey steaks and splattered chickens on knocked together smoking tin bins on shaky legs. People were laid out on patch-worked quilts; most were smoking, all were nattering, giggling and shouting, gesturing widely and tucking into the top spread.
But games were being watched and yelled at too. Three games were being played enthusiastically but slowly, this was the beautiful game, not a rush and push Sunday league; turns were applauded, tricks gasped at, nutmegs laughed at.
I shook hands and slapped fives. Got stuck in defence. I got stuck in as usual, committed myself. And I think my getting stuck in was appreciated, in fact complimented their delicate skills. And a few times I was pushed in the face for a tackle, got called all sorts of Spanish shit that I laughed off. The guys on my team stuck up for me though.
After, we sat and drank a few beers; chatted about the crap teams in London, especially Arsenal who most of them seemed to follow for some reason; they are still laughing about the hand-of-god goal too.
— Take this mate.
— What is it?
— It’s about the union, your rights and all that.
— We’ve been told not to have anything to do with union.
— Yeah, I’m not surprised.
— We could lose our jobs if they even know we speak with you.
— That right? Even more reason to read it then, don’t ya think?
The whole of the old docklands was office space now. Financial headquarters, IT companies, PR brands and advertising start-ups.
And where there’s offices there’s shite, and people needed to clean up the shit.
I wondered up there around eleven, me and a few other union guys, some off the sites, some from the local government departments, couple of posties. The City of London with its well-heeled army of analysts, brokers, dealers and traders doing their business in the gleaming tower blocks and offices. Working the day shift. We were there to try and recruit, try and help these poor fuckers get a better deal, a better deal for the night shift.
Off the trains they flooded. A supporting cast of thousands. Latin faces, African faces, some Eastern Europeans, thousands of um. An army scrapping by just above the line. Caterers, cleaners, maintenance and security. Working the night shift. In the same buildings but in another timeline. And as the last of the movers and shakers stagger to a diner with food on slates and snorts in posh bogs, the hunchbacked ants take their place.
— Union mate.
— Union? What is this?
— Trade Union mate, workers organization.
People were afraid to take leaflets.
— Sindicato? Yes yes! Si, yes, Sindicato.
— I am Sindicato, back in Chile, Sindicato.
— Well, look it’s on here, come to the meeting, on Sunday, at the Latin league, you know the Latin liga? On the Common?
— Clapham, many Chileans there, big fiesta and footy, food too.
— OK, but I think not many will come, they don’t speak so well English, like me.
— Yeah, shit, yeah not as good as you mate, well, tell them to come anyway, for the food if not the footy, day out like.
— Yes I come, I try to bring others.
— Great, but no worries, if only you come you can tell the others later on.
— I am Chico, you.
— Gary mate, nice to meet you. See you Sunday.
Chico came to the footy. I introduced him round. He was happy to see South American faces, they were happy to see him.
— Bloody politics, all the bloody time. Can’t you guys give it a rest? Talk about something else.
— Like what? Women and drinking? Maybe where you’re gonna score the next shipment?
— Funny! Like we are all fucking Escobar.
— Politics is life my friend, even your life.
— I would have thought you Chileans had had enough of the politics man. This is Europe Brother, we don’t need no politics here man, move on Bro.
After the games the Chileans loved to rant about politics, The Argentinians too; it wasn’t politics for them, it was just real life, that’s what they were talking about, just real life.
The Columbians, Costa Ricans and Africans had better things to talk about.
— We can’t escape it my friend.
— Yeah yeah, I’m off, I’ll leave you to it.
A few more cleaners came along. And we needed a meeting to try and coordinate things a little more; we soon realized that upstairs in a dingy smelly room of a red-bricked pub was not gonna cut it here. So, we gathered in a corner of the common, with grilled chicken, stinking fags and bottles of Quilmes.
— So we leaflet our guys and then the other offices.
— You’ve gotta get enough of your own guys on your side, then the numbers will impress.
— Yeah, and in the meantime if you can get enough of your guys to agree to join the union, we can bring in the officials, good blokes we know, and we can have a vote to join, then the union can sign you up, and once that’s done, we can represent you when negotiating contracts, safety and hours and that.
— The money might be a problem.
— It’s just a token amount, fiver a month, sixty a year. You have to pay to join up to make it all official like.
— But people have so little money as it is.
— I know mate.
— Listen, I am not a cleaner but I have been listening to you guys over the last few weeks. Most of you know me; I’m part of the liga, one of the guys who started this bloody thing. You should do like we did. I think we can hold a dance, a celebration, a fiesta.
— I don’t follow.
— Well, people will come to a fiesta and maybe join up but if they don’t have money, we will raise some of the money from the fiesta see? And then some people who really can’t afford to pay but wanna join can join for free? We can put on some food, some Latin bands, and dance. Charge a small entrance fee, and for the food.
