Given the opportunity and the right subject, I can talk for hours without let up. Most of you know this: in person I'm not much different to my blogging self. Never one short word when sixteen long ones will do (except the f-word, of course)…
As a child I was no different. Upon reaching their tether, more than once I heard one or other of my parents say "You've got more rabbit than Sainsbury's!". Sainsbury's sold rabbit then, I remember seeing them in the freezer section. The website suggests this is no longer the case, despite occasional newspaper articles suggesting it's making a comeback in the nosh department.
It took me awhile to understand what they mean. My parents both grew up in east central London in the 50s and 60s, so speak cockney rhyming slang with fluency. My dad's work at Smithfield meat market as a young man also means he speaks their backtalk with ease (feeb = beef etc). "Rabbit" is rhyming slang from the phrase "rabbit and pork" which rhymes with "talk" (barely). The phrase was then used in this song by Chas and Dave which was a pop hit in 1980.
"You've got more rabbit than Sainsbury's, why don't you give it a rest?" can therefore be translated into English thusly: "At this juncture your verbosity is putting some strain on my patience and good nature so I would appreciate it very much if you would consider the possibility of bringing your remarks to a timely end."
Chas and Dave were first popular in the late 70s and were on TV a fair amount when I was a kid, so "Rabbit", "Gertcha", "Margate", "Snooker Loopy" and other rockney hits became familiar. They did the theme tune for the Alf Garnett sitcom called In Sickness and In Health and it was on a record I listened to a lot. They did a bunch of songs for Tottenham Hotspur football club too. They were pretty goshdarn successful.
Rockney, for the uninitiated, is derived from the kind of informal folk music being heard in pubs in the East End of good old London town where the only instruments available were aged, out of tune pianos and anything a punter might have brought in (ergo, cheap and portable such as mouth organs, banjos, guitars). Music by the people for the people, if you like, with a genealogy in the likes of music hall and Mrs Mills and subject matter which was of interest and concern to the audience and performers.
Now, I think there's a good argument to suggest that a lot of Chas n Dave is very much playing the stereotype to its extremes but they were so popular in their day that it must've struck a chord. The apparent simplicity of rockney belies their abilities: Both were well-regarded session musicians before. Chas Hodges was one of Joe Meek's house band The Outlaws along with Richie Blackmore. Chas and Dave are both from Norf Lahdan, so it's at the very least an authentic put-on (if such is possible).
A funny thing happened when I was living in Southern California in 2001-2. There in the glorious sunshine, amongst the friendly, dentally-perfect young people of UC Irvine, I used Chas n Dave to combat homesickness.
There, I admit it: I was occasionally homesick for the overcrowded, grim, ugly spit of land we call Britain. In truth, I was only homesick for London town and so a bit o' Rockney was just what I needed. The sound of my parents' London, my grandfather's London.
Again, it's partly a lie: they know the songs but I don't know that my parents would call themselves fans. Indeed, my dad's so old school that if you mention Chas n Dave, he'll talk about The Outlaws. Their accents got softened over years of grammar schooling and living in Hertfordshire, and my mother in particular worked hard to break out of that sound and attitude. It's hilarious when she slips back into a real Old Hoxton accent…
The recent gentrification of Hoxton (which she finds amusing) and Shoreditch led to the rise of the Mockney (see Ritchie, Guy) and the Shoreditchean hipsters. I'm sure many of them would lay claim to being fans of C&D in a suitably ironic sense.
As an aside: It hasn't escaped my notice that "Rabbit" reinforces stereotypes of the "Trouble & Strife", the nagging wife. Does it bother me? I'm a radical feminist, of course it does. However, were I to stop listening to music because it's problematic I'd have a very empty iPod. I acknowledge it, I dislike it and I move on for now.
I don't love Chas and Dave ironically. I just love them and I won't make apologies for it. Is rockney a great art form? No. Is it very good at what it sets out to do? Yes. Will you have the songs stuck in your head for hours afterward? Yes. It's as close to the sound of lost communities as we're likely to get outside of documentary clips.
Rockney is in some ways the swansong of the 'East End' as you'd understand it from stereotypes and movies. Most of those communities were torn apart during and after the Second World War. What wasn't levelled by the Luftwaffe was knocked down on purpose. Not all of that was bad – it's nice to have decent housing with such things as indoor toilets – but a lot was lost in the redevelopments and suburbanisation of the 1960s and 1970s.
Nostalgia, plain, true and simple: It's not a coincidence that Chas n Dave came to prominence just as the chickens were coming home to roost for councils which had ripped up old neighbourhoods to throw up cheap, dangerous tower blocks and estates, and just as those who'd moved out to the soulless, history-less suburbs realised what they'd done by leaving the old places behind. Gentrification was already happening to Islington in the '70s and these days the only way natives get to live there is if they've made some money or they're council tenants who've managed to stay such. I'm here because my granddad stayed. He's the only one of five brothers who did: Fred went to Kent, George to Bournemouth, Ted to Bristol, Ron to Bury St Edmunds. Of the two surviving girls, Auntie Aileen stayed but she died unmarried in 1992. Lovely lady, my auntie Ailee… but even she was moved out (about half a mile) from where they grew up. The house they lived in is now a small park all of ten minutes away from where I am right now.
You can't buy history. When I walk these streets the sound of my footsteps ring with the echoes of my adored Granddad, just as his echoed with his grandparents, and our forebears. We go back about 350 years here, by the ancestry reckonings of me and Cousin Elaine. That twig anyway, the rest of my ancestors are Irish, naturally.
Chas n Dave, jellied eels and rollmops, pie and mash, pearly kings and queens… these are the stereotypes and cliches which have basis in a truth which matters to me. I don't expect it to matter to anyone else, nor for the same reasons. I don't cling blindly to them or wish things were the same as they were in some unspecified time in teh past when we was poor but we was 'appy. That time never existed, not truly. The truth was that a lot of people lived in shoeless, hungry, flea-and-lice infested poverty (and still do). My family pulled itself up into some comfort by graft, education and dedication.
I am a arts centre card-carrying member pretentious wordy cheeky little madam, because of the efforts of my ancestors. The last time I tried to eat pie and mash I was six or seven and it made me want to vomit, but I adore sun-dried tomatoes and tapas. I've been to the opera and loved it. I watch BBC Four and I went to university (twice). I should not love Chas n Dave music, but I do because it's possible for those disparate worlds to coexist in my life, just as it's possible I enjoyed both the Dark Knight Rises and Shakespeare's Henry V today. People are complex little sods, aren't they?