“A real cockney is the poorest creature in the world, and yet he lives in a world of romance – a fairyland of his own […] he sees hundreds of thousands of gay well-dressed people pass […] and enjoys their liberty and gaudy unfettering pride. He is a footman – but he rides behind beauty… He meets the Lord Mayor’s coach, and treats himself to an imaginary ride in it … He is, in short, a great man by proxy, and comes so often in contact with fine persons and things, that he rubs off a little of the gilding, and is sub-charged with a sort of second-hand, vapid, tingling, troublesome self-importance.”
In other words, he takes what ain’t his – or at least takes parts of it. The beauty, the gilding, the unfettering pride – he doesn’t own it, but he steals it to create his own. Using wit and artistry, he transforms his current situation to make it better. At least that’s what I interpret from these words – perhaps because I see and hear it frequently in action. But such a complimentary view couldn’t be more out of tune with the historical attitude towards the Cockney, which was one filled with contempt and mockery – not admiration…
The Strand, Blackwood Magazine Headquarters, 1817
“We cannot have it, Wilson!”
“Have what, old boy? What’s been said now?”
“It’s not what’s been said. It’s what’s been written, Wilson. Their so-called poetry continues to make a mockery out of the esteemed heritage of British education, and I will not stand for it!” Lockhart had been sat behind his oak desk, but with his last exclamation he jumped to his feet, as if the plush leather had thrown him off, repulsed by the flabbiness of his derriere.
“Oh God, is it that Keats again? What’s he done now?”, droned Wilson nasally.
“That young Cockney poemster has rhymed thorn with fawn, Wilson!! Thorn with fawn!!!”
“He did what? You mean thorrrrrn with a tee haitch and fawwwn with an eff? My God, we’ve got to do something Lockhart!”
“We jolly well do, Wilson, we jolly well do. Above all things, it is most pitiably ridiculous to hear men, reviled by uneducated and flimsy striplings – fanciful dreaming tea-drinkers, who, without logic enough to analyse a single idea, or imagination enough to form one original image, or learning enough to distinguish between the written language of Englishmen and the spoken jargon of Cockneys, presume to ridicule the poetic art form in such a way!”
If the poor poet John Keats couldn’t do it, it would take someone new and unscathed by the bitter literary critic Lockhart to renovate the notion of ‘Cockney’ as a term of abuse in to something admirable, even affectionate. Someone who could create characters that were – and still are – loveable for a charm and a quick wit that is inseparable from their Bow Bell dwellings. Someone who could put pen to best-selling paper and paint an Artful Dodger and a Mister Sam Weller.
Dickens’ two funniest characters are arguably his most loveable, and so much of who they are is rooted in a London that vibrates with a constant flux of people, voices and classes, giving the two famous Cockney boys an ever-growing alphabet of disguises to try on and reuse for a rainy day in the city – for which there are many. The hardship and misfortune of the London working class is undeniable, so there’s something to say for their ability to carry on. Dickens created characters that already existed, and still exist today – Londoners who know that tears do no good. As Weller says in The Pickwick Papers, ‘tears never yet wound up a clock, or worked a steam ‘ingin’.’ Instead of crying, the Cockney tries on one of his many hats and dons a new perspective. His transforming abilities originate from a readiness to accept a limitless world, proving that he is not only bold, but able to make the best out of his economic and social misfortunes.
And with that, I think I should tell my cousin’s story about the time he and his mates were mugged as they walked down a London street.
It was the summer holidays and the four boys would begin at new schools in a couple of weeks. They were relishing not only the longer, brighter evenings, but each other too – who knew what would happen with their friendships come September? They were heading to an arcade in Waterloo, not too far from where they lived, but first they had stopped off at Darren’s house to invite him too – he was a valued member of the team. After asking his mum, who had agreed, Darren came out to the doorstep where the boys were waiting. But his mum followed. Inside, he had been given two £1 coins from her to buy bread and milk, and her instructions were strict; they had no milk for the morning and the house was running low on bread supplies,
“Darren, do not forget the bread AND milk”, she instructed from the doorway in her slippers. “I ain’t gonna be happy if you come back without ’em both alright? £1 for the bread, £1 for the milk. Be careful today, don’t be back too late. Give me a kiss. Don’t forget the bread and milk.” After her motherly flurry of sentence after sentence she closed the door and went back inside. Darren, who had turned to face her in the doorway to take her kiss and instructions, now turned reluctantly to his friends who had overlooked the whole mother-son interaction. In the immediate silence that followed, Darren thought he had got away with the embarrassing ordeal, but as they set off down the street he was ambushed with boyish giggling, “Oi Darren, why’s your mum so obsessed with bread and milk for?” “Yeah, she needs to calm down! You can’t live like that – it’s not healthy to be obsessed like that!” “Yeah, it ain’t healthy to kiss your mum on the lips either Darren!” “Oh shut up will ya.” The boys playfully shuvved eachother along and they set out on their journey.
It was the type of August evening when the sun issues its last dregs and sucks up any remaining air of the day. In the stuffiness, the boys were sweating small glistening drops on their forehead. The heat slowed them down and they idled along the still-cobbled street, lined with a tower block on each side of the pavement, chatting about the football and their most-respected players. As they walked Darren kept checking that the two one pound coins were still in his trouser pocket, and his hands were clammy as he held the metal discs in his palm. As he looked up from his most recent check, Darren joined his friends to watch a group of much older, unfamiliar boys on bikes steadily approach them like wolves. Fear and panic began to rise from the pits of their bellies until it radiated up in to their reddening cheeks. Then the wolves arrived and circled their eleven year-old prey.
The gang wanted the boys’ phones, so rooted into each one’s pockets for a device. The gang stole from the boys one by one, embarrassing them with an authority they’d be stupid to try and override. After retrieving a phone, they removed the SIM card and threw them down at the boys’ feet. When they reached Darren, they did the same. But in their digging they had found Darren’s money and in a final act of humiliation they threw one of the pound coins back at Darren. “I’ll let you keep one of your coins”, the gang member leered, and with that, they left the boys and cycled away.
Startled and self-conscious, the boys started to walk again – doubtful of the direction they were heading in. They were silent for a while, no one knowing what to say. Then Alfie, the smallest of the group, broke the silence: “So what yer gonna get Dal, the bread or the milk?” The boys spluttered into a liberating laughter. Their chuckles were sighs of relief – relief that they were safe, that they had each other, and that Darren could still follow his mum’s instructions – “well half of them anyway”, Alfie said.