It was a very cold morning one winter, more than 20 years ago, that I was introduced to Petticoat Lane. The very mention of the word conjured an image straight out of a western movie, with raunchy ladies and their raucous laughters doing the can can, teasing their audience with their lacy petticoats. Perhaps it was for this very reason that the name Petticoat Lane, the world famous Sunday market in East London, was changed to something more sedate – Middlesex Street.
When a friend suggested a visit to this street market last Sunday, I eagerly agreed, forsaking a Sunday lie in for a walk down memory lane. Petticoat Lane Market, Portobello Market, Wembley Market are the haunts of Malaysians; visitors and locals alike – these are places you can find good bargains, almost original fakes and good leather products. And I am in need of a new leather jacket.
The market has been in existence since 1750’s, according to its history and was named after the petticoats and lace once sold there by the Huguenots who came to London from France. With more than one thousand stalls, you can find household goods, clothes, shoes, accessories and many more.
During the 40-minute tube ride on the central line to Liverpool Street, I tried to recapture the Petticoat Lane of yesteryears. The Petticoat Lane in the deep recesses of my mind was totally an alien place with a totally alien language to my uninitiated ears. Cockney was the language, so I heard, and everyone called you sweet’art or luv.
I was introduced to one Cockney word – Dicky Dirt – a shop in Bayswater where I went to look for some jumpers. Dicky Dirt is a Cockney slang for shirts, just like Her Indoors – meaning someone’s wife, similar to the Malay Orang rumah.
It was a busy market place where the likes of Del Boy (Only Fools and Horses) charmed you with their sales talks to buy yesteryears’ rejects or things that had fallen off the back of lorries. The sweet smell of roasting chestnut from corner street stalls intermingled with the aroma of hotdogs on grills. That was the Petticoat Lane Market in my mind.
And of course, as I made my way out of the station, (turn left and then right again, said the guard at the station), a familiar jingle played in my mind..”That big red building in Petticoat Lane…” It was an advertisement for a big leather shop at the top of the road, much hummed and repeated by the husband of mine. Is it still there? I doubt it.
I didn’t have any difficulties finding the street market. In the cold morning air, there were droves of people making their way there and I just went with the flow. From a distance, I could already hear the stallholders calling out to shoppers. The music coming from the stalls selling so called ori(s) prepared me for the Petticoat Lane of the here and now. There were more Bollywood songs wafting in the atmosphere of this East London marketplace. Places in East London, such as Brick Lane are more familiarly known as Bangla Town. There is a huge Asian community and so it was altogether not unexpected that I found many stallholders to be Asians, selling clothes made in made by aunts and grannies and cousins in their own warehouses nearby. Many are copied from designer labels and sold at a fraction of the price.
And of course an Asian Del Boy is bound to be found among them. As I was admiring a blouse, I could hear one chatting up my friend, telling her, he could tell from her aura that she was an intelligent girl. “And this one,” he said,” is the peaceful one. She is a very calm person.” And believe it or not, he was referring to me.
“Calm? Moi?” I asked sceptically.
“Yes,” said the Pakistani Del Boy, “ and if only you are younger!”
Suffice to say, I floated away with that blouse in my hand and spring in my step.
It was LV, Chanel and Prada galore. They even got the spelling and the colour tone almost right.
I went searching for my leather jacket – alas, I couldn’t find any that fitted me. In fact nothing suits me nowadays. They are either too small or too young. And the leather jacket that I was wearing that cold morning seemed okay still. I also scanned the area for the famous Pearly Kings of East London. Sadly, they were no longer around, only making their appearances on certain occasions.
As we walked away towards Aldgate East station, the smell of hamburger greeted us.
Halal hamburgers it says, being grilled by someone donning a ketayap. A nearby Chinese stall was selling fried noodles and we were greeted with a cheerful “Selamat Pagi!”
Petticoat Lane has changed somewhat, but that change is inevitable. But before we left, I found Fred, hunched over his stove of sweet roasted chestnuts. I ordered two packets; he burnt his already charred hands picking them up from the burning grills.
“I’ve been doin’ this for 51 years, I 'ave. This same spot ‘ere. Ne'er had to use thongs or nuthing’, he volunteered. “Mind how you go, sweer’art”, he said, waving us goodbye.
So, that was Petticoat Lane last Sunday, and I still have the jingle of the red big building in Petticoat Lane, playing in my head.
Picture of Pearly Kings and Queen taken from Strangebritain.co.uk
Petticoat Lane market is open every Sunday from 9-2pm.
Take the Central Line to Liverpool Street station. Turn left and then right - you will not miss it.
Or take District or Hammersmith Line to Aldgate East station.