Whenever I meet a new French friend, they always ask “Where are you from?” I am proud to say, I’m from London. Sometimes I reveal that I’m a Cockney. “What ees Cockerney” they ask and it’s not that easy to explain. Traditionally a Cockney is someone born within the sound of Bow Bells or rather the chiming of the bells of St Mary-le-Bow in East London. You may have noticed the term “Le” in the name, French of course. William the Conqueror (the Norman invader of England 1066 and all that) gave the land St Mary’s is on, to the Church.
When William conquered England, he imposed the language of France. In fact it was spoken for some 300 years following his arrival. St Mary’s retained its French accent.
The term Cockney dates back to the 14th Century and these days it really just means being born in inner London. Cockneys traditionally had their own patois, known as Cockney Rhyming Slang. For instance, instead of saying “stairs” Cockneys in the old days would say “apples and pears”. Rhyming slang developed over the centuries, “pocket” became “sky rocket”, “curry” became “Ruby Murry”. Then the replacement terms were often further reduced; “sky rocket” became “sky”, so a Cockney might say “I’ve lost my keys, oh no I haven’t, they’re in my sky”… or “I’m going out for a Ruby”.
Cockneys speak very fast and though I don’t personally talk in rhyming slang, it’s a dying tradition, I do talk fast. I give presentations to businesses in France or lecture on travel writing, blogging and social media to French tourist offices and students. I do this in English but though all tourism professionals in France are required to speak English, my quick-fire speech can leave them far behind and I have to slow down!
You can imagine how hard all this is to explain to a French person can’t you. But I have found a way. Almost everyone has seen or heard of Mary Poppins. So I ask them “Have you seen Mary Poppins, the film?”
“Oui” they say “we love Mary Poppins with her umbrella”.
“Well, you know her friend, Bert, the one man band turned pavement chalk artist turned chimney sweep, well he’s a Cockney”.
They look at me blankly. I do his little walk, bowling from side to side, I do my best impression of Dick Van Dyke being a London Cockney with exaggerated speech (truly truly awful and I’m sorry if you read this Mr Van Dyke!) and only then do they get it, or at least say they do…
… And I must tell you that it is a very strange thing to be in a room full of French people all doing the Dick Van Dyke Cockney walk, not so much the good life France as the odd life France sometimes!