« Popular Spanish Phrases | Main | A Sterling Occasion »

Shalom and Sheiks: 1 - An Army Of Cockney Characters

...Dad had an army of useful and interesting characters among his many patients in this working-class cockney area of South London. Once, when locked out by mislaid keys, Dad picked up old George, a burglar of unsurpassed reputation among his fellow professionals, and he had our top security front door opened in a blink. He refused payment, saying that it was nice to get a bit of free practice...

John Powell, continuing his exuberant life story Shalom And Sheiks, tells of growing up in a working-class cockney area in London.

We lived at 41 Clapham Road, a corner house on one of London's typical monotonous rows of terraced houses, all looking identical and soot-covered from years of peasouper fogs and smoke.

The basement was made up of the dining room, kitchen and dispensary, for in those days doctors made up their own bottles of medicine, which were carefully wrapped in white paper then closed with sealing wax. This served to camouflage the evil-tasting concoction within, for which the patient was paying one shilling and sixpence. The ground floor was the surgery while upstairs on the next three floors were our living quarters.

Dad had an army of useful and interesting characters among his many patients in this working-class cockney area of South London. Once, when locked out by mislaid keys, Dad picked up old George, a burglar of unsurpassed reputation among his fellow professionals, and he had our top security front door opened in a blink. He refused payment, saying that it was nice to get a bit of free practice, and added that the next time he was back in his old cell in Brixton Prison, Dad could send him his bottle of stomach medicine free of charge. He reckoned that it tasted extra good when mixed with a swig of methylated spirits.

Our favourite without a doubt was old Bessie Lipsham (to one aged five years, everyone is 'old'). She spoke broad cockney, had a broader bosom and an even broader rear portion, which expanded from two axe handles wide to three when viewed from the rear, as she knelt down to polish the lino floors in the surgery.

She kept the surgery spotlessly clean; not a speck, nor even the suspicion of a speck, of dust or dirt was permitted to take up residence on the hallowed floor, while her precious lino was always shining brightly, reflecting the chairs on its surface.

Tom and I tormented her until she yelled at us,"Now then, yer little perishers, get off of me bleedin' lino with yer bloody, great, dirty clod-'oppers. Go on, get off out of it before I clips yer over yer ear-'oles with me feather duster, and not with the feathers either."

Then, carrying out her threat, she would hold the duster by the feathers and take frantic swipes at each of us with the wooden handle as we dodged between the Waiting Room chairs. But never did it land on its targets; somehow, when it seemed that it would, old Bessie would miss us completely.

Being mimicking kids, Tom and I, by listening to old Bessie, soon became bilingual and could and did break into fluent, cockney dialect at any time. (Out of consideration for those unfamiliar with the dialect, it has been 'watered down' for comprehension. For example, when Bessie says, 'Go on, get off out of it', it really sounded like, 'G'orn, gittorf aht'er vit.')

Sometimes she would break into cockney rhyming slang, which had all three of us giggling. Once, during World War II, when I was coming home on leave and in uniform, I met her in the street. I had not seen her for a number of years. A huge grin appeared above the top-floor of her multi-storeyed chins. "Gawd, love-er-duck!" she exclaimed. "Blimey! Yer ain't 'alf growed up, Sir."

"Sir?" I queried. "Sir? I ain't a 'Sir', I'm th" little perisher what messed up yer lovely lino with me clod-'oppers. I've still got the bloody great bruises on me arse where yer 'it me with yer feather duster 'andle. Last time yer hit me it was six months before I could sit down."

Bessie howled with jelly-wobbling laughter. "Gaw! Yer ain't changed a bit, except yer good looking now. Blimey, I'd 'ave a serve of yer meself if only all me lovers didn't keep me so busy. You was both a couple of little perishers all right, but I loved yer both. Yer didn't 'alf make me laugh; a proper treat it were." The tears came to her good-natured eyes as she wobbled again, shaking all over with laughter.

"Come on then, ducky," I said, "how about giving a lucky bloke a big hug then?"

She complied: her huge arms enveloped me until I could hardly breathe; I would have fared better had I taken on a Sumo wrestler. She was typically cockney, the cockneys that I love with their cheerfulness, humour, their cheekiness and readiness to laugh at anything, or anyone, even at themselves. All my life my ears have pricked up at the sound of a cockney dialect, bringing a smile of memories to my lips.

In our very early years, at holiday time, Tom and I were bundled off to our Aunt Dolly in the Oxfordshire village of Aston. There we spent all our time in ecstasy on the farm where we were allowed to run amuck. We soon picked up the Oxfordshire brogue with its slightly singsong intonation and use of old English words, such as 'bist', a form of the second person singular of 'be'. The old word 'thee' was used constantly, while the pronoun 'you' was used almost as a name. The greeting when meeting someone would be -
"'Ullo, you, 'ow bist?" And the reply would be,
" Oi be fine, you, 'ow bist thee?"

Thus we became trilingual and Dad, being a 'Nartner', raised in the Oxfordshire village of Brize Norton, was delighted to hear us talking 'proper English'. The three of us always greeted each other over the years in the Oxfordshire brogue. So it was that Tom and I became fully-fledged members of the Aston village kids' brotherhood.

It was one of those occasional summer heatwaves that had turned our house in London's Clapham Road into a stifling hell. After well-rehearsed and then performed tantrums, Tom and I were packed off to Aston and joined up once again with the kids' brotherhood as we headed along the mile-long walk from Aston to the Brook for a swim.

The Brook meanders slowly and lazily through the lush, green Oxfordshire meadows and fields of rippling golden corn, then flows on, passing now and again through clumps of willow trees, havens for spooning couples since the day that time was born, and onwards, leisurely, to join old Father Thames himself. The Brook was a symbol of perpetuity to the locals, who in times of worry, or adversity, would say, 'Ah! Why worry? Th' Brook's still a-flowin', beyent it?' Yes, the Brook is still flowing, so everything will be all right.

Categories

Creative Commons License
This website is licensed under a Creative Commons License.