Category Archives: Cockney

A brief history of Covent Garden

There are many reasons to cherish Covent Garden, not least of which is that it exists at all. The area nearly didn’t make it past 1973, when it was scheduled for ‘redevelopment’ after the fruit and veg market moved out. The GLC drew up enthusiastic plans to replace 96 historic acres with a conference centre and lots of roads. The plan was defeated by locals who believed Covent Garden could have a different sort of future, one that didn’t involve hundreds of buildings being demolished and everything getting covered in asphalt. They were eventually proved right, although nobody anticipated that Covent Garden would turn into the upmarket open-air shopping mall it has since become.

Inigo Jones might have approved of its current status, though. It was he who built an elegant Piazza on an old abbey garden in 1630, transplanting a piece of Italy to the centre of London and unwittingly creating that definitively London piece of architecture, the residential square. The area grew in significance after the Great Fire destroyed much of the City, but then decline set it. We may now see Covent Garden as the place where Eliza Doolittle met Henry Higgins, a halfway house between the posh Englishness of Mayfair and louche Frenchness of Soho, but the place got pretty debauched in the 18th century, a hive of taverns, theatres and coffee shops, all haunts for prostitutes like Peg The Seaman’s Wife, Long-Haired Mrs Spencer of Spitalfields and the delightful Fair Rosamund Sugarcunt.

The area’s drift in tone came as the market expanded and the gentry who occupied the Piazza decamped to the newer squares of Berkeley, Grosvenor and St James’s. At around the same time, Charles II reintroduced theatre to the UK, and companies gradually moved from the nearby Inns of Court into Covent Garden by way of Drury Lane. Theatres brought rowdy audiences and actresses who doubled as bawds, and were a magnet for lowlife figures. In 1722, there were 22 gambling dens, countless brothels (one pimp published an annual guide to London’s prostitutes called Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies) and street brawls were commonplace. In 1951, HV Morton argued that Covent Garden provided ‘the most accessible glimpse that remains to us of Hogarth’s London’, but post-war Britain offered nothing quite as depraved as the third plate from Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, set in Covent Garden’s infamous Rose Tavern. Hogarth depicted the Rose as a den of sin, full of drunks, thieves and whores. The tavern specialised in women who engaged in flagellation, both giving and receiving. Pepys was a regular, although he only seems to mention the food, for which it was also famous.

Given such carnage, it is little surprise that in 1754 Henry Fielding would organise the Bow Street Runners, the progenitors of the Met, from Covent Garden, and the area slowly improved from a hotbed of crime into a straightforward slum. Throughout, the market remained central – Charles Fowler’s fine market building was erected in the 1830s and the Flower Market arrived in 1870 – so it was easy to believe that when that moved to Nine Elms, Covent Garden would wither and die.

Amazingly, though, Covent Garden survived. That is largely due to its fringe attractions, which expanded to fill the vacuum left by the market. Theatre was key – opera was now a decidedly upmarket pursuit – but by the 1980s the area also boasted decent restaurants and, on Neal Street, trendy shops like Red Or Dead and Duffer Of St George. Credit must go to Nicholas Saunders, who opened a wholefood shop in Neal’s Yard in 1976. His alternative empire slowly spread to other buildings, creating a colourful corner of the counterculture in the heart of Covent Garden even as anti-hippie punks gathered round the corner, in the Roxy on Neal Street. Neal’s Yard still has an idiosyncratic flavour – the blue plaque to ‘film-maker’ Monty Python seems well placed (Palin and co had offices here).

What Neal’s Yard illustrates is the way that amid the ubiquitous stage doors, posh shops and cobbled streets, the different parts of Covent Garden retain an individual imprint, from the bookshops of Charing Cross Road to the boutiques of Floral Street, where Paul Smith still has a rickety presence. Seven Dials is one of London’s more interesting shopping areas, while the Piazza has been transformed from a ragged craft market into a chi-chi mall. The idea is to attract Londoners as well as tourists, and the Piazza has certainly smartened up, with the central market a mecca for shoppers, serenaded by opera singers and overlooked by a fancy Apple store in one corner and refurbished London Transport Museum in another.

 

Covent Garden is a patchwork then, more diverse than superficially similar areas like Soho and Spitalfields and still boasting enough fascinating nooks and crannies to keep even the most experienced Londoner busy for hours, even if Hogarth and Fair Rosamund Sugarcunt might no longer recognise the streets they once adored. 

