The Grainger Market: flashing up and bomb sirens

Posted on June 3, 2010

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It is an ungodly hour of the morning – the kind that should only be known to milkmen, paper boys and long distance lorry drivers – to be sitting on a bus on a freezing cold autumn day. It is an ungodly hour. But this is the daily routine that many go through – milkmen, paper boys and lorry drivers included – and it is the routine that many of the stallholders in the Grainger Market go through six days a week (mercifully, the market is shut on Sundays, except for the brief run-up to Christmas).

A bus at ten to six on a Monday morning is a solitary place, a collection of hunched people in fleeces clutching onto the bus poles, the seat next to them or their own elbows and knees in an attempt to stay warm or imitate the conditions of the place they really should be: bed. But there is something honest and honourable about the people that make this early morning trip day in, day out; those people who work the early shift and see the world without make-up, unprepared and unclean. They see a more truthful picture of how we live, and they see the empty streets, the darkened shops and the sleepy petrol stations that we daytime people take for granted are always thronging, lit and alive.

There are thirteen people sharing the bus with me on this Monday morning, excluding the driver (who may well be the most admirable of us all – to ferry us to work at ten to six he must have been awake and working long before five), a true cross-section of society. There are people in fleeces and woolen hats pulled taut over their head, showing a casual ringlet of a fringe; a man in a fluorescent yellow safety jacket who has commandeered the entire top floor of the bus to himself so that he can sit and the front and look out at the road ahead through one bleary eye; two women who are the only people on the bus who engage in conversation, happily chatting about their weekends; and a rotund man with a balding head who looks far and away the most dapper in a three-piece suit that fits snugly round his body. The badge on his breast pocket is bright orange and reads ‘Grand Central’. You almost expect to see a pocketwatch sneaking out from under his jacket.

The most amazing full moon is shining down on the bus, spotlighting it as it revs along the empty roads. Having burnt a hole through the dappled grey clouds, it is bright and sharp and one of the benefits of being up quite this early.

Somewhere on the road from Washington to Newcastle, Dave Burn is watching the same full moon on another bus filled with the foolhardy and the Romantic early workers, wondering what today has planned for him at the Grainger Market.

He will have been awake since 4.45am for the early shift as Market Inspector, and turns up at half six to let in the gathered traders. “It’s alright in summer, when it’s light” he explains when asked about the early starts. “But when it’s cold and dark like this in winter, it’s less good.”

Some of the traders have been gathered in the alcove of the main entrance to the market (just off Grainger Street, in the looming shadow of Grey’s Monument) since before six o’clock. Peering through the metal grates that keep drunken revellers out of the market at night you can see the alleyways bathed in orange lights and discarded bakers’ pallets; some of the more resourceful traders and delivery men use their cars and vans as protection against the cold, their engines ticking over gently to power the in-car heating systems.

One white bakery van parked around the Nelson Street side of the market hums gently and the dipped headlights play around on the cobbles. Inside the cab is a man with a baseball cap draped over his head, arms crossed and feet up on the side window. A copy of yesterday’s Sun lies on the dashboard, half-covered in street light. The point is that it is early; too early by far for most people, the most resolute of self-proclaimed ‘early morning people’ probably still rubbing the sleep from their eyes in a warm and cosy front room or slowly chewing toast in their kitchen.

All the traders gather round one entrance, puffing lackadaisically on cigarettes and chatting about their weekends (“Have you seen that kid’s film, Monsters Inc? Brilliant.”) and, as always, the weather. Those stamping their feet on the tiled mosaic alcove look enviously at an old man wearing a grey flat cap who seems almost enveloped by polythene bags brimming with clothes. Surrounded by all that material – and with the comfort of the heating system of his car – the winter chill won’t get to him.

By 6.20 Dave’s bus has arrived in Newcastle and he has made the short walk to the market. By now there are ten or so men, young and old, gathered in small groups of two or three speaking generalities about their weekends and the football. As he passes they all say hello and follow him eagerly to the great metal grate, which gets folded into itself like an accordion one half at a time. Suddenly there are only two traders standing outside in the cold, having the last drags of their glowing cigarettes. The rest have filed in through the half-open gate and dispersed to their pitches. Even the old man in the flat cap has left the comfort of his car and is walking into the market, cane in one hand, great bags of swag over his shoulder, looking for all the world like Santa Claus.

The younger of the two remaining outside stubs out his cigarette and brushes it away with his foot. “You’d best go in mate. It’s pretty cold.”

