Paddy's Market: Stalling for time

AT HALF past eight on a late spring morning in Glasgow, rain falls softly on Shipbank Lane.

It falls on the traders cursing the weather as they set out their stalls; on tracksuited junkies scooping powder up their noses; on two police officers in fluorescent yellow waterproofs strolling through the lane and pausing to inspect, with wry amusement, what appears to be a dead body laid out on a trestle table. Purple plastic flowers lie on the chest, and a home-made sign reads, "Paddy's Market RIP".

Beneath its bed-sheet shroud, the "corpse" turns out to be a golf bag with boots at one end and a rubber mask at the other. But for the men and women who buy and sell at the market they know as "the Briggait" and who are proud to call themselves "hawkers", the effigy is emblematic. This Friday, Glasgow City Council will take over the lease from Network Rail and close the market after nearly 200 years. On that fatal day, the traders plan to process to the City Chambers on George Square with "Paddy" in a coffin. They regard these last days leading up to the forced closure as a kind of wake.

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"I feel that I have to attend the funeral because this place is part of my soul and my family's history," says Michael Burns, 54, who has traded here for 30 years and is the fifth generation of his family to work as a hawker. "On the 15th of May a part of us will die. So I'm not going to just hand in the keys. We need to lay the market to rest properly."

Paddy's Market takes its name from the Irish immigrants who came to the city in the mid-19th century to escape the potato famine and began buying and selling second-hand clothes in the Bridgegate area by Glasgow Green and the Clyde. The railway arches of Shipbank Lane have been used as premises since 1935, but informal trading in rags and other goods went on here for at least a century before that.

A popular tune of 1856 lists the items for sale: shoes sans soles, stockings full of holes, whisky kegs, wooden legs, shearing hooks, old books, corkscrews and trews. "For fifteen pence, you'll be complete," the song promises, "a second-handed dandy." In another song of the period, a country lad on a day out in Glasgow gets suckered into drinking with a Bridgegate prostitute who relieves him of his hat, coat, boots and – it is hinted – his virginity.

The public perception of Paddy's continues to oscillate between the poles defined by those old songs. On the one hand, it's seen as a ribald repository of bargains and banter which should be cherished as social heritage; on the other it's regarded as a den of thieves and vagabonds, an amoral principality in the centre of a city which has worked hard to escape such things.

According to Strathclyde Police figures for 2008, Shipbank Lane was the scene of an attempted murder, three robberies, three assaults, and 42 drug offences among other lesser crimes. The police stress that a more accurate picture of the impact of the market on this part of Glasgow can be had by examining the much higher crime figures for the beat area as a whole – a small square formed by the boundaries of Trongate, Saltmarket, Clyde Street and Stockwell Street. These include a further 18 robberies, 64 assaults and 143 drug offences. In the view of the police, the market is the grit around which the pearl of criminality forms.

Bailie Gordon Matheson, in whose ward the market lies, calls it "the hottest of crime hotspots" and supports the city council's vision for the area, to redevelop it as part of a cultural quarter with artists and crafts-people selling work from the arches. The idea is to extend the affluence and sophistication of the Merchant City – the New Glasgow of boutiques and brushed-steel bars – down to the Clyde. It's in with brasseries and out with second-hand brassieres.

That's for the future, though. For the moment, the used underwear is still on sale. Walking briskly in a straight line and ignoring the cries of "Get yir knickers doon the Briggait!", it takes 90 seconds to cover the length of Paddy's Market from the brick arch on Bridgegate to its bookend on Clyde Street. It takes five seconds to walk across it. On one side of the lane is the honeyed sandstone of the High Court; the Latin motto on the front of that building, "Nemo Me Impune Lacessit" – No one attacks me and gets away with it – could serve as a slogan for the defiant traders. Instead, the walls of Shipbank Lane are daubed with gang tags and graffiti questioning the sexual health of certain local women.

Goods are sold from railway arches which go deep and damp into the viaduct, and from tables, sunloungers and blankets on the pavement outside. The oldest hawkers recall when the arches were used as stables, and everyone remembers the cobbles which, according to legend, were hoiked up and sold to Edinburgh so that city could appear more olde worlde.

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Clumps of buddleia jut from the walls and pigeons hustle as traders remove the plastic sheeting from their goods. The rain is ending and the morning's work beginning. "Dive in and delve in, girls," says one octogenarian to her first customers. "Everything's fifty pence."

In March, traders were informed the council intended to close their workplace. Already some have packed up, the corrugated iron shutters brought down on their arches. Many of those remaining have begun clearing out, and their faces are tripping them. The karaoke machine, on which traders loved to sing Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep, sits silent.

Around 80 men and women work in the market and none relishes the thought of registering as unemployed. One old lady was forced into retirement when the arch she worked in closed and she died shortly afterwards. Her pals say she had nothing left to live for.

