Many of you will have heard of a new book called Portobello Voices which tells the tale – in each subject’s own words – of many of the characters that exist in and around Portobello Market. I was rather excited to be able to pick up a copy from the book’s launch last week at The 20th Century Theatre on Westbourne Grove and having devoured the book in a few days, it’s clear that Portobello Voices is a wonderful, wonderful thing. It’s for all sorts of readers – those who barely know anything about Portobello Market or Notting Hill and want to delve deeper; those who want to see more to the glossy place that’s sometimes depicted in film on or TV; or for those who may know some of the people in the book – whether well, or just by name or sight – and want to see their story told in print. It’s also highly recommended to those looking into the history of Portobello Market as well as the area in general; indeed, it’s also an interesting reference for those learning more about market traders and particular trades.
Each chapter in the book lays out the story of one of the local Portobello Market characters. Some have long stories to tell, almost literally – many of the people featured are now in their seventies and eighties (in age), and are from families that have long traded on the market. Others are featured across a few pages; shorter backgrounds, perhaps characters for the future. Each chapter is an interview with the subject – but the book’s author, Blanche Girouard, manages to portray it in such a way that it feels entirely in their own words, without any prompts, suggestions or ideas on what to say.
For so many of the traders, the market really is their life. Some are trading as the second or third (or greater) generation of their family to have done so, with many remembering accompanying and helping out their parents or grandparents on stalls way back when. Others were born in other parts of the country (or abroad, such as in the West Indies, Eastern Europe and even Afghanistan), but drifted to London for work or life reasons. Many traders often tried their luck at other markets in the capital before being drawn to Portobello – and here they well and truly are, “for life”.
In fact, a regular refrain from the traders in the book is that they’re not sure what else they would be doing with their lives – or rather, what else they could possibly do. They of course say it in such way that gives the impression that they may not have the skills, education, patience or other to work at a “proper job” or for someone else, and this is what they’ve fallen into doing instead. But these characters have such long associations in a particular field – be it as a costermonger (a street fruit and veg seller – I had to look it up!), antiques or vintage clothing – that they’re well and truly experts at what they do, clearly having the capacity to start a business from scratch or continue with the family trade. This type of self-employment isn’t an easy job for any of them, of course – there’s talk of the early starts, the long hours, needing to brave the elements in all seasons (standing on a bit of cardboard works wonders for winter), the lack of time off or holidays for fear of losing trade and income. There’s also discussions of how the recession has affected them (with, in one case, an interesting comparison to how differently they were effected in slow economic times in the 1980s and 1990s) and how they battle against the big high street brands, the supermarkets and the cheap clothing retailers.
As well some history of each specific trade, each person’s individual history is just as fascinating and beautifully told. What made they drawn to collecting a particular type of item in the first place, or what saw them hang about an auction house as a kid (playing truant from school), learning more about the items there? You really do really do discover the reasons for why they’ve come to do what they do. Oftentimes, their back stories bring up fascinating surprises and tangents that you’d hardly expect – but that’s what makes these characters who they are.
Almost all speak with a real love for the market. Time and time again, many of the older generation say that they’ll continue on the market for as long as they can, essentially saying that they’d be truly lost without daily routine of the market.
I’d highly recommend Portobello Voices to all – not only is it a fabulous read, but there’s so much to learn about Portobello Market and its people. If you know Portobello Market even slightly, I have no doubt that this book will prompt you to visit it again soon, encouraging you to appreciate and support the local traders and their wares.
You can find out more about (and purchase) Portobello Voices from The History Press.