My younger son and I were talking politics around the dishwasher. Things got quite animated and he began gesticulating with a dirty fork.
“Stop that now!” I began.
“I know, I know,” he replied, “Pickle fork!”
‘Pickle fork’ has become short hand in our house for the story of a hideous tea-table accident suffered by my Great Aunt Kate. God knows how, but she’d had her eye out messing about with a pickle fork.
The story of the blinding was handed down to me by my father, whose aunt she was. And he’d heard it relentlessly from his mother, who was seemingly obsessed with lethal cutlery.
I realised, as Aunt Kate’s cautionary tale was shot back at me across the detritus of the family meal, that I’d succeeded in knocking home at least one health and safety message to my children.
I’m pretty sure neither of my boys will lose an eye to a fork, pickle or otherwise.
My own parents had lots of catchphrases as I was growing up.
‘What the bloody hell…” was my dad’s most used phrase. It covered all sorts of situations from an unexpected phone call to the outbreak of war.
It even got an airing as the first thing he said when I, aged seventeen, drove my Fiat Panda into a ditch, destroying the steering and suspension.
The truth is, the older I get, the more I sound like my dad. And my mum.
Their language was littered with pithy sayings which I have absorbed and regurgitated for my sons.
My parents were children of London’s East End, both born within the sound of Bow Bells. Their cockney heritage flavoured their speech though they did not themselves use rhyming slang, except when it came to Frankie Howerd and Bruce Forsyth who were consistently described as wearing ‘syrups.’ *
Some of the things they said needed a little unpicking. At nineteen, I had a super-posh boyfriend. And I mean Old Harrovian, croquet lawn, box-at-the-opera posh.
“He was standing there like two of eels,” my mum said, as she described some poor, feckless public servant with whom she’d had a run in.
The Old Harrovian’s eyebrows rose questioningly as he looked to me to translate.
This is a phrase I know to have been my grandmother’s before my mum’s. Common parlance in the East End where Tubby Isaac’s jellied eel stall in Aldgate offered the locals their fast food of choice.
“Two of eels,” I explained to my bewildered toff, ‘means two bob’s worth of eels. The cost of a carton of jellied eels. It’s just a more vivid description of someone standing around.”
He smiled, unconvinced. We broke up not long after. I didn’t blame him. Who wants to live with the threat of jellied eels hanging over them?
For me, privately educated by parents at pains to ensure no traces of Stepney or Poplar were detectable in my speech, there is a joy in the phraseology and vivid imagery of the old, and now fast-disappearing, East End dialect.
Around my parents, conversations were littered with ‘grubby Herberts’ and ‘humpty back kippers’ (still no idea as to the derivation of that one), ‘soapy sods’ (singularly ironic) and ‘Billy Grey Balls’ (the man who never was, as in “Who’s filling the skip?” “Billy Grey Balls!”).
Derogatory terms abounded. My dad’s favourite was one his mother used regularly.
“He’s a lop-sided bottle of corruption!” she would say with contempt. It didn’t make a lot of sense, but we all knew what she meant.
My own mother employs a certain theatricality whether through simile, metaphor or just plain comic timing.
Long conversations on the telephone regularly leave her with ‘ears like grilled chops,’ and anybody who ever fell over never just fell over, they always ‘went down, wallop!’
In fact, ‘wallop’ remains a much used word in our family and it takes all forms: noun, verb, adjective, adverb:
“Give it a good wallop!”
The ‘it’ could be a lawnmower, could be a blocked U bend or a person (‘some poor sod’) choking on a fishbone.
“Stop walloping your brother!”
An imperative issued a minimum of twice daily for at least fifteen years.
“It was a walloping great thing!”
The ‘thing’ in this example could be anything from a Doberman, to a rump steak.
“It’s all gone wallop.”
Anything at all can ‘go wallop’. The electrics, a dinner party, a marriage.
I think it may be what happened to my career.
* ‘syrup of figs’ in Cockney parlance: wig
Do you remember phrases your parents used? Comment below!