My morning journey starts in Red Lion Square, Bloomsbury, close to the old Georgian house where I live in one of eight tiny bed-sitting rooms. It is my favorite part of London, but I travel east on the bus to Raines Foundation Grammar School in rather desolate dockland, where I teach science. I catch the 7:50, to get there by 8:30. I always go to the top deck and sit at the front. Usually, I am alone for the first part of the journey. The route is, after all, into the old City of London where work begins around 10 o’clock for all those men in three-piece suits who carry black umbrellas. I prepare for the busy day as I wait and look out into plane trees. It isn’t hard to keep ahead of my classes though they range from general science for 11-year-olds to Zoology for 18-year-olds. I need a few tricks and jokes up my sleeve, something to get back at them all for using rhyming slang. They seem to have a new phrase every day that is quite incomprehensible.
Suddenly, the driver appears and jumps into his seat, the conductor touches the bell pull, and we are off. We edge down into Holborn, pass the legal district of Chancery Lane and Grays Inn, along High Holborn, the highest point in the old City, to Newgate, a western gate of the old City and site of a prison from 1188 to 1904. Then it’s up Ludgate Hill to the great dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and along Cheapside, the chief market of London in the Middle Ages. There is Bread Street on the right where the great fire of London started in 1666, then into Poultry and Bank, the modern financial center of London. The ways are narrow and the buildings tall. I know them from James Bond movies and as we pass them, I am filled with excitement and ponder the contrast between the heady world of smart London and the lives of the bottom rung of workers on the bus with their novel linguistics.
Before heading along Cornhill and Leadenhall Street, once the center of Roman London, women hop on the bus and climb upstairs. These are the east-enders who come into the City to clean buildings at night and they are on their way homerelaxed and talkative, and full of laughter.
“You should seen ‘im, rabbitin away with ‘is ole trouble grabbing ‘im by the arm.”
“Well, ‘e’s allers down the rub-a-dub ‘avin a tiddly. Can’t blame ‘er can you - I mean, she allers short a sausage.”
“Take a butchers out there,” calls a younger woman in a navy-blue coat and plaid scarf. “Ha ha ha - the biscuits on ‘er!”
“Aw use ya custards, art there, the tart wiv the black titfer.” And she points to a knock-kneed girl wearing a black hat.
With a full bus the conductor comes upstairs to take fares. He wears a metal dispenser that hangs on a leather strap around his neck, first pressing buttons for the price, then turning a little handle to dispense the tickets. He puts the coins into a leather pouch that fits around his hips. He is ready with a joke, ready to take a joke. The women will certainly take the mickey out of him for the miles ahead.
The conductor laughs, “Come on ladies, anyone wivout a pass?” He stops at the loudest voice—a fat woman in torn, ankle-length skirt and tennis shoes, “Cor, you ain’t half got a norf-an-souf.”
She screams in derision, “Just watch yer cobblers, ha ha ha.”
Finally, he reaches me, sitting right in the front seat. “Where you going ta luv?
“Commercial Road, near Sidney Street.”
From the seat behind I hear, “Listen to ‘er, she’s from down under, girls.” Then, she says, “Whadya know, me greatgranpa wuz a convick out there.”
“Don’t believe ‘er, she allers been a Holy Friar, ha ha.”
The double decker bus is full of chattering women. They are in work clothes – old shoes and socks, drab dresses, and dark woolly hats. Many look rather overweight with their heavy coats and anoraks.
As the bus passes Aldgate and heads east out of the old city, women get off at different stops calling ta-ta to their friends. On Commercial Road I see tiny sweatshops, Moshe mends machines, scissors sharpeners, launderette, pawnshop, and a place specializing in different kinds of ink. I laugh when I see Invisible Menders because they were very visible through the glass front of the old store. The pubs are scattered: The Castle, a curved, three-story black building on a corner is the largest, but I prefer the small black and white Hungerford Arms where I sometimes have a beer after work. By the time we reach Sidney Street there are just a couple of women left on the bus and they are deep in conversation about men, who “get on their wick.”
At Sidney Street I walk beside blackened brick terraced houses to Raines Foundation Grammar school. The grand brick structure near the little oasis of tree-filled Arbour Square was founded by wealthy brewer Henry Raine in 1719 and later became a state school. The pupils come from homes where academic distinction is not important, laughable even. They want to leave school as soon as it is legal, but for now, they are going to have fun—they are going to have it at the expense of teachers, who must keep their wits about them. It is at Raines that I begin to really learn the Cockney rhyming slang and have fun with kids.
“Give us a butcher’s miss,” Dave will say, when he can’t see the experiment I am doing for them. Butcher’s hook - look, I think to myself.
One cold day I wore a fluffy cap down over my ears and as I got off the bus young Kenny called out. “Like yer titfer miss.” And I am getting it: tit-for-tat - hat.
“Cold enough to freeze yer cobblers,” he continues, and this time I pretend ignorance: cobbler’s awls - balls.
