Tag Archives: George Orwell

The Streets Of London – Part Eighty Three

Tooley Street, SE1

Running parallel to the River Thames on it southern bank from the point where it joins Montague Close under the arch of London Bridge up to St Saviour’s Dock in the east, Tooley Street has undergone a considerable transformation in recent years with a range of restaurants to suit all tastes, if not all pockets.

I had fondly imagined that this thoroughfare, which once bustled with traffic moving goods to and from the docks to the City of London, was named after some Irishman or other named Tooley. But not a bit of it.

It appears, at least if the maps of the area dating from around the 17th and 18th centuries are to be believed, to be a corruption of the name of St Olave’s church which had stood a little to the east of the then London Bridge. The early cartographers, including John Rocque, record its name as Synt Toulus and other variants are Toulas, Toolis and Toolies. How it came about is anybody’s guess. Prior to that the street appeared in a Woodcut map, dating to around 1561, as Barms Street and in the 17th century was known as Short Southwark.

The church, which is referred to in the Doomsday book of 1086, had a chequered history and by 1736 part of it had fallen down and the rest was on the verge of collapse, principally because graves had been dug too near its foundations. The parishioners raised enough money to build a more substantial church in Portland stone with a square tower and by 1740 it had reclaimed its position as a principal landmark in the area.

Disaster struck on 19th August 1843 when fire broke out in the premises of an oilman near Topping’s Wharf, adjacent to the church, spread to the roof of St Olave’s and destroyed the interior and its bells, although the tower remained standing.

Thank heavens for insurance!

The money from the insurers was sufficient for the church to be rebuilt but it was eventually demolished in 1926 to make way for the headquarters of the Hay’s Wharf Company in what is now St Olave’s House.

With so much riparian industry, shoddy construction and unsafe work practices, fires were commonplace in the area. Some had catastrophic consequences. The Cyclopaedia of Insurance reported that in July 1731 a pot of boiling was overturned, causing a fire which destroyed a large number of vessels on the Thames, a case of setting the Thames on fire.

More famously, on 22nd June 1861 fire broke out in a warehouse in Tooley Street’s Cotton Wharf, raging for two days and not fully extinguished until a fortnight had passed. Many buildings in the area were destroyed in what was one of the capital’s largest conflagrations in the 19th century. One of the consequences of the fire was the passing of the Metropolitan Fire Act in 1865 and the creation of the first publicly funded fire brigade in the capital.

In the 16th century the street boasted a pillory into which fraudulent traders were displayed to public ridicule or worse and a cage to hold drunken and disorderly people, who had been arrested at an hour too late for them to be imprisoned, were held until they had sobered up.

Poverty was never too far away from Tooley Street. Eric Blair aka George Orwell stayed in what was known as a kip on Tooley Street from 19th September until 8th October 1931 while he was carrying out his researches for the book, Down and Out in Paris and London, which he wrote in Bermondsey Library further down the street.

And to end on a literary note, Samuel Pepys gives us an evocative picture of the area in his Diaries when he was forced to walk in a storm in the winter of 1665 – 6 because there was no river transport available; “it was dangerous to walk the streets, the bricks and tiles falling from the houses..we could see no boats in the Thames afloat but what were broke loose and carried through the bridge. the greatest sight of all was among other parcels of ships driven hither and thither in clusters together, one was quite overset, and lay with her masts all along in the water, and her keel above water.”.

Poor Samuel. I’m sure he was glad to get to his bed that night.

What Is The Origin Of (187)?…


Toe-rag is used pejoratively these days to indicate a worthless, disreputable, deceitful type of person, someone rarely worth bothering with. I’m sure we have all come across people to whom this epithet would not be out of place.

For the well-dressed person, having a piece of hosiery between one’s bare feet and shoes is de rigueur. Of course, for those with very few possessions, there is often a need to make do. A toe-rag was a piece of cloth or rag wrapped around the foot as a sort of ersatz stocking. J F Mortlock was transported to Australia for a twenty-one year stretch in 1843. He survived and in 1864 published an account of his experiences called Experiences of a Convict, in which he wrote about the practice of binding one’s feet with rags; “ stockings being unknown, some luxurious men wrapped round their feet a piece of old shirting, called, in language more expressive than elegant, a toe-rag.

