December 22, 2009 A Day’s Work at Billingsgate Fish Market
Earlier this year, I started hanging around Billingsgate, London’s wholesale fish market. I tell the fish merchants there that I’m trying to understand the whole process, of where the fish comes from and goes to, how it gets distributed, who’s selling what, and more generally what goes on at the market. It’s part of an ongoing project on fish, on all the work that’s involved in brining fish ‘from sea to table’. ‘Well, if you really want to understand, you should come and work for me one day!’ Roger, a long-established fish merchant at Billingsgate, challenges me. ‘OK,’ I say, ‘When can I come?’ We arrange a Saturday in November so I can see things when it’s busy, Roger insists. I start to prepare myself. ‘You’ll need waterproof boots and a body warmer,’ he instructs me – and a lot of nerve, I think.
Roger Barton is a force of nature. He is variously described as the King of Billingsgate or, in the radio show he does on a Friday for XFM, the Legend of Billingsgate. On my first visit to the market, I approach someone else on the stand: ‘Are you Roger Barton?’ ‘Oh, you mean the Bastard of Billingsgate! He’ll be back in a moment. And that’s how you should address him.’ I take a chance when the man with the boater and moustache returns. He laughs and we hit if off straight away.
He said to call him the day before to confirm. ‘What time should I arrive?’ ‘Between 2 and 2.30.’ He means in the morning. I try to sleep at 9pm and set the alarm for just after 1am. With three layers of clothes, I arrive at the security barrier an hour later. ‘I’m going to work with Roger Barton,’ I say to the guard and we both laugh. I walk up the steps from the car park with the view of Canary Wharf behind – a very different kind of market. I go over to the stand. ‘Ali, give Dawn her coat,’ Roger says within a breath of hello. He turns to the others: ‘Tell her what we’re doing, show her, make her work!’
The so-called ‘new’ Billingsgate market (the site since 1982) is a covered hall with adjacent buildings for additional cold storage, as well as a shellfish boiling room and an ice-making plant! (see: www.billingsgate-market.org.uk.) There are 54 merchants in all, selling from stands organised along three back-to-back rows lengthways with several cross-cutting paths at intervals along them, and from shops around the edges of the hall. There’s nothing but fish and seafood on sale, broadly divided into so-called ‘fresh’ or ‘wet’, exotic, frozen, plus smoked and different kinds of seafood. The floor of the market hall is green and gleaming with water that reflects everything around. There is a whole network of pipes overhead which bring water hoses to the stands. There’s a phone at each stand and plenty of mobiles. In fact, there’s a lot of talking to the world outside. And there’s a lot of moving about. Porters are everywhere, each with their number, either working directly for a stand-holder or ‘freelance’, getting work according to the demands of the day. On the first-floor there are the merchants’ offices, some directly overlooking the market, plus the Clerk and Superintendent’s office, the Fish Merchants Association, inspectors, maintenance, police and first aid, as well as the Seafood Training School which offers courses in fish cookery.
The first thing that’s striking as you enter the market site is the smell, not bad, just there. Even the freshest fish in such quantities smells of something. It’s as if there’s an odour from all the wetness and cold too. At this time, the place is relatively empty, although the two cafes are already doing a good business. Roger tends to set up early, and it can take a small team of people a couple of hours. By the time I’ve moved a few boxes of prawns and look up, there’s already more going on. The activity creeps up on you with cries of ‘mind your legs’, ‘… your legs!’ and the rumble of trolleys. It’s the porters’ space and it’s up to you to get out of the way. I’ve no idea what time it is most of the time I am there. At one point it is still only 4am, at another it is suddenly 7.30.
Everyone works very fast. I know this because I am trying to keep up with them and it’s a struggle. There are a lot of boxes of prawns, at least 7 sizes, all 2 kilos. Some have different coloured labels, sometimes the labels are the same colours but the size is different. You have to read them then put them in the right pile. I find it hard to see where the size is written and keep getting it wrong.
‘Give Mike a hand with the congers,’ Roger says. Yeah, right. 30 kilos a box. I can’t shift them an inch. So someone tells me to lay out the snappers. I start by trying to pick up a 3 kilo fish. By the tail with a hand around its slippery body. ‘Pick the fish up through the eyes,’ I get told. I hesitate for a moment but once I get beyond the idea of it, it’s actually quite easy. You can get a firm grasp though the sockets, the bones are hard there and can take the weight. But only two fish in, I put my bare hand – ‘did you bring gloves?’ Roger had asked like I was supposed to know – into the ice and catch my thumb on the razor sharp gills of the snapper. My coat is no longer white and pristine.
By the time I come back from finding a plaster, the snapper are all laid out and I’m directed to help Jo with the prawns. ‘You need a knife and a marker for this job,’ says Roger. The marker is like a chunky black Pritt stick and the knives are varied. I use the one with the smallest blade and try to imitate the others by making a cross in the plastic packaging which I then tear away. I feel moderately helpful doing this. Then Roger says to take away the rubbish, next to the cold storage area outside. It’s piled on one of the pallets with a hand-held steering device underneath. It’s simple if you know how. I don’t so just pick up an armful of rubbish. ‘Leave it to me,’ someone says immediately. I feel useless again.
