Interview: The Cockleman

Photos: Dom Henry
Interview: Al Needham
Wednesday 31 December 2008
reading time: min, words

"I'm not too keen on the whelks meself, but they’re very good for keeping your wife quiet for a bit"


When you live in a city that changes as rapidly as ours, you appreciate the things that stay the same - and nobody has stayed the same longer than the Cockleman. For over 40 years, he has rolled up in his white coat and hat, dishing the fish to our Nanas, Mams, and maybe even our kids one day. Ever since LeftLion started, we’ve been determined to discover the man behind the basket. That day has finally come…

So tell us about yourself, Cockleman… 
My full name is David Colin Bartram, and I’ll be 62 this year. I was born in West Bridgford, but I was legally adopted because my parents wanted a little girl. Which was a bit stupid of them, but you have to tek life as it comes, don’t you? I left school at fifteen and worked on the farms – milking and herding and that.

So what got you into the world of fishmongering?
When I used to come home at the weekend, I’d do a few Saturdays for a man called Harry Tenby, who used to run the cockle trade in Notts, was a Norfolk lad who lived next but one to me and a was a very decent man. Swam the Channel once. He gave me the basket, and a list of pubs to do. I was very nervous, because he said “Keep away from the bikers and the rugby lads, because they’re hard”. Ha! They’re weren’t. It was the football lads you had to watch out for, then and now.

Anyroad, when he emigrated to Spain, I took over with my wife – who we met when we worked on this job. We were courting for 12 years, because her husband died on the railway. She had seven kids, and we wanted to wait until they grew up. And then we were married for 22 years. Anyroad, I got laid off at my day job, so we used the redundancy money to build the business up - at one time we had seven staff and 250 pubs, but then my wife died about 13 years ago and I do it on me own now. I’ve been doing this for 41 years, in all. 

What was it like in town like then?
You’ve seen Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, haven’t you? That’s just how it was. Town was very busy, like you’d expect, and business was very good. I used to do town, but we went as far as Long Eaton, Beeston, Shelford, East Bridgford, Gotham… right the way round Notts. Pubs have changed a lot since then – they try to mek ‘em trendy, if you ask me. All you need to do with a pub is keep the tradition, mek it a nice chill-out place, bit o’ music… not too tarty. There used to be the odd scuffle and that, but nothing like it is now. Walking the streets nowadays, you need to keep your wits about you. There’s a lot of youngsters drinking too heavy these days – not that we didn’t drink, but not that much. And Saturday night has got very moody. 

So have you ever had competition in town? 
Not really. I’ve had blokes try it, and think they can do it better than me, but they never had the bottle. I must admit it was quite scary going into a pub and selling, but back then all the pubs in town were run by husband-and-wife teams, and if you asked them first everyone was alright with it. It was easier then, before the chain pubs came in. You could follow the landlords from pub to pub. 

Chain pubs are changing everything, aren’t they?
They won’t let me in. They’ve all got ‘company policies’. You don’t have that personal contact with whoever’s running it nowadays, which is a shame. There was a time when I used to sell in (BIG HORRIBLE PUB IN TOWN, YES, THAT ONE – LL), but then one of the doormen asked for a bribe, so I don’t bother there anymore. Luckily, there’s still plenty of decent pubs about. 

So why should everyone have a bit of fish with their pint? 
Well, it’s brain food, in’t it? And my seafood is completely untainted by seasoning, so it won’t spoil your beer. Personally I like the prawns and the cockles, but I’d have owt out of me basket. Not too keen on the whelks meself, but they’re very good for keeping your wife quiet for a bit. I know a gentleman who’s got a bit of a noisy wife when she’s had a drink, and every time he sees me he’s after me whelks… 

What’s the difference between Ocean Sticks and Ocean Pinks? 
Ocean Sticks are the crab sticks. Except they’re not – they’re monkfish with a bit of flavouring. Ocean Pinks are… a shape. And they’re totally different. 

Do you ever get aggro in town? 
Well, it’s scarier these days. You’re always worried that you might get jumped. And it’s happened a time or two. But not many of ‘em get away with it, because my basket likes to hit a bloke’s belly button. Oh yes. I’m not bragging, but I’ve knocked a few over in town. Only to protect meself, mind. I don’t need a knife or any of that rubbish. My basket protects me. I don’t know why they bother, because I only come out with three pound a night. 

