Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Return of the Cockney

Although the smart consensus now is that 'the Sixties' in Britain was really 'Swinging London', outside of the art/fashion/music scene it was really a northern decade. Starting with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning then the Beatles, The Making of the English Working Class, Coronation Street, Z Cars, Manchester United, the New Universities (none of them in London), Harold Wilson (Huddersfield) vs George Brown (Lambeth) it was the north that made the running. The stereotype of 'the northern scientist' - ex-grammar school, then onto British Steel - was much more representative than, say, Michael Caine.
In many ways, as The London that Nobody Knows suggests, much of London's popular culture, architecture etc was looking rather archaic by the '60s. Blow Up is a strangely silent and empty film, as a small group of hipsters run round a Victorian playground. And for good reason: London was already in its then alarming decline, in which it would lose a million of its population. Get Carter is a great cinematic revenge on Londoners, in which Caine has to head to where the real money and power is. And never returns.

The real London decade was the 1980s. There's no need on here it rehearse the economics and politics of why that was so. But it’s worth noting that it was the decade when working class Londoners (including the Essex/Kent/Surrey diasporas) finally decided to take themselves seriously and catch up with modernity. No more Steptoe and Son.

Most striking was the big invasion of cockney voices, writing and faces into the media. Obviously Only Fools and Horses, Eastenders, Minder, The Bill, Grange Hill. Cockney was down-on-the-street 'real'. Maybe more importantly cockney accents were finally allowed on factual television, the medium's great test of authority:
Always going to be too pronounced for some those accents, but they properly reflect the desire to force yourself onto the medium without apology and without fluffing your lines. Also note there's no censoriousness or 'anthropology of the workers' in those films, but no cheap exploitation either. Instead it’s relaxed, democratic, in-the-moment. It has a 'this is what my friends do at the weekend: why shouldn't it have 15 mins of airtime?' feel.

The Robert Elms/Spandau Ballet/Paul Weller wing of this minor movement began to take themselves rather too seriously, of course ('From half-spoken shadows emerges a canvas. A kiss of light breaks to reveal a moment when all mirrors are redundant. Listen to the portrait of the dance of perfection: the Spandau Ballet'.) The northern suspicion of 'cockney wankers' grew in this period: either they were too brash or too slick. Definitely too materialistic.
Billy Bragg, Paul Weller or Ken Livingstone might feel rather aggrieved at being labelled this way. They were after all rather more explicitly anti-Thatcher than New Order or Tony Wilson ever were. The Style Council were incredibly earnest, and their clumsiness in crafting a modernist-socialist-soul sound stands in contrast to the cool post-modernism of Factory.

The brief hegemony of cockney was its undoing. The tabloids and commercial TV embraced it and distorted it for their own ends. The path to London Fields and Parklife began here. 'Cockney' was also very male, always with a hint of aggression to it, and apolitical. Red Ken is very rarely called 'a cockney' although he is one. Admitting that 'the most successful working class socialist politician' really was a man of the people would have been too much for The Sun.

The likes of Class War did attempt to give the 'Loadsamoney' style a leftish twist:
It doesn't quite convince, mainly because Ian Bone is actually from Bristol. But the clip nicely brings out some of the contradictions of the 80s cockney. Ross, whilst hinting he agrees with some of the politics, isn't going to drop the American-style slickness he's hard won, even as his brother is denounced as a class traitor.

It was the actors, where voice matters most, who really suffered in the 90s fall out. Kathy Burke has now effectively given up acting, Ray Winstone reduced to betting ads. Nil By Mouth showed what they really could give to British culture. But we've ended up with Nick Love and Notting Hill instead.

"After Helena Bonham Carter, the great-granddaughter of Herbert Asquith, complained that for all her advantages and beauty directors would not hire her because she was not "trendily working class", an exasperated Kathy Burke found the effort of keeping a civil tongue in her head too much to bear. "As a lifelong member of the non-pretty working classes," she told Time Out, "I would like to say to Helena Bonham Carter: shut up you stupid cunt."


Alex Niven said...


I couldn't agree more with this, though my interpretation of the whole thing has slightly different parameters. As a northerner now spending half the week in London with the missus, I've been thinking about these issues quite a bit lately ...

Get Carter is a great cinematic revenge on Londoners, in which Caine has to head to where the real money and power is. And never returns.

This is definitely true I think. However, the caveat to add is that, while the power drains away from London in the post-war period, this is also its cultural and social Golden Age. Simply put,"Swinging London" wasn't so much a Carnaby St thing as the product of a landscape of empty houses, squats, communes, Brutalist housing projects, regional accents in parliament, polytechnics, art schools, etc. in the sixties (and through the seventies) in other words, London becomes a countercultural capital, a sort of collapsed inversion of its former Imperial heart of darkness self.

As a result, whereas the typical London art work pre-1945 and post-1980 is gothic, fearful, apocalyptic (all that shite Peter Ackroyd harps on about), in the sixties there is a remarkable emergence of affirmative Londonism: Stones, Who, Kinks, Bridget Riley, Richard Hamilton, Hockney, etc. A tune like Waterloo Sunset sounds very bizarre to my ears because it comes from this anomalous historical moment: it's celebrative, unabashed, idealistic, Romantic, positive, all things that are conspicuously absent from London art in other periods.

Obviously what happens subsequently is that London becomes a heart of darkness once again from the '80s onward, though under a different Imperium from the pre-war days.

Perhaps the positive '80s stuff you outline here is more like a hangover from the '60s and '70s countercultural period (perhaps briefly given new economic impetus by Thatcherism in some oblique way) than a revival.

