I wrote this, a description rather than a story, for a writing competition, if I remember correctly, run by the BBC. The composition had to be about an area of London which interested you. Having written this, I realised the competition was aimed at ethnic minorities and being white I was unlikely to win. Anyway, I hung on to this as it describes an interesting location of East London, which unlike Brick Lane or the Columbia Road flower market has received little attention. Michael Moorcock does have a character go to a pub down this street but does not describe the market that fills a large chunk of it on Saturdays. As with my other writings of my time in East London, everything in this is as I saw it. It might not reflect the Roman Road Market today, but it is an accurate depiction of it any time 1994-2001.
Roman Road Market, Tower Hamlets.
I lock my bicycle to the thick railing by the old pub on the corner. There is no way I could wheel it any further, through the market. I step off from the pavement into the press of the crowd jammed in between the stalls. I am always amazed how different it is cycling down here on a Sunday with almost every shop closed and the street empty of life. But now it’s midway through Saturday morning and the market is solid people, filling the channel created by the stalls. Progress is slow as I try and edge towards my objective. I advance a few steps, then have to stop, move forward again, dip into a gap between one family and their pushchair and the next. I pass the stalls of yams, of mobile phone covers, of non-laddering tights, of shiny night clubbing outfits, moving on. I pass the stall that always has such a crowd of women around it that I have never found out what they sell. Moving on is like swimming against the tide, and I try to catch the occasional current of a couple or a group of kids going the same way as me, but then they get distracted and check out the stall packed with CDs. As I move slowly along the crowded road, different sounds get louder and fade away as I walk on, replaced by others.
There are the voices of the stall holders parading in front of their goods, shouting out the bargains, mixed in with music from the CD stall or one of the shops further back. Every step I take there is conversation, bits and pieces about what is being sold, what mum watched on telly last night, kids asking, demanding, complaining, old people laughing and moaning about the council. As I reach the bit near Safeways where there is a break in the stalls, you get new sounds. The man bellowing out about God, a worn black bible in his hand competes with the Socialist workers with their stall in black, white and red, shouting out about Blair. Supporters of each of them tries to give me a leaflet, I take them and shove them in my jacket barely stopping. Now I am getting amongst the end of the market where there are sweets and opposite the man with toothbrushes and toothpaste packaged in South Africa and now laid out on a table in East London. I am in sight of the cluster of bedding stalls, household goods stalls, pots and pans. But I turn off. I am level with the building society. I stepped through the door. Inside there is a queue, people standing quietly, the noise from the street muffled, though the chunky bleeping sound of someone typing in their PIN number into the cashpoint is clear inside. I shuffle forwards until it is my turn. Breaking with tradition I chat with the young woman with braided hair, dressed in nice dark blue denim about the law course she is doing and how her family’s opinion of it.
Soon it is over, I hand over my cheque and plastic and get a receipt in return. Then I am back outside. This time I go along the pavement, made shadowy by the plastic sheet backs to the stalls. It is easier this way, though people come and go from the shops with their doors propped open, there is none of the chaos and far fewer bodies than in the road between the stalls. I poke my nose in a pound shop, but I have a enough spanners and placemats, toilet rolls and shoelaces. I walk passed the pie and mash shop, so traditionally East London, you cannot believe it is real. It is full of families and I am looking for something different before I get back on my bike, some American import, coffee and a muffin, either cherry or blueberry I think.