Monday, 15 November 2010

Songs my aunt taught me

During a wakeful period at about 3am I find myself trying to account for my much-loved artist aunt Evelyn's lively interest in Cockney music-hall songs. She wasn't a Londoner: indeed her father William Dunbar came from Morayshire and her mother from from Stagglethorpe.

A few weeks ago my blog-friend I (i.e. E I) commented that she'd never heard of a song called Boiled beef and carrots. I E lives south of the river, well beyond the sound of Bow bells, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised that she didn't know it. In any case, the tune is so like Kelly from the Isle of Man that she might have known it without realising it. Here are the words:

Boiled beef and carrots,
Boiled beef and carrots.
That's the stuff for your Derby Kel
It makes you fit and keeps you well.
Don't live like vegetarians,
On food they give to parrots.
From morn till night, blow out your kite,
On boiled beef and carrots!

['Derby Kel' (short for 'Derby Kelly') is Cockney rhyming slang for 'belly'. 'Kite' in line 7 is a northern dialect word meaning 'belly' too. (What's that doing there, then?) 'Vegetarian' in line 5 seems so out of place that I wonder if once there was something much more robust there.]

Aunt Evelyn's repertoire included this and several others - Any old iron?, My old man said Follow the van, Hello! Hello! Who's your ladyfriend? - but her favourite, sometimes triggered by landing there when we played Monopoly, was Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road:

Last week, down our alley came a toff,
Nice old geezer, with a nasty cough,
Sees my missus - takes his topper off,
In a very gentlemanly way.
"Ma'am," he says, "I have got some news to tell:
Your rich uncle Tom of Camberwell
Popped off sudden, which is quite a sell,
Leaving you his little donkey shay."

"Wotcher," all the neighbours cried,
"Who yer goin' to meet, Bill?
Have you bought the street, Bill?"
Laugh - I thought I should have died:
Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road.

[The above, incidentally, is the real thing. Shirley Temple served up a meaningless garble of it in a 1939 (I think) film called A Little Princess. 'Shay' is a corruption of 'chaise', meaning a little cart. There's some ingenious word-play with 'Uncle Tom' (i.e. pawnbroker), 'popped' (i.e. pawned) and 'quite a sell' (i.e. a scam, cheat).]

Where had she got these songs from? Neither music-hall nor Cockney were her natural element. When she was a student at the Royal College of Art, in the early 1930s, she formed a relationship with one of her tutors, Cyril Mahoney, whom she called 'Chas'. Her letters to him survive. They're deliciously illustrated, and they're lightly peppered with deliberate, sometimes self-conscious Cockneyisms, or Mockneyisms: 'Ain't there, matey?', 'I knows of that there plant', 'Wotcher, cock!'. It was a passing fad. By the time the relationship had advanced to within sight of marriage, and had retreated to break-up, it had disappeared. Her familiarity with these songs may have been linked to this.

Or they may just have been a part of the universal popular culture of the time. Having come to this rather unsatisfactory conclusion I think I must have dropped off again.


Dave said...

I knew all those songs - my father sang them (we came from north kent, out of earshot of Bow Bells, but not too far away. Boiled Beef's words, by the way, are just the chorus. There are three verses:

When I was a nipper, only six months old, my mother and my father too,
They didn't know what to wean me on, they were both in a dreadful stew.
They thought of tripe, they thought of steak, or a little bit of old cod's roe,
Ma said, "Pop round to the old cook shop, I know what'll make him grow:"

"Boiled beef and carrots, boiled beef and carrots.
That's the stuff for your 'Darby Kell', makes you fat, and it keeps you well.
Don't live like vegetarians, on food they give to parrots,
From morn till night, blow out your 'kite' on boiled beef and carrots! "

We've got a lodger, he's an artful cove, "I'm very very queer ", he said.
We sent for the doctor, he came round, And he told him to jump in bed.
The poor chap said, "I do feel bad," then my mother with a tear replied,
"What would you like for a 'pick-me-up'?" He jumped out of bed and cried:

I am the father of a lovely pair of kiddies, and they're nice fat boys.
They're twins, you can't tell which is which, Like a pair of saveloys.
We had them christened in the week. When the parson put them on his knee,
I said, "As they've got ginger hair, now I want their names to be:

Christopher said...

Thank you, Dave - this is wonderful! What a colossus of arcane information! Dare I imagine you at your computer humming 'Boiled beef and carrots' as you type the words?

Vicus Scurra said...

1) thank you for yet another contribution to our education. Please let us know when and where the film of your singing them all appears on you tube.
2) I (i.e. E I) - lolworthy
3) "Songs My Aunt Taught Me" will be the name of the new Metal/Garage/HipHop supergroup that I plan to launch in the new year.

english inukshuk said...

nope, never heard of any of them

which all goes to prove that I am sooooooooooooo much younger than you lot

however, *coughs*, I was born and brought up in Cheltenham and can share a song with you which reminds me of my roots. . .

