Tag Archives: essex road

Duramaney Kamara: actor in Boy

4 May

‘Boy’ at the Almeida is a ground-breaking show about what it feels like coming of age in austerity Britain. The play, written by Leo Butler, has a 27-strong cast of which 16 are making their stage debut, including an 18-year-old student from Islington, Duramaney Kamara. Interview by Nicola Baird

Duramaney Kamara - debut performance in Boy at the Almeida Theatre (c) Kwame Lestrade

Duramaney Kamara – debut performance in Boy at the Almeida Theatre. Whether you’ve seen the show or not you can join a young people’s free panel discussion this Thursday (5 May) with the writer. See how at the end of this interview.  (c) Kwame Lestrade

Duramaney Kamara is very different from Boy’s lost central character, Liam – and perhaps that’s no surprise when he admits that his mum was on stage when she was nine months pregnant, making him able to say “he was on stage before he was born!”. In fact it’s Duramaney, playing Lamari, who has just enough interest in track suited-Liam to give him a proper telling off (no one else seems to notice Liam). But as Duramaney wisely points out, “everything Lamari tells Liam he is saying to himself…”

The play has a host of characters Londoners will recognise – from mobile-addicted schoolgirls waiting for the bus home to non-English speaking road workers – so in his debut Duramaney also plays a teenage son in the doctor’s reception, toilet attendant, person in the crowd and Sainsbury’s worker.

It’s clear he’s chuffed to be on stage in his home borough, Islington. “Because it’s my first time on stage I thought doing the same thing every night I’d find boring. But it’s not! It’s new every night. It’s like life – you can’t get bored of life because you are living it,” he explains.

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“We had 13 hour rehearsals,” says Duramaney explaining why it’s been so hard organise this interview when we meet on a Thursday lunchtime over an orange juice in the Almeida Café. For him life could be considered a bit less busy now that he is just doing a show every night at the same time as finishing off his final A level year studying Drama & Theatre Studies, Music and Music Tech at City and Islington College…

Clerkenwell Primary.

Clerkenwell Primary.

Duramaney lives with his mum and dad, both professional singers/musicians, just off Essex Road. He’s born and bred Islington: his early years were spent at Clerkenwell where he went to Clerkenwell Parochial Primary School on Amwell Street. “In year 3 or 4 we done a play at Little Angel,” says Duramaney. “We all had puppets and then my dad said I should do some drumming. I was shy but I did it…”

In fact Duramaney was only four years old when a bloke in a pub predicted he’d make a great trumpet player. “I was sitting in the Three Kings Pub, opposite St James’ Church, when someone gave me a cornet (a very basic trumpet) to hold. I started playing around with it and getting a sound,” he says, “so they got me a trumpet.”

Duramaney really likes to sing and MC, and as with all the instruments Duramaney plays – trumpet, piano, keyboard, guitar and percussion – he’s self-taught. “I tend to use my ears and then see if I can play it back,” he explains. His mum Basha Letsididi, a singer, originally from Botswana, taught him how to read music, but “I only recently started doing grades – I got a distinction in Grade 3 trumpet,” says Duramaney understandably proudly. He’s also had support from Richard Frostick from Islington Music Centre and his music teachers James Hunter at Bishop Douglass in Barnet, where he went to secondary school, and Jack Davis at City & Islington College, praising them both for “building my confidence.”

Music is a huge part of Duramaney’s life – after the show, and after his summer exams he hopes to spend a gap year doing “voice acting as well as other acting jobs” and working on his music projects. For now he has to be content with, “Our house being full of music. It’s either me playing my stuff – I listen to a lot of jazz, John Coltrane, Fela Kuti (from Nigeria) and I also play a lot of Bob Marley, Curtis Mayfield and perhaps oddly for a teenager I like classical music. Mum will be singing or rehearsing and Dad is either fixing or playing drums…”

The company of Boy at an Essex Road bus stop. (c) Kwame Lestrade

The company of Almeida Theatre’s Boy at an Essex Road bus stop. Duramaney Kamara is in a grey hoodie. (c) Kwame Lestrade

The play’s the thing
Boy is a bleak play, it’s had 4* and 5* reviews, but it is an uncompromising view of the struggles many poorly educated white British teenage boys find themselves in, and is as relevant to Islington as to Crystal Palace where the writer Leo Butler lives. Most of the play revolves around life at a bus stop using an ingenious moving travelator (like they have in Yo Sushi and airports). There are moments – especially the start – which are very funny, but the overall impression is that Liam hasn’t a chance. So Islington Faces was curious if Duramaney knew any Liams, and what he thought of the show’s Liam…

“I do like Liam. At a point in life everyone can be a Liam. There’s a lot of pressure and you have to hide it. Some people grow up without a healthy household and they have to grow up fast. With teenagers it’s all down to peer pressure. People need to prove something to someone to get a thumbs up from their peer group. If you look at gang culture, there’s pressure from someone older to do something for that thumbs up. Other people get that thumbs up for getting an A grade,” he says.

