On Location: The day after the morning before
Commentator and stand-up comedian Mark Steel has presented several radio and television programmes, and appeared on Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks. In 2006 he published 'Vive La Revolution: A Stand-up History of the French Revolution', and in 2000 stood as a candidate in the London Assembly elections.
Friday 27 November 1998
The Hope opens every day at seven. By this time the road outside is full of choruses of "Wo wo wo wo wo" being yelled at reversing lorries, forklift truck drivers whistling "I Will Survive", stalls being hosed, carcasses on shoulders, and porters wheeling trolley-loads of pig heads, the odd one spilling on to the road. Strangely, the pigs' faces have a happier expression than you ever see on a complete pig.
Witnessing these barrows seems to highlight the flaw in the vegetarian argument that runs, "I don't know how you could eat that when it was once a living creature." See these trolleys and you realise the answer is simply, "It's not now though, is it?" After all, if you didn't eat that pork chop, it would be very unlikely to grow a squiggly tail and revert to running around in mud. If I was captured by cannibals, I'd be even more annoyed if I thought that after boiling me they'd say "I don't know how you could" and sling me on a skip.
Despite this activity, going into a pub at that time feels like smoking in the school toilets. It's seedy and makes you one of the bad kids, and you expect the door to swing open at any moment to reveal a man in a tie shouting, "What the hell is the meaning of this? I will NOT have drinking at this time of the morning!"
The first pint tastes a little awkward, in the knowledge that it's being drunk before the Farming Today team have left the studio. But you're soon into a rhythm, made easier by the way the session corresponds to normal drinking hours, except it's am instead of pm. There's even a couple snogging in the corner. I can see why couples snog in pubs in the evening, losing self-control in public as a prelude to going to bed. But why would any couple that was already in bed think, "As we're both snuggled up and feeling romantic, let's go to the early morning pub and snog behind some blokes who are covered in dried sheep's blood"?
Occasionally, there are reminders of the time of day. A labourer on his way to work, in one action, expressed more about the current labour shortage in the building trade than any Financial Times supplement. He dialled a number on his mobile phone, then said, "I shan't be in until nine. I'm stuck on a train in London Bridge", making no effort to hide the pub noises around him. Then he ordered another pint.
Two railway engineers off their night shift were succeeding in making almost every second word a derivative of the F-word, and at one point complained that their bed and breakfast had given them jam mixed in with the "margafuckinrene". A devilish trick, to fit an extra one in the middle of a word.
Despite this, sociologists would delight in how the clientele symbolises the disappearance of the working class. The pub is open traditionally for workers from the market, but Smithfield is in decline, and now only one corner is occupied by butchers and porters, wearing their traditional uniform of white overalls tinted with splashings of blood. The supermarkets had all but ruined the butchers' trade, Tom told me. Smithfield only survives at all, he said, through the Chinese, Greek and Turkish trade. "Besides, I'll get home, have a kip, get up for dinner, go back to bed and be up at 1.30 ready for tomorrow. No youngster today would work those hours."
So the biggest group was of "youngsters" in their twenties, including three women and a lad in a woollen Rastafarian hat, probably on their way back from an all-night club.
At the bar, one of the railwaymen was rattling through The Daily Telegraph crossword. What would happen, I wondered, if one of the answers was "margarine"? Would he be unable to work it out, certain that this was a 15-letter word? Shortly afterwards, in a three-minute period, the railwaymen exchanged abusive stories about women, completed the last five clues of the crossword, made lyrical speeches about the classical tiles and windows in the pub, and had a violent argument about whether or not Wigan comes under Greater f***in' Manchester.
I reminded the labourer that he had 10 minutes before his nine o'clock deadline. "You're right," he acknowledged, and bought another round.
Then there was Bill the butcher, and I promise this is word for word. "I tell you why this meat industry's been ruined - 'cos we just sit back and put up with bleedin' anything in this country. It's like in restaurants, we put up with anything. But you try selling a German a lump of shit! He won't have it.
"Now your British farmers were told to scrap their sheep and offered 25 pence each for them. See, if they'd been like the French they'd have driven them sheep to town, slit their throats, let 'em bleed all over the road, and said, 'There y'are, clear that bleedin' mess up.' Either that or tipped 'em in the Channel, and said 'Steer yer ferries round them bastards.' You'd have Tony bleedin' Blair on the telly, the Animal Rights mob jumping about, then they'd have got more than 25 pence."
And then he said, "Mind you, don't get me wrong, I hate the French."
That was so impressive. He was clearly worried for a moment that I'd go away thinking, "He seems like a nice bloke. But the only thing is he doesn't hate the French."
Then he finished his drink, got up and said, "All right mate, nice meeting you, I'm off now to chop up another 300 of the bastards."
Following his dramatic exit, I spoke to the groups of supposed club veterans, who turned out to be media analysts for the Financial Times. Could any two jobs be further apart? Surely a Financial Times media analyst is as perfect a symbol of modern yuppiedom, as a Smithfield meat porter is of old working-class values. Yet the analysts had finished their shift at six, earned less than the other trades and had less job security. The old butcher was right about youngsters not wanting to work those hours, but wrong to assume that today's 20-year-olds have any more say than he does about whether they do or not. Or that their job is any less likely to drive them to the pub at seven in the morning. There in one bar stood the epitome of the old and new workforce, with far more to unite them than divide them.
The labourer finished his drink and slowly put on his coat. "I suppose the boot's on your foot at the moment on the buildings," I said. "That's right, it's been on theirs for long enough," he answered. And the media analysts knew exactly what he meant.
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