I'd always wanted to visit Smithfield Market but its anti social business hours had always kept me away. Some irony, then, that it's on a perishing winter's morning that I finally manage to drag myself out of bed, in order to kneel at the altar of Horace Jones' 'cathedral of meat'.
I manage to convince Dom, my flatmate, to tag along, with the promise of a meaty bargain. I had wagered he'd bail out at the last minute, yet the two of us arrive at Smithfield just after 2am — when it opens up those distinctive green and purple gates, reminiscent of the Wimbledon tennis colour scheme.
Entering through the plastic flap curtains (the kind supermarket freezers have), we're soon shaken awake by the need to dodge the white cloaked brigade of Smithfield's porters rattling their electric pallet trucks frantically to and from the line of meat wagons outside.
Even at this ungodly hour, the atmosphere is lively and filled with chatter. At the store fronts, stout butchers scribbling on docket pads arrange their displays and bark offers at customers, while their colleagues slice and dice animal carcasses hanging on steel hooks inside giant refrigerators behind them.
The first thing on the agenda is the daunting task of convincing a Jack-the-lad coterie of butchers to speak into our tape recorders. Dom and I have decided to split up and meet back up in half an hour. For my first attempt at an interview I approach two butchers leaning casually against their counter. "We're busy at the moment", comes the answer, "Come back at 9am." Cheeky beggars: the market closes at 8am during the week. Still, I take the rejection on the chin.
I am, however, put out when I meet back up with Dom, when I discover that he — a non hack — has managed to secure two interviews. I feel somewhat better when it turns out Dom has forgotten to turn on the recorder when he was speaking to Sam Smith, one of the butchers at a boutique-looking store perched up one end of the market. Dom has at least managed to snap a photo of Sam however. Apparently, Sam has only worked at Smithfield for two years, and he mostly enjoys his work. His shop looks somewhat out of place among the parade of units. As well as animal carcasses decorating the store front, there are boxes of assorted cakes and neat stacks of panettone placed on the counter, which sits inside a mock grey brick interior, adorned by fairy lights hanging in between rolls of Italian sausages.
Dom manages to press the record button with his second interviewee, only this time he's neglected to take his name or take his photograph, and the butcher subsequently disappears to the back of one of the units never to return. Anyway, this mystery butcher works for David Andrade and Sons, currently the oldest business in Smithfield. "Our ancestry goes beyond that before the market was built on this site at the time which was called Smoothfields," the mystery butcher says. He adds that the market has changed a lot since he started working there 35 years ago:
To a certain extent it has lost a lot of the old atmosphere; a lot of the old characters when I started here have retired now.
That said, we do recall that even to this day, soon-to-be-married porters are stripped and pelted with offal — Smithfield is still hardly your average office work environment.
Still, the change in atmosphere since the market was segregated into separate units is an observation shared by Mike, 58, who owned his own butcher shop before he came to Smithfield in 2001. "The market has has got a little bit quieter, but it's still buzzing," Mike says, "It used to be better when the market was open, and before they built all the units there used to be a lot of banter."
For much of its history, Smithfield was a livestock market; now all the stock is dead, but the variety of animals is just as diverse — from prime fillet beef steaks to pork chops, lambs legs and offal (the latter has some exotic names, like honeycomb tripe). Smithfield is a wholesale market, and customers come here to buy in bulk. Intuition would tell you that the customers at Smithfield would predominantly be restaurant owners and high street butchers. But the people we see mostly appear to be Joe Public — shopping by moonlight, to beat the supermarket prices.
I'm having a bit more luck with interviewees now, speaking to John Paul, 45, from Portugal, who has worked at the market for eight years, and Tom Quirk, 67, a veteran butcher who began his career in the sixties. John loves the market:
I wouldn't do any other job in the world. I like the team play here, the people, and the customers.
Quirk is a jolly chap who mans the counter at Gee and Webb. He started in the trade in 1968, in Kingston, went on to own a depot in Croydon, and has traded from Smithfield since 1999. The best part of his job, he says, is the challenge: "Every day it's fresh meat that has to be sold. Everyone wants pork chops; you want them, he wants them," he says gesturing animatedly towards nobody in particular, "but who's gonna have the other bits of meat? So it's a challenge."
Smithfield Market is one of just a handful of wholesale markets in London, including Billingsgate fish market and New Covent Garden. Over the years, the Victorian building has had various uses other than the trading of fresh meat. During the second world war, cold stores beneath Smithfield were used in an intriguing attempt to construct an aircraft carrier made out of ice. Landing strips for war planes were sorely needed in the Atlantic, and high command thought it would be wise to commandeer icebergs for the task. It must have occurred to somebody that this scheme was ambitious to say the least, and they opted in the end for creating their own icebergs — which is where Smithfield came in. Plans melted away when it was discovered that the refrigerating plant for the berg would have required the same amount of steel as a non-ice aircraft carrier.
Just like the building, the cultural conventions of the market have withstood the test of time. The salesmen, butchers and porters are almost all men; there are a few women but most are stowed away in tiny cabins. Smithfield may be modernising, but at its own pace.
The butchers don't wear kid gloves for their customers either. You probably won't hear a store assistant at your Tesco Metro telling you to "get a fucking move on, I've got other customers mate," but that's what I hear one butcher say to a particularly ponderous punter. I too receive a tongue lashing by one of the porters, who tells me and my camera to to get out of his way.
A few moments later I manage to trip over an empty pallet left beneath one of the counters. I nearly hit the floor, but am rescued just in time by Dom, much to the delight of some nearby butchers, who cheer in approval. The incident could almost sum up the atmosphere here: macho, a little hairy, but warm, witty and bighearted too.
Eventually, we call it a morning, heading over the road La Forchetta, a cafe that opens its doors early for folks at the market. Dom and I tuck into bacon and egg butties costing us a fiver each — quite rich given we could have just snapped up 50 rashes of bacon and 30 eggs for £12. At least it isn't the biggest blunder we've made that morning.