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29 February 2012
The Oxford English Dictionary claims that the first use of the word cockney as a reference to native Londoners was in 1521, and since I did The Knowledge I've been telling anyone who cares to listen that I'm a cockney, blithely ignoring the fact that I was brought up in a leafy North London suburb.
For to be a cockney you have to have been born within the sound of Bow Bells, and contrary to the widely held belief the bells in question are not from Bow Church in East London, but St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside in the City of London. Being born in Fitzrovia, I thought, erroneously, I easily came within its audible catchment area, in fact the estimated distances Bow Bells could be heard from the City in olden days are 6 miles to east, 5 north, 3 south, 4 west.
A church has existed on the site since Saxon times, and the subsequent Norman church was known as St Marie de Arcubus or Le Bow because of the bow arches of stone in its Norman crypt. The current building was built to the designs of Christopher Wren from 1671 to 1673, with a 223-foot steeple completed 1680. At the time it was considered the second most important church in the City of London after St Paul's Cathedral, and was one of the first churches to be rebuilt after the Great Fire of London for this reason.
On 10th May 1941 a German bomb destroyed the Wren church including its bells made famous in the children's nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons.
Restoration was begun in 1956 and the bells only rang again in 1961 to produce a new generation of cockneys, a full 14 years after my birth and so clearly I haven't the right to call myself a true cockney.
Now according to research at Lancaster University a cockney accent will soon no longer be the hallmark of Londoners; the distinctive accent has moved east and north and is now known as Estuary Speak and more likely to be found in the Home Counties of Essex and Hertfordshire. The linguists claim that ever-increasing numbers of people in the capital are speaking Jafaicanand not cockney, the hybrid speech, created by successive waves of immigration is a mixture of cockney, combined with Bangladeshi, African and West Indian.
The London dialect could have disappeared within another generation and cockneys now in their late 40s will be the last generation to speak like stars from the BBC soap Eastenders. Now the dwindling ranks of cockney speakers are being asked to record their voices for posterity.
But hope is at hand, the newly built Kings Place Arts Centre near King's Cross has posted a downloadable recording of Bow Bells on its website so that cockneys that have moved away can still let their children be born within the sound of its famous chimes.
27 February 2012
Like buses it seems celebrities come along in pairs, for after months of not seeing a famous face I had two in succession. It was the first snow fall of the year when my radio offered me a job to take a well known actor with left leaning liberal views back to his London apartment.
Looking up from my screen there level with my bonnet was the scourge of the Guardian Jeremy Clarkson, looking forlorn and liberally covered in snow. "Sorry, I'm booked", those three words probably earned me a mention in his Sunday Times column.
When my booking sat in the back of the cab he thought it hilarious that his nemesis had been turned down in order for me to take him to his destination, which proved to be the most secret apartments in London - Albany.
They were described by Country Life as "London's most exclusive address". Accommodation within is not referred to something as vulgar as a flat or apartment, the 69 self contained living quarters are known as "sets" and are watched over by porters, usually ex-servicemen who, until recently wore top hats and tail-coats.
Originally a bachelor only establishment the previous residents read like a Who's Who of the Great and Good, and in some cases not so good. They include: Anthony Armstrong-Jones; Jane Austin's brother Henry; Sir Thomas Beecham; Lord Byron; Sir George Canning, Alan Clark; Kenneth Clark; Dame Edith Evans; William Gladstone; Graham Greene; Edward Heath; Georgette Heyer; Aldous Huxley; Margaret Leighton; Edgar Lustgarten; Malcolm Muggeridge; J. B. Priestley; Terence Rattigan; Terence Stamp; Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree; Margaret Thatcher. Not to forget the fictional gentleman thief A. J. Raffles and, of course, Jack, in The Importance of being Ernest.
Said to be the oldest apartment block in London its location could not be more central - or discreet. The black door to its rear entrance opens up on to Burlington Gardens with Saville Row opposite, while the front door which is set back by 100 ft from Piccadilly thus obscuring it from the preying eyes of shoppers leaving Albany's local grocers - Fortnum and Mason.
The original house was built adjacent to Burlington House (The Royal Academy) by Lord Melbourne for the staggering sum of £100,000 in 1775. During their short time at Melbourne House, as it was so named, Lady Melbourne had numerous affairs, and one tryst with Lord Egremont produced a son William Lamb. When Lamb married, his wife, Caroline became the infamous lover of Lord Byron who when lodging at Albany would smuggle Lady Caroline Lamb into his set dressed as a page boy.
Seventeen years after the Melbourne's had moved into their elegant townhouse they struck a deal over dinner with the Duke of York and Albany, King George III's second son, and they agreed to swap houses. Lord and Lady Melbourne moved into York House near the site of modern Horseguards Parade £23,000 the richer, the differential sum paid by the Duke of York. This money went some way to reduce Melbourne's debts incurred by his wife's extravagance.
The Duke of York spent money just as recklessly and his bank, to who he owed a fortune, came up with the idea of developing the heavily mortgaged property. The townhouse was divided into 12 apartments and two blocks of three stories were constructed east and west of the rear garden, with a 500ft covered walkway, known as Rope Walk stretching between the buildings.
Albany remains much as it did when converted in 1802 which boasted at the time that "No younger son of a duke need be ashamed to put [Albany address] on his card".