Everybody loves a market. And here in Lyttelton we have a weekly street market whose origins stretch back into the distant mists of history for, oh, it must be close to 20 years.
The word market derives from the same source as the word merchant and ultimately traces back to the Latin mercari meaning to buy or sell. Human beings are buyers and sellers, traders. And in all societies throughout history there have been central places where people have gathered to trade. Markets are fundamental to our society and our psyches. Markets are us.
Because we love a market, the whores and tempters of advertising have stolen the noun and turned it into a verb meaning to promote and plug things, to boost them beyond their worth in order to gull people into buying them. But that's a debasement. The true market has soil beneath its fingernails.
If you want to know a town find its market. Markets display the goods that are the reason for the place's existence, its essence, the products of its distinct geography, what it eats: little Greek fish markets, the octopuses turned inside out to the sun; the pens of goats and sheep anywhere in the Arab world, metres from the butchery stalls besieged by flies; the covered wet markets of central China where anything that crawls or runs or slithers or swims is bought and sold alive for freshness; and everywhere the piles of the fruits of the earth: mounds of beans or spices or apples or roots or herbs or leaves.
My first job after university was in northeastern Spain and I spent hours in the covered central city market. A blind man sat in one corner every day amid skeins of papery garlic. "Tengo ajo," he bellowed from early morning, "blanco como la leche." "Have garlic, white as milk." When he'd sold what he had he withdrew to the bar and drank tinto the rest of the day.
My favourite aisle was the aisle of unorthodox butchery, the exquisite displays of lungs and lights, of intestines wrapped around unidentified organs to make snacks, of rows of goats' heads sold con o sin sesos, with or without brains, and with a little ring of fur left on their muzzles to indicate their freshness. It was alien to me and I loved it all for its strange immediacy, its honest expression of a place. It wasn't like where I had come from.
For in the past century or so, especially in the English-speaking world, markets have lost out to shops and malls. Shops are market stalls made permanent. Malls are markets taken indoors and given processed air, bewildering escalators, echoing kids, limitless artificial light, and no threat from the realities of weather.
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But the notion of markets has endured. The supermarkets that have by and large stolen the market's business, have retained the word market in their title for a reason. They even like to pretend to be markets, as evidenced by the way they stack the fresh produce at the entry, laid out as if on separate market stalls all various and wonderful and shown to best advantage. It's a con of course. A market has a range of vendors. The supermarket is a sole trader. It is just exploiting our genetic memory of markets.
But it hasn't quite worked. We retain an atavistic longing for something more immediate than the supermarket, something bloodier and personal. Hence the rise in recent years of farmers' markets. They represent the individual resisting the monopoly. They cut out the middleman and reconnect the grower with the buyer. Or so the notion goes.
Our market here in Lyttelton is officially know as a farmers' market. Yet one of the most distinctive features of Lyttelton, with its cramped steep streets backing on to harsh volcanic hills and running down into the sea, is its utter lack of farms and farmers.
And that's largely true of the market. Craig who sells pies is no farmer. Sue and Jane who sell stuffed olives are no farmers. Vic of Vic's bakery is no farmer. And if the man who offers little pots of cactuses for sale thinks of himself as a farmer, well I think he's stretching the word a little further than it was meant to go.
Nevertheless the place is a huge success. Crowds throng it every Saturday. They bring their dogs. They stand in groups and chat. Buskers of varying degrees of talent try to entertain. And the place is happily convivial, social and good. Does anyone care that it's just a tad factitious? No. Everybody loves a market.