Once I got cow’s eyes from the butcher to take to school for dissection. There was much excitement though I was nervous about having all those boys with scalpels in their hands. I had learned, however, that “cutting fings up” entertained them greatly and I was thrilled that they really enjoyed learning when it was presented in a way that appealed to them.
“It’s great, miss, when we gonna cut somefing else up?”
It was fish dissection day when Johnnie went a bit wild with his knife and I threatened to send him to the headmaster. “No, really miss, it was a mistake.”
Kenny pleaded, “Don’t do it miss, please. He’s me china an the ole man’ll have it in for im.” China plate - mate, I thought as I looked at him. “Just this once then,” I say sternly.
The origin of rhyming slang is unclear though it showed up in the mid eighteen hundreds. Why it developed is also unknown. Theories include confusing nonlocals or policeman. I try out the lingo. When Tom doesn’t see an obvious point in class, or pretends he can’t, I can say, “Use your loaf, Tommy.” On the bus, I can greet the cleaning women, “I like yer weasel.” Or, “Looks like you got tired plates.”
One morning on the bus a very dirty, unshaven old man gets on at St. Paul’s.
“God awmighty, smell ‘is breff!” Several of the women shout.
“How about hit and miss!” Calls another
“Where you been Granpa, sayin yer prayers?”
“Havin a tiddly more like.” “A tiddly! Gawn, an aristotle or two.”
“Na, don’t be rotten to me china,” chimes in the fat woman who turns to the hobo laughing, “You me china aren’t cha?”
That brings a laugh from the crowd, but the old man is getting rattled. He stands up and shakes his fist at one after the other but falls in the aisle as the bus comes to a sudden halt at a stop light. This brings on a lot more laughter, and shouts of derision.
“Go home grandpa and dig, eh?”
The conductor comes upstairs again when the lights turn green, and helps the hobo up, and into a seat.
“How far you going?”
“Limehouse, if ya go that far.”
“OK, that’ll be sixpence.”
The old man looks out the window and doesn’t reply. He puts his hand into a trouser pocket and pulls out a cork.
“’e just fished out a duke girls!”
“Look I don’t want no larkin abart, ‘ave yer got it? If not, ya git orf this bus.”
“Yeah, git ‘im orf,” calls one of the women, “he’s stinking art the whole place.”
“Aw, ‘e’s somebidy’s dad,” cries another, “ha ha ha.”
“Where’s yer sausage grandpa?”
Suddenly the conductor grabs the old man by the arm, “Don’t give me any funny business, off yer get.” He leads the man to the stairs and ushers him down, both falling against the sides of the steep curved stairway as the bus hurtles along Aldgate. On the landing at the bottom, the old man collapses to the floor that is open to the street and grabs the conductor round the ankle to stop himself falling off. At least, that’s the story I read in the Daily Mail next day.
Both men land in the gutter, but the conductor had managed the bell pull and a shout first, and the bus screeches to a stop. There is silence for a minute upstairs and then a babble of voices.
“Grandpa, ‘e fell out.”
“Look back, there’s the two of them.”
“Blood an all.”
“Granpa’s broken ‘is loaf.”
“Well, no more raspberries, eh?”
Pretty soon everyone is out of the bus looking at the sorry sight, giving advice, predicting the worst.
“End a the frog, eh?”
It was clear to me that the lighthearted manner of these women belied their sympathy and that the need for jokes was just another instance of not letting tragedy win. They had the same humor laughing at themselves.
“Here comes a bobby,” and the policeman tells us to get the next bus.
I rush across the road to a phone booth and dial 01. And another bus arrives just as the ambulance reaches us.
For weeks after, the women talk about the story of hit an miss Granpa who fell off, pulling the conductor with him, and cracked open his head in the gutter.
Trouble = trouble and strife, wife
Rub-a-dub = pub
Tiddly = tiddly wink, drink
Sausage = sausage and mash, cash
Butcher’s = butchers hook, look
Biscuits = biscuits and cheese, knees
Titfer = tit for tat, hat
Custards = custard pies, eyes
Norf and souf = north and south, mouth
Cobblers = cobbler’s awls, balls
Holy Frier = liar
China = china plate, mate
Loaf = loaf of bread, head
Weasel = weasel and stoat, coat
Plates = plates of meat, feet
Hit and miss = piss
Aristotle = bottle
Dig = dig in the grave, shave
Rabbitin = rabbit and talk, talk at length
Hampton Wick = prick
Frog = frog and toad, road
Duke = Duke of York, cork
Raspberry = raspberry tart, fart
Take the mickey = Mickey Bliss, piss
Bobby – policeman: derived from Sir Robert Peel who established the police force in 1829.
Elizabeth grew up in Australia, became a British Government Scientist in London, and then a Professor of Entomology at the University of California Berkeley. From there she was appointed Regents' Professor at the University of Arizona where she also obtained an MFA in Creative Writing. She has published fifty nonfiction stories in literary magazines (four of which won awards) and her 2019 book, "Six Legs Walking," won the 2020 Arizona/New Mexico Book Award for memoir. A new memoir, “Across the Divide,” was published in May 2023.