Jellied eels and slang, let the Cockney Games begin

LONDON (Reuters) - Stray a short distance from London's sanitised Olympic Park and a very different face of the capital emerges.

The gleaming, space-age venues and manicured walkways give way to densely-packed Victorian housing, a labyrinth of railway arches, textile workshops and, if you are lucky, the working-class royalty otherwise known as Pearly Kings and Queens.

Rough-and-ready East End neighbourhoods such as Whitechapel, Stepney Green, Mile End and Bethnal Green are steeped in history and tradition and nowadays are home to a myriad of cultures.

They are also the natural habitat of the native "Cockney" whose often bemusing dialect of dropped H's and slurred syllables will have overseas visitors to the 2012 Games squinting into their phrase books.

The inevitable march of progress, the "trendification" of London's earthier districts, is changing the fabric of the East End immortalised by Charles Dickens, given notoriety by Jack the Ripper and heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe in World War Two.

However, the customs of the Cockneys, who were first referred to by Chaucer in the 14th Century as a term for "an odd person", are hanging on.

Just east of the City of London's banking heartland, the borough of Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest in the capital, is suddenly under the gaze of the world as the Olympic bandwagon rolls into town.

"It's great, it means a lot of bees and honey," John Scott, the Pearly King of Mile End told Reuters in The Carpenters Arms public house as bowls of jellied eels, an East End delicacy, were placed on the wooden bar.

Bees and honey, as the 68-year-old, sporting a dazzling, button-encrusted suit, explained, means "money" in Cockney rhyming slang -- a language of riddles that was once used by 19th Century fruit sellers to confuse customers and the police.

Scott is one of 100 or so Pearly Kings and Queens who reside in the East End.

A larger-than-life character who was "crowned" eight years ago, Scott delights in maintaining a tradition that began 150 years ago in north London when Henry Croft, an orphanage-raised street sweeper, began collecting money for the needy.

"He noticed that the costermongers (apple sellers) wore trousers decorated with pearl buttons and decided to make a suit, with top hat and tails, covered in thousands of button," Scott said, warming to his tale.


"He was in so much demand that he couldn't keep up with the requests, so he went back to the costermongers.

"A meeting was held in a pub and 28 of them, one for each London borough, agreed to wear suits of pearl buttons and change their name from coster kings to Pearly Kings.

"Whenever you see us in our button suits it means we are out raising money, not just having a Cockney knees up, although we do that too," he said.

Many of the current Pearly Kings and Queens descend from the original 28 and they are proud of their heritage and the thousands of pounds they raise for local charities.

Lorraine Wells, the Pearly Queen of Tower Hamlets, is about to celebrate a sixth generation of her family to get "buttoned" when her granddaughter is crowned as the Pearly Princess of Stratford, the site of the Olympic Park.

She said the Olympics was a matter of East End pride.

"We are the commoners' kings and queens," she said. "The Olympics brings London together and it shows we are a passionate country."

While jellied eels, a cheap and nutritious East End dish made popular by the poor in the 18th Century, are an acquired taste, visitors may have even more trouble getting their tongues around the ever-evolving rhyming slang.

"They might hear: 'I am going for a ball of chalk down the frog and toad'," Scott explained, offering the translation: 'I am going for a walk down the road.'

"On the other hand, 'I might put the bottle and glass by the old Jerry Myer and have a couple of rounds of Holy Ghost and a cup of Rosy Lee (I might put the arse by the fire, have a couple of rounds of toast and a cup of tea.)

"Not difficult, see."

Over the coming weeks, fans from far and wide will have plenty of opportunity to sample the East End's odd charm.

"If they go into a battle cruiser (boozer, or pub) they'll either have a pig's ear - which is a beer - or you can choose either an apple fritter - a bitter - or a gold watch - a Scotch," Scott said, although he is clearly less impressed with some of the modern adaptations.

Having a Britney (Spears), has become a slang for beers, while those heading off to the Brick Lane area for some Bangladeshi cuisine might finish off the evening with a Ruby Murray (curry), which might cost more than a Lady (Godiva) - a fiver.

(Editing by Clare Fallon)

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