In the late 1920s and the 1930s there was a prurient interest amongst the better sorts in the lot of the so-called down and outs. One who made his name out of this sort of thing was the Reverend Frank L Jennings who produced a series of talks for the radio, subsequently published in 1932 as Tramping with Tramps, described at the time as an exhaustive and first-hand study of the vagrancy problem. He spent a month living the life of a vagrant, begging for his food and doing odd jobs. When back in his comfortable normal life he entertained the great British public with tales of his racy and illuminating experiences, earning himself the sobriquet of the Doss House Parson.  Naturally, he was concerned about apparel. “Socks”, he noted, “are very seldom worn. Instead you get a winding of cotton rag round the ball and toes of the foot as a safeguard against blisters. Toe-rags, the tramp calls them.

Another purveyor of this poverty porn, although his fame has outlasted that of Jennings, was Eric Blair aka George Orwell. In his Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, he noted “less than half the tramps actually bathed…but they all washed their faces and feet, and the horrid greasy clouts known as toe-rags which they bind round their toes.

This style of hosiery having been adopted by and associated with vagrants and other down and outs, it was inevitable that toe-rag would be used figuratively to describe those whom the speaker finds beneath contempt. One of the earliest examples of this usage is to be found in Thomas Frost’s Circus Life and Circus Celebrities, published in 1875; “toe rags is another expression of contempt…used…chiefly by the lower grades of circus men, and the acrobats who stroll about the country, performing at fairs.” D H Lawrence, in a letter in 1912, wrote, “Remember, whatever toe-rag I may be personally, I am the person she livanted with. So you be careful.” And Harold Pinter, in The Caretaker from 1960, included the line “All them toe-rags, mate, got the manners of pigs.

The link between poverty and moral deficiency has been a difficult one for those without much money to break since time immemorial.

Book Corner – April 2018 (2)

The Saint-Fiacre Affair – Georges Simenon

I am working my way through the welcome Penguin Classics’ reissues of the Maigret series and the 13th book, the Saint-Fiacre affair, is a curious one. Maigret returns to the village of his birth – the original book, published in 1932, was called Maigret Goes Home – because an anonymous note has been sent to the Paris police claiming that a crime would be committed during the first mass held there on All Souls’ Day. Despite his attendance at the service, he notices an old woman, whom Maigret recognises to be the Countess of Saint-Fiacres, sitting motionless in her pew with her head in her hands. She is dead.

How did she die and who was responsible for her death? Maigret encounters a range of potential suspects who seem to come out of the pages of Agatha Christie – a gigolo masquerading as the Countess’ secretary, a spendthrift son, the estate manager who has been salting away some of the family’s money and his son. Indeed, the denouement is straight out of Christie where all the suspects are assembled in one room, although not by Maigret but by the Countess’ son, and the felon is revealed. It is a rather unconvincing finale and, in many ways, the novel betrays a hastily constructed plot which hardly satisfies the hardened crime fan.

Perhaps, though, there is more to this book than meets the eye and the key may be that it is for Maigret a nostalgic return to the village of his birth. The last time he visited was for the funeral of his father – he visits the grave and is appalled by its poor state of maintenance – and he wanders around the village unrecognised, shocked by the change in those he meets and the deterioration in the fortunes of the village. My sense is that for Maigret there is something cathartic in the return and it allows him to put the past to rest. George Orwell treated the theme more satisfactorily in Coming Up For Air seven years later. The moral of the story is never try to recreate your past.

The Flemish House

The 14th book in the series, originally published in 1941, is a darker affair. Maigret arrives at the border town of Givet, on the Meuse, at the request of one of his wife’s relatives, to look into the disappearance – it turns out that she has been murdered – of Germaine Piedboeuf. The suspects are a Flemish family, the Peeters, the son having put the unfortunate Geraldine in the family way.

The atmosphere in the town of Givet is antagonistic with the well-to-do Flems despised by the local French residents. The crime and the obvious inference that the Peeters’ got rid of the girl to enable their beloved son to marry into a respectable Flemish family, as was originally intended, stokes up the ill-feeling. The Peeters are a family under siege.

