Speaking with Joe, is a little like therapy. Initially, the conversation is charged with different kinds of fears and anxieties, but they’re eventually dispelled, leaving a deep sense of calm and assurance about the future. And in many ways the fish trade relies on that – assurance. Similar to other market trades, being a continuous presence and representing the business brand at the stalls, is often more important than the actual number of fish sold on the day. These family-run businesses span generations and play the long game. Like many of his peers, Joe started on the market as a Saturday boy, before going full-time with his dad, Pete, eight years ago. One day, the business will be his.
Tired of a career as a fitness instructor, working for someone else, he’s chosen this path: despite the harsh hours; despite not seeing the daylight for days in winter, or much of his friends. The young fish trader, who was scouted by a modelling agency and seems old for his age, towers behind his boxes, all smiles and confidence, as multi-coloured bubbles form around the asphyxiating, crabs. There is a simplicity to the tradition without it feeling stale, stuck or conservative “It’s not hard, it’s just about keeping people happy. At the end of the day all you do is sell. I’ve always been a person to lead rather than follow and I can do that here, I am the number one, running it.”
Most traders wake at midnight to be in work by 2 am. Then there is breakfast in the office, business to be done on the phones until 3, before starting on the stalls at 4. The main traders at the market wrap at 8. Some men go to sleep straight away after they get home, some stay awake. All live out of sync with their friends or partners. George and his girlfriend broke up six months ago, partly because of the hours: “I just can’t be bothered, say if you’re partner is working 9 to 5 and I wake up at 4pm and she might not get home till 6pm, she might not be available till 7 and then I like to be in bed at about 9-ish, so it’s a bit of a hard one.”
He won’t let this get into his way of being sociable, regardless. With a weak spot for Detroit techno and lads’ outings, all his earnings go on music festivals. Last year he went to six: “Sunday / Monday is my weekend. So after every festival I go home, eat my breakfast then straight to work, I’m up for like 24 hours. I don’t come back here drunk, though when I came back from Lovebox, it was a bit weird, but, I have the energy: I can go on and on..”
Billingsgate Market moved to its present location on the Isle of Dogs in 1982. It sits incongruously amid the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. There’s a real chance it will be closed and relocated again because of the increased value of the land. Alongside this, there are ongoing discussions about modernising the market. With no lockers, shower facilities or modern ventilation system, it’s a poor relation of its counterparts in the Bronx or Hamburg.
And as someone who works at night and lives for the nightlife, he says his goodbyes and wanders off, flat cap, white apron and toothpick in mouth. It’s a strange little world that of Billingsgate, which doesn’t become less strange once the stalls are emptied and the core of the old boys moves into the café at the right end corner, where hawkers barter counterfeit perfumes and cigarettes, whilst drinking builders’ tea and eating full English breakfasts with haddock. And if that wasn’t mythical enough, the market is also prone to sea creatures still alive – hearing a shriek outside Jordan informs us: “Yes that’s the seal. It comes in the morning around 3.30, eats, and then fucks off.” – The last of the nightlife’s tales before day breaks.
Words by Cecilia Valensise
Published in Root and Bone