There is a sense of hopelessness all round. One woman sits Oor Wullie-style on an upturned bin and sells half-price packs of Mayfair from a bin-bag. In a raid last November, officers from the UK Border Agency recovered 101,000 contraband cigarettes and 21 kilos of tobacco, but this trader is unperturbed by the thought of giving the place a bad name. "If I thought the market would get kept open if I didn't sell fags, I wouldn't sell them," she says with a fatalistic air.

Hazel McGeachin, 49, sits slumped amid boxes of out-of-date crisps (Cajun Squirrel flavour – 10 packets for a pound) and her voice shakes with anger. "This works," she insists. "We're still getting customers, rain or shine. In this credit crunch, when people are losing their homes and businesses are going down the Swanee, this place can thrive and survive, and yet they are closing it. It defies all logic."

How will she spend 15 May? "I think I'll leave my van at home, get my son to drop me off, and come down here with a nice bottle of wine and drown my sorrows."

Down the lane, Betty Mullen is sorting through the clothes on a rail within her arch. Along one wall there are a dozen fancy hats and three photographs of Princess Diana torn from magazines. Mullen won't give her exact age – "I'm just sayin' I'm 80. I'm no tellin' you any mair" – but has worked here since her early teens and describes herself proudly as a "Briggait-walloper".

The air of Paddy's Market is filled with old words and sayings; it's the linguistic equivalent of one of those isolated islands in the southern oceans where weird prehistoric species thrive thanks to tectonic shifting and a lack of predators. A man in the cafe calls himself a "didgi-raker", one who peruses middens, and I also hear a fair bit about "half-biled toffs", people whose expensive-looking second-hand clothes disguise their poverty.

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Betty Mullen's family have been hawkers and fast-talkers since 1917 and the thought of the market closing is tearing her to shreds. "I'm ready to jump in that Clyde." While we're talking, a bone-thin young man in a dirty tracksuit approaches and quietly opens a plastic shopping bag to show her something inside. "No' today, son," she says. "Try next door." Turning back to me, she says, "It's aw in the game, intit? That poor soul doesn't care who he sells it to. He just needs the money for his next pill or hit."

At both ends of Shipbank Lane, at any given time, there is likely to be a small crowd of drug addicts and dealers, buying and selling heroin. They shoot up nearby at a secluded spot beside the Victoria Bridge, as the discarded needles attest.

The traders express contempt for these addicts and blame them for the council's decision to close the market. They say heroin is sold here because of the proximity to Hope House, a Salvation Army homeless hostel with beds for almost 100 men. For drug dealers, that constitutes a captive audience. Janet Deans, the manager of Hope House, admits some of her clients will be among those buying drugs in Shipbank Lane but insists that the hostel cannot be blamed entirely. Indeed, she says she confronted one trader, now departed from the market, who was selling drugs from his pitch.

There's no doubt that the drug users do attempt to sell stolen goods here, and the police believe they do so successfully. My impression, though, is that the great majority of traders loathe the junkies and chase them away when they linger too long near their stalls. It's true, too, that the presence of addicts disturbs what would otherwise be a fairly jolly atmosphere. They are death at the feast. "See when a consignment arrives?" says Mullen. "You get 20 of them at a time squealing and running up and down the lane. Oh, we've seen them with their faces hingin' aff, stabbing one another for drugs."

Bailie Matheson is confident that once Paddy's is closed the drug problem in Shipbank Lane will end. He says the market operates unregulated and on the margins of society and that this, together with the sale of contraband and stolen goods, creates an atmosphere of lawlessness which allows heroin dealing and use to flourish. He's also keen that Hope House should close and the homeless find beds in smaller hostels.

The councillor, who estimates he was last in Shipbank Lane 18 months ago, has been the focus of the trader anger since he described Paddy's as a "crime-ridden midden". Signs all over the lane bear his face and say he is wanted for the murder of the market. He doesn't think much of that, nor of the argument that what's happening is an assault on the working class by a Labour council which has lost touch with its core voters. "To associate criminality and the way this market has been operating with working- class culture is an insult to that culture," he says. "Slums and outside toilets are part of working class heritage too and we don't want to go back to those."

Matheson points out that his mother's name is Rudden from County Cavan and he comes from the same Irish working-class stock as many of the traders. "I share that history, and I recognise that there clearly was a lively social, cultural and economic contribution that Paddy's made in its day. But we cannot be blinded by sentimentality to the problems that have been getting worse for years."

There is a sentimentality among the traders for Paddy's Market, but it is more like a nostalgia for personal histories than a general fetishisation of poverty.

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For many of these people, the Briggait was where they grew up. They were literally laid on the bundles as babies and did the same with their own children. So to be forced out is not only akin to being made redundant, it's like being evicted from the family home. More than once I hear it likened to the Highland Clearances. These traders are a sort of clan. They are not all as poor as their forebears; some make an extremely good living and talk about Caribbean holidays and homes with horseshoe drives. But their roots go deep and they value the earthy culture from which they came.

