A man pours from silvered hip flask a tot of whiskey into the steaming polystyrene tea cup of an obvious friend. -‘Ere ‘ave summer that-, a double draught against the cold, against all that’s not here, this crisp autumn morning at Henley-in-Arden poultry sale. I’ve come here to see what happens, and I’m writing this now to see the shape of why I was there, and why I go back, and to give some context to the photographs I’ve taken there, and which are the evidence of my growing involvement with the place.
I had been thinking about the countryside, the city and the country, and how food and its production is where they sometimes meet, is where their interface is held and hidden. And in Birmingham, I have always been fascinated by the semi-rural nature of parts of this green city: the parks and old growth woodland; the wildlife corridors, the canal banks and railway cuttings; the fords and mills and all those places marking the passing on of the Great Old Forest into clearing, and then to Balsall Heath, Small Heath, Washwood, Kings and Druids Heaths with the birth, industrialisation, and suburbanisation of the city. Middle Earth was here before Tolkien wrote it. What makes the city as it seems to us, and what constitutes the life of the countryside? Whilst researching work about the Irish Quarter, I spoke to a church warden who remembered the livestock being driven down Cheapside in the mornings from a train station near Camp Hill to the slaughterhouses near the bottom of Bradford Street. The trains that transported enough food from where it was produced, to feed urban workers, themselves cropped from the land that had always fed their forefathers, the trains are both a symptom and a cause of the process integral to the birth of the modern city , which, loud and painful, happened here more or less first. Halal abattoirs are still found in Highgate and Digbeth, one close to the bridge crossing the river Rea near where Beorma founded the settlement that bears his name. Born along the tracks out of Moor Street station south you can see that part of town as it is cleared for flats and ‘mixed use’ in place of the old industry. Above the earth looking down through the Victorian streets and crumbling blocks, the brown box modern warehouses and grey rubble demolished, I leave the city weekly for the market at Henley.
The curveball sun was always shining propitiously from the southwest seemingly the days I started to photograph the people here, bumbling an introduction to my intention before having them stand with the animals they had bought, slightly awkward, less so than I before I found my rhythm, chatting nervously and excusing myself as people walked past or the light changed, or I waited for that unbidden configuration to appear, time like the coiled spring taut before the shutter: snap. I didn’t know what I was really doing there the first weeks. Amongst those who clearly, mysteriously, simply did, I felt insecure and certainly without convinced intentions to photograph, less to do so well. For an hour, ninety minutes, doves and rabbits and pigeons and fowl sold at auction, and the impenetrable patter of the auctioneer bouncing from the glanced bids or nods too quick for me to pick out before the lots were sold. The exhilaration of competing bids infectious, so many more here it seemed than could be buying, or spending their time just on what they had planned specifically to buy. A host of varieties of chicken, many kinds of dove and duck. show rabbits to a buck for a pound for the pot, they all come from somewhere to be sold, and move on away into the web of culture and commerce this place holds together.
I went back to Henley in November 2011, and the market has gone, the long-expected housing development having taken its place. Some traders have moved to another site. More to follow.