— Who will come?
— Who will come? Why latinos Hombre! They love a fiesta, to dance, to drink.
— I can ask one of the restaurants to lend us a function room for free.
— And we can ask the workers themselves to come. We leaflet them first about the fiesta; then they come along and get all the information about the union.
— Also that way no one gets into trouble, for doing Union stuff at work, well not yet, not until we have a big number interested.
— My friends I believe we have hit on something.
I make my way to the dance after a pint in the Castle.
Pushed down the bottom of the Elephant, behind the shopping centre, round the back of the viaduct; the artisan decorated stalls of the hipster markets give way to rickety stalls and wonky wallpaper tables.
The thieves market; an old market, a market for locals, with history, and banter, and cockneys and latinos. There’s a guy selling old buckets, and a guy that mends them. A guy selling old glasses frames and he can fix them too. A guy with an eye glass inspects old watches. Medals mounted, and postcards in cellophane. And they sit there happily nesting in with the South American bistros with tables under the arches.
Near by the old iron works factory is now a three tier drinking, dining and dancing latino den.
The fiesta was a great success; of course it was, what’s not to like? People had a great time. I danced salsa with Maria Dolares, and wow! Could she dance, me not so much but you have to get into it, and I loved it…not like I normally do, standing at the bar drinking until I have enough courage to approach someone by which time my words are slurred and nobbish. But apart from the good time the recruitment drive was a great success. Many people signed up and then after we held another recruitment meeting and signed people up who wanted to join but couldn’t afford it. By the end of three months we had hundreds going into thousands over the whole of London, not just the city. Every big company had out-sourced the menial services. Hospitals, lawyer firms, telecom companies; all with a hidden army of moles; riding the morning trains if they can afford a card, or cycling on knackered old bikes or just walking, heads down through the drizzly darkness; not seeing just getting there.
— This is too much.
We are at an emergency meeting by the cleaners of the offices of a Lawyers association; a kind of trade union for god’s sake!
— They are bullying us, squeezing us, if we speak out we get threatened, and they have decided to cut our break time by 15 mins.
A bottle blonde Latino woman stands, she is not emotional, but stiff with anger.
— You sit on a train, and you see people who are earning more than you . . . This is a very expensive town. We have a people who are unable get a travel card, that can’t put food on the table for the kids. There are people who can’t come to work because they haven’t got the means to come. We must make a stand, enough!
— I call for another demonstration.
— The thing about the demonstrations is they’re very empowering to people who feel hidden, who feel ignored.
— Yeah, but now we have friends, we have our union; the community, the Campaign for a living wage group has said they will lend support too, the time is right to strike.
— Strike for what?
— You serious? We should push for a guaranteed living wage.
— But the demonstration was a success.
In March, cleaners had taken part in their first public demonstration. They took action in support of their colleague Miguel who was suspended after he walked out of a meeting with management because there was no union representative there. Recognising this as an attack on their recent unionisation, cleaners and unionists and the local community came out for a carnival like demo. All the kids from the local kinder-garden wore ‘We are all Miguel’ masks with his face on at the demo. And there was even a majorette display in the street. Miguel was swiftly reinstated. But now they are attacking from another angle.
— Yeah, but we need to push on.
— Look the thing is this company, like many others, as well as the bullying, the imitation, the attack on hours; well, as well as that they have tried to eke away at you through attacks on meal times, break times as well as pocketing staff’s holiday pay and unlawful deductions in wages.
There was a flurry of discussion; of people standing and mouthing off at each other, arms flailing everywhere, fingers jabbed, heads flicked.
Chico from the football slowly stood up on a chair.
People waved their hands for people to sit.
— The thing is hombres, the real thing is that they can afford to pay us, their management had 4 million pounds extra bonuses this year. And we, we deserve, no we demand a wage that lets us to live as human beings. This is all we ask. But they won’t give us that opportunity. A living wage is all we are asking for. Is that too much to ask? I don’t think so. So, enough already. We must strike. We asked them nicely but they have no heart, so now we must force them to be nice. We must strike and strike now until our demand are met. We demand to live!
— All those in favour?
A sea of raised arms.
Nick Gerrard is originally from Birmingham but now living in Olomouc where he writes, proof-reads and edits, and in between looking after his son Joe, edits and designs Jotters United Lit-zine. Nick has been at one time or another a Chef, activist, union organiser, punk rocker, teacher, traveller and Eco-lodge owner in Malawi and Czech. Short stories, flash and poetry have appeared in various magazines in print and online including Etherbooks, Roadside fiction, The Siren, Minor Literature and Bluehour magazine Nick has three books published available on Amazon. twitter@nickcgerrard