“For Liam he’s got no guidance. Even his vocabulary is really diminished – he repeats what other people say. It’s heart-breaking the way he looks to other people,” explains Duramaney.

Liam is the teenage boy who has fallen through every safety net. Even if most of the audience longs to help him find the resilience to clamber back up, Cameron’s Britain is unforgiving. You’ve got to get on and make it when the odds are so stacked against you – with minimal support from parents who may well be separated, working Zero Hour contracts, dealing with mental health issues or completely distracted by money and housing problems.

The Union Chapel has been called a Tardis. Here is one of the upstairs rooms used as the bar for shows. CAPTION It was built in 1877 (on the site of the too-small chapel erected in 1806). Impressive past worshipers include Asquith (Liberal PM, 1908-1916) and the poet John Betjeman’s mother. Betjeman’s involvement helped save it from demolition in 1982. Many worshippers came from both right and left.

The Union Chapel’s bar.

Places Duramaney Kamara likes in Islington
“Islington is supposed to be a prestigious borough, but the crime rate shows otherwise.”

  • Angel is a big hub for me. Everything is there and it’s a nice place to go. We eat at Bombay Burrito on 357 Goswell Road and Nandos at 324 Upper Street. Five Guys, 71 Upper Street, is expensive but there are some nice pizza shops.
  • Rosemary Gardens on the Islington-Hackney border is a nice place.
  • I like Union Chapel. I sang there with the Islington Music Centre choir. Great acoustics!
  • The Almeida is nice. I did a workshop last year with the college at the Almeida, during Oresteia, which was really brilliant.
  • You can go anywhere from Essex Road – I found this out on the day before my 18th party day and I realised there were buses for everyone. There’s the 38 to Victoria, 73 to Oxford Street, 56 to Leytonstone, 476 to Tottenham, 21 to Lewisham and the 76 to London Bridge…

Duramaney has a very different energy to Liam or the characters he plays in Boy, and he’s clear that’s because: ‘I’ve been taught by my parents to be independent and not to rely on anyone else.” But he admits he felt undermined by not getting a place at the Brit School, the Guildhall or the Royal Academy of Music. Thankfully he’s also finding that overcoming adversity can make you stronger – “I’ve learnt that there’s always a way,” he says with a big smile explaining how he hopes to study at Leeds College of Music… and, just for the record, a class of Brit School students (who would have been in his year) have come to see Boy at the Almeida.

It’s an interesting irony that such a bleak play should be giving Duramaney Kamara – and so many talented young actors including Frankie Fox who plays the lead, Liam – such a great opportunity to perform on as famous a stage as the Almeida. And you can join in too by coming to the young people’s panel event on Thursday 5 May, from 6pm, to discuss the ideas raised in Boy.

Find out more about Duramaney Kamara via soundcloud
https://soundcloud.com/dlk_the-genius/sets/new-garden or @DLKtheGenius

Thursday 5 May, 6pm come to a panel for young people exploring the ideas raised in Boy. It’s free and can be booked online – http://www.almeida.co.uk/whats-on/answers-back/5-may-2016
• Facebook /almeidatheatre Twitter @AlmeidaTheatre
Boy by Leo Butler is at Almedia Theatre until 28 May. Sign up to the email list at almeida.co.uk

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com. Thank you.

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook or join the Facebook group. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right) or follow me on twitter @nicolabairduk

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola


Steve Hatt: fishmonger

18 Sep
Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story.  In 1895 Steve Hatt’s great grandfather, Mr William Morris, opened a fish shop on Essex Road, which he ran until 1920. Amazingly four generations of the same family have now run this famously good fishmongers. Meet the man at the helm today, Mr Hatt.  Interview by Nicola Baird
Steve Hatt: xx

Steve Hatt: the fourth generation in the same family, dating back to 1895) to run a  fishmongers on Essex Road, N1.

TIMELINE by Steve Hatt

1895-1920 my great grandfather ran this fish shop (he died in the flu epidemic)

1920-1951 Between the wars my mother Pamela Morris lived upstairs with her mother, father and grandparents. During the war the top of the building was hit by an incendiary (bomb) and they had to move out.

1951- 1970 Pamela’s husband, Steve Hatt, ran the business.

