diamond geezer

 Sunday, February 15, 2004


I've discovered where London's Observer readers go on Sundays. They go to Spitalfields market. I bet they do Borough Market on Saturdays to satisfy their organic foodie cravings, but on Sundays it's off to Spitalfields for the capital's biggest pseudo-arty-ethno-leftie car boot sale.

Spitalfields market is a huge covered hall in the East End, hidden between Liverpool Street and Brick Lane. Originally the area was called 'Spittle Field', a poor-quality grazing area for cattle. There's been a market here since the 17th century, although it probably didn't sell healing crystals and hemp lollies back then. In Victorian times the market was frequented by prostitutes, and two of Jack The Ripper's victims were murdered in neighbouring streets. At the turn of the century a fine iron and glass roof was built to protect traders from inclement weather. The fruit and vegetable market relocated to Leyton in 1991, and the present Sunday market then moved in.

You get no sense of the size of the building from outside, but behind the surrounding frontage lies a space the size of a small aircraft hangar. Every Sunday the hall is packed out by stallholders selling alternative wares. No nasty antiques and crockery, just amateur arty crafty stuff, stripy knitwear, old records, mystic tat and objets d'art. I was particularly disturbed to see one stall trying to sell quartz-like rocks as 'natural crystal deodorant', and even more disturbed to spot someone actually buying some. One corner of the market contains a large food court, serving up veggie vegan noodly-type snacks to noodly-type people. Spitalfields feels like a market for young adults who've outgrown Camden, but aren't capitalist enough to want to go to Portobello instead.

But Spitalfields market is now under serious threat from its new owners. Half of the original building was demolished a year ago so that yet another City office block can be built on the site. The other half, the half in which the Sunday market still takes place, is scheduled for internal redevelopment. Ballymore Properties Ltd want to build various glass blocklike structures inside, taking the market upmarket and cutting the number of stalls by nearly a half. It's a future, but it's not a future that the stallholders want, nor that the existing shoppers will support. They've banded together to organise a vocal protest group called SMUT (Smithfield Market Under Threat) - website here. Good luck to them. London contains quite enough anodyne modern retail malls. Spitalfields may not be my kind of market, but it deserves to survive, and to flourish.

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