- BY MNR CONTRIBUTOR, NICOLAS ROUGER
We walked up and down the market twice this morning before deciding on a spot next to a key cutting stall. No one peddles rumba or reggaeton here, there is no Bollywood music, only the occasional whining and grinding sound of metal on metal, skilled hands moving in unison, reproducing stainless steel enigmas, welcome home guv’.
In the keymaker’s truck, an illustration:
‘Don’t ask for discounts because a smack in the gob often hurts.’
This is Walthamstow: where the East End is entrenched, separated from Hackney by the Marshes, unfillable wetlands on which cows sometimes still graze. An ultimate moat to discourage manicured face-bushes and winning software ideas from travelling further East. Working, raw, Walthamstow. Schooled by ‘onest ‘ard knocks, it is familiar then foreign again, every generation.
Today, the noises of the High Street rhyme to our beat. It’s a weekday, but the longest street market in Europe (or so they say) is lively as usual. It is a ‘£1-a-bowl’ kind of market, where pennies are traded for plastic toys, knock-off pret-a-porter and everyday wares.
I turn to the banjo player. He plucks the strings and strums the chords; I’m on the sax, blowing a tune of another age. It’s time to collect Pennies From Heaven On the Sunny Side of the Street. The novelty quickly passes, but I see a few sterling smiles amongst the stallholders: music attracts the spender.
Tunes run into another, we’ve dug a groove into the landscape. As a rule, the only people to dance are the intoxicated and small children, with opposite reactions on our potential fee-paying clients. A man sporting a small, dishevelled dog, kissing the end of a rollie, bobs his head along to the changes. Street dandy, lying nonchalantly against a public bin, he pulls out a phone, makes some calls, then shouts conspiratorially: ‘I’m gonna make you some money, boys!’ His smile is golden under superfluous sunglasses.
A man and a woman, both in their thirties, start to set up shop across from us. They speak to each other excitedly in English that smells of Red Bricks, Celsius and Fahrenheits trickling down their bloodline. The Man, wearing sensitive quality footwear, looks over at me and throws me a thumbs-up. Why not a pound coin, brother?
On their table, papers and stickers and other indiscernible political goods bearing the recognisable brand of local celebrity (hashtag)WilliamMorris. They hang a banner, a slogan suddenly flies in the wind, singing Walthamstow’s praises, talking of change. Together, we can reclaim our future, is it not bright!
‘Surprised they let you set up here, mate.’
A trader has come over, fingering the couple’s flyers. Their shades gradually turn to red as they try to explain: our mission is…; the community can…; the processes of change are…; there is so much to…; we will if… ‘That’s all well and good, right, but this ain’t your spot, see? Ali over there, he’s been here for 12 years, and still can’t get a spot as good as this.’ Sir, try to…; we are working for…; we represent the…; there are issues that…; we can…; we are not selling these things to make money! ‘So what you doing here, then?’
The market manager must have been called, as someone comes around looking official. A discussion ensues. It Don’t Mean A Thing If You Ain’t Got That Swing, says the wind in my lungs, and I can’t control it, my solo sounds a bit Disney. Trading without a licence is illegal on the market. We talked to someone at…; you see, this is something for…; there is no…; but give us a minute to… The manager is unfazed: rules are rules. Rules work. They will have to pack up, or should he call the cops? The Banjo player looks up at the commotion just as the official turns his head. They cross eyes, and their brows move in opposite directions. Our status here is uncertain at best.
The Woman wields a smartphone and diverts the official’s attention: there is no need for a licence if we sell papers! These are papers! And our stall is less than 1 metre long! These are the rules, it says so here on your website!
Conflict does not last. The Great British reconciler comes. We are all equal under pouring rain, and trader, official, Busker, Man and Woman all run for cover. The Banjo Player and I find ourselves sitting in front of a steaming bowl of Borscht. A bulky builder, blazing, bluntly blurts out: ‘Don’t you love the English weather?’
The Banjo Player is silent but my mind streams consciousness. I’m searching. There are many cities like it but this one is mine. It is dysfunctional and colourful, and it is sophisticated about swearing. New people move in, bring a better quality of lager; old people move out, often leaving a part of their heritage behind.
The rain will wash out the clouds and soon will come a red sunset over the Marshes. Sax lying across its case, I will drink a Polish Zubr and think of cockney songs I learned from a knees-up, two months ago. Soon, the Tube will be open 24 hours a day. This changes everything. Again
Originally from Brittany, France, Niko lives and works in Walthamstow, London. He is a saxophone player, who has been seen playing in the streets of cities across Europe, as well as large festivals and a host of London venues. He likes wondering through the city to soak up impressions of otherness, convinced that we need to make a bigger place for the artistic process in our political lives.