1970 – present Their son, our Steve Hatt, modernises. The smoker has gone but there’s now super-efficient ice-making machinery and three flats above the shop.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes in Islington and the industry,” says Steve Hatt, now 61, contemplatively from the centre of his office. The office is tucked behind the shop, allowing him to keep an eye on his fast-talking white wellie booted-staff -serving lobster, octopus, hake, Dover sole, farmed and fresh salmon or trout, mullet, etc, etc – and to greet the regulars. Mr Hatt, as he’s known in the shop, is a master of juggling: between my questions orders are noted down for tigers (prawns) and haddock plus phones answered. Turns out he’s expert at sorting out bricks and mortar too – essential given the way retailing has changed.

“There used to be two individual cottages at the back on Elder Walk. Number 90 was used as a stable for the horse that drew the cart to market,” says Steve, “then as refrigeration became prominent my great-grandfather acquired #89 to expand the ground floor. We used to smoke lots of haddock, mackerel, cod and trout on the premises, and it was a great asset because we could smoke the fish exactly how we wanted it.” These home-smoked products were popular, indeed the chimney for smoking was so large Steve could probably have hidden his staff in it.

Tiles with an old fashioned feel, put in during the early 1990s.

Tiles with an old fashioned feel, put in during the early 1990s.

The drawback was that traditional fish smoking emits a lot of smoke which is “unacceptable to the modern environment,” admits Steve, “but because our smokery was in a separate building, that had been there before 1920, it beat the regulations.”

Then in September 2007 the smoker caught fire*. “I could have walked away and retired if I didn’t own this building,” says Steve. “I eventually managed to rebuild the ground floor and keep the business running at the same time.This was a most stressful two year period. Total commitment to handling the best fresh fish in the best facilities was my main priority at all costs. Now we have the best plant and machinery on the market for storage, loading and unloading, but we’ve maintained the old-fashioned part, with the wet fish counter which the customers like, at the very front of the building.”

The fire was the second time Steve had fought hard to run this fishmongers. “I always enjoyed the outdoors when I was at school. We lived at Southgate and my mother, Pamela Morris, had the shop but my father [also called Steve] ran it. My father wanted me to go into a profession – be an accountant or a solicitor. But once I’d decided, that was it.”

20130910_100513All change
The fishing industry had changed as much as retail.

Over the years about the only thing that hasn’t changed is the crazily early time Steve gets up – 3.20am. “It’s so I can collate overnight orders and source anything particularly hard to get.”  He then drives from his home in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire to New Billingsgate Fish Market* now sited near Canary Wharf.

“I have tried fishing on boats but found it an intolerable way of earning a living. It’s extremely hard: 25 years ago fishing was statistically the most dangerous occupation – you couldn’t get life insurance.” Even working on land the trade is tough, characterised by heavy weights, inhospitable conditions (especially in winter) and a lot of contact with ice. Perhaps for these reasons very few women choose to be fishermen.

“The retail industry has changed dramatically in 20 years mainly due to modern food handling regulations, which have done away with many old traditions, or made them no longer viable. Is that good or bad, question mark?” asks Steve leaning back in his chair.

Steve Hatt fishmongers: a rare view without a queue emerging on to Essex Road.

Steve Hatt fishmongers: a rare view without a queue emerging on to Essex Road.

And then there’s the way we all shop: at supermarkets.

“I don’t regard supermarkets as competition,” says Steve. “They can provide parking and late night shopping, but they cannot provide the same quality fresh fish, 24 hours out of the water. All fresh fish caught locally around our coast is sold at auction. Auctions are held on Monday to Friday. The last fish to come to London each week arrives on Saturday morning, having been auctioned on Friday. So any fish sold on Sunday or Monday is one day older… how can a supermarket do that?

Plenty of fish in the sea?
Critical fish stocks and how to fish sustainably has been a huge part of the modern food debate. In supermarkets or any shop that sells packaged fish customers can opt for the MSC – Marine Stewardship Council label, a system that promotes sustainable fishing practices. http://www.msc.org/about-us/what-we-do

However pre-packaged fish isn’t sold at Steve Hatt’s shop.

“The best quality product is all I’m interested in. The MSC approved label is for the segment of fish that ends up in boxes. This is where I think fish auctions are critical, because all fish sold at auction is graded and the sea area in which the fish was caught identified. In the old days you would have the name of the boat and the port where it was registered. Now with modern satellite tracking devices and fish logs the fish is traceable not only to the boat but to the sea area, and has to be within the quota system.  If everyone sticks to the rules laid out by the scientists then fish stocks should slowly recover. A Spanish trawler can’t suddenly slip in and hive off 50 tonnes of mackerel, then slide off again.”

The fishmonger’s secrets

Q: What’s your best selling fish?

