A wry view of life for the world-weary

Tag Archives: Ian Dury

What Is The Origin Of (164)?…


Here in Britain we use the word, as a noun, to signify, perhaps pejoratively, someone who is socially superior, one of our betters, perhaps a relic of the class system that bedevils our society. As ever, Ian Dury exemplifies its usage in Billericay Dickie, “Oh golly, oh gosh/ come and lie on the couch/ with a nice bit of posh/ from Burnham-on-Crouch.” But where does posh come from?

What is clear in my etymological researches is that there often contending theories to sift through before determining which is the likeliest. This is certainly the case with posh. Of all the suggested origins, some of which I will mention here, the most likely is that it comes from the streets of London via the Romanies. In Romani, their language, posh means a half and from around 1830 in the argot of thieves, posh meant a coin of small denomination, such as a halfpenny.  The thought that we might be on the right track is given additional credence by an entry in Slang and Its Analogues, volume five, edited by Farmer and Henley and published in 1902. There it defines posh as a term used by thieves for “money: generic, but specifically a half penny or other small coin.

Searches of the literature of the time unearth a mention in James Payn’s The Eavesdropper: An Unparalleled Experience of 1888; “They used such funny terms as brads and dibbs and mopusses and posh…at last it was borne in upon me that they were talking about money.” In 1892 Montagu Williams reported in his Down east and Up West a conversation with a street singer who revealed his modus operandi for parting listeners from their cash. “That sort of patter I was just speaking of is the thing to get the posh, they’ll tell you.” In a time when money sorted the haves from the have-nots, it is easy to imagine that the sense could be extended to those who were socially superior.

Then we have a contribution from one of my favourite books, The Diary of A Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, also published in 1892, where one of the characters called Murray Posh is described as “quite a swell”. The success of The Diary may have kick-started the use of push in wider circles than the criminal and lower orders but it was not the word’s origin.

But the sense did quickly gravitate to one who was superior in their dress, another mark of someone’s superiority.  In 1914 in The British Army from Within, E Charles Vivian wrote, “the cavalryman, far more than the infantryman, makes a point of wearing posh clothing on every possible occasion – posh being a term used to designate superior clothing, or articles of attire other than those issued by and strictly conforming to the regulations.” This may well be the sense in which it is used in a typically unfunny tag line in an issue of Punch from September 1918 where an officer from the RAF says, “Oh, yes, Mater, we had a posh time of it down there.

An alternative theory is promoted by supporters of Walt Whitman who in his 1855 collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, who wrote, “cold dash of waves at the ferry-wharf,/ posh and ice in the river…half-frozen mud in the streets.”  But this is a completely different usage of the word and echoes the Yorkshire dialect word posh which means mud or slush. And where does it leave the oft-cited origin for posh, the acronym of Port Out, Starboard home, reflecting the preferred cabin arrangements for travelling to and from India by ship to avoid the worst of the sun? Well, P&O deny ever using it and the story dates only as far back as 1955.

As often is the way, the thieves have it.


Toilet Of The Week (10)

This week’s featured carsey is to be found in the tranquil surroundings of a municipal park in Uzuki in south-eastern Japan. It has a large loft space which has been home for Takashi Yamanouchi for the past three years. He was only flushed out of his gaff when an electrician called to make some repairs.

Takashi, rather like Ian Dury’s Old Man, was tidy in his digs, making himself at home with a gas stove and an electric heater. It is thought that he got in by climbing up on to one of the toilet stalls and squeezing through the maintenance hatch.

One curious feature of this story is that the authorities found around 500 plastic bottles filled with urine in Takashi’s living space. Didn’t he know where he was? Still, if you are caught short for accommodation in the area, you now know where to go.

Turning to the election, it is good to know that we have sorted out the status of beekeepers in the event that the Ukippers’ policy of banning the burqa in public is implemented. After all, if form is anything to go by, the Tories adopt their policies five years hence. Still, it gives an out for Moslem women. If the ban were ever enforced, they could wander around in a beekeeper’s hat and veil. Now that would be a sting in the tail!

There Are Jewels In The Crown Of England’s Glory – Part Eleven


Oi, oi, pin back your lugs for the next couplet of Ian Dury’s England’s Glory in our attempt to establish the quintessence of Englishness.

