THE ENGLISHMAN & THE EEL

Dewi Lewis Publishing.

  ©Stuart Freedman photographs from 'The Englishman & the Eel'.

©Stuart Freedman photographs from 'The Englishman & the Eel'.

Introduction: Michael Collins

"Nobody can be said to know London who does not know a true cockney". So begins Virginia Woolf in her 1931 essay 'A Portrait of a Londoner'. In writing of the fate of a Mrs. Crowe the novelist is anticipating the fate of the city breed the character is part of: "Mrs. Crowe is dead, and London - no, though London still exists, London will never be the same city again". A few decades earlier two other writers, the American author Jack London and the social reformer Charles Masterman, each of whom had temporarily settled in poor London neighbourhoods, suggested this tribe would soon be obsolete. Partly because of the impact of migrants from the countryside who were stronger, healthier, but chiefly because the polluted city air would bring these lives to an end. Yet the London native survived until the 21st century. The cockneys were not wiped out - they migrated to the suburbs, the coast and beyond. While the elders left behind appear landlocked in a landscape altered by immigration and redevelopment.
Those of us that made the voyage out and live like ex-pats with memories of the old country, seek out familiar relics on return trips. Not in the name of nostalgia but - history. To remind ourselves we once existed on streets we now walk as ghosts. The search begins by looking skyward at what a poet, I think, described as the foreheads of buildings. Then to the red-brick monoliths that recall the civic nature of the neighbourhood: town hall, library, welfare centre. Then to the elements that appear too earthy, too localised, to be cast as cultural. These bring to mind the George Orwell point that the popular common culture of England is unorthodox, below stairs, and frowned upon by the establishment: "All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which even when they are communal are not official - the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the ‘nice cup of tea'". For the urban working class reared in the once dark continents of the capital, as 19th century social anthropologists referred to them, the list was incomplete without the pie and mash shop as depicted in ‘The Englishman And The Eel’.
Arguably the pie and mash shop is one of the few reminders of a Victorian legacy in these working class enclaves. These venues were synonymous with the tribe that was formed by the modern, industrial city. The urban underclass was described as ‘the Deluge’ - existing in a netherworld of vice, poverty and crime. Writers held their noses before they descended into these dark continents, and exited with dispatches that prompted reform. The tribe itself was mocked along with its pastimes, its dialect, its eating habits. All this changed in the wake of the London Blitz. Suddenly the stoic cockney was, fashionably, the subject of films, plays and cartoon strips. No longer a figure to fear but a figure of fun.
Through all this the pie and mash shop remained, and became the stuff of cockney cliché along with street markets, the pub sing-along and pearly kings. And yet... and yet, it continues to be an example of the community Orwell alluded to. It survives in a fragmented 21st century capital, where the loss of identity and history has become the defining characteristic. Writing about a London neighbourhood in his book 'The Comfort Of Things', the anthropologist Daniel Miller argues: "If ever we lived in a post-society, whose primary focus is on diversity rather than shared or systematically ordered culture, the London street is that post-society". Every home houses a tribe, every street is a reservation, and everyone co-exists within the wider setting of the city.
Meanwhile the pie and mash shop survives, even though sightings are rare these days. It was always an alternate collective experience to the pub and, say, the street market. It’s often a place to eat alone. A refuge for the solitary. Something that’s apparent in Stuart Freedman’s photographs. These sometimes reveal these eateries to be shelters of respite and repose. Those of us that were regulars remember the widows, the widowers, the lone coster or labourer, along with the mother with her offspring. Unlike Eliot’s Prufrock, whose life is measured out in coffee spoons, theirs were measured out in pies, mash, liquor, jellied eels, dissected by cutlery that was for a period, plastic. But whether alone or in company, this is a meal to be eaten and enjoyed in silence. Taking the forensic eye to the detail of the photographs in these pages - where the small hand rests on the clock; ‘Stay True’ tattooed across ten fingers - I feel myself within them, just out of frame. When? What day? Well, certainly, that clearing between infancy and adolescence. Perhaps a momentary pause from growing pains, double-biology, and the earth-shattering news that Sparks had slipped down the charts. Such were the concerns when you played truant and used your bus fare to lap up double pie, mash and liquor for 22 pence during a bleak mid-winter in the 1970s.
How can this meal do that? How can something so simple, and born of hard times, on hard streets, be ambrosia to the locals and resonate with the potency of a Proustian madeleine to those of us that relish the taste in adulthood? Because, well, to an outsider, an interloper, it was simply congealed liquor with green flecks, lumpy mash, burnt pies, and eels, jellied or stewed. And it still is. What has changed is that eels no longer wriggle on trays in the windows of these institutions. Condiments no longer come in brown tablet tubs that once housed prescribed drugs. Dried chillies no longer float in black vinegar in old Sarsparilla bottles. What remains, as is apparent by the various settings revealed in 'The Englishman and the Eel’, are the moist ornate tiles, the wooden benches, formica counters and marble table tops. What remains are the people.
One particular Stuart Freedman photograph pulls me back and takes me back. An elderly woman is reaching up to a counter and paying for a meal. I recognise Arment’s the pie and mash shop in south east London where I have found myself on an infinite number of occasions throughout an infinite number of years. On the wall behind her, a line-up of framed photographs. Unlike the images in this book they are black and white, amateur and ancient. These tell the story of the subject before this book begins, and moves the story so perfectly, so beautifully, into the present. Arment’s has been a family-run concern since the beginning of the 20th century. The various generations, and customers, are depicted within the frames, charting the changing times in a changing neighbourhood. But equally, this gallery of images appears to be proudly making a salient point: we’re still here and our story, our history is still relevant.
The pie and mash shop itself is surrounded by halal butchers, Polish supermarkets, curry houses and West Indian takeaways. In the wider neighbourhood the sound of drilling, digging, and accents from other classes, reveal the extent to which redevelopment and gentrification are colonising the area. In such a setting the pie and mash shop may seem an anachronism that belongs to a monocultural past, and those that celebrate it, and other aspects of that lost city, are often accused of peddling a myth. This is true, in part, even when you attempt to recall the past in terms of history and fact rather than memory and nostalgia. But it is no less a myth than the multicultural present, with the tired refrain of diversity and vibrancy that has turned the capital into a hackneyed cliché by those so keen to celebrate it.
Those of us that return here as ghosts, and reach out across the formica counter for our meal, continue to enjoy it in solitude and silence. While our experience of the place that housed our past, where we seek our ambrosia, our madeleine, is not unique. It chimes with that of others making similar sojourns to once familiar cities. "Nowadays I feel like an old timer in terms of estrangement", writes the American Charles D’Ambrosio in a recent collection of essays. "I don’t know what determines meaning in the city any better than these old people with their attenuating memories... I went away and in my absence things have sprung up. Good things. It’s a new place, but there’s an old silence bothering me".
Within these pages that silence is filled with images, stories and lives. Stuart Freedman has chosen a significant moment to celebrate and share this subject and its history. One day these venues will pass - maybe sooner rather than later, and London - no, though London will still exist, London will never be the same city again.