Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Street cries

'Agadir-agadir-agadi-i-i-r! Agadir-agadir-agadi-i-i-r!'



This was Meknes bus station. As we approached, the tongues of the ticket salesmen were loosened; like gaudy parrots in their football shirts, two of them seemed to be shouting in a repetitive duet. We could hardly hear the murmur of 'Marrakesh, marrakesh' in the background, coming from the old man in the brown jellaba.

I used to read about the street cries of London without really understanding. 'Who'll buy my sweet lavender'... It didn't ring true. Now I've heard the noise of a Moroccan bus station, I understand what London must have been like in the seventeenth or eighteenth century - a cacophony of shouting, of rhythm, of words yammered out or repeated like the blows of a club.

Orlando Gibbons's 'Cries of London' sounds quaint now, but I wonder if in its day it didn't have the shock value of, say, Stockhausen's Stimmung.

Then the other day I was at Lynn Mart - an amazing event, a full scale funfair in the Tuesday Market Place, overlooked by fine Georgian houses and inns - and I realised that the fairground is the one place street cries can still be heard. Even though some of them - 'Are you rea-dyyy?' and 'Are you brave enough for the Extr-e-e-e-e-me?' - are now recorded in sepulchral furry tones and played on speakers, rather than shouted as they might have been twenty years ago by the barkers.

Street traders still sometimes have a good line in patter. The guy at Brick Lane who used to advise 'Ladies, get a new tool for yer husband!' But it's patter - it's a spiel - not really the same thing as the street cry with its formal, ritual conversion of the word into a thing, a melodic or rhythmic tag.

For days after Meknes, Jacques and I would start up like the two parrot-bus-men; 'Agadir-agadir-agadir', 'Fas-fas-fas-fas' - and then burst out laughing. No one else ever got the joke.

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