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Nights in London (1915) by Thomas Burke

The following extract from chapter nine of Thomas Burke's Nights in London (1915) describes a Saturday night out on Salmon Lane from the point of view of a worker who lives on the Isle of Dogs.

The extract gives a flavour of the area Alfred Hitchcock grew up in after his family moved to 175 Salmon Lane, Limehouse, sometime around 1907.

Extracts from "A Worker's Night (The Isle of Dogs)"

You may catch him any night of the week, and find him ready to yarn, save on Saturdays. Saturday night is always dedicated to the missus and to shopping in Poplar or Blackwall. Shopping on Saturday nights in these districts is no mere domestic function: it is a festival, an event. Johnnie washes and puts on his second-best suit, and then he and the missus depart from the Island, he bearing a large straw marketing bag, she carrying a string-bag and one of those natty stout-paper bags given away by greengrocers and milliners. As soon as the 'bus has tossed them into Salmon Lane, off Commercial Road, they begin to revel.

Salmon Lane on a Saturday night is very much like any other shopping centre in the more humane quarters of London. Shops and stalls blaze and roar with endeavour. The shops, by reason of their more respectable standing, affect to despise stalls, but when it comes to competition it is usually stalls first and shops hanging round the gate. The place reeks of naphtha, human flesh, bad language, and good-nature. Newly-killed rabbits, with their interiors shamelessly displayed, suspend themselves around the stalls while their proprietors work joyfully with a chopper and a lean-bladed knife. Your earnest shopper is never abroad before nine o'clock in the evening, and many of them have to await the still riper hours when Bill shall have yielded up his wages. Old ladies of the locality are here in plenty, doubtfully fingering the pieces of meat which smother the slabs of the butchers' shops. Little Elsie is here, too, buying for a family of motherless brothers and sisters with the few shillings which Dad has doled out. Who knows so well as Little Elsie the exact spending value of twopence-halfpenny? Observe her as she lays in her Sunday gorge. Two penn'orth of "pieces" from the butcher's to begin with (for twopence you get a bagful of oddments of meat, trimmings from various joints, good nourishing bones, bits of suet, and, if the assistant thinks you have nice eyes, he will throw in some skirt). Then to the large greengrocer's shop for a penn'orth of "specks" (spotted or otherwise damaged fruit, and vegetables of every kind). Of this three penn'orth the most valuable item is the bones, for these, with a bit of carrot and potato and onion, will make a pot of soup sufficient in itself to feed the kiddies for two days. Then, at the baker's, you get a market basket full of stale bread for twopence, and, seeing it's for Sunday, you spend another penny and get five stale cakes. At the grocer's, two ounces of tea, two ounces of margarine, and a penn'orth of scraps from the bacon counter for Dad's breakfast. And there you have a refection for the gods.

Observe also the pale young man who lodges in some remote garret by Limehouse Hole. He has but a room, and his landlady declines the responsibility of "doin" for him. He must, therefore, do his own shopping, and he does it about as badly as it can be done. His demeanour suggests a babe among wolves, innocence menaced by the wiles of Babylon; and sometimes motherly old dears audibly express pity at his helplessness, which flusters him still more, so that he leaves his change on the counter.

The road is a black gorge, rent with dancing flame. The public-house lamps flare with a jovial welcome for the jaded shopper, and every moment its doors flap open, and fling their fire of joy on the already overcharged air. Between the stalls parade the youth and beauty, making appointments for the second house at the Poplar Hippodrome, or assignations for Sunday evening.

As the stalls clear out the stock so grows the vociferousness of their proprietors, and soon the ear becomes deadened by the striving rush of sound. Every stall and shop has its wide-mouthed laureate, singing its present glories and adding lustre to its latest triumphs.

"I'll take any price yeh like, price yeh like! Comer-long, comerlong, Ma! This is the shop that does the biz. Buy-buy-buy-uy!"

"Walk up, ladies, don't be shy. Look at these legs. Look at 'em. Don't keep looking at 'em, though. Buy 'em. Buy 'em. Sooner you buy 'em sooner I can get 'ome and 'ave my little bath. Come along, ladies; it's a dirty night, but thank God I got good lodgings, and I hope you got the same. Buy-buy-buy!"

"'Ere's yer lovely bernanas. Fourer penny. Pick 'em out where yeh like!"

In one ear a butcher yells a madrigal concerning his little shoulders. In the other a fruit merchant demands to know whether, in all your nacheral, you ever see anything like his melons. Then a yard or so behind you an organ and cornet take up their stand and add "Tip-perary" to the swelling symphony. But human ears can receive so much, and only so much, sound; and clapping your hands over your ears, you seek the chaste seclusion, for a few minutes, of the saloon of "The Black Boy," or one of the many fried-fish bars of the Lane.

Still later in the evening the noise increases, for then the stalls are anxious to clear out their stock at any old price. The wise wife — and Johnnie's missus is one — waits until this hour before making her large purchases. For now excellent joints and rabbits and other trifles are put up for auction. The laureates are wonderful fellows, many of them, I imagine, decayed music-hall men. A good man in this line makes a very decent thing out of it. The usual remuneration is about eight or ten shillings for the night and whatever beer they want. And if you are shouting for nearly six hours in the heavy-laden air of Salmon Lane, you want plenty of beer and you earn all you get. They have a spontaneous wit about them that only the Cockney possesses. Try to take a rise out of one of them, and you will be sadly plucked. Theirs is Falstaffian humour — large and clustering: no fine strokes, but huge, rich-coloured sweeps. It is useless to attempt subtleties in the roar of a Saturday night. What you have to aim at is the obvious — but with a twist; something that will go home at once; something that can be yelled or, if the spirit moves you, sung. It is, in a word, the humour of the Crowd.

At about eleven o'clock, the laureate, duly refreshed, will mount on the outside counter, where he can easily reach the rows of joints. Around him gathers the crowd of housewives, ready for the auction. He takes the first — a hefty leg of mutton.

"Nah then!" he cries challengingly "nah then! Just stop shooting yer marth at the OOlans for a bit, and look at this 'ere bit o' meat. Meat was what I said," with a withering glance at the rival establishment across the Lane, where another laureate is addressing another crowd. "Meat, mother, meat. If yer don't want Meat, then it ain't no use comin' 'ere. If yer wants a cut orf an animal what come from Orstralia or Noo Zealand, then it ain't no use comin' 'ere. Over the road's where they got them. They got joints over there what come from the Anty-Podeys, and they ain't paid their boat-passage yet. No, my gels, this what I got 'ere is Meat. None of your carvings orf a cow what looks like a fiddle-case on trestles. You — sir — just cast yer eye over that. Carry that 'ome to the missus, and she'll let yer stay out till a quarter to ten, and yeh'll never find a button orf yer weskit long as yeh live. That's the sort o' meat to turn the kiddies into sojers and sailors. Nah then — what say to six-and-a-arf ?"

He fondles the joint much as one would a babe in long clothes, dandling it, patting it, stroking it, exhibiting it, while the price comes steadily down from six-and-a-half to six, five, four-and-a-half, and finally is knocked down at four. Often a prime-looking joint will go as low as twopence a pound, and the smaller stuff is practically given away when half-past twelve is striking.

It is the same with the other shops — greengrocery, fish, and fruit. All is, so far as possible, cleared out before closing time, and only enough is held in reserve to supply that large army of Sunday morning shoppers who are unable to shop on Saturday night owing to Bill's festivities.