Somerset Maugham, Top of the Form with the Boy’s Brigade/ Mortimer Wheeler, Christine Keeler and the Board of Trade

Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965) was reputed to have been the highest paid author in the 1930s and was, surprisingly to modern tastes, very popular in his time. Many of his works were adapted for the stage or the movies, enhancing his reputation and his wealth. His meisterwerk is generally considered to be his novel, Of Human Bondage, whose protagonist, Philip Carey, is based on Maugham himself, his embarrassment caused by his clubfoot echoing Maugham’s own struggles with a stutter and latent homosexuality.

Top of the Form was a popular radio quiz show which then transferred to TV running from 1948 to 1986. As its name suggests it was a quiz show featuring teams of schoolchildren, principally from grammar schools – a sort of junior University Challenge, really. As grammar schools fell out of favour, oiks from comprehensives started appearing on the quiz.  The show’s days were numbered when it became politically incorrect to suggest that some people were winners and many were losers and, indeed, to display publicly the ignorance of our younger generations. Still, it was part of my childhood.

The Boys Brigade was a bit like the Boy Scouts with religion thrown in. Founded in Glasgow in 1883 by Sir William Alexander Smith its aim was to combine drill activities with Christian values. Sounds fun! In my mind they were always dragooned in to provide a marching band for festivals and parades.

Mortimer Wheeler (1890 – 1976) was probably best known in the 1950s and 60s for raising the profile of archaeology through a succession of books and TV programmes. He was TV Personality of the Year in 1954, albeit for his appearances in the panel show, Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. Wheeler, though, was a marmite figure and many of his theories and interpretations have subsequently been discredited.  Nonetheless, Tony Robinson and the Time Team owe him a great debt and our fascination with and desire to preserve sites of archaeological interest are testament to his pioneering endeavours.

Christine Keeler (1942 – present) burst on to the national stage when her relationship with the then Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, became a cause celebre in 1963, causing the politician to resign and signalling the end of the MacMillan government. The iconic photograph of her unclothed astride a chair graced the wall of many a student’s room.

Finally, the Board of Trade was a government department responsible for the promotion of trade in Britain and the empire. Its remit extended in the mid 19th century to include responsibilities for patents and company and labour regulations. Established in 1621 by King James I to investigate the causes of the decline in trade it was merged with the Ministry of Technology in 1970 to become the Department for Trade and Industry.

A motley collection of characters and institutions that made up part of English life two or three decades back, to be sure.

There Are Jewels In The Crown Of England’s Glory – Part Six


Oi, oi, pin back your lugs for the next couplet of Ian Dury’s England’s Glory in our attempt to establish the quintessence of Englishness.

Winkles, Woodbines, Walnut Whips / Vera Lynn and Stafford Cripps”

In the days before ‘Elf and Safety regulations and EU legislation were rampant, a feature of a Friday or Saturday evening down the boozer was some geezer coming in dressed in a white coat carrying a basket full of shellfish, offering the punters the opportunity to mix a dose of salmonella with their hangover. A particular favourite was winkles – small and black, served with lashings of vinegar and a bit of pepper. They are a type of edible sea-snail and are normally picked off rocks by hand or caught in a drag net from a boat. Evidence from middens suggest that winkles were an important source of food for the Scots since as far back as 7,500 BCE. You can still find them on sale in specialist seaside shellfish emporia but, alas, as a drinkers’ alternative to the kebab they are no more.

Back in the days when nearly everyone smoked, Woodbines were a brand leader and were particularly popular with soldiers. They were known for their strength and the fact that they were unfiltered meant that regular consumers had the tell-tale nicotine stains on their fingers and a scab on their lips. To the novice smoker they were particularly difficult to smoke, the strong smoke often causing paroxysms of coughing. Not for nothing were they known in their heyday as gaspers. Inevitably, as health-consciousness emerged a filtered version was launched in 1948 but it was never the same and was discontinued in 1988.

As TOWT knows, the way to my heart is through a walnut whip. A whirl-shaped cone of milk chocolate with a whipped vanilla fondant filling and a half walnut on top, they were launched on the grateful world in 1910 by Duncan’s of Edinburgh. They are Nestle Rowntree’s oldest brand and around a million walnuts are used a week in their manufacture in Halifax. The manufacturers claim one is eaten every two seconds in the UK – I can believe it, they are delicious and, in days of yore, were a staple treat in the Christmas stocking.

Vera Lynn was known as the Forces’ Sweetheart and kept the home fires burning with her rendition of World War 2 favourites, We’ll Meet Again, The White Cliffs of Dover and There’ll Always Be An England. In 2009 she became the oldest living artist, at the grand old age of 92, to make it to no 1 in the British album chart and in 2000 was named the Briton who most exemplifies the spirit of the twentieth century.

