The market trader Stallholder Carl Spiegel sells his fruit and veg come rain or shine, in his distinctive, musical style. Chris Arnot watched him bob and weave in Birmingham.
To watch Carl Spiegel at work is to witness a whir of perpetual motion. He moves around on the balls of his trainers, bobbing, ducking and weaving like a boxer. But the only gloves he wears are of the blue rubber variety. They dip, with bewildering speed, into mounds of spuds and sprouts as his customers clamour for attention.
“If I’d known you were coming I’d have baked a cake,” he says to an West Indian woman who has been judiciously examining mangoes with the air of one weighing up a serious investment. “I don’t want no cake. Just want some onions,” she replies, abandoning the mangoes for another day. Spiegel banters away with her, pausing to fling a carrier bag across a cornucopia of tomatoes. “There you are, sir; help yourself,” he shouts to one of the few people hereabouts in a suit, collar and tie.
Over the past couple of years or so, Birmingham’s Bullring has gone from being a national joke to a major draw for shoppers from all over the country. But this most long-established part of it, the open market, has become increasingly the province of those for whom the bulbous, silvery Selfridges might as well be an alien spacecraft visiting from Venus.
Certainly, it belongs to another world, even though it’s 200 yards away. Rather than venturing anywhere near it, they lug heavy bags or drag faded tartan shopping trolleys between stalls offering furry slippers and naughty knickers, sari silks and cut-price tiaras, goat’s legs for curries and dry-cured pig’s ears for dogs. This is raucous, rough-and-ready but, for the most part, tolerantly good-humoured old Birmingham.
And Spiegel, 56, appears perfectly at home here. After all, he was brought up nearby in the days when city living was for poor families rather than affluent, young apartment dwellers.
These days he lives in a small cottage with Joan, his wife of 30 years, in countryside fringing the Vale of Evesham, where much of his produce originates. His neighbours know that he’s Jewish and a market trader. Few of them, though, could begin to imagine, however, the exotic younger life that preceded his ascension to the soap-box-cum-stage where he has been selling seasonal and predominantly local fruit and veg long before those concepts came together as a mantra of the chattering classes.
This is a man who has been, briefly, a soldier in the Israeli army and shoe salesman in Toronto. He lived as a hippy in San Francisco, was a factory worker in New Jersey and a gardener in Key West. He became a vegetarian after a lengthy conversation in a New York restaurant and gave up drinking after contracting hepatitis on an ashram in Poona.
His story emerges over breakfast in the un-exotic surroundings of Joe’s Cafe in Birmingham’s wholesale market, across the road from his stall. Spiegel comes here at nine every morning. By then he has been up for four hours and awake since 3.30am. “That’s when the phone starts ringing at home,” he says. “It’s one wholesaler or another, telling me that he’s got some good stuff and he’ll put it on one side for me,” he explains. “They know I only buy the best.”
He eats it, too. While other traders are tucking into toast, bacon sandwiches or full English breakfasts, Spiegel is working his way through wedges of neatly sliced cucumber, tomatoes and lettuce towards a substantial portion of cheese at the centre of the plate. He has already seen off three bananas while driving in his silver Vauxhall Vectra, serenaded by John Lennon and, surprisingly for such an ebullient character, Leonard Cohen.
Bananas, cheese and salad? Will that be enough to sustain him for a winter’s day of bobbing and weaving? He nods. “I’ll cook something when I get home tonight. Joan [a nurse] is on the late shift and won’t be back until 10. That’s my bedtime. I usually go to sleep with Radio 4 in my ear. Anyway, we never go out on a Friday. If you have to work on a Saturday, as I do – it’s my busiest day – then you’re expected to light some candles and observe the Sabbath the night before.”
The eponymous Joe of Joe’s Cafe turns out to be an Iranian called Joseph. “We have some lively discussions about the Middle East,” Spiegel confides with twinkling eyes. But does Joseph know that he was once in the Israeli army? “Oh, yeah. He’s known me for years. In fact, he knew and respected my father.”
Spiegel Sr became a well-known figure in the Birmingham rag market, building up a business in “schmutter” [clothing] after losing his jewellery factory in Czechoslovakia. A member of the Free Czech army, he managed to flee to London shortly before the Nazi invasion. He met and married the daughter of the restaurateur that he worked for.
“They went back to Czechoslovakia after the war,” their son explains between prodding cucumber slices, “only to find that ownership of the factory had passed from Nazi to communist hands.” So, they moved to Israel, where young Carl was born in 1950, the third of four children and the only boy.
The family came back to Britain when he was two and lived in a flat over a grocer’s shop near the Birmingham Hippodrome. He was 17 and enrolled as a student at the local college of cookery and catering when the six-day war broke out. Young Spiegel felt impelled to abandon ideas of being a chef while he rushed off to fight for the land of his birth. “By the time I got there, the war was over,” he muses. “But I saw enough death over the next year or so to convince me that life is precious. I hate no one. My Muslim customers bring me cakes and other titbits, and I accept them gratefully.”
His spell in Israel awakened a wanderlust that consumed him throughout the 1970s. Having followed one of his sisters to Toronto, his talent for selling was quickly spotted by the manager of an upmarket shoe shop. “The company started mapping out a career in management,” he says, “but I wasn’t ready to settle down.”
So, he set off for San Francisco and, belatedly for a good Jewish boy, embarked on a brief foray into “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll”. The summer of peace and love had long gone but the counter culture was still alive and kicking in Haight-Ashbury. For a while, he squatted in a house owned by former members of the Grateful Dead before setting off along Route 66 for the east coast and then down to Florida.
It was while tending the garden of a black preacher in Key West that news came through that his father had suffered a heart attack. “When I walked into that hospital ward back in Brum, he nearly had another one,” Spiegel recalls. “My hair was shoulder length, I had a big beard and was wearing faded, patched-up jeans. When he’d recovered a bit, the first thing dad did was offer to buy them from me. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Do you want to sell them on the stall?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘I just want to destroy them.'”
Spiegel Jr has had his own stall for over a quarter of a century. “I knew, as soon as I climbed up on that platform, that this was for me,” he maintains. “Some people say I’m an exhibitionist, but I firmly believe that my personality has helped to grow the business. You can bang on about caulis all day long or do a bit of a song and dance. Well, I can’t sing or dance too well, but I can pull in the punters. Mind you, we all have to work twice as hard these days to make the same money,” he adds, recalling the lengthy dispute with Birmingham city council when the new, glitzy Bullring was being planned.
As secretary of the local branch of the National Federation of Market Traders, he was in the forefront of negotiations. “We lost and they won,” he concedes. Result: the traders pushed away from the hub of the city where their ancestors had hawked their wares for generations. What’s more, they faced hefty increases in rents.
“Only the loyalty of Birmingham’s immigrant communities has kept us in business,” Spiegel goes on. “Many don’t have cars to take them to the supermarkets, but they know their onions. And their other veg. I respect people who want the best,” he adds before pulling on those blue rubber gloves and embarking on another day of bobbing, ducking and weaving.
Stallholder, Bullring Market, Birmingham
CSEs in English, maths and commerce, plus extensive travel to broaden the mind
Chilly winds and driving, icy rain on winter mornings
Speaking in Birmingham Council House as local secretary of the National Federation of Market Traders