 

North and south: the enduring hatred of Chelsea and Leeds

chelsealeeds

It was the draw every older Chelsea fan wanted. The plastic flash of the Champions League may excite shallow newcomers, but a League Cup quarter–final at Leeds is what gets the blood pumping. This is proper football, one of the juiciest rivalries in British football, a celebration of regional differences with mutual bad memories stretching back to the mid-1960s.

That’s about how long Leeds have been singing this little ditty about shooting Chelsea scum.

In the late 1970s, Chelsea fans would reciprocate by asking their Yorkshire foes, ‘Did the Ripper get your mum?’ And they’ll always have this.

The fixture will probably have the sort of ‘toxic’ atmosphere that hysterical commentators love to condemn, but it’s also the very reason people pay to watch football in numbers that dwarf that of any other sport. It’s a game that feels more important than it really is, one steeped in tribalism, history and cultural dislike, offering momentary respite from the sterility that defines the modern football-watching experience. For many fans, this is personal, this is pride.

And Chelsea-Leeds has always been huge. The TV audience for the 1970 FA Cup final replay remains the second largest for any sporting event (after the 1966 World Cup final) and it has the sixth largest TV audience of all time – more than any Champions League or European Cup final involving the self-important Establishment clubs of English football. That’s because Chelsea and Leeds had captured a hold on the national imagination since the mid-60s, when two young, stylish, streetwise sides stormed out of the Second Division within a season of each other.

So much in common but so little alike, Chelsea and Leeds set about each other with a passion in a series of increasingly ill-tempered league and cup encounters. By the time a ferocious 1967 FA Cup semi-final was settled by an awful refereeing decision – a last-minute Leeds equaliser from a rocket-like Lorimer free kick was disallowed because the Chelsea wall had moved too early – the foundations were firmly in place. Chelsea and Leeds, they didn’t get on.

‘Hate. We hated them and they hated us,’ is how Chelsea’s Ian Hutchinson once described it, and footballers are rarely so forthcoming about such things. It was a hatred mired in misconception as much as anything else, an embodiment of all of the north and south’s prejudices about each other. This was Yorkshire v London epitomised.

Chelsea considered themselves the club a la mode, King’s Road stylists, swinging London dandies who knew as much about fashion as they did football. On the pitch, they strutted and posed, playing with flair and panache – but only when they could be bothered. Off the pitch, they dressed up, grew their sideburns, hung out with  filmstars and were photographed by celebrity photographers with famous fans. No wonder George Best said Chelsea was the only other club he’d ever consider playing for.

Raquel Welch, not in a Leeds shirt

Leeds were more hardworking, more focussed, with a Yorkshire work ethic and attention to detail. They were also masters of professionalism in all its forms. Uncompromising, indomitable, they’d only turn to showboating when the opposition were already on the canvas. To make it worse, neither respected the other’s approach: Leeds thought Chelsea were flash failures; Chelsea thought Leeds were boring and nasty.

These stereotypes weren’t entirely fair – Leeds had beautiful footballers like Gray and Lorimer, Chelsea had roughnecks like Harris and Dempsey, and both teams could be said to have underachieved – but they contained more than a grain of truth. When the teams met at the 1970 FA Cup final, fireworks ensued. It must be the most enthrallingly violent games ever seen in this country. Played today, both teams would count on at least three red cards. This tackle (unpunished) is typical. I’d love to see a You Tube compilation just showing the fouls. Paul Hayward would wet himself.

As they rose together, they sank together. From the mid-70s and through much of the 1980s, both clubs endured financial turmoil, relegation, racism and hooliganism. The rivalry remained intense. At a Second Division fixture in 1984, which Chelsea won 5-0 to secure the title, Leeds fans responded by destroying Chelsea’s new scoreboard with a scaffolding pole. This was the scene at another 1980s game at Stamford Bridge, when the fixture still attracted one of the largest crowds of the day.

For a while, things calmed down. When Chelsea won the Second Division title in 1989, the fact they were playing Leeds was almost irrelevant as both sets of supporters maintained an impeccable minute’s silence the week after Hillsborough. When Leeds won the league in 1992, Chelsea fans barely flinched.