Stafford Cripps was a Labour politician and chancellor of the exchequer between 1947 and 1950. Under his stewardship the economy started to recover from the pounding it took in wartime and it financed the National Health Service and welfare state that has made Britain the destination of choice for many.

There Are Jewels In The Crown Of England’s Glory – Part Five


Oi, oi, pin back your lugs for the next couplet of Ian Dury’s England’s Glory in our attempt to establish the quintessence of Englishness.

Nice bit of kipper and Jack the Ripper and Upton Park/ Grace, Cilla, Maxy Miller and Petula Clark

In days gone by when the pace of life was less frenetic, what set you up for the day was a good cooked breakfast. A healthier option to the full English aka heart attack on a plate was a pair of kippers. A kipper is a herring which has been smoked as part of its curative process. It has a distinctive dark orange colour and a strong taste and, you will probably find, effects that will repeat on you for the rest of the morning. A good hearty breakfast rather than the unsatisfying continental fare of croissants and jams is what we are known for.

It may be a legacy of the Second World War and the spirit of the blitz but there is an affection for the mythical cheery Cockney and where better to find him than Upton Park, the home (for the time being) of the Irons or West Ham United. The club’s legendary status which has never been matched by their performances on the pitch was boosted by having three representatives in England’s World Cup winning team of 1966.

Jack the Ripper is the name given to the unidentified serial-killer who was active around the Whitechapel area of London’s East End and was responsible for the grizzly demise of a number of women of the night. The culprit was never caught and every now and again newspapers desperate for copy try to rake over the coals and finger someone. But what we English admire is someone who has led the authorities a merry dance and got away with it.

Our Gracie or Gracie Fields was a popular singer in the 1930s and 1940s and did sterling work entertaining the troops, although some might say they already had had enough to contend with. She was responsible for inflicting songs such as Sally, Wish Me Luck As You Wave Goodbye, Now Is The Hour and The Biggest Aspidistra In The World. Her schmaltzy and sentimental style proved very popular and kept the home fires burning during the War.

If cockneys are our favourites then lovable Scousers run them a close second in the nation’s affections and no one is more lovable than our Cilla, Cilla Black. She rose to prominence on the back of the Merseybeat phenomenon of the mid 1960s her 1964 hit, Anyone Who Had A Heart, was the biggest selling single by a female artist in the 1960s. She reinvented herself as a TV celeb in the 1980s and 1990s.

Max Miller, the self-styled cheeky chappie, was England’s top comedian during the 1930s to 1950s. He was renowned for telling risqué jokes and his material was often deemed to be too blue for the rather staid Beeb at the time. The Beeb , at the time the only public broadcasting outlet in the country, had the audacity to ban his ditty, Let’s Have A Ride On Your Bicycle. So fierce was the outcry that the Beeb had to perform a volte-face tout suite.

The French phrases segue us nicely into Petula Clark who was a popular singer primarily in the 1950s and 1960s who recorded songs in French as well as English and was one of the few English artists to court and embrace a foreign audience. Probably her most famous hit was Downtown.

So what have we learnt? We have an enduring affection for the Cockney, the cheeky chap and sentimental songs and a decent meal to start the day off. If that is not the quintessence of Englishness I don’t know what is.

There Are Jewels In The Crown Of England’s Glory – Part Four


Oi, oi, pin back your lugs for the next couplet of Ian Dury’s England’s Glory in our attempt to establish the quintessence of Englishness.

Enid Blyton, Gilbert Harding/ Malcolm Sargent, Graham Greene (Graham Greene)

When I was a kid Enid Blyton was at the peak of her fame and popularity as a children’s writer. Her fictional creations included Noddy and his gang, the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. As well as a penchant for alliteration her books were engaging and fed the childish mind with innocent tales of derring-do and adventure. She was a prolific author and is thought to have sold over 600 million copies and her works have been translated into some 90 languages.

As we moved into a more politically correct era, Blyton’s books ran into choppy critical water and she was accused of being elitist, sexist, racist and xenophobic and her literary style was deemed to be unchallenging in terms of vocabulary and grammatical construct. The prominence of a golliwog amongst Noddy’s gang led her works to be banned by “more enlightened” libraries. Notwithstanding that Blyton’s works continued to be popular until and after her death in 1968 showing, as usual, the disconnect between right-on liberalism and popular taste, and her characters are a form of cultural reference for many people the wrong side of fifty to this day. It is dangerous to retro-fit modern sensibilities to works which reflected attitudes that were prevalent at the time they were written, a tendency that is all too present in our society today.

