Open Market

On Saturday 23rd, as part of Birmingham’s Weekender event The Commentators are streaming live radio commentary from the Bull Ring Open Market. I was very excited about this opportunity until I realised that a family commitment 50 years in the making means I have to relinquish my seat, lip mic and sheepskin coat to Graeme, my daughter is overcome with relief.

I love the Bull Ring markets, note not Bullring – the omnivorous private mall, but the set of three council run markets just south of the bland behemoth. The indoor market majors on fish and meat with a scattering of other stalls. The rag market focuses on fabrics, clothes, shoes and hardware. The open market is outdoors and it is principally populated by fruit and vegetable stalls. I’m a fan of all three but the Open Market is may favourite, it’s more raw.

In 1991 I was time rich and money poor, I lived on Ombersley Road and would walk a mile and half to the market, buy as much fruit and veg as it was possible to carry and stagger home, the bunched up plastic carrier bag handles cutting the blood supply to my fingers throughout.

On my first visit I wandered around trying to decide which stall should have my first custom and realised it had to be the man in the vest, bouncing around, bubbling over with banter, pumping out energy. I bought 10lb of potatoes for £1 from Carl Seigel and continued to buy vegetables from him for twenty years.

Carl piled good quality vegetables high and sold them cheaply, he was consistently cheery, had great repartee and built relationships with his customers, remembering their stories and sharing fragments of his own live. Occasionally you would see someone hard up being slipped a free bag of veg.

Over the years Carl’s stall changed and in so doing charted the evolution of the market, it moved when the 60s version of the market was demolished to make way for Bulling. Later the vegetables started to arrive trimmed and scrubbed clean of mud. His bags ceased to be branded by whatever bankrupt firm had sold its bag stock of cheap and became the homogenous blue that the rest of the market used. Once strictly a root vegetable man Carl started stocking broccoli and later even vine tomatoes and ultimately even, occasionally, mangos. Unable to stem the march of ‘progress’ he eventually lay out a few £1 a bowl deals. Carl got a bit ill but bounced back, he started wearing a weightlifter’s belt for back support, always whip thin he started to look gaunt and one day he wasn’t there. His stall was there, with its familiar “Jolly Nice” labels still in his handwriting but he wasn’t behind the stall which was now being run by one of his former assistants, Carl had retired and I’d never got the chance to congratulate him and thank him (there are photographs of and an excellent interview with Carl Spiegel in this Birmingham Mail article, plus further biographical detail and a better description of the market than I’ve managed in this article from The Guardian.

Eamon sells me most of my fresh fruit, he likes fishing, has had two replacement knees and always enquires after Eve who he’s known since she was born. John with his soft fingers sells free range eggs £1 for six. Shopping at the market reminds me of shopping with my Grandmother in Rye going to a different shop for each class of goods and having conversations with each shopkeeper as she went.

Within these steady relationships I like the unpredictability of the market: What exotic goods will have flooded the stalls this week? What will be mysteriously ‘out of season’ and unavailable? What eccentric people will be around? What will the banter between the stall holders be today? What street evangelists will be shouting, what buskers playing, what fortunes with the Gypsy in her caravan tell.

Supermarkets ensure eating healthily is crippling expensive in the Open Markets it’s cheap. From the supermarkets the fruit is rarely ripe, from the Open Markets the cheapest food is so ripe you have to eat it as fast as you can and turn the rest into soup.

This one of the few places in Birmingham where the rich and poor push past each other, rub shoulders and queue together. It’s a real place and I love it.

Craig and Graeme will have no trouble finding enough action to commentate on.

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