There are two clear sections to the stand. One end is run by Billy, Roger’s right-hand man. This is where most of the large fish are – halibut, grouper (brown and spotted), all sorts of snapper, tilapia, red bream, conger eels and salmon. Plus some fish from the Indian Ocean, pomfret and other things I’m not familiar with, such as doctor fish and rabbit fish. At the other end, which faces one of the exits, there’s a big selection of other smaller fish and seafood. That’s where the squid are, and smaller farmed sea bass (10 for £12), plus sardines and all sorts of other things. The effect is of abundance. Between the two is the section with the prawns, then there’s another stretch before Roger’s ‘office’ (a space to write orders underneath the phone) and the ‘till’ (a drawer!). This is my patch for the day.
Everyone sells actively. ‘I want to hear you selling,’ Roger says, ‘not waiting for people to ask you things. So, what’s your pitch?’ Now I’m comfortable, I can do this. There’s a lot of cod, £3 per kilo. ‘I want to see all that gone,’ he says. Then there’s wild sea bass, £12 but I can go down to £10, I’m told. Next to that are chunks of tuna, £12, swordfish, £10, and marlin, £9, all vacuum-packed in clear plastic. In front, there are lobsters, £16. On the side, there’s a pile of razor clams, £5, and along the top, clams, £18 for a 2 kilo box, scallops (out of the shell, £18 for a 1 kilo tub, £29 for a 2 kilo one), dover sole (small, £7, and medium, £12), and packets of crabmeat, £2, and smoked salmon, £5 – but £25 in Harrods as Roger is fond of saying. I write out the prices either on the back of one of the boxes, or on a polystyrene lid as a reminder.
When the customers come, I talk about the eyes and where everything’s caught. I spot the middle-class people and tell them that the sea bass is wild, what a treat it is. I aim the cod at the Londoners, emphasise how it’s a bargain. The quantities are not small. I talk about how you can feed a lot of people with this fish, and realise that I’m saying that more to the tired-looking white middle-aged women and young and middle-aged black women. I emphasise sociality and play on their roles of being a host or provider. None of this is planned, this is what comes out, what I find myself doing when I’m not thinking about it. Of course it’s young and not so young men who want to flirt. Three people say they want to buy me. Yeah right, I reply flatly.
Lots of people seem to buy second time around, after checking out other fish and prices at other stands. A French couple buy the largest Turbot on the stall for £50. Then they come back for 2 kilos of scallops, £29. They know what they want, and don’t treat me as if I might be a source of knowledge. Others do, however. ‘What do you do with those [razor clams]?’ ‘How do you cook a sea bass?’ Now I am really in my element! I offer recipes and wise-sounding guidelines: ‘With fish,’ I pronounce, ‘the principle is always not to do too much’, and so on. I am getting into my stride and thoroughly enjoying myself. One man remarks, ‘You’re in the wrong line of work, you should be a TV chef!’ I’ve been laughing at that ever since.
When I think back on the day, I have a strong image of myself swinging a cod! I’m really getting the hang of it after a while and start to be able to feel the weight. ‘This one’s heavy, more than 2 kilos,’ I say to a customer. ‘Yeah, 2.4,’ Roger states after no more than a glance at the fish I’m throwing on the scales. He knows so well through sight and hold over the years he can now bypass the weighing altogether. He’s always right.
I get faster at mental arithmetic quite quickly. The first time something weighs 3.2 kilos I can’t calculate the 0.2. I’m embarrassed by this but own up and Roger gives me a calculator. Then I get the hang of how they round up and down and I more confidently let myself know the price, taking a few moments to check it in my head – or with the calculator if someone is buying several items – while I’m weighing the fish. No one challenges me. In fact, more generally, people treat me like a fishmonger assuming that’s what I do, seeing the role ahead of the person. I’m quite chuffed that I can carry this off, at least to the general public. I’m not selling to other fishmongers, Roger deals with them.
Roger tells me to tidy up at some point as gaps start to appear in the display. ‘Presentation is everything,’ he proclaims after getting out more tuna and swordfish, ‘line those up,’ he says. I do so then repeat the process with the cod and even reach under the stand to rearrange the sea bass. Water drips down my neck. I must smell of fish all through by now. By the end of my shift, the front of my coat and legs are soaked.
It’s gone quiet without me seeing it coming and I’m sorry it’s nearly over. Some of the stands are back to their bare metal frames as some merchants leave as soon as the market officially shuts at 8am. In other places there are large amounts of rubbish and people hosing things down. I’m tired now and a bit frazzled. Roger asks me to count up the money in his drawer, a pile of assorted notes and handfuls of change. At around 9am he says I’ve done enough. ‘So, what are you going to give me for dinner?’ I say. That was the deal. ‘Whatever you want,’ he replies and sounds as if he means it. I end up with 2 large cuttlefish, 4 dover sole, and a kilo of scallops. This feels like a good exchange. I drive home very happy. And grateful that I don’t have to do this every day.
 See recipe for Fisherman’s Cuttlefish at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/mark-hix-cooks-up-your-favourite-recipes-418693.html.
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