Simenon is at his best here when with a few words he describes the grim town, worsened by a river in full spate and torrential rain. You can almost see and smell the steam coming off Maigret’s overcoat as he trudges around the town, observing, rarely asking questions but it is clear that he is ahead of the local police, led by the comically inept Machere, in understanding the motivation behind the crime. Simenon’s characterisation of the Peeters family is spot on and Anna is a striking and, ultimately, complex character.

As often is the case with a Maigret novel, the felon eludes  criminal justice – Maigret decides not to reveal what happened to the local police – but from the final chapter it is clear that a more natural and eternal justice has been meted out. That’s Catholics for you but I do wonder how Maigret keeps his job!

Tales From The Nursery – Part Forty Four


See saw, Marjorie Daw

Our rhyme is a curious affair and it seems that the first line has little to do with the subsequent three lines. The most common version goes, “See saw Marjorie Daw/ Jacky shall have a new master/ Jacky shall earn but a penny a day/ because he can’t work any faster”. Variants spell Marjorie as Margery and some replace Jacky with Johnny or Jack. We have seen before that Johnny or Jack has been used as a catch-all name to refer to a boy and there is no reason to suppose that this isn’t the case here.

In the literature associated with the rhyme, no one has attempted to ascribe Marjorie Daw to a real person – a relief I can tell you. The purpose of the name is that it rhymes neatly with the much more interesting words, see saw. In days of yore, Britain was heavily forested and timber became a major constituent for the building industry. Trees had to be felled and then the trunks and branches had to be sawed into the requisite lengths. The latter task was often accomplished by a pair of workers using a double-handed saw, one at each end. To be efficient it was essential that a rhythm was established and as with oarsmen a rhythmic ditty was used to achieve this.

A chant featuring see saw and used by sawyers appeared in Richard Brome’s play, the Antipodes, which was first performed in 1638, “see saw, sacke a downe”. A variant from around 1685 went, “see saw, sack a day” and a third in the 18th century had the genesis of a rhyme, “See saw sacaradown/ which is the way to London town?” Almost certainly, the see part of the formulation has no specific meaning, serving, rather, as a form of reduplication of the sense of saw, the tool. Grammarians call it a reduplicated compound, like titter-totter or teeter-totter.

See saw first appeared as a game involving going up and down on a balanced piece of wood in 1704 and was used figuratively from around 1714. It appeared as a verb in 1712 with the sense of moving up and down but it was not until around 1824 that it was used to describe the plank that was used for the game.

Lines two to four have a darker connotation. Jacky clearly is working and is on piece rate and it is doubtful that he will earn any more than a penny because of the pace at which he works. This could be a reference to the institution that all good working people dreaded, the work house. Failure to meet targets impacted your ability to buy food and to secure a moderately comfortable place to sleep at night.

Gammer Gurton’s Garland records an interesting variant of the rhyme, “See saw, Margery Daw/ sold her bed to lay on the straw; / was she not a nasty slut/ to sell her old bed to lay on the dirt?” At least this version avoids the awkward change in gender between lines one and two in the more common version. In the Scottish dialect, daw meant an untidy woman, a slut or slattern. Slut did not then have the sexual connotation that it has now and was used to describe an untidy or dirty woman. Early versions of Cinderella were entitled Cinderslut, acknowledging the protagonist’s dirty appearance from raking the ashes.

Georg Orwell cited our rhyme as a prime example of a nonsense verse and there is no reason to disagree with him.

Literary Critic Of The Week


It’s hard being a reviewer, trying to come up with an interesting, thoughtful, possibly provocative take on a book or a piece of work. One approach I have not taken is literalism but at least it seems it can get you noticed.

Take Shilpa Shetty. Me neither but apparently she is an Indian film actress and won the fifth series of Celebrity Big Brother. A new reading syllabus has been introduced into schools in India featuring figures from popular culture, For some unaccountable reason, the Mumbai Times asked Shetty for her views on the new initiative. She was enthusiastic, claiming that it would cultivate imagination and creativity at a young age.

Drawing on her phenomenal powers of imagination and creativity, Shetty opined that “even a book like Animal Farm can teach the little ones to love and care for animals”. I must confess that this take on Orwell’s classic satire on totalitarianism passed me by but then what do I know?

I shall be fascinated to discover her opinion of Fifty Shades of Grey – a colouring book, perhaps? – and what about Moby Dick? Proof positive that you should never judge a book by its cover!