May 18, 2010 Mitch Miller

The Barras, at last…

Over the past couple of weekends I have finally begun to get to grips with the third strand of my Dialectographic adventures, the Barras market, and I must say, I am hugely relieved! I have an ‘in’ at Red Road and am ‘in’ with the Showman’s Quarter, but after all the bravado with which I proclaimed I would draw parts of Glasgow’s great concession to bric-a-brac and dodgy DVDs, I was at a bit of a loss at how to proceed. My friend Alan Knight, who is a filmmaker and photographer, has been working down at the Barras with Diversity Films, and has made many helpful suggestions. Chris Leslie, whose work I would also, strongly advise you getting to know, also has links there and I met quite a few traders through an opening celebrating his work at Paddy’s Market. But, there is nothing quite like getting off the bahookie and getting down there. This weekend, I was supposed to be the guest of an arts project up at Mull but for various reasons, was not able to go; so, being grounded at the big smoke (nothing to do with ash clouds) I thought I should make good use of my time, and headed down the road to the Calton.

I mentioned previously, my relief at having made a start with the Barras – but after my first visit the heart is also feeling a little heavy; drawing just a stall would be a mammoth task. Take a look at these pictures from one of the covered markets:

See what I mean? The amount of stuff to draw, document and recreate is enormous; it dwarves the level of detail at Backcauseway, and makes the concierge’s office a vacuum by comparison. I could do it, but getting the time is a worry. Last night, I sat with my delightful better half and catalogued all the things I do, and got progressively scared, so immediately stopped. I’ve always been against this idea that writers and artists sometimes buy into, of ‘retreat’ – of removing yourself from actual people, as if they were some kind of grit in your ointment, to repose in some kind of glorious self-absorption, to go and embrace your art in some charmingly dysfunctional hovel. I dislike the elitist, and patrician connotations; I like to be where people are, and things are happening; they are the basis and point of my work. Still, the idea of a few months in a creaking shack, just me, the research images and lots and lots of white stuff (paper of course) does appeal.

Enough whining; these things will be worked out, by hook, crook or other such snagging implement. The first day, Saturday I trekked out in search of stalls, and traders who might be interested in some weirdo drawing their place of work. I hit upon a deeply cunning method of striking up conversations; I picked something up from the stall, and bought it.  Not only did this identify who the trader was, it gave me an excuse to start asking them questions.

Now, books are my catnip; I acquire them like others breathe and a bookshop or stall can detain me for hours on end, so I decided to start with one of those. In the McIver’s market near the London road end, looking for Brian, a contact Alan had recommended.  His stall is hard to miss – spreading out as it does across much of the floor. The purchase of a Bud Neill collection of cartoons got us talking; he clearly thought my plan to turn the markets into diagrams was odd, if not weird, and he was very keen to point a DVD made of the history of the East End, and that neither I, or the Diversity project were the first to take an interest in East End history. He had no DVDs left for me to buy, so I promised to come back for one, and ended up chatting to one of his regular customers who had been coming to the Barras almost every weekend for years. He also knew a lot of Showpeople and clearly valued them for their straight talking and trading – for various reasons (see below), this particular connection of mine may be as important here, as it will be in the actual Showman’s Quarter segment of the project. Much was said but I noted nothing down, for though I had my wee camcorder in my pocket, this was a scouting rather than a foraging mission and I didn’t want to spook anyone. I do remember Brian showing off his skills though – implying – though never saying -that Andy Murray may well have played with one of the second hand tennis balls he sold to a couple of kids.   I enjoyed the show until they began to close up, and just managed to get a celebratory carton of hot mussels from the seafood stall before it shut.

The approach to Brian’s stall.

‘The Regular’ helps out while Brian is attending to a customer elsewhere.

The next day I felt a little shy about venturing out again – it had gone so well on Saturday that I was almost fearful of what a colder reception might do to my confidence. I decided, ultimately, that I was being a wimp, so set out again, a little earlier this time, so that I could have a look around then drop in on Brian again. I sought out one of the smaller markets I had always particularly liked, ‘The Wash House’ and was glad to find that it hadn’t changed much –the cafe felt very ‘old-school’!

It is one of the smaller markets, but perfectly formed and full of fascinating stuff. Whereas some parts of the Barras are feeling a little thinned out now, with stalls shutting and traffic inevitably slowing (and that is ‘cooperative capitalism’ for you – you need your competition to be there in order to entice the public into the commercial killzone), the Wash House is still fully tenanted and fairly bustling.

One of the quieter markets.

I gravitated, once again, to the bookstall (ignoring the fortune tellers, the stall selling old TVs and a huge bric-a-brac outlet) which occupied the far corner – and again, a large portion of the stall. It didn’t take me long to find my item for purchase, which has, I think, the best title ever given to a book, as shown, and modelled by my good self here;


Fortune was smiling on me for all sorts of reasons that day – Michael, the bookseller was a lover of Ancient Egypt (which takes up rather a lot of the Last Two Million Years, though geologists and biologists may quibble) so it was no trouble in getting a conversation started! And we certainly covered a great deal – health problems, murder trials, his daughter, national insurance  –  are just a few of the topics I remember. I discovered, and mentally noted that his sister ran the café across the floor.

Just a part of Michael’s stall. I found ‘the Last Two Million Years’ in the corner by the red pillar.

You can just see Michael’s seat where he holds court in the centre.

All to the good – but I noticed a twang to his accent, especially on the vowels that was hard to mistake and it was no surprise at all when he told me he had circus ancestors on two sides, and was in fact, like myself, a Showperson. The revelation that we were both travellers melted the already broken ice and the rest of my  ‘research’ involved swapping notes and stories – he of course, knew my parents.

He also thought that I, and my idea was loopy, but said it would be perfectly alright to come back, talk some more, and take some pictures (who, after all, wants to offend a madman?). With my book of all knowledge tucked under my arm I sidled out of the Wash House just as the shutters clanged down, feeling somewhat triumphant – until I thought back to Michael’s stall, and the sheer complexity of it – the goods, the details, the personal touches. Or the antiques stall next door, which sprawls just as much as the bookstall, with even more complex objects. Or the Jewelry repair stall, basically a cavern-cum-workshop with all sorts of oddments and unique features. How to get all this down? And how to account for the inevitable changes over time, as goods were sold, rearranged, shifted from the backroom to the front of house, and vice versa?  Yes, I was hugely excited at having decided, there and then, that one of the drawings I shall produce will be to draw the Wash House – all of it. It felt good to have decided on another of the subjects for the drawings, and I was in no doubt that I wanted to see it reproduced in a dialectogram. I just hope I can survive the experience.

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