Farmed salmon. Be clear, there’s a world of difference between farmed salmon in the supermarket and from a top class fishmonger. Just consider the time passed from the moment the fish is killed.  We also sell a lot of mackrel and sardines.

Q: Can you cook?

Yes – I love cooking fish. Last stime I cooked was salmon in the oven with a honey and mustard glaze. In 15 minutes it was done.

Q: Can you recommend a cook book?

Susan Campbell’s Poor Cook (1976, co-written with Shirley Conran) and Family Cook (1974) have the best descriptions and hand drawn pictures of how to clean and fillet a fish. It’s a painstaking delight.

Q: Where do you go in Islington?

I don’t normally have lunch. In the late ‘80s and ‘90s there were some small, character restaurants in Islington – Monsieur Frog (now a showroom), Anna’s Place, off Liverpool Road, and the Camden Passage heydays with Robert Carrier (the founding father of modern food photography, especially fish), although there is still Fredericks. I feel the quality of food in the area has been sacrificed for volume and alcohol consumption – alcohol helps make the figures add up.”

Q: What do you like to do when you’re not at work?
I used to shoot, partridge and pheasant mostly, but I’ve got arthritis in my  shoulder so my main hobby now is skiing.

Eel trouble
Islington – renowned for its foodies but miles from the sea – has struck lucky with Steve Hatt’s shop. On Saturdays there is invariably a queue snaking out of the door as people who want the freshest fish, wait patiently to be served, often chatting in a range of languages. Once you’ve chosen your fish the staff always offer to clean or even fillet it for you.

Occasionally there are mishaps to enjoy… “I was serving an old lady with live eels one day,” says Steve, “when one of the eels slipped out of my hand and shot up in the air like a missile.  Very near the front of the queue there was an extremely tough looking 6 foot 3 inch American gentleman who was absolutely terrified and nearly fainted! The old lady thought it was hilarious.”

The queue is typically customers picking out the fish they want to cook at home. “We don’t serve many restaurants,” continues Steve. “The key change is the amount of pre-processed fish that restaurants buy. The modern restaurant kitchen has shed staff so no longer buys whole salmon or whole fish, or even slices. They don’t fillet or clean themselves.  It still amazes me how little people know about fish and the actual simple cooking processes. The British have a very low consumption of fish – the Spanish eat over five times more.”

People often say that fishing and fishmongers are a dying trade, but the facts don’t always add up. Not only do we have Steve Hatt offering the freshest fish around, two new fish shops have opened in the past year in Islington – Meek and Wild at Highbury Barn and the Prawn on the Lawn on the corner of St Paul’s Road and Highbury Grove.  Perhaps best of all Steve Hatt’s business is now fully-modernised, making it possible to run an old-fashioned counter-serving fish shop for many years to come.

As for who will run it, Steve’s on the case: “Both my children will almost certainly not actually work in the shop. However, like myself, they both want to see the name of Steve Hatt over the door in the future. Staff committed to the business will be the key. Ruthless discipline in work practices and judgment of quality product will need to remain solid… but for the foreseeable future I remain doing what I enjoy, here in Islington.”

Steve Hatt fishmongers is open Tuesday – Saturday from 8am-5pm. Find it at 88-90 Essex Road, N1 8LU.

Read an interesting piece about Steve in the Independent (18/9/1995)  here.


Fire in the smokery – see the news coverage in the Islington Tribune, here

New Billingsgate Fish Market, is open Tuesday-Saturday, 5.30-8.30am. Short video here http://www.theguardian.com/travel/video/2011/oct/18/billingsgate-fish-market-london-video

Over to you

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right).

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy the most popular of all islingtonfacesblog posts, Nina Marcangelo from Alfredo’s Cafe on Essex Road which had 800 viewers in a week, 187 views on its 2nd day up and 97 facebook shares.

Roy Griffiths: carpenter artist

15 Aug

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. If class, career and cancer can make or break a life then the experiences of furniture maker and shop owner Roy Griffiths shows how to turn adversity into advantage. Plus quick detours around the swinging ‘60s, art and Zen Buddhism. Interview by Nicola Baird


On Highbury Hill, N5 you can still see the old entrance bell signs used by either visitors or servants.

“I was a war baby, born in 1939. My family were all servants looking after the posh people. They were chauffeurs or chambermaids. My mum was a milliner and my Dad a postman,” says Roy Griffiths, now 73, with matter-of-fact pride sitting on one of a comfy pair of sofas in his massive 9,000 square foot shop at 137-139 Essex Road. It’s been a furniture or kitchen shop for the past 10 years but Roy now has plans to sell bespoke kitchen cabinets at an affordable price (£5,000 instead of £20,000).