There are fourteen entrances to the Grainger Market: five each on Nun and Nelson Streets, and two each on Clayton and Grainger Streets. The only entrance which traders can come in via at the start of the day is gate number one. They have to wait patiently once the metal grate is pulled back and stowed into its slot in the wall for the market inspector to turn off the alarm system, which takes a few seconds. From then they are free to head to their stalls and get to work. “While they flash up” – market slang for setting out their stall – “we go around and open each of the other thirteen gates,” explains Dave.

He has been joined by Steve Whitenstall, also on duty today as market inspector. Both have worked their way through the ranks at the various Newcastle markets (“I’m off across the road at half seven to open up the Greenmarket,” Steve explains while tugging at the chain to raise up the clanging shutter on one of the gates) for more than a quarter of a century. Steve has been working in the markets for 25 years, while Dave began as a labourer-cleaner 28 years ago, in 1981. In those near-three decades, he has seen many things change.

“People come and go,” Dave elucidates, interrupting only to give a quick hello to the traders who are busy furnishing their pitches as we criss-cross the market, “and we’ve seen a lot of traders through here. Invariably though, things have got better – the market’s been updates as we’ve gone on. Take the floors, for example” – he nods down at the smooth white-tiled floor which covers roughly three-quarters of the market – “that used to be thick black tarmac back when I began as a cleaner, and every day there’d be sawdust scattered over it – for the blood, by the butchers, you know – and it was such a pain to clean up at the end of the day. Since we’ve had the floor tiled it’s a hell of a lot easier. It’s a different market.”

He enjoys his current work which gives him a more roaming jurisdiction over the market: “we can do a million different things in one day. We’re here to oversee the smooth running of the market, to make sure that the traders are happy and that the customers are safe and that the cleaners know their jobs. There are different things for everyone to do, and we’re responsible for that.”

Ten years ago he was given the job of Market Inspector, one which he shares with several others on a pattern of rotating shifts. There are usually at least two inspectors in the market at any one time, though the early shift (beginning at half six with the opening of the market gates) can overlap with a slightly later shift which begins mid-morning. Days off chop and change depending on holidays, illnesses and who is in to work.

“It’s my day off tomorrow,” Steve interjects.

“It is?” Dave asks with a look of confusion that shows all his brilliantly shining teeth.

Eventually it is established that Steve’s day off is, in fact, tomorrow and the talk turns to holidays. He has a holiday home in San Pedro in Murcia which he’s just come back from a few weeks ago, having joined his children and wife – “the second one!” – for the last ten days of a three week family holiday. He is going back soon. Holidays, he says, have to fit around the flexible work hours; he jokes that having worked in the markets for 25 years that he is near retirement age. “I keep asking for it but they won’t give us it!”

Dave is also off on holiday soon: “to Florida, next week. We’ve got a few parks we haven’t done yet, and we’re going to be staying on International Drive. It rained,” he sighs, “last time we went, four years ago. Still had a great time though.”

It is while wandering through the market chatting about holidays that the inspectors realise that half the lights in the more open arcade area are out. “Must be the ghost,” Steve casually observes. ‘The ghost’ is a rumoured spirit who haunts the market since it replaced an old nunnery. She has a penchant for coming out at night. “You hear some funny noises doing a night shift, I’ll tell you.” The night shifts come about when some major work is needed on the market; be it replacing electrical or lighting systems or retouching paintwork or architecture. Apparently the ghost – just one of the many hidden secrets of the Grainger Market – does not have a name but Steve and Dave’s voices seem to waver when assuring me that they don’t believe in paranormal activity.

If it were to exist it would be questionable whether the mysterious mythical nun would turn up on the security cameras dotting the market. Can a ghostly spirit be committed to tape?

We’re in a small office conjoined to the Weigh House, the three of us. There is barely enough room to turn around, and Steve is half-out the door as he looks over my shoulder at the video screens playing live footage from the market’s CCTV system.

“There are 18 of them, covering almost every corner of the market. At night they face out, so that we can check to make sure that no-one’s trying to break in. Often you get drunks who use the gates as public conveniences – there have been some hairy mornings when you’re faced with things you don’t want to see, especially that early on in the morning. Mondays, after the weekend, are the worst.” Dave is tilting the cameras from facing outwards to inwards as he contorts his face at the memories of what he has seen. “You can’t really do anything about that; I mean, its after people have been out and they’re in the drink and can’t find a toilet…but you can about people stealing things.