Michael Burns remembers that when he was a child the market seemed "a dead mysterious place" which reeked of whisky, fish and poultry. He loved the edginess, the rough and readiness, and still does. "What you see is what you get here," he says, brandishing a pair of silver trainers, "and if they don't suit you at a tenner, OK, give me eight quid for them. But if you haund me a fiver, I'll tell you to f*** off. That's just the way it is."

Paddy's is not the place to go if you want smooth-talking sales people. The traders mix kindness and coarseness. "Now, put your purse away before you go, hen," one warns an elderly customer. Another calls after a young workie who has caught her eye: "It's ten pence up against a wall!"

Gary Barton, 44, stops at a table. "How much are the Burberry shoes?" he asks. The hawker tells him twenty at which he about falls over. "Did they belong to Kate Moss or what?"

Davie Black, 68, is clipping his nails with such vigour that they boomerang off the bunnet of his pal Davie Welsh, who sells bikes. "I do all my shopping down here," says Black. "I got barred out of Lidl."

One hawker in his fifties laughs about the young men on their way to the court who stop off at his place and swap their football tops for a "lucky suit" in the hope that a smart appearance will persuade the judge to be lenient. Sometimes, a while later, a Reliance van will drive past on its way to prison and the trader will hear someone battering on the darkened window. The suit turned out not to be so lucky.

Sharon Reilly, 35, has a Modigliani look. She is from Kirkintilloch but comes here every day to shop and points out, as many do, that the market has an ongoing social function as a lifesaver for those on the breadline. "From two year old I've been coming here," she says. "My mum was a single parent. Now I'm a single parent with a wee boy of two and another baby on the way, so I'm going to miss it."

It's not just the poor who come here, though. You get people like Andy Gray, 63, a charity worker who comes for bacon and eggs and to keep an eye out for addicts who may be ready to clean-up. If they're ready, he'll help them. "I'm here on the fringe," he says, "watching and waiting."

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The traders are keen on talking about their famous clients. "You meet aw the stars in here, don't you?" says one. "Aye," says another. "Franz Ferdinands, he's doon aw the time. Lena Martell, she's doon aw the time." Then there's the famous Scottish actor who buys his gay porn at Paddy's and the English rock star, known for his love of opiates, who once scored in the back lane.

Some hawkers are less forthcoming. Bessie from the Calton, a small woman with white hair, is sitting beside four palettes of old clothes, and refuses to give her second name. She is 83, has been coming here for 50 years and keeps at hand a faded picture of her late mother, Jessie, who worked here too. Bessie's four sisters are dead, and of her seven children only two survive. This market is getting to be all she has left.

What does the place mean to her?

"Everything. My whole life's here."

What is it about the Briggait that she loves?

"The whole thing. The atmosphere, the people. I'm the oldest one here and I get on with everyone." A younger trader walks past, looking us over. "Ah," says Bessie, "she's a nosey bitch."

In the C'Mon In Cafe, Patsy Woodward, 58, is serving up stew, potatoes and cabbage at three pounds and all her tables are full. "I have fresh food every day at cheap prices," she says. "The aulder buddies come in and have their dinner and take food hame." Widows and widowers, she says, often can't face cooking for themselves. "For some of them, the only people they talk to all day is us in the cafe and the stallholders. Instead of going aff their heids with loneliness, they have a carry-on and a joke."

Woodward introduces me to John McVey, 74, and Joe Pyke, 76, two old soldiers. Pyke has bought a sporran; McVey a spinning rod with which he hopes to fish an eel from the Clyde. McVey makes a point of dressing well for very little money. "I call this place my tailor," he says. "I've got 50 suits, four wardrobes, and I cannae get anything else in. Aye, and two big bales of shirts."

Patsy Woodward runs three cafes, having started with a five grand loan from a credit union several years ago. She's proud of what she has achieved. She was once unemployed and now owns a large villa in Mount Vernon. Hard work got her there, and she's furious at being told she's part of a criminal subculture the city would be better off without. "I'm no' gonnae lie doon," she says. "I've fought too hard to let the council and people like them beat me."

She has taken a lease on a large space at the nearby Barras market and is building a new cafe there. She plans to take between 15 and 20 of the stallholders with her. Most seem willing to make a go of this, but none are enthusiastic. They say it won't be the same. "I think we've just got to make it the same," Woodward argues. "It could be a new Paddy's. I feel quite hopeful. The Barras is dying off at the moment. If we take in new blood, who knows?"

At half past one on a late spring afternoon, the sun shines weakly on Shipbank Lane. It shines on the traders packing up their stalls and customers finding last-minute bargains; on Betty and Bessie, John and Joe, and the two Davies. It shines on Cathy Welsh's big cameo rings as she moves a mannequin from her pitch, on Colin McKay's false teeth which he takes out for the camera as he browses, and on the peely-wally faces of addicts as they lean over the effigy of "Paddy" and pretend to administer the last rites.

It's pointless, of course. Paddy is nothing but a golf bag beneath a sheet and soon Paddy's Market will be nothing but a memory; just another Glasgow street going nowhere in particular.

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