There are a couple of show kitchens on the shop floor plus some eccentric furniture (a Pacific island coffee table) and some stylish oil paintings, done by Roy during his art school days.

The building also boasts an art studio, a carpentry shop and a penthouse. Roy offered to do this interview spontaneously (despite never meeting me before) and is clearly busy – his mobile buzzes often and there’s a fitter working on the other side of the shop who needs supervision.

Roy began life in Islington. He was born in St Mary’s Hospital and then went home to 124 Northchurch Road, N1 which the family rented. He was evacuated to Torquay “later my sister bought a hotel there, well more of a boarding house,” but then the family moved back to Wood Green. When Roy was 14 – and at a grammar school -they moved out to Hertfordshire. It’s a slow northerly route that many Islington families follow, even now. In the 1960s Roy was back in London to attend Hornsey Art School, he then taught art for three years in Norfolk, before taking up a place at the Slade (a famous art college). It was a heady time in the art world – think David Hockney, Derek Jarman, Lucien Freud and sculptor Allen Jones. “Look, I’m an artist by trade,” says Roy explaining how he left the Slade at 27 and became an antique dealer. “I didn’t think I could do art and feed my family.”  That’s another fascinating story… Roy “married Mimi, a girl from the circus – well her dad was a high diver. I chased her around Europe!” Successfully chased as the pair have now been married 50 years.

ROY’S TIMELINE 1939 – born in Islington 1960s – art school (and worked as a teacher) 1967-1993 – ran an antique shop in Fulham with many famous customers (eg, Paul McCartney). The shop was closed when Mimi became paraplegic. 1976 – set up Cross Keys Joinery which specialised in painted furniture– Ray sold it in 2007 to retire in France 1996 – bought 137-139 Essex Road building which was run as a furniture shop 2009 – Set up Green & Fay (named after his daughters Polly, 49, and Lucy, 44 who both live in London still) 2011 – Diagnosed with neck cancer, had chemotherapy and also rekindled his interest in Zen Buddhism 2013 – September – plans to run Green & Fay as a kitchen shop which sells furniture.

Seize the moment
So now he’s 72 and retired to France at least once, what is going on? “People say ‘You don’t need money, why do you do it?’ But artists don’t retire. They drop dead in their boots,” explains Roy. “In 2011 I was diagnosed with neck cancer. Cancer’s been the best thing that happened to me. When you get it, you know nothing about it. Then you read up what the Macmillan nurses say and find that something very odd happens – many people disappear and people at work start leaving. They either think cancer is catching or terrifying. They run for it. They can’t talk! It creates tremendous pressure. It nearly broke up my marriage. It made me come out of the closet as a Zen Buddhist – but Zen Buddhism helps you be calm and happy and appreciate nature.”

“Cancer makes you concentrate your mind on the quality of your life – not on your wife or children or employees. You ask ‘What do I want to do?’ And I realised I just love making furniture. I made a fantastic living with carpentry. I went out and bought £5,000, maybe £10,000 of kit and started making furniture again.  I’ve done my tour of duty – and it was a tour of duty. I’ve got a lovely family and over the years I’ve employed 200 to 300 staff and helped them feed their families. Now all of a sudden I’m doing what I love doing, making furniture.”

And he’s doing it back in Islington – a place clearly dear to his heart. “Well my wife doesn’t like suburbia. And Islington has a very mixed alternative society.  There’s something special about Essex Road – Upper Street is incredibly posh, it’s where Blair went for lunch – but Essex Road is full of immigrants who work hard and run their own shops. Essex Road is cosmopolitan. It’s one of the last streets with a butcher, baker and fishmonger.

Supermarkets have taken over the high street with their express and metro stores and killed off small businesses, but not in Essex Road. Here’s a culture that’s very attractive to artists and creative people.”

Roy Griffiths’ story shows how to embrace change and craft them into the life you want to lead. Right now his shop is open from 11.30am-2.30pm on Saturday, so you can go and find out more for yourself. Make sure you ask to see the chocolate joints – Roy’s brand new carpentry technique.

Green & Fay is open on Saturdays from 11.30am-2.30pm – go see Roy’s lovely art works and find out about the cupboards he makes. From September 2013 the hours will be longer. See http://greenandfaykitchens.co.uk/handmade-kitchen-units.php

Over to you

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right).

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy the most popular of all islingtonfacesblog posts, Nina Marcangelo from Alfredo’s Cafe on Essex Road which had 800 viewers in a week, 187 views on its 2nd day up and 97 facebook shares.

