London Fables 1



One of the most useful compendiums for the London writer is ‘Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable’. Compiled by Russ Willey, it’s not as well known as the other volumes but is well worth diving into, because it’s extremely quirky. Here are my comments on a few entries.

‘I’ll give you my mother for a maid’ was a catch-phrase heard in fashionable London circles between the 1680s and the 1740s. It means ‘Not bloody likely’ for the simple reason that your mother could not be a maid (a virgin).

The London Borough of Havering in East London, England, forms part of Outer London and has a golden ring on its coat of arms. The story goes that Edward the Confessor (1003-66) was approached in the area now known as Havering by a beggar asking for alms and told him, ‘I have no money but I have a ring,’ which he gave the beggar. This kindness gave a name to the town and is still represented on the badge.

Jellied Eels, fresh eel slices in herbs, vinegar and spiced gelatine, used to be cheap, plentiful and very tasty and came from the Thames Estuary, but they are no longer from the UK at all, and have to be imported from the Netherlands. Only a handful of cafes still sell them, but they were once consumed in great quantities by celebrities and nobodies alike. ‘Jellied Eels’ is rhyming slang for ‘wheels’, although I’ve never heard anyone say it.

To the discerning ear, Londoners have quite distinct accents depending on which quadrant you hail from. On this subject, George Bernard Shaw wrote in ‘Pygmalion’, ‘Men begin in Kentish Town with £80 a year and end in Park Lane with a hundred thousand. They want drop Kentish Town but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths.’ ‘My Fair Lady’, is of course intended as cockney speak for ‘Mayfair Lady’, which I’m sure you knew.

To many of us the word ‘Moorgate’ still holds terrible memories, and I used those in ‘Off The Rails’. The Moorgate disaster occurred on 28 February 1975 when a Northern Line train smashed into the tunnel end at full speed, killing 43 people. The driver died and people wondered if he had planned to kill himself – except that he was buying his daughter a car that day and still had the money in his pocket. The mystery remains. The safety device introduced to prevent such a tragedy from happening again is known as ‘Moorgate Control’.

Before there were flash mobs there were flash houses (drinking dens, hostels and part-brothels) – probably some 200 in central London – and there were published guides to them. Before that there were flash boys and flash girls, forerunners of the 1950s wide boys. Their fondness for shiny buttons led to the creation of the Pearly Kings and Queens.

And so the theme emerges; nothing in London is new, just a variant of the past.

6 comments on “London Fables 1”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose.
    Everything old is new again.
    There is nothing new under the sun.

  2. Adam says:

    I never knew that My Fair Lady = Mayfair lady!

  3. Trace Turner says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t know that…Thank’s for the book recommendation – I have now ordered a copy to add to my ever expanding collection.

  4. Jan says:

    No I hadn’t a clue about that

  5. Corwin Baden says:

    Sorry for the intrusion–I realize that your comments for the appropriate thread on the forgotten author Maryann Forrest is closed, so I’m leaving this comment here after a rabbit-hole, wonderland trip by which I discovered (as you had in 2015) that Polly Hope and Maryann Forrest were the same person. You see, I’ve been exploring the Lilly Library (Indiana University, Bloomington, US) archives of novelist Richard Hughes’s personal papers as a part of my dissertation work on Hughes. The point here (as you probably knew) was that Hughes was close friends with the Hopes and Hughes actually went to bat to get Forrest/Hope more publicity for her excellent work (you’d think a plug from Anthony Burgess would be enough, right?). I’d love to share the two brief letters from 1972 that I just read with you, if you’re interested. Of course, there’s a whole trove of correspondence between Polly and Hughes as he wrote his last two novels at Lindos on Rhodes. I assumed she was an artist–but now can appreciate fully all that she did as a true polymath–and why she was, in a sense, Hughes’s muse.

  6. admin says:

    Hi Corwen,
    Absolutely. We can continue this if you DM me @peculiar on Twitter.

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