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.

Roger Barton

Roger Bar­ton

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![1] 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.

 


[1] 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.