Points of view

Published by Pluto Press

Yesterday I emerged from a lift to an unexpected and epic sight: The vast roof of Smithfield Market. I scribbled a mental Post-it: Drag carcass down there early one morning, before developers mount another attempt to turn it into portions of office and apartment. Of course, the copywriters working on any new development project would have fun laying old allusions over new constructions. Chitterling House sounds appropriately mock-Dickensian. Sweetbread Mews, anyone?

Insomniac hours. Arcane language. Hot negotiations. Cold hands. Innards. Blood. Fleshstink. What is there not to love about a meat market? Countless authors may have been sniffy around Smithfield’s gore, but it has inspired some of the most evocative writing on London. Think of Oliver Twist and Bill Sikes passing through:

‘It was market morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle deep, with filth and mire; a thick stream, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle and mingling with the fog… the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant din that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.’

And now we can add to that heady mix visitors to Fabric.

Much as I love Dickens’ ruminations and ungulations, it’s the diary of artist Ian Breakwell that best captures Smithfield and the surrounding area for me.  His studio was on the third floor of a building overlooking the market, and he spent hours gazing at the scenes playing out below. Here are three entries:


12th February 1974

London: Smithfield Market: A man strides out of the main entrance of the meat market, wearing a pair of pigs ears fastened to his head; he walks across to his parked car, whistling loudly.

19th September 1974

London: West Smithfield:
From out of the entrance to the hospital come a variety of out-patients: hobbling with sprained ankles, hopping with broken legs in plaster; shuffling coronary cases, amputees on crutches. Across the road two small children imitate each patient’s different movements.

25th March 1975

London: Farringdon Road, ECl:
A man with one leg considerably shorter than the other, lurching along whistling I Could Have Danced All Night.

It was from his window that Breakwell encountered a mundivagant muse: ‘I became aware that amidst all the hustle and bustle of the market trade, among all the people going purposefully about their business there was one man who I kept seeing repeatedly, a man just as purposeful as those around him but not engaged in any business except that of walking continuously on a circuitous and regular route around the market area.’ This observation led to his most important work that decade – The Walking Man Diary – which became a series of artworks, texts and an installation at the ICA. An excellent website, Ian Breakwell: The Diary Re-Invented, now re-presents this and other work and words from the 1960s to 2006.

Ian Breakwell: The Diary Re-InventedBreakwell’s written diary demonstrates how great reportage can spring from stillness. As cities become evermore dynamic and kinetic, writers have to judge their position in or around the flow of life. Often our first impulse is to move in search of the subject, to pursue content. And immersion in the flux can certainly produce exciting, motile forms of expression. But sometimes, if you fix yourself at one point, the subject comes to you. Another mental Post-it: select a place with potential, choose an interesting point of view. Events may unfold.

Here’s another excerpt from the diary:

‘Moorfields Eye Hospital: The line of women in dressing gowns and black glasses hiding
bandaged eyes sit in their armchairs staring at the colour television.
On screen two American cops in black glasses stare back at them.’


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