The Englishman & the Eel is a journey into that most London of institutions, the Eel, Pie and Mash shop. Today, these simple spaces hold within them the memories of a rich, largely undocumented cultural heritage of generations of working-class Londoners in a city whose only constant is change.
Now few in number, the shops are havens for what the East End once was. At a time of impending 'Brexit', they allow a unique insider's view into a section of London's working class community that can feel forgotten and marginalised. This is however, no rosy description of the Cockney – that music hall, heart-of-gold caricature - but an affectionate and serious look at what that culture and its people have evolved into.
The Englishman & the Eel is not an encyclopaedic record of every shop. Rather, it is a document of the most interesting and significant ones and a tribute to a timeless institution. For Stuart Freedman the eel and its decline is a metaphor of the cultural change that has enveloped the East End. What remains is a tenacious and rare creature – endangered – but still surviving.
Stuart grew up in East London in the 1970s, then a byword for poverty but now a metaphor for gentrification. The streets were navigated by pubs, rough, cheap cafĂ©s and Eel, Pie and Mash shops. Often elaborately decorated with ornate Victorian tiling, many sold live eels in metal trays that faced out onto the street to the fascination (and sometimes horror) of passersby. Inside, warmth and comfort. Steam. Tea. Laughter. Families. These shops are a portal back to that past.