The Billingsgate clock that hangs above the central aisle says it’s 4.40. Or because it’s an old-fashioned clock perhaps it should say twenty to five. A white round face with black roman numerals is repeated on four sides of a large cube, painted green, gilded and crenellated for effect. It tells the time to all points around the market.
I’ve found some pre-dawn action today. I’m strolling round this purpose-built shed the size of a football pitch where the main concern is the buying and selling of fish. They’re not open for business, in theory, until 5.00, but the place is humming. The merchants and their teams will have been awake since the really early hours, getting set up, stocked and organised.
‘Watch your legs, please! Watch your legs…’ comes the cry as the porters wheel in palette-trolleys loaded with boxes from the warehousing bays and chilled Portakabins outside. They all wear long white jackets and trousers; some with white caps, rubber boots squelching.
I do a quick circuit to get the feel of things. Of course there’s every kind of fish on the menu: sardines to salmon, mackerel to monkfish; from the lowly herring to crates of exotic ponyfish caught in the Indian Ocean only yesterday.
I stand to one side and check out the practicalities. The roof-space is sectioned by heavy yellow girders from which hang nine rectangular gantries, in the same bright yellow theme. They carry the power points, telephone and lighting strips for five or six stalls that are arranged underneath each one. These are composed generally of little more than palettes laid on the floor stacked with white polystyrene boxes. Some have a metal counter or a freezer compartment. Each hangs out a sign: nothing fancy, the company name and phone details, universally blue on a plain white background, sometimes with a simple fishy logo. A few England supporters have the cross of St George draped overhead. At the back, the boss or the partners control operations beside a stainless-steel lectern, punching calculators, scribbling in invoice books, pulling out the sheets and calling orders.
‘Here we go now. Mind your legs!’
The fish gets hauled in, stacked, sold and shipped out. None of it stays for long. The freshest seems to go first.
There’s a constant hubbub of bartering and banter, spiked with the squeak of polystyrene and the slapping of palettes. The crunch of ice, shovelled by the bucket-load over glistening sea bream, punctuates the rasp of trolley wheels on the slippery floor. Water trickles away down the sluices. A telephone rings but they’re too busy to answer. Deals are being done, haggling over weights, quantities and prices. Some customers are doing the rounds, winding up the competition.
‘He may be offering you fifteen quid a box, but look at these. Beautiful. Picked ‘em myself…’
‘I’ll give you sixteen…’
‘Seventeen fifty I can do…’
‘Mind your legs!’
I wander around taking photos. I always ask but no one seems to mind. They’re a cheery bunch. I find a mountain of crabs – a mass of armour with lively claws, a huge pink turbot, barracuda and barramundi, a slab of maybe twenty conger eel – ugly, grey and slimy, matt black lobsters imprisoned by tough green bands.
As I’m taking the shot of the day, I hear one wag in a white coat shout: ‘Oy-oy! … Snapper!’
It’ll be sea bass for supper tonight. Four for a tenner.