Nina Marcangelo: Alfredo’s café family

24 Jul

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. Opened in 1920 Alfredo’s café was an Islington landmark for years, sited at the end of an 18th century terrace at 4-6 Essex Road. It was probably best known as a fabulous working man’s café (then reborn as the S&M café, now Meat). But it wasn’t just the big plates of food that made it special says Nina Marcangelo, who was born in the flat above the café, and is still one of the owners of the property. Interview by Nicola Baird

Screen Shot 2013-07-24 at 16.08.38

“I was cooking before I could walk,” says Nina Marcangelo who was born above Alfredo’s cafe and started work there in 1953.

Nina Marcangelo started working at Alfredo’s in 1953, only leaving when she married Elio and moved to run a café with him in Barnet High Street. “At Alfredo’s I’d be up at 5.30am and start preparing all the food. We had fry ups, steak and kidney pudding, steak pies, braised steak, braised liver, apple pies and bread pudding,” she says. Everything was made at Alfredo’s, including the famous vanilla ice cream*, except the bread and rolls delivered by a German baker called Mr Dickens.

Nina’s family are Italian so they know how to make great food. Many Londoners also got their first taste of spaghetti and minestrone here.

20130720_152428The generous portions and amazing tile interior attracted all sorts of punters – including music hall stars Marie Lloyd and Max Miller when they worked at Collins Music Hall (now Waterstone’s book shop on Islington Green, see photo).

Even the Kray twins were customers.

UNTIL 3/1/13 there was a pic here which I put up mistakenly. It was of a scene from Quadrophenia shot outside Aflredo’s Cafe. The caption said “Alfredo’s biggest claim to fame is surely starring in the cult ’70s film about Mods & Rockers, Quadrophenia. Pic sourced from www.classicafes.co.uk/Best.html” The moment I received a letter from Getty’s legal department (3/1/13) I instantly removed this photo. 

Achingly cool
But Alfredo’s biggest claim to fame is featuring in the classic cult ‘70s movie Quadrophenia. The café starred as the Mods’ London hangout. “The scenes had to be shot at night so the café could stay open as normal (from 6am-6pm six days a week),” says Nina.

Alfredo’s also played a star turn in the less-well known film Mojo (1997).

The original Alfredo's tiles are listed. See them now if you eat or have a cocktail at Meat, 4-6 Islington Road, N1.

The original Alfredo’s tiles are listed. See them now if you eat or have a cocktail at Meat, 4-6 Islington Road, N1.

“Daddy bought it in 1920 from my Grandfather Vincent de-Ritis. Actually he was called Alfonso, but he thought Alfredo’s sounded more business like,” says Nina, now 75. “Daddy was born in England. He was a Londoner who wouldn’t leave Islington. Mum came over from Italy when she was 21 to work with her sister, who had a café in Hackney,” says Nina warmly. “When I was little Mum used to stand me on a box to do the washing-up (these are the days before dish washers),” says Nina. “At the end of the day (when I was older) I’d collect all the tea towels and scrub them on a board until they were really white, then ‘spin’ them on the mangle we kept downstairs in the cellar.”

The interview is taking place on a scorchingly hot July day, reminiscent of an Italian summer, in Nina’s sitting room in Barnett. Pride of place goes to a painting of Alfredo’s and, on the opposite wall, a giant photo of her mother’s picture perfect hilltop Italian village home, Picinisco, between Rome and Naples. “Whatever house you go into they all cook amazing,” insists Nina. To prove her point Nina shows me her “favourite book ever’ Dear Francesca (and also Dear Olivia) cookbooks by Mary Contini whose family also hails from the same village.

There are also framed photos of Nina’s parents meeting the Pope, socialising with champion boxer  and Question of Sport TV star Henry Cooper (who “married an Italian girl”) and family snaps of her daughters, Lisa and Rita, and the grandchildren Leo and Rosa.

“Life felt very Italian. Mum always spoke Italian to me. We bought pasta at Gazzano’s, an Italian deli down Clerkenwell Road.” The family also went to church at St Peter’s in Hatton Gardens which Nina says “is like a miniature Vatican inside.” As the years passed the Italians around Clerkenwell moved. Nina says they went to “Highbury, then Finchley and then on further afield. There’s a very big community in Hoddesdon, Herts.”

Family life

“After I married I moved to Barnett with my husband, Elio. We ran a café in the High Street next to the Mitre pub. It used to be called The Terminus, because that’s where the trams turned around. But now it’s called Georges.”

“After I married I moved to Barnet with my husband, Elio. We ran a café in the High Street next to the Mitre pub. It used to be called The Terminus, because that’s where the trams turned around. But now it’s called Georges.”

