The renowned and award winning photographer, Stuart Freedman took part in our Ten Questions series last year. Now we are excited to hear of his new book ‘The Englishman and the Eel’.
The Englishman and the Eel is a journey into the culture of that most London of institutions, the Eel, Pie and Mash shop, but it is also a sort of homecoming for me.
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, warm comfort food. Steam. Tea. Laughter. Families. Already in decline by the mid-century, the shops were still dominated by a handful of families and passed down through generations.
Today, these simple spaces hold within them the memories and a rich, largely undocumented cultural heritage of generations of working-class Londoners in a city whose only constant is change.
The eel, pie and mash shops are now havens for what the East End once was and for me, who has spent much of my twenty-five year career working in the developing world, they are a portal back to my own past and a way of examining the change that has taken place to the culture that 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 has evolved into.
The Englishman and the Eel is not an encyclopaedic record of every shop. Rather, I’ve documented what I believe to be most interesting and significant ones to make a book that I hope is a tribute to a changing institution and I’ve used the eel as a metaphor and symbol of that cultural change. Rare, endangered but tenacious – and still surviving. In that sense the book is a companion piece to my last, The Palaces of Memories, Dewi Lewis 2015 (a finalist for best photobook at POYi in 2016), about the Indian Coffee Houses that sheltered and reminded me so much of my own past during my twenty years working and living in India. Again, I’ve sought to show everyday lives free of cliché and judgement but this time I’ve delved into my own background to do it.
The work is however, 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 two companies that process the fish 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.
London has changed but some things endure.
Stuart has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund this beautiful book. To find out more and to support the project please click here.
Featured image: Stuart Freedman, The Englishman and the Eel