This article originally appeared on the Culture Vulture website.
Believe it or not, in my regular line of work I write about markets a fair bit. Sadly I write about the threat to the town’s once beating heart far more than I write about it being saved from the council’s axe-wielding bean-counters.
The times – they have changed. Some of my earliest memories are of zig-zagging through the maze of Blackpool’s indoor market on South Shore in the late 80s, watching my grandma buy unbranded cereal from huge drums and nagging her to buy me a tacky shade of Glitz ‘n’ Glam nail polish.
By the late 90s In my hometown of Congleton, the market was considered something of an embarrassment, its rows of stalls empty in the shadow of a Safeway looming above.
It was a sign of things to come. I don’t know anyone my age that goes to the market – the last time I went to Kirkgate Market was in a last ditch attempt to find a 10W refrigerator bulb.
Unsurprisingly, given that it’s Europe’s largest indoor market, I find Leeds’ infamous trading landmark a stressful place to be. It’s huge and there’s no stall directory. Despite proclamations that the market industry is dying on its arse, it always seems to be heaving. The smell of Meat Alley makes me want to gag. And don’t even get me started on the shouting – personally, I find being yelled at to buy a bag of bananas off-putting.
So it was with great relief that I was able to explore what I knew to be one of the city’s gems in the relative peace and quiet of a theatre production, as part of West Yorkshire Playhouse’s annual Transform festival.
‘The Market’ began both in darkness and silence, finally giving me the opportunity to take in Kirkgate’s character: its ornate balcony and regal colours, the quaint, retro signage of stalls simply named ‘Whittaker’s Eggs’, ‘Martin’s Curtains’ and ‘Lyn’s Accessories’. Unfortunately it also revealed there’s an unbelievable level of crap still being sold in markets – as Dion says in Clueless, no-one wears cheap polyester hair anymore.
A cast of story-tellers crept out of the gloom to tell the market’s history, including Linda the Button Lady, Michael the Master Butcher (who was fittingly hammy in his performance) and a woman who looked back with whimsy on the days she was paid 75p to sell huge knickers.
While I was unable to confirm the existence of many of these characters, I was heartened to learn the legend of Woodbine Lizzie – whose role was largely to lament the passing of the market’s ‘hustle and bustle’ – is based on fact, as were many of the stories that peppered this promenade-style performance.
A crowd of us were led from one part of the hall to the other, snaking up and down the passageways on a choreographed route which took us from one historical chapter to another.
Events in the market’s history – such as the two fires which ravaged the city centre’s trading centre – and its narrow escape from destruction by a World War II bomb were brought to life in animated, informative soliloquies from a constantly changing cast of actors.
Finally, a trip up into the rafters of the market allowed us to look out over the stalls and down onto its winding corridors, where the performers revealed their last secrets in a cacophony of noise that captured the raucous nature of the once glorious market, petering out to the sound of a lone opera singer’s haunting voice echoing through the room.
Sure, times have changed. There are no longer abattoirs surrounding Vicar Lane or chain-smoking bag-ladies pestering customers for cigs. When we clatter down the market’s paved passageways, it’s with the knowledge that under our feet at are the shells of air-raid shelters. This is a market with a fighting history and one that’s being kept alive by people who still care.