The rivalry only really picked up in 1996, when Brian Deane’s vicious ankle-stamp on Mark Hughes signalled the rebirth of Chelsea-Leeds hostilities. For the next few years, Frank Leboeuf, Lee Bowyer, Dennis Wise, Graeme Le Saux, Alan Smith and Jonathan Woodgate produced moments of quite stunning spontaneous cruelty. This was epitomised by George Graham’s side, who arrived at the Bridge in the winter of 1997 with no intention other than to kick Chelsea to pieces. It worked. Leeds had two players sent off before half time, but secured a valuable 0-0 draw. Ruud Gullit’s beautiful but fragile side were never the same.

As Chelsea rebuilt upon experienced foreign lines and David O’Leary went with native youth, the ideology again differed. This time Chelsea came out on top, picking up cups while Leeds imploded (Chelsea even scored, above, one of their greatest ever goals against Leeds). The two sides haven’t faced each other since Leeds were relegated in 2004, in which time Chelsea escaped their own financial reckoning, instead becoming one of the biggest clubs in the world. Leeds, meanwhile, have been scraping along in the lower divisions, the pain exacerbated by the fact they are now owned by much-despised former Chelsea chairman Ken Bates.

So to Elland Road, and while the two clubs have probably never experienced such a vast divergence in fortunes, the fans have been looking forward to this one for weeks. It might be epic, it might be a damp squib, but it will matter, and if we’re really lucky, it’ll be just that little bit toxic. 

Four literary London maps

These four maps of literary London were drawn by Martin Rowson for the rather wonderful 1999 London issue of Granta magazine.

Chaucer’s London

Georgian London

Victorian London

Modern London

Cockney Visions: Writing Britain at the British Library

The British Library’s new exhibition Writing Britain, which runs until 25 September 2012, has big ambitions. It aims to study place and landscape in British literature, looking at how writers and poets have been informed by the land around them, and how their writing has transformed the way we view these spaces.

Phew!

The exhibition is divided into different thematic sections, and includes one on Cockney Visions about London writing, and another on the suburbs, which also has considerable London content.

It’s a remarkably bold concept, but the BL does not shy from a challenge – its exhibition on Liberty a few years ago was one of the most intellectually intense I have ever seen, while the one on Language was similarly involved.

This time, it doesn’t quite pull it off. The problem is the same that blighted last year’s science fiction exhibition – too many books. Entering a BL exhibition is like visiting a first rate antiquarian bookshop, but one were you can’t touch the books and none of them are for sale. It’s great to see these rare and beautiful books, but it’s also incredibly frustrating that you can’t pick them up, feel the pages, smell the history.

Paradoxically perhaps, books are also an insufficient way of examining landscape in the way the exhibition intends. If we can’t actually sit there and read Wuthering Heights, immersing ourself in this extraordinary place the writer has created, we need other ways to make the journey. The most evocative part of the exhibition is the one on the Lake District and Highlands, purely because there are some wonderful paintings on display, which help crystallise our vision of what Wordsworth, Keats and Scott were describing. Conversely, the London section takes in the usual suspects on that well-trod wander from Blake and De Quincey to Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Will Self and Iain Sinclair  (and includes a wonderful copy of the London Psychogeographic Society newsletter from the early 90s), but fails to really plunge us into the city of our imagination.

Where the exhibition – and the BL itself – really does excel is when it can produce original manuscripts, diaries and photographs. These messy, scrappy, lovingly flawed items show the writing process in a way a beautifully bound finished book never can. And some of the best of these are to be found in the sections of the exhibition related to London. There’s a sketch by John Betjeman of Dalston Station; an unpublished poem by Evelyn Waugh about the Crystal Palace (complete with Waugh’s drawing of the building); a couple of pages from JG Ballard’s collection, including the heavily amended opening pages to Kingdom Come and Crash; and a lovely drawing by GK Chesterton to accompany his notes for The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Dalston Station by John Betjeman.

Kingdom Come manuscript

Notes for The Napoleon of Notting Hill by GK Chesterton

I loved also a letter by Conan Doyle sent to his mother from South Norwood, in which he carefully sketched the floorplan of a suburban house he was thinking of buying, and a copy of Pygmalion, which Shaw had phonetically annotated to show how he felt the cockney phrases should be pronounced.

a personal favourite was a draft of Albert Angelo by BS Johnson, showing how Johnson wished a section of one page to be cut out so it would reveal a sentence from later in the book, a brilliant way to create a  flash-forward or pre-cognition.