“I had wonderful parents,” says Nina with a big smile. “My mother was a very friendly lady. Within minutes she knew your life history. I think Daddy tended to spoil me – at 21 he bought me a brand new red mini!” But her early years were tough – the youngsters (Nina’s the third child in a family of four, and all the rest are boys) were evacuated during the war to Tamworth, Staffordshire. “We were all near but not together,” remembers Nina. “My parents did it for safety, they stayed in London. But I had a wonderful five years as the people (I stayed with) looked after me like a princess – I stayed in touch until they died. There were no animals, but there was a lovely big field to play in. You’d hear doodle bugs pass over. I think they were heading to Birmingham. And we had bomb shelters – it’s where I learnt to knit and do jigsaw puzzles.”

Once it was safe to come home to Islington Nina went to school at St John’s the Evangelist in Duncan Terrace. “I loved it,” she says. “I wanted to go to the school my brothers were at, Brompton Oratory, but mother said it was too far for a girl. What could I do? It’s not like now. You had to do what your parents said.” The result was secondary at St Aloysius near Euston. And then on to work at the café full time.

20130720_140820Cafe life
“When it was quieter I’d start preparing for the next day. I loved to go to the meat market (at Spitalfields) as the chaps made a fuss of me. There was no nastiness. I used to drive down and then had to give a two and six tip*. I was 17 when I took my driving test, and only 18 when I drove my mother to Italy.  My dad had such confidence in me.” Here she laughs, adding, “To be truthful there wasn’t the traffic. Driving was great fun – once a week I used to drive Mum to the West End, park the car, and we’d go shopping!”

Despite being an early car fan, Nina and her husband are now carless. “We’ve got bus passes, save on insurance and can always catch a cab,” she says practically – showing the insight that led to classic Italian dishes – spaghetti bolognese and minestrone – being added to Alfredo’s menu because “It’s what I thought English people would have a go at.”

“My favourite customers were the builders – as long as you gave them a big plate they were happy,” she says. Nina still remembers where comedian and singer Harry Secombe sat when he tipped her after a fried breakfast. “The Kray brothers used to go there too,” Nina adds more warily. “When you read the terrible things they did it’s a surprise. They were charming – you wouldn’t think butter would melt.”

“When I was a little girl Islington was a right dump. If people asked you where you came from you’d say very quietly ‘Islington’,” says Nina. “Now I’m quite proud to say I come from Islington.

  • London still has working men cafes, but nothing beats the experience Alfredo’s gave. You can find more info about it at http://www.classiccafes.co.uk.
  • Alfredo’s site is now occupied by Meat – a posh restaurant and cocktail bar which cooks meat sublimely, and offers veggie options – at 4-6 Essex Road, N1. http://meatpeople.co.uk


    Alfredo’s site is now occupied by Meat – a posh restaurant and cocktail bar which cooks meat sublimely, and offers veggie options – at 4-6 Essex Road, N1. http://meatpeople.co.uk

  • To enjoy a taste of Italian life in Islington on the Sunday around 16 July each year at 3pm (“an Italian three o’clock,” warns Nina, “so it may be nearer 3.30pm or 4pm”) there’s a religious procession along Clerkenwell Road and past St Peter’s church. There’s always lots of pizza, clothes, tops and seeds (for your garden).”


Vanilla ice cream/gelato – Alfonzo had a place over the road where he kept his ice cream making equipment.

2/6d is two and six (two shillings and six pence).

Over to you

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right).

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

Peter Ball: auctioneer

3 Jul

Criterion Auctions offer the best theatre in London. Fact. Every Essex Road sale is the place to spot anxious sellers and determined buyers. You’ll see bargain hunters muttering prayers to the gods of good luck. There are dealers who know the price of everything. And then there’s the amazing backdrop of leather sofas, Persian rugs, wash stands, black and white photos, wooden Jermyn Street boot trees, mahogany dining room tables and sets of matching china – all overseen by auctioneer Peter Ball. Interview by Nicola Baird

Auctioneer Peter Ball with gavel.

Criterion Auctioneers’ auctioneer, Peter Ball ,with gavel.

The show starts every Monday afternoon at 3pm when company director and auctioneer, Peter Ball, picks up his gavel and starts the bidding. The adrenalin is palpable – even when it’s only a small crowd of 30 to 40 looking at the early lots. The atmosphere gets a boost from Peter’s mastery – simultaneously describing what’s for sale, noting the bidders (who hold up a wooden paddle when they want something) and taking the prices up. It’s all so fast that a newbie can find it overwhelming…

“I speak my mind on the rostrum, and will say if something’s good. I might be a bit controversial, it’s just a bit of banter,” explains Peter who jokes the rostrum is his position of power. “Very often the crowd is laughing their head off. It helps keep people interested,” he adds. “I do 750-800 lots so I like to go fast and not to drone on. Buyers can bid on line too, we’ll have people from China, Japan and America, but I’m old school and think that does slow the auction down a little.”

