This book is a journey into the culture of that most London of institutions, the Eel, Pie and Mash shop.
Despite claims to the contrary, London's traditional foods are Eels and Pie and mashed potatoes.
Eels, long a cheap and plentiful staple of London food for centuries were synonymous with this city, dominated and bisected by the River Thames. The first recorded eel and mash shop appears to have been Henry Blanchard’s in Southwark in 1844 and Robert Cooke opened his first shop in Clerkenwell in 1862 - but it took an Italian immigrant Michael Manzi, a peasant from Ravello, to open the first eel empire starting with London's oldest remaining shop on Tower Bridge Road in 1891.
Manze's, Cooke's and subsequently Kelly's were in effect, the first self-defined working class restaurants selling food in clean and, importantly, respectable surroundings.
Today, these simple spaces hold within them the memories of a rich, largely undocumented cultural heritage of generations of working-class Londoners in a city whose only constant is change.
I grew up in East London in the 1970s, then a byword for poverty now a metaphor for gentrification. The streets then were navigated by pubs, rough, cheap cafes and eel, pie and mash shops. Often elaborately decorated with ornate Victorian tiling, many sold live eels in metal trays that faced the street to the fascination (and sometimes horror) of passersby. Inside, warmth and comfort. Steam. Tea. Laughter. Families.
Already in decline by the mid-century, the shops were still domintated by a handful of families and passed down through generations. By the turn of this century only an echo of former glories remained and today just a handful of traditional businesses operate. The decline of the eel (a “muscled icicle” as the poet Seamus Heaney has it in his 'A Lough Neagh Sequence') mirrors the sense of dislocation and fragmentation of traditional communities that the shops serve. Today’s eel, pie and mash shops are havens for what the East End once was.
For someone like me who escaped the grey London skies to photograph and report from across the world, the shops represent some sort of consistency and a portal back to my own past. I first wrote about them in 2011 for a German magazine and this book is a tribute to both the extraordinarily hard-working owners and the loyal customers. It is also a way to gauge the change that has taken place since I left.
This book however, is no rosy description of the Cockney - that music hall, heart-of-gold caricature but an affectionate and serious look at what the East End and its people have evolved into.
Class remains resolutely with us, as deeply entrenched in Britian as it was fifty years ago: the working-class is sometimes demonised. Often ridiculed. Always taken for granted. This is where I’ve come from and I’ve tried to make as honest a picture as I could. The East End is a de facto multicultural melting pot – as it always has been - but it retains a singular pride and an energy - and, despite what the tabloids tell you, a welcome.
My grandparents would still recognise these shops. They would still eat there. With pleasure. Some things don’t change.
The work is expansive: I’ve travelled to Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland to photograph eel fishing.
I’ve made work at both Barney’s and Mick’s Eels, the only two remaining companies that process the fish.
I’ve photographed and written about Millwall fans (who sing of the eel) and recorded those that now eat their pies and eels at home, too elderly and frail to journey to the shops.
Lastly, I have followed the bleed of the East End to its new spiritual home in Essex where Pie and Mash shops are undergoing something of an renaissance - identifying as they do with a re-imagined and distilled working-class culture that is geographically separate from their traditional roots.
The Englishman and the Eel is not an encyclopaedic record of every shop. Rather I’ve documented what I believe to be the most interesting and significant ones to make a book that I hope is a tribute to a timeless institution. I’ve used the eel as a metaphor and symbol of that cultural change: tenacious, rare - endangered - but still surviving.
This project – with your kind help by pre-ordering - will be published as a beautiful photo book by the most respected British photobook publisher - Dewi Lewis in late 2017. My last book with the same publisher – The Palaces of Memory - Tales from the Indian Coffee House, was runner-up for best Photography Book of the Year in America (Pictures of the Year International) in 2016 and made the American Photo Annual the same year. Stuart Smith, the internationally acclaimed book designer responsible for The Palaces of Memory (and countless others) will design The Englishman and the Eel. The journalist, broadcaster and author Michael Collins whose book, The Likes of Us: A Biography of the White Working Class - which won the George Orwell Prize, has generously agreed to write a piece to accompany my own words.
Risks and challenges
The publishing paradigm has changed - publishers now expect authors to significantly contribute to the funding of books so the obstacles are primarily financial. However, I learned a great deal from my last book, The Palaces of Memory. Again, I want this book to be the best it can be in terms of design and printing so all the funds raised (and some of my own money) will support the significant costs of producing this book. The work and the book design are complete so with your generous support this book will be printed in Italy and published by the end of 2017 to be dispatched in time for Christmas. There will be regular progress updates so that you can see how the process is moving forward.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (31 days)