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Smithfield's annual Christmas Eve meat auction is a cult event for those in the know, who load up on festive turkeys and hire vans to buy a year's supply of meat in one go. Oliver Thring speaks to the man behind the auction, butcher Greg Lawrence...

You couldn't call Greg Lawrence a reluctant auctioneer. "I've been doing that Christmas auction 30 years," he says. He relishes his annual role, which requires a unique mix of salesmanship, jocular banter, relentless energy and a loud Cockney voice. "Wouldn't miss it for the world." Why not? "It's the atmosphere," he says. "People come from all round London to participate. It's fantastic – it really is the beginning of Christmas."

The fortnight before Christmas is the busiest time of the year for butchers, while January and February are the leanest months. So it's vital that they sell every last scrap of meat before the holiday: anything left behind might spoil by the New Year. So, every year, Lawrence auctions the last of his stock to the public on Christmas Eve morning from Harts premises in the Old General Market building at the bottom end of Charterhouse Street and the Farringdon Road. The shop opens on to the street. "Everything has to go," says Lawrence. "50 or 60 years ago there used to be three or four auctions on the market," he says, "but now we're the only ones left." He clearly enjoys the monopoly.

The auction has gradually become a sizeable event, attracting people from all over the city and beyond. "You've got to be there to savour the atmosphere," says Lawrence. "Let your eyes be your guide." Nowadays there are Christmas trees, carol singers and "a real festive build-up". More than 100 people will have clustered outside the shop once the shutters go up just before 10.30am and the auction begins. It's a noisy and, to an outsider, apparently chaotic process. Lawrence holds up a turkey, a side of beef, a leg of lamb, and would-be customers wave their banknotes at him to show interest.

There's no change, and the frenetic atmosphere means there's always a risk that disputes might arise. "We have police protection now," says Lawrence.

But that means bargains can be remarkable. "We'll do a game with the punters," says Lawrence. "You might get something for nothing. If we're stuck with turkeys at the end we'll toss a coin – if you get it right you pay nothing, if we get it right you give us a few quid." I've seen footage of Lawrence doing exactly this in the BBC's 2012 documentary, Inside Smithfield: a huge loin of pork gets handed to a lucky fellow who calls tails correctly. (The next chap, who pays just £20 for the same cut when he gets the wrong call, is only slightly less lucky.)

Some punters take far more home than they'll need for Christmas. "A lot of people buy meat to last them the year" says Lawrence. "Turkeys, sausages, beef, lamb, chicken – you name it." People hire vans and come in teams: one stays at the stall, another guards the purchases, the others arrange transport. "People really buy a lot" – he emphasises the last two words.

Once you've bought your meat, Lawrence's team are on hand to cut it if you want it butchered – "There's a queue for that as well," he says. When all the meat is sold and the last customer has gone, Lawrence and his men "scrub up the shop, lock up and head to the pub. We're not left with a crumb." How would he sum up the experience? "Here's what I'd say. If I was a punter, and wasn't in the trade, I'd want to be there. The bargains and quality are unbelievable."

 

Oliver Thring writes for the Guardian: www.oliverthring.com

 

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