All the world’s a stage
peterball-criterionviewoutsideAt 6pm, the after work crowd arrives ready for the bidding wars for the bigger items. Bids will start around £100 (compare this to Sotheby’s where anything under the hammer is likely to be £5,000 plus).  “Arts and crafts (furniture), 19th century paintings and period furniture are always popular,” explains Peter. “The small items are often bought as gifts or for selling on at antique fairs. I’d say 80 per cent are private people buying for their houses.”

With the rise of eBay most of us know more about buying and selling pre-loved items as a way to clear out the clutter and snap up a bargain. But Peter believes: “There is still a stigma about brown furniture (period pieces made from mahogany or oak). Many people would rather go to Ikea and buy something that they know will fall apart, than buy something solid like a bureau or chest of drawers that will last for the rest of their life.”

A brown furniture stigma? Even in Islington? Even with all those TV antiques shows?  Even at this auction house which often counts celebs in the crowd (over the years Peter’s spotted Chris Huhne and ex-wife Vicky Pryce, Page 3 girl Susan Mitzy, Emma Peel from The Avengers, Kat from Eastenders (Jessie Wallace) and a host of Holby City folk)?  Peter nods his head.

Inspired by my visit to the pre auction viewing I ended up placing a bid for this ebony Solomon Islands ceremonial drum. And lost!

Inspired by my visit to the pre auction viewing I ended up placing a bid for this ebony Solomon Islands ceremonial drum. And lost!

“We used to break up arts and craft furniture and it’s still difficult to sell utility furniture from after the war. But people are mixing antiques with the modern more. We’re always going to get a surprise when two people bid on something for much higher than the estimate. Sometimes you’ll see two ladies digging in their heels and you can’t stop them. And then there are some people who just put their hand up so everyone knows what they want – people could bid them up to a ridiculous amount! What’s good about Antiques Roadshow http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mj2y is that it has made older people more aware of the value of what they have. We’ve had Cash in the Attic http://www.cashintheattic.com/ here and Sarah Beeny http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Beeny. But all those TV cameras are a bit of a deterrent.”

Out and about in Islington

  • “I go up Camden Passage – it’s now a hive of eating places including Fredericks. They still have the antiques markets on Wednesday and the weekend too. I’ve eaten out on Upper Street and Browns is not bad.”
  • “I enjoy doing auctions for St John Evangelist Primary School. It’s not antiques, but last year it raised £500.”
Follow the carpet and be amazed by what's on sale. It's a great way to learn about antiques too.

Follow the carpet and be amazed by what’s on sale. It’s a great way to learn about antiques too.

The collecting bug
Now 64 Peter is planning his retirement. He’s been at Criterion for 20 years, commuting in from Beckenham, but he plans to go back to his roots in Hastings. And he promises to keep on dabbling in antiques, maybe adding to his ironic collection of Sylvac pottery rabbits and Royal Doulton Bunnykins – started because he had “a phobia about rabbits”.

“As a child I wasn’t really into antiques. My interest came about through my ex father-in-law. I was 21 and just married. He helped me get a job as a porter at an auctioneers in Hastings. I didn’t go to college to learn about antiques, I learnt on the job.”

“My first experience auctioneering was when my boss fell ill at Lot 50 and there was no one to take over, so I jumped up. I was 22. There’s a young lad here at Criterion from Hackney who we are going to get up on the rostrum soon,” he adds thinking about his successor.

There’s not much time to chat on an auction Monday. Within moments of Peter finishing this interview he  is busy patrolling the auction house’s aisles, which are piled neatly with items on sale. Here Peter deals with a barrage of friendly hellos, questions about furniture collection, payments and what’s going under the hammer. The days must fly past…

If  you’ve never been to one of these sales,  then you’re missing bargains, bidding triumphs and the theatrical auction atmosphere. If you have been to Criterion Auctioneers, then please share what you enjoyed most about the experience – and any tips on how to bid – in the comment box below.

  • Criterion Auctioneers (for antique and contemporary furnishings), 53 Essex Road, London N1 2SF, tel: 020 7359 5707. Auctions are held every Monday at 3-5pm, then 6-8pm (approx). Collection of larger items can be arranged through Adams Carriage on 07850 115 809.  If you are going to bid yourself, arrive in enough time to collect a paddle so the auctioneer knows you are making a legitimate bid.
  • Camden Passage has bric a brac and antiques stalls on Wednesdays and Saturdays, see info here.

Over to you

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you.

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see how in menu top right).

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

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