“We have had, in the past, café delivery stuff pinched off the trays outside. One of the café owners in here came to us and said ‘I’ve got some things missing from my delivery.’ We checked the cameras focussed on the main gate and saw these two guys coming before 6am and taking full trays of pies and running off with them. You wonder what they used them for.”

As for shoplifters working inside the market during trading hours (and not organising pre-dawn smash-and-grab pie heists), “we’ve seen them dial down since we installed the cameras. They get to know that we’re watching; the cameras are fairly visible above each gate and hanging from the ceiling, and they know they won’t get away with it.”

There is a thin black tower filled with blinking black computers, whirring video machines and endless wires connecting them all to each other. “It stores the footage for 30 days – and the police can control our cameras from their base, too – so if anything funny goes on we’re likely to have tape.”

And it’s not just crimes committed in the market which can be helped by the camera system. “We’re very much a thoroughfare for everyone coming into and through Newcastle, so we’ll sometimes get a request from the police to look for a suspect in a crime from somewhere else, to help track his movements. Any way we can help, we will.”

The day-to-day running of the market, including its security, is one of the most fascinating yet criminally overlooked angles of the Grainger Market. As well as a state-of-the-art CCTV system, there are some more outmoded security systems to be found in the Market Inspectors’ office around the corner. Not much bigger than the security office, but on two floors (“there’s a staff room upstairs – I wish they’d given us a widescreen TV with Sky and all sorts for our lunch breaks”), it’s a cosy but business-like corner away from the hustle and bustle of the market itself. By now it’s 7.15 and the market has been open to traders for three-quarters of an hour. The atmosphere is thrumming with the noise, excitement and busyness which carries it through the day. Most shops are manned, unshuttered and open and the displays of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables and great hunks of meat are starting to take shape.

Inside a hollow grey locker rawl-plugged into the wall are 63 numbered key hooks, each bearing the weight of three or four separate keys. It must be difficult to remember which key is for which door, I say. “Ah, well,” Steve replies, “there are some keys – there are a lot of keys – we don’t know what they’re for.” So you keep them anyway? “Well we might throw one out and have someone ask for the key to something and it turns out to be the one we got rid of. You can’t take that risk.”

Dave glances at the two dockets hanging from the stairwell wall which act as the rudimentary clocking in system. Today it is his job to sort out rotas for the staff, a task he undertakes under duress as he sits down behind the small desk they have. He braces his locked arms on the desk, seemingly mustering the strength to wade through paperwork. “It’s not our favourite part,” Steve admits.

They oversee a staff of fourteen cleaners, two toilet attendants (one male, one female) and the Weigh House attendant who work to ensure that the market is always presentable to customers, whether they come in to shop first thing in the morning or last thing at night. There can sometimes be unexpected setbacks. “You can just get the paperwork done and have everyone on the rota when someone calls in sick,” Dave sighs. He involuntarily shivers and rubs his hands together. The chill autumn wind has a habit of blowing through the alleyways of the market and into any open door it finds. That includes the Market Inspectors’ office.

“In winter it is cold in here, which is to be expected. There’s always the talk of heating, but nothing’s materialised yet.” Behind Dave is a small electric heater which would be more at home in the front room of a tiny 1970s bungalow. “When the winter draws in, you really need it in here,” he says.

It is the non-electric fires which can prove most damaging, however. In his time as Market Inspector, Dave has seen some awful fires which have destroyed part of the aged market’s façade and structure.

“We’ve had a couple of bad fires. One I remember was on a Wednesday night, after five, after we’d closed up the market here. It began a couple of alleys over that way,” he points. “In alley three. It was a shoe shop, started in there, and it spread quite quickly. Soon it had gutted all of alley three and part of alley four. Dreadful.” The fire brigade turned up quickly to quell the fire, but it had done a large amount of damage. Their quick response was thanks to the blinking control panel mounted on the wall of the office we’re sitting in, which has a direct link to the local fire department. The burglar alarms which need to be turned off by the market inspectors ever morning before any trader can cross the threshold of the main gate are connected to the police station. There is, however, one altogether more strange alarm which is tucked away between a closed filing cabinet and a shuttered window.

“Have you seen our bomb siren?” Steve asks with a straight face that is gently curling into a smile at the edges of his mouth.

Sure enough, there is a hidden bomb siren that looks like an old black light switch – the kind you see in Georgian reproductions of stately homes – with an elegantly-lettered sign above it. This is the living history of the market: sitting next to whirring computers, a relic from the wartime history of Newcastle. In the event of an air raid, a flick of the switch would start the infamous shrill yelp which would tell traders and shoppers to take cover.

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