Best of all, though, was this photograph, which shows JM Barrie, GK Chesterton and George Bernard Shaw dressed as cowboys in 1914. For the full story, read this excellent blog post. It has very little to do with Writing Britain, but it’s bloody marvellous all the same.

London’s football gangs: 1972

 I’ve mentioned Chris Lightbown’s article on London football gangs a couple of times before, but the piece itself hasn’t been available since it was first published in Time Out in 1972. The section on West Ham was reprinted in the excellent 2008 anthology London Calling, but the full article has been confined to libraries and private collections. Until now.

It is a fascinating read. This is the first time football fan culture had ever been seriously discussed by the press, and it offers a remarkable view of life on the terraces from the terraces, free of any moralism or finger-wagging. It is a thorough and very funny piece of writing, and is probably the first time terrace legends such as Mick Greenaway and Johnny Hoy (although he is called ‘High’ here) ever saw their names in print. It’s analysis of where the different clubs draw on their support is particularly great. 

The writing is very much of its time and place – complete with mention of ‘heads’ and ‘coons’ – and also paints the picture of a time when London terrace culture was very different: the Shed was as loud as the Kop, Arsenal had the most aggressive fans in London and Spurs were just a joke, on and off the pitch. Only West Ham’s identity appears to have remained more or less the same, although older Hammers would doubtless question that.

It is a cracking piece of work. Enjoy.

My favourite thing in London

The other day, I saw this board outside the Big Red Bus tourist shop near the British Museum and decided straight away that it might be my favourite thing in London. It was so striking, with such a warped sense of perspective and bizarre mishmash of London stereotypes.

I wanted it.

I decided that I would go inside and ask how much it would cost to buy it, but first I stopped and looked at it awhile. Questions entered my head.

What is a Grenadier Guard doing outside Downing Street? If he’s not on duty, why is he wearing his uniform and if he is on duty, which he shouldn’t be, why is he holding the hand of a small foreign bear? What is Paddington Bear doing so far from his comfort zone of Paddington without Mr Brown or any of the Brown family? Why is Paddington Bear standing behind the Grenadier Guard in that curious position? Are Paddington Bear and a Grenadier Guard even particularly relevant symbols of London life in 2012? And is it just me, or does the whole ensemble look rather like a surreal take on something you might see on Crimewatch featuring a stranger caught on CCTV camera leading a small child away from a shopping centre?

I still wanted it though, maybe now more than ever.

While I was plucking up the courage to go inside an ask, two Italian tourists came strolling down the road. They saw the board, giggled, then handed me their camera and asked if I could take their picture. After arguing over who would be the bear and who would be the guard, they poked their heads through the holes. I took a photograph, they thanked my fulsomely and moved on, laughing and chatting, relishing this rare free moment of childish fun in the sterling-sapping city.

I realised then that the need of London’s tourists was greater than mine. I could always come back, but they would only ever have their photographs. I went home, contented.

Harry Redknapp lends a hand

Possibly the only interesting sentence that has ever been written about Harry Redknapp appeared 40 years ago, when Redknapp was playing West Ham. It goes:

‘It is said that when West Ham were fighting Coventry at Coventry station last year, Billy Bonds and the inevitable Harry Redknapp came along to lend a hand.’

This appears almost as an aside in Chris Lightbown’s seminal article Football Gangs in Time Out in April 1972, which looked at the mobs that followed the four big London clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham.

Did Redknapp really join in a ruck in 1971? This should surely be the first question put to him if he ends up getting the England job.

My Fair Lady: the pun that nobody noticed

It has come to my attention that a substantial number of people do not realise that the title of My Fair Lady is a pun. It’s a play on the way a Lisson Grove-raised flower girl like Eliza Doolittle might pronounce Mayfair, if she wasn’t really a cockney at all but merely a Hollywood actor pretending to be one. Mayfair/Myfair – the drooping, elongated ‘y’ is a classic, if exaggerated,  symptom of the cockney mode of speaking,

Say it yourself in your best, daftest, Eliza Doolittle accent – Mwyyyy Fair. Sounds a bit like Mayfair, doesn’t it? If you don’t believe me, here’s Alan Franks saying the same thing, eventually.

So there you are. Here’s a scene from the film with Audrey showing off her accent at its very worst.