It must be chucking-out time at the Fridge. There’s a sudden spill of exuberance out onto the pavement. Two early-risers waiting for a bus look on blankly as a happy raggle-taggle of black youths disperses down Brixton Hill.
It’s 4.48 as I turn into Electric Avenue, a bustling street crammed with a long line of stalls and shops on either side. Or it was, when I was here last. This morning it’s rather more ghostly; the shutters are down and the market traders yet to arrive. I stroll along the deserted crescent, past colour-coded wheelie-bins and cardboard packaging stacked for collection. Torn polythene flaps in the breeze. There’s a reek of dried fish. A slim black cat skulks along with me, hugging the wall, as I check out the shopfronts: Fazal Stores – Wholesale and Retail, Luggage and Fancy Goods; Aziz – Afro-Caribbean, European, Asian; Sallo Cash and Carry; Wing Tai Supermarket; K.M. Kashmir Halal Quality Butcher; Tina’s Salon – Nails, Human Hair, Retail…
I was expecting to find at least someone setting up but it seems I’m a little early. Then I hear voices. Two girls are approaching in high heels, bare legs, bare backs and not very much in between. They’ve been out clubbing. Talking over each other, their gabble comes vaguely into focus as they draw nearer. ‘… Why would he do that kind of thing? What’s that about?’ says one, while her friend’s going, ‘But he’s still got money, that’s what I’m saying, he’s still got money. He’s got everyone following him. He’s got all his little followers, y’know what I’m saying? …’ And then they’re looking back puzzled as they realise they just passed me, their words trailing away along with any chance of making more sense of it all.
Standing at the junction with Atlantic Road, I watch mesmerized as a goods train rumbles by overhead. A man wheeling a bicycle stops to urinate under the arches beside the steps that lead up to the railway. Under the bridge I can see a stallholder on Pope’s Road hanging out clothes for sale on racks. He’s positioned opposite the public toilets, which aren’t open yet. Shyly, he tells me he’s there early every day. It takes a long time to lay out all his wares.
I track round up Coldharbour Lane, to the Ritzy cinema and start again. The commuter traffic is building on Brixton Road now. The Greggs bakers’ lorry is backing into Electric Avenue to make a delivery. At the same time, the wheelie-bin collector is reversing from the far end, a high-sided metal truck stencilled: ‘Cat. 3 – Not for human consumption’.
The sun is lighting the red brickwork high on the facade of Electric Mansions (such a cool address). Buddleia is growing up its drainpipes. A parasol stands ready on the narrow balcony in anticipation of another day of heat. Windows are open here and there on all four floors, but the only sign of life is someone’s underwear hanging out to dry.
A white van arrives, leaving a delivery of bread outside Nour Cash and Carry, red plastic trays of pitta bread and khobez. It’s costing Mr Nour £93.80, according to the invoice taped to the top.
There’s a woman round the corner shouting obscenities at the few people now passing by on their way to work. As I come to take a look, I see that an entrance to Brixton Village, the covered market, has been opened up by a maintenance man. So I sneak in and find I’m in there on my own.
Built in the 1930s and originally known as Granville Arcade, Brixton Village has recently been saved from being flattened for redevelopment and awarded listed building status. Arranged in six short avenues – four down, two across – it’s now home to an eclectic and thriving mix of food stores, restaurants and boutiques. Each avenue is decorated in a different colour: sea blue, lilac, yellow, pale blues and greens – sometimes with a two-tone effect whereby the ironwork holding the glass roof above each arcade is darker than the walls. In places the paint is peeling, but this merely adds to the charm. In front of closed shutters, the wooden stalls lay bare, three steps down. Paper lanterns hang and bunting is strung across the alleyways.
I’ve been here during the day when the vibe is relaxed and friendly but, empty and silent, with the soft light of the morning sun filtering through the skylights, I’m entranced by its beauty. The colours remind me strongly of Central and South America, which isn’t surprising. We have Etta’s Caribbean seafood restaurant, another that promises Comida Tipica Colombiana, then the butcher’s shop – Carnisseria Los Andes. And there are African textiles, Chinese herbal medicines, Sierra Leone groceries, coffee from the Kiwi entrepreneurs at Federation, specialist ice-creams from Laboratorio Artigianale del Buon Gelato, local designers, fabrics, home-made foods…
So it’s 6.20 and I’m drifting up and down the avenues, taking it all in – almost greedily. In an hour or so, it’ll be business as usual. Right now, it’s mine.