Gilbert Harding was the presenter of the very first edition of the Beeb’s televised panel game What’s My Line. Unusually for the time, Harding developed a persona as a bit of a character rather than the bland reader of a script which most TV presenters were at the time. He was famed for not suffering fools gladly and was dubbed the rudest man in Britain. In 1960 Harding hit the headlines again when he broke down in tears under John Freeman’s questioning on the Face to Face series. A closet homosexual whose gruff exterior was a defence mechanism, Harding was instrumental in developing the role of a TV presenter. As often is the way in England, nothing is what it seems.

Malcolm Sargent was probably the most famous English conductor in the 1950s and 60s, being the principal baton waver at the Proms. Known as a bit of a flash harry because of his debonair appearance, he did much to maintain the popularity and accessibility of classical music.

Graham Greene is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century and a particular favourite of mine. His works were often what are now termed as thrillers although he described them as entertainments and include Brighton Rock, The Power and the Glory and The Third Man. His Catholicism and the sense of guilt and the need for forgiveness run through them. Despite being a serious writer his books were phenomenally successful and many were converted into films.

Both Sargent and Greene were in their different fields great artists with the common touch and that is what the English appreciate most.

There Are Jewels In The Crown Of England’s Glory – Part Three


Oi, oi, pin back your lugs for the next couplet of Ian Dury’s England’s Glory in our attempt to establish the quintessence of Englishness.

Oliver Twist and Long John Silver/Captain Cook and Nelly Dean

One of Charles Dickens most endearing and, indeed, enduring characters was Oliver Twist who is the eponymous hero of the social satire that is the author’s second book. Modelled, probably, on the story of Robert Blincoe whose account of his childhood as a labourer in a cotton mill was a best seller in the 1830s and drawing on Dickens’ own boyhood, the book powerfully brings to the reader’s attention the evils of child labour, the recruitment of children as criminals and children living on the streets. Nevertheless, Oliver through native cunning and determination wins through in the end, the epitome of the English character.

As an island nation we have a proud seafaring tradition. Indeed, we like to think we ruled the waves for a couple of centuries or more and naturally many of our heroes, both from real life and fiction, are mariners. Although, naturally, we were on the side of right it didn’t stop some of our matelots waging a terrorist campaign against the shipping of other nations, particularly the Spanish. Piracy was rife in the 17th and 18th centuries and books like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island gave the patina of respectability to what was in reality a criminal activity. The epitome of the pirate in many of small boy’s eye was Long John Silver with his wooden left leg, a crutch under his left shoulder and a parrot on his shoulder. Although a rogue and a villain, Silver does serve as a mentor and father figure to Jim Hawkins. A bit of a rogue but with a heart of gold – a diamond geezer, as we might say.

The main claim to fame of Captain James Cook (1728 – 1779) was his voyages of discovery and exploration down under which led to the establishment of the world’s largest penal establishment. Cook was killed during his third voyage when he stepped on to a Hawaiian beach. It was his willingness to go into the unknown and suffer untold miseries and discomfort for the greater glory of England that enabled England to add significant swathes to her nascent Empire, an object lesson to us all, to be sure.

Nelly Dean or, to give her her correct nomenclature, Ellen Dean, is the housekeeper of Thrushcross Grange in Emily Bronte’s Gothic classic, Wuthering Heights, and is provides the basis of the narrative for the benefit of Mr Lockwood. She discovered Heathcliff’s body in his chamber, thus enabling Cathy to marry Hareton. The problem with Nelly in the book, at least as I remember it, is that she is a pretty unreliable and biased witness. She is forthright, telling it as she sees it not as it necessarily was – another characteristic that is synonymous with the English.

There Are Jewels In The Crown Of England’s Glory – Part Two


Oi, oi, pin back your lugs for the next couplet of Ian Dury’s England’s Glory in our attempt to establish the quintessence of Englishness.

“Monty, Biggles and Old King Cole/ In the pink or on the dole”

Well, we wouldn’t be English if we didn’t yearn wistfully when we ruled the roost and saved the world. The first two characters we come across, one from real life and the other fictional, represent the indomitable English warrior.

Monty, of course, is Bernard Law Montgomery or to give him his title, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein. He was commander of the Eighth Army which fought in North Africa and the Battle of Alamein was the pivotal battle which wrested control of the area from the Germans and allowed the Allied troops to move on into Sicily and Italy. Monty was in command of the Allied ground troops during the Normandy landings and took the German surrender at Luneberg Heath on May 4tj 1945.

