1960s London I: Buying Tomatoes on Portobello Road

This short excerpt is from my memoir, PROMISED LANDS Growing Up Absurd in the 1950s and ’60s, available on Amazon. It describes some features of my life in London in the late 1960s.

From lines of barrows stretching for blocks in both directions, the Portobello market sold everything from onions to furniture. In springtime, her sombre tones were emblazoned by bouquets of fiery yellow daffodils. It was the buying of tomatoes that afforded me insight to the British caste system and its sharp contrast with the “democratized” consumption of North America, where the customer is (theoretically) always right. Buyers were not allowed to pick and choose which tomatoes they preferred; rather, one ordered a pound and the barrow man would pick your tomatoes himself, placing them in a shallow paper bag for weighing. His choice always included a rotten one, and the buyer had no say in the matter. It was posh and uppity to object, and this was not a market for the posh. You took your fair share of the rotten ones – same as everyone else – the way the poor had taken their fair share of Hitler’s bombs, conscription, rationing and generalized poverty since the start of WW2. After arguing a few times without success, I accepted my rotten tomato and silently blessed the Queen and the House of Lords for maintaining order where the authority of the vendor trumps that of the buyer in this nation of shopkeepers.
Lawrence Durrell wrote: “I am just a refugee from the long slow toothache of English life.” At first I was merely shocked at London’s living conditions. But the shock gave way to revulsion, not only at the poverty, but at the denial, acceptance and defense of its misery everywhere I turned. I noted in my journal, that on BBC radio a “lyrical upper class female voice” read a letter from a pensioner: “After paying my rent, I realized that I had only one shilling per day for food. By careful buying, I managed to get through the week successfully. I wonder how many of our well-paid workers’ wives know the satisfaction of economical housekeeping!” This is the mindset that happily obeys the Queen and has no need for a dictator, in the England that exasperated George Orwell. I’m not alone in detesting British life. Apparently, in spite of the neo-con entrepreneurial excitement of the Thatcher years, the squalor I encountered is now greater than ever. Christopher Hitchens wrote shortly before his death in 2011: “This is the world of wretched, tasteless food and watery drinks, dreary and crowded lodgings, outrageous plumbing, surly cynicism, long queues, shocking hygiene, and dismal, rain-lashed holidays, continually punctuated by rudeness and philistinism. A neglected aspect of the general misery, but very central once you come to notice it, is this: we are in a mean and chilly and cheerless place, where it is extraordinarily difficult to have sex, let alone to feel yourself in love.” That last comment may seem merely fanciful, until you look hard at the specious culture of “hope” proffered year after year by the Royals, Lords and Commons. The U.K. has boasted the world’s sixth largest economy since World War II, yet her Human Development Index (HDI is a standard means of measuring well-being, especially child welfare, utilizing a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide) puts her (in 2009) in 26th place, behind Spain, Greece and South Korea, among others. The glittering pomp and circumstance of Britain’s ruling class becomes even more despicable in this light. And in a hopeless world, what role is there for love?

About Doug Williams

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