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The Englishman and the Eel: Capturing a London Institution
19th April 2017
A Kickstarter project by Stuart Freedman
Acclaimed photographer and SideStory Insider, Stuart Freedman, has launched a Kickstarter campaign to support the publishing of a series of images that bring him back to his roots. “The Englishman and the Eel” gives a unique and raw look into a culinary institution that mirrors the changing times and evolving social landscape of London.
The Englishman and the Eel is my journey into the culture of that most London of institutions, the eel, pie and mash shop. 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’s eel, pie and mash shops are 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, a way of examining the change that has taken place in the culture that I left.
The work is however, expansive: I’ve traveled 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. I’ve photographed 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 a renaissance, identifying as they do with a re-imagined and distilled working-class culture that is geographically separate from their traditional roots.
The Englishman and the Eel is not an encyclopedic record of every shop, but rather a documentation of what I believe to be most interesting and significant ones, to make a book that I hope is a tribute to a changing institution. I’ve used the eel as a metaphor and symbol of that cultural change. In that sense, the book is a companion piece to my last – The Palaces of Memories, Dewi Lewis 2015 – a finalist for best photography book at the Picture of the Year in 2016. The Indian Coffee Houses I captured reminded me so much of my own past during my twenty years working and living in India.
Words by Stuart Freedman. To learn more about his incredible project and pledge to the Kickstarter campaign click here.