Biggles aka James Bigglesworth was the fictional creation of Captain W.E.Johns and the tales of his derring-do in almost a hundred volumes kept many a schoolboy, including this one, riveted. The first Biggles story, the improbably titled The White Fokker, appeared in 1932 and Johns kept pumping them out until his death in 1968. The stories were all variations upon a theme – Biggles and his loyal companions were in some tricky spot, up against insuperable odds and the dastardly enemy, but a combination of English bulldog spirit, craft and good fortune saw them win through.

Old King Cole was a merry old soul who appears in nursery rhyme. Who the geezer is isn’t known for sure but it is likely he was an ancient king or, perhaps, a Roman general who went native following the withdrawal of the Romans from Blighty.

In the pink is an idiom used to convey the sense that something or, usually, someone is in good health and tip-top condition. Although the slightest exposure of the delicate English skin to the UV rays of the sun brings us out looking like a lobster, the use of pink in this context means the very pinnacle of something. This was certainly its usage in the 16th century. William Shakespeare gives Mercurio the line, “Why, I am the very pinke of curtesie” in Romeo and Juliet.

One of the unfortunate trends on the TV in recent months has been the development of what might be termed poverty porn, highlighting life on the dole. The term on the dole has been around since 1919 at least, when the Daily Mail (natch) records the phrase, “You won’t draw your out-of-work dole of 29s. this week.” The expression which is used as a synonym for Unemployment Benefit owes its derivation to the concept of handing out or doling charitable benefits.

Now that English is the lingua franca of the world one of the ways we try to confuse and conceal our true meaning is to use idiomatic expressions and slang. In this way we like to keep one step ahead of the others.

There Are Jewels In The Crown Of England’s Glory – Part One


We are in a period of prolonged soul-searching as to what it means to be British. Personally, I am not going to expend too many grey cells on the matter, at least until September 19th when there might still be a Britain. What is more worthwhile in this period of uncertainty is to ponder what it is to be English.

As is often the case the wonderful, witty and late lamented Ian Dury has something to say on the subject. England’s Glory, which appears as a bonus track on the deluxe version of his meisterwerk, New Boots and Panties, but was actually written while he was with Kilburn and the Highroads, is a tribute to what Dury characterises as Englishness. Perhaps, if we pick through the bones of the song – as we shall over the next few weeks – we might have a clearer idea of what it means to be English. But, then again, we might not but we will have some fun along the way.

The song is a list of characters, some real, some fictional, some historical, some from the world of entertainment, around a chorus pointing out that each in their own way contributed to what Dury calls England’s glory.

The first couplet goes like this, “Frankie Howerd, Noel Coward and garden gnomes/ Frankie Vaughan, Kenneth Horne, Sherlock Holmes

Frankie Howerd was a British comedian in his pomp (and Pompeii) in the 1950s to 70s. He was famous for innuendo and double entendres and seemingly off script, direct addresses to camera and phrases like “Titter ye not” and “Oooh, no missus”. A sense of humour, wordplay and delight in innuendo, perhaps.

Noel Coward was a playwright, composer of whimsical songs and a director, known for his wit, flamboyance and for being the epitome of camp. A sense of style and knowingness, perhaps.

Garden gnomes are those hideous, generally plastic, ornaments people of a certain age insist in putting in their gardens. I always cheer when I hear one has been stolen in the neighbourhood. The Chelsea Flower show caused controversy last year by allowing them onto their exhibits. A love of the naff, perhaps.

Frankie Vaughan was a popular singer in the late 1940s and 50s releasing some 80 singles. He was a sort of Sinatra manqué. Pretentions to greatness but never quite getting there, perhaps.

Kenneth Horne was a radio comedian, popular in the 1940s and 1950s. His shows, Much Binding in the Marsh, Beyond our Ken and Round the Horne were must listen to shows and had a phenomenal cast including Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Bill Pertwee, amongst others. For their time they were quite near the knuckle in terms of their humour and risqué innuendo. Again suggestions of the saucy postcard sense of humour.

Sherlock Holmes was Conan Doyle’s master creation and was the English sleuth par excellence. A cocaine user and fiddler, Sherlock used his phenomenal grey cells to solve crimes which baffled the old bill using his powers of observation and deduction. Perhaps we are cold, calculating and analytical.

To be continued…