I went to school in Cheltenham
At a fashionable ladies' college
Where I learnt what's what
And acquired a lot of
Exceedingly practical knowledge

Our reading; writing, arithmetic
Was positively mediocre
But we got pretty slick
At the three card trick
And we played a pretty hand of poker

We were rather weak at our Latin and Greek
But we worked with considerable fervor
When we had to cram
For our English exam
On Lady Chatterley's Lover

I loved my school in Cheltenham
With the chestnut trees so shady
And I now embrace
All the charm and grace
Of a typical English lady

I shared a room in Cheltenham
With a daughter of the landed gentry
Whose most refined
Little one-tracked mind
Was completely elementary

Our marks in French and algebra
Were a series of disasters
But at forging cheques
Or at s-e-x
We were absolute past masters

In the upper sixth form we were studying form
And we put on the money with the porter
And at night our Head
Used to tuck us in bed
With an out sized whiskey and water

Let's give three cheers for Cheltenham
Where the chestnut trees are shady
Where I learnt of vice
And all things nice
Like a typical English lady

*grins and walks off*

Christopher said...

Vicus: Splendid idea. If you combined
1, 2 and 3 we could all be rich beyond the dreams of Mr and Mrs Blair.

I: This is splendid too. Thank you. But what happened to:

Miss Buss and Miss Beale
Cupid's darts do not feel.
How different from us,
Miss Beale and Miss Buss.

Didn't you sing this on Founders' Day?

moreidlethoughts said...

Cor blimey, Guv! You 'aven't arf made my ol' minces a bit leaky!
I shant hog your comments column, but, yes, all familiar to me. And many others, too.I recall Dad singing "Burlington Bertie" and that was usually followed by "I Belong tae Glasgow."
And(waving to Inukshuk) I learned that song from a CLC old girl.
We should have a Christmas Music Hall Show! Any takers?

Tim Footman said...

I would have thought that the RCA in the 30s would have been a hotbed of bohemian riff-raffery and class tourism. I wonder whether your auntie played the spoons.

Christopher said...

MIT: Great idea. We'll have Vicus' new band in the pit and Dave on the Flying Trapeze. Or vice versa.

Tim: Thanks for dropping in. Yes, maybe a strong element of class tourism. Quite common at the time - still is in some respects - and often found in e.g. the detective fiction of the period, Margery Allingham, John Dickson Carr, even D. L. Sayers.

She didn't play the spoons. She was quite musical. This post was going on to mention her love of Schubert songs, but it would have become too long. Another time.

Geoff said...

Old Kent Road is rhyming slang for toad.

e.g. Old Kent Road in the Greasy Pole.

Christopher said...

...but your hearing's all right, isn't it, Geoff?

Z said...

I was brought up on No No Nanette and the Merry Widow and such flimflam. But I know those from that Sunday night music hall programme with Leonard Sachs.

Obertra said...

Apologies for being particular; but; must've been been ST‘R’AGGLETORPE Notts. your aunt's dad hailed from?

letouttoplay said...

Now I'm wondering how it is that I know a few of them. They certainly weren't part of any popular cultures I remember and my family considered themselves too highbrow, musically speaking, to enjoy them either so I never heard them at home.
I can never remember anything except the chorus though.

Christopher said...

You were lucky, Z. I never even had that at home. All my fundamental childhood musical exposure came from elsewhere, which at least meant it was varied.

Obertra: Hi. Oh dear. Stagglethorpe™ is fictional, its mention designed to waken the susceptibilities of its inventor, who must have been sleepwalking when he appeared here earlier. (Tho' Florence Dunbar née Murgatroyd, the lady in question, did indeed come from Yorkshire.)

Mig: I wouldn't have known them either if it hadn't been for aunt Evelyn. I would have shared her with you very happily.

Obertra said...

...Just realised I spelt it "Stragglet(h)orpe". Never mind. Us cockneys (since you were eulogisin’ them) are renowned fer droppin’ their aitches…

And, apologies again. It was your Aunt's dad (not your dad’s aunt) we are led to believe hailed from that place you say you described erroneously…

Wasn’t it?

BTW (where did one learn to use such shorthand? [with this added longhand aside?]) my 2nd car (or was it 4th after two three-wheeler Reliant Regals “Dad” and “Lad” on the plates?) a dilapidated black Morris Minor, answered, so the enthusiastic seller of the jalopy informed me, to the name of "Murgatroyd". A few miles down the road after buying with the gear-stick come away in mi hand an AA man, necessarily called out, offered to purchase my pathetic Murgatroyd.

All very illuminatin’ to the discussion I’m sure…

Christopher said...

Yes, a very cogent and pertinent contribution to the great debate, Obertra. Thank you. I see you must have hAD Gloucestershire connections at some time? I was born there once, so naturally I feel a certain empathy with anyone who may have had some connection with the county midwifery service.

Obertra said...

Born in Gloucestershire "once"? Suggesting, you have since been reborn. Do you plan a further rebirth at anytime soon?

Haze Dweller said...

I've done a little analysis of the words used in Harry Champion's recording of Boiled Beef and Carrots, at

Christopher said...

Hi, Haze Dweller, and thanks for getting in touch. Can't add much to your 'little analysis', I'm afraid, except to say that 'kite' is N.English dialect for stomach (etymology is uncertain), so we can wonder what it's doing in a Cockney song if it isn't just for the rhyme, and 'nipper' is fairly common all over the south of England as a colloquial term for a child, sometimes shortened to 'nip', and as a mode of address between children - I remember 'Hey, Nip, watcha doin?' and similar as a child.

Can't help with Derby Kelly. 'Derby' would be more likely to refer to the horse-race than to the town.