At any rate, from a northern perspective, it's been London ever since (aside from maybe a few short months back in 1996). Certainly the '00s seemed like a steady succession of NME covers proclaiming some new and terrible "London revival" insurgency: from the Libertines to the nu-folkers, the music industry has just stopped bothering to venture out of the capital. Hollywood actors bought expensive townhouses in Chelsea en masse. The Royal Family flourished.

The cosmetics manufacturer Rimmel capitalised (natch) on all this recently when they started inducing people to "Get the London Look". Power corrupts, innit. Or at the very least, it makes your culture and art fucking shit.

William said...

I'm afraid so.

The cockney media types did reference the 60s quite a bit, so I think your right with the chronology there.

I would argue though that the north has won the nostalgia battle - no one wants a Spandau/Style Council/Sade revival or even someone like Soul II Soul.

Increasingly I think Ballard was right - live in the suburbs and avoid 'Heritage London'. He meant Hampstead, but now it would Dalston/Stoke Newington. Which means Mum and Dad were right after all.

Culla said...

The 80s cockney assertion/affirmation undoubtedly benefited from the privileging of the London orbital while northern towns (doing more interesting things with post-industrial culture) were allowed to rot. Cockneys were allowed to tell their own story, and it’s very interesting that as multiculturalism was becoming a lived reality mediators such as Danny Baker and Gary Crowley were hamming up a cockernee dialect from earlier times. That Baker clip is hilarious, telling Aspel how it’s a bit dodgy down Cold Blow Lane but don’t worry guv it (the racism, the thuggery) is only a bit of fun. A little bit woo, a little bit way. London, it’s so dodgy you can’t even trust the local whites.

Eastenders was and is pivotal, still repping a cockney ‘all dahn the pub round the old joanna’ culture that barely exists, everybody piled up high with problems and just a dodgy deal away from turning to big-time criminality. Why do they want us to believe such crap? It’s a strange paradox that feeds this whole culture whereby we’re invited to use London to make our riches then get the hell out – the White Flight endlessly repeated. London as Dickensian museum we’ll pass through but not want to stay in. Even Bob Crow, a later version of the politicised (so dangerous for a different reason) cockney animal, repeats this ‘lost community’ blather about his childhood but he couldn’t do that with his kids now, etc. It’s the Alan Partridge view of an atomised, ever edgier London, where he guarantees ‘you’ll be mugged or not appreciated’. And if we are daft enough to stay in London, make sure you live in an area that is a liberal enclave, fills up with twee sole trader outlets and gets called a ‘village’.
The materialism you mention is key. There’s a sense that while the cockney is allowed to indulge himself in all his distorted, sub-On the Buses glory his political submission is guaranteed because a real cockney would never disenfranchise himself from those distractions on offer. He’ll find the money, one way or the other. It’s not being able to think outside of London’s box of delights that does for him. We rightly chastise middle-class tourists from the fens exploiting cockney culture but the white, working-class Londoner acts out this parody too.

BTW, I know there’s no accurate representation of how to say ‘south london’ but it really isn’t ‘sarf’ London is it?

William said...

Hmm. I think you're harsh on Baker and Crowley there. They put it on a little bit but listen to the interviewees in those clips: that is how working class Londoners still talked in the '80s. Smiley Culture's 'Cockney Translation' wouldn't have worked if people weren't still talking 'cockney'. I think it is over pronounced not so much because they are playing up to Ealing Comedy stereotype but because they want to say ‘I’m working class and on TV’. Ultimately that comes from punk, it is a way of sounding aggressively working class, which is why Class War adopted the tone. Also those programs were for London regional television – and the north is full of self-mythologisers and ‘professional’ northerners anyway.

Culla said...

i think i found some bits of those clips funny because of the caricaturing influence of 25 years+ of eastenders and the like. fair point, 'cockney' may have been mutating but you cite good reasons for the upsurge in pronounced cockneyspeak and it's far better to have the capital's working class emphasise it rather than cultural tourists reclaiming districts like camden from the 90s onwards

londonlee said...

No mention of Janet Street-Porter? I think she's from Fulham (my, er, manor) so not a Cockney proper but her thick working-class tones were the voice of 'Yoof' on late 70s-early 80s telly.

Anonymous said...


Well... you've picked a few of my YT clips to use, good eh? Anyway, the media has portrayed the London accent for many years in a false way. It was very 'plum in mouth' and was a complete nonsense to the vast majority of Londoners. Whereas the Northern fraternity, plus the rest of non-Londoners, have had to fight for there place on the map, us 'cockneys' have never had such a problem. The only issue the average London person has had deal with is the assumption that everybody in London speaks like an 'educated' (sic) person on TV. The majority speak with a normal London (cockney infused) accent. The reference above to Danny Baker, in the YT clip, being an apologist for Millwall F.C stems from ignorance of those same 'educated' media types who have never attended a football match or for some reason [other that myth?] would never go anywhere near Cold Blow Lane and MFC. Now, the question is, who are the poorly educated? Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner ...

Anonymous said...

Oh, one other thing, or maybe two/three?
Musically, London has been at the forefront of hip underground music. The Beatles, Oasis, Take That etc have never really identified with the 'cool' crowd in London. Bowie/Stones/Punk/House music flourished in London far more than elsewhere, because we didn't conform to the mainstream thinking.

Above; Of course 'there' should have been their ... but that's a typical comprehensive educated person for ya guv? P.S. South Londoners are called "South Londoners" Only the poorly educated refer to us undesirables as "Saaf Londoners" I'm joking.
A good read and an excellent blog!

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