Take us through your day… 
My average day is packing, preparing, fetching and carrying. I get my seafood delivered fresh from Kings Lynn, or Nottingham Seafood behind the Cattle Market. It takes me about three hours to prepare everything, and I pack everything up as late as I can, and then come out in the evening. Sometimes I’ll come out on Saturday and Sunday day, and do me Bank Holidays. Then I get in the car, go into town, and do me rounds. I usually get home at 1am. 

Your decision to sell Peperamis has caused a lot of controversy, hasn’t it?
It has. I’m only selling them because I was asked by the youngsters. It’s not hurting anyone, and they’re not taking up much room in me basket. I’m always up for suggestions for new items, too. I’m a bit limited, really, because I won’t sell anything the pubs sell, which is fair. Some folk have said that Peperamis and fish don’t mix, and one could contaminate the other. How can it? How can it? They’re wrapped up! I’m very, very particular about the food I sell. If I can’t bring myself to eat what’s in my basket, I won’t sell it. There’s been a lot of changes to Health and Hygiene rules since I started; back then we were selling everything in bags.  

Tell us about your basket… 
I’ve had it 37 years, this one. But I’ve got another three in reserve. The foil gets changed every month, and I’ve tape up the handles. And I always carry prawn sauce, vinegar and pepper. And me forks. 

What’s trade like these days? 
There’s still a living to be made from it, but I’ve noticed there’s not as many punters since the smoking ban. It’s slow in winter – I only buy in thirty to forty pounds on fish in the week in the winter, but it picks up in the summer. And you can never tell what’s going to sell – I can run out of cockles one week, and then all me prawns go the next. And nowadays with pubs, you never know what nights are gonna be good. I can tek more money on a Monday than I do on a Sunday. I try to work out what the best nights are going to be, but I don’t shut down on the worst nights, because you never know. I also do Americana in Newark, but I don’t do Goose Fair. I do my pubs 52 weeks a year - why should I let my pubs down? I’m cheaper than them, anyway. 

You’re one of the few people in town these days who everyone seems to recognise. 
So I’ve been told. I feel quite nice about it, because of all the respect I get off landlords and landladies, and the people who’ve kept me going. I mean, I was gonna pack this up when I lost me wife, but the Trip and other pubs said “Come on, Dave, you can’t pack this up, we’ll back you” 

What pisses you off about working in town? 
When some bloke says “Come ‘ere, cunt, what’s in your basket?” No manners. I just blank ‘em nowadays. But if anyone starts on me, there’ll be people in the pub to start on them, so I don’t worry. If you give respect, you get respect. And if you act like an idiot, you get treated like an idiot.


Are you thinking of retiring soon?
I want to keep doing this as long as I can, because at the moment, I’ve got nothing to stop in for. I’ll only start easing off when I find a nice lady.

Ooh. Are you on a mission, Dave?
Well, I’d like to find a lady to take out to wine and dine, as long as she can put up with me fishy fingers! If there’s any lady out there with time on her hands who’s willing to learn about the trade, and help me as a partner or anything else, I’d be very pleased to meet them. And I’m a gentleman as well. I can’t believe the way I see some of the young ‘uns treat each other on Mansfield Road. I’m a grafter, and I treat a lady like a lady. I haven’t gone courting on the internet, because I’ve heard some funny stories about what goes on – these blokes pretending to be women and wanting your money, and that. There’s blokes say to me “You should have a woman in every pub”, and I say “How the bleddy hell can I do that and have any money left?”

I’m only doing fourteen or fifteen pubs at the moment, from the Trip up to the Fleece, but I’m always looking for any other pubs who’ll give me a chance. I’m part of a tradition that goes back decades, and I don’t want to see Nottingham go without it, but I can only carry it on if the pubs will let me in. I just don’t want to give it up. I can’t retire. Alright, there’s some nights when I don’t fancy it, but it’s keeping me fit. What’s going to happen if I pack up? I’m gonna be sitting on me arse seven nights a week, burning me own electricity, watching crap telly, when I should be out here. Looking at the women!

Is there anything else you’d like to say to LeftLion readers?
I’d like to thank all my regular landlords who’ve let me work, and all my customers over the years. Just keep supporting me, and I’ll keep bringing the fish out. And I’d like to thank LeftLion for having photos of me with loads of women, because it makes me mates jealous when they see the paper. And if any ladies are interested, let me know.  Let's have a bit of lady company, instead of fishy company...

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