London Fables 2
Some more gems from Brewer’s London Phrase & Fable…
When it goes off and people start ‘avin’ a pop at each other, this is known as ‘the devil among the tailors’. The devil was a spinning top knocking down pins called tailors. It came to mean a fracas because in 1830 a benefit performance of a burlesque called ‘The Tailors: A Tragedy for Warm Weather’ started a massive row outside the Haymarket Theatre when tailors complained that the show was a slur on their trade.
Devil’s Gap was a high archway beside Lincoln’s Inn Field until 1756. Its resident was a lawyer and money lender with a reputation for ruthlessness who fought a young rival over a rich and beautiful heiress, in the process of which the scaffolding collapsed and they both fell to their deaths. There are a lot of London phrases concerning death and the devil. ‘As sure as the devil is in London’ was used by visiting provincials from both sides of the Atlantic.
My father used to say ‘as black as Newgate’s knocker’ even though Newgate Gaol was demolished in 1904. Here’s a vulgar exclamation, ‘the repartee of a St Giles fair one, who bids you ask her backside’. She would say ‘Ask cheeks near Cunnyborough!’
How did Bethnal Green’s notorious ‘Blind Beggar’ pub get its name? (The cover of ‘Psychoville’ was shot outside it). From the Blind Beggar of Bednall Green, obvs. This was a ballad that became several plays, about a beautiful girl with four suitors, who told them they must obtain permission for her hand from her father, the aforesaid visually challenged knight of the road. Only one of the four, an actual knight, took up the challenge and was rewarded with a huge dowry because – surprise – her father was in operating disguise to weed out the chancers. He was Henry, son of Sir Simon de Montfort. Proof that money always marries itself. There’s a statue of him not far from the pub.
‘I went down to the drugstore to get my prescription filled’ – you can hear Sir Mick Jagger singing that, can’t you? The Chelsea Drugstore wasn’t just a bar and ‘discotheque’ in the King’s Road but also a real pharmacy, modelled on a counterpart in Paris. Immortalised in ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, it had a gigantic impact on swinging London, yet lasted only three years because the fusty old NIMBYs of Chelsea complained about the noise. Like everything unique and wonderful in London it eventually became another junk food joint – McDonald’s.
Conan Doyle is rhyming slang for a boil, apparently, commonly known as a ‘Sir Arthur’, although who has boils anymore? Not to be confused with an ‘Arthur’, which implies something altogether different. On the subject of rhyming slang, the most complicated one I know is ‘Ari’. It derives from the rhyme of ‘Aristotle’ and ‘bottle’, then ‘bottle and glass’, and finally to ‘arse’. Aristotle invented logic, so it’s nice to see him the subject of something so illogical!