An organ-grinder at Archway

Pleasures and treasures of the Edwardian street, by a descendant of Scottish banditti.

Under a different archway,

Under a different archway, "the last organ-grinder in Paris," prior to the 1908 ban. Image: Le Petit Parisien Illustré.

Market man, Mohammed S., is one of the most interesting people I’ve met since coming to London. He’s a fan of the organ act, which for him recalls the Parisian component of a Franco-Algerian childhood, but I think I’m right in saying that his true love is the old-style general-purpose street market, for which love he appears to have spent time in limbo.

I hope that that kind of market will survive the tsunami of fast food stalls for the asset-owning classes 1, and I think from Doris Neish’s splendid memoir of life at Archway around the time of the First World War – excerpt below – that she would also have been a fan of markets that were all things to all poissons.

Doris was born in 1908, the eleventh child of the London-Scottish part-time poet, William Neish, and his wife, Mary Ann McBeath. A collection of William’s work was published posthumously as Where the Apple-Ringie Grows. I haven’t managed to obtain a copy, but I suspect it will be cautious in approach and melancholy in tone. William Anderson, The Scottish Nation: Or the Surnames, Families, Literature, Honours, and Biographical History of the People of Scotland (1867):

[The MacNabs] carried on a deadly feud with the Neishes or McIlduys (?), a tribe which possessed the upper parts of Strathearn, and inhabited an island in the lower part of Loch Earn, called from them Neish island. Many battles were fought between them, with various success. The last was at Glenboultachan, about two miles north of Loch Earn foot, in which the Macnabs were victorious, and the Neishes cut off almost to a man. A small remnant of them, however, still lived in the island referred to, the head of which was an old man, who subsisted by plundering the people in the neighbourhood. One Christmas, the chief of the Macnabs had sent his servant to Crieff for provisions, but, on his return, he was waylaid, and robbed of all his purchases. He went home, therefore, empty-handed, and told his tale to the laird. Mscnab had twelve sons, all men of great strength, but one in particular exceedingly athletic, who was called for a byname, Iain mion Mac an Appa, or “Smooth John Macnab.” In the evening, these men were gloomily meditating some signal revenge on their old enemies, when their father entered, and said in Gaelic, “The night is the night, if the lads were but lads!” Each man instantly started to his feet, and belted on his dirk, his claymore, and his pistols. Led by their brother John, they set out, taking a fishing-boat on their shoulders from Loch Tay, carrying it over the mountains and glens till they reached Loch Earn, where they launched it, and passed over to the island. All was silent in the habitation of Neish. Having all the boats at the island secured, they had gone to sleep without fear of surprise. Smooth John, with his foot dashed open the door of Neish’s house; and the party, rushing in, attacked the unfortunate family, every one of whom was put to the sword, with the exception of one man and a boy, who concealed themselves under a bed. Carrying off the heads of the Neishes, and any plunder they could secure, the youths presented themselves to their father, while the piper struck up the pibroch of victory.

Stirling and Kenney, The Scottish tourist, and itinerary: or, A guide to the scenery and antiquities of Scotland and the western islands. With a description of the principal steam-boat tours (1830) adds an indispensable detail:

In commemoration of this event, the Macnabs have a Neish’s head for the family crest, with the motto Dread Nought.

It is a great shame that, following the success of his Irish Gaelic parodies, Flann O’Brien didn’t spend time in Scotland.

Doris lived in Harberton Road from 1914 until her death in 1993 and wrote up her memories for the Islington Gazette in the late 1960s. This excerpt is reproduced with the kind permission of Kristina Kashvili, who transcribed them, and with thanks to intermediary MM:

Remembering back over the years everything has altered but with change there was an often better substitute. But – there is a gap. Never replaced were the “Voices of the Streets”. Every trader from the errand boys whistling, to the street singers, could by sound identify themselves. “Coal, coal” – “Sweep”. There he would be with rods and brushes perched on his shoulder and his face still sooty from his previous jobs. “Any old rags, any old bones, any old iron”! Also the man with his tray of freshly backed muffins on his head – ringing a bell. They come no more. The old [but presumably pretty strong] lady who would drag a barrel organ up the Archway Road to give us music – the flute player and the couple whose soprano and tenor voices harmonized in “Love’s Old Sweet Song”. Bells used to ring, large clocks would chime. It is over 50 years since I last saw the lady with a basket on her arm and heard her singing

Won’t you buy my sweet Lavender
Sixteen bunches for one penny
You buy it once – you buy it twice
It makes your clothes smell fresh and nice

Only the memory, like the scent from lavender lingers.

Someone special was a man who would come sometimes near the close of a warm day and play a harp. He would sit on a stool while people gathered near. Into his cap would drop not only pennies but silver threepenny pieces. In the gathering dusk his beautiful music would fill the air and fill us with happiness.

So long ago these simple pleasures
Through memory’s door – return as treasures

In 1913 Alfred Noyes wrote a premonitory ballad:

There’s a barrel-organ carolling across a golden street
In the City as the sun sinks low;
Though the music’s only Verdi there’s a world to make it sweet
Just as yonder yellow sunset where the earth and heaven meet
Mellows all the sooty City! Hark, a hundred thousand feet
Are marching on to glory through the poppies and the wheat
In the land where the dead dreams go.

I think Doris has aged better, and wish I could trace that couplet. (Perhaps it is a Neish-ism.) Here though is John McCormack in 1927 singing Love’s Old Sweet Song (Just a Song at Twilight):

Stuff

  1. But then with the addition of the itinerant boxers I met in the Rif, and the great piles of junk scattered over the grounds of the old Encants in Barcelona. Speaking as an amateur cook, at the moment my absolute favourite markets in East London are probably the wholesalers:

    1. New Spitalfields in Leyton – open after the pub, but less confusing after a few hours sleep for purchasers of wedding flowers, or of the “Fruits and Vegetables … which could be cost effictive, qualitative and quantitative and fresh too” of these Punjabi lions‘; it’s also convenient for Lea duck and Eurostar Engineering;
    2. Billingsgate – Spanish with rucksacks full of cheap octopus, again best before dawn.

    But the greater your distance from the money, the better the knife stalls.


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