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Taken from Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable

Brewer's London Phrase & Fable

Burlington Bertie
A would-be elegant ‘man about town’ or ‘masher’, personified by Vesta Tilley in a popular song of this name by Harry B. Norris (1900). The song below is a parody, written by William Hargreaves for his wife, the male impersonator Ella Shields.
I’m Burlington Bertie:
I rise at ten thirty
And saunter along
Like a toff;
I walk down the Strand
With my gloves on my hand,
And I walk down again
With them off.
‘Burlington Bertie from Bow’ (1915)

A light-hearted cockney dance, popular during the 1940s, with a song and tune of this name to go with it. It was also known as the ‘Cokey-Cokey’, especially in the version written by Jimmy Kennedy in 1945 and recorded by Billy Cotton and his Band, among others.
You put your left foot in,
You put your left foot out,
In, out, in, out, shake it all about,
You do the Hokey-cokey
And you turn around,
That’s what it’s all about.

I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles
The club song of West Ham United FC and probably the most famous English team anthem after Liverpool’s ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. The song was a music hall favourite in the 1920s, a time when Pears soap was advertised using John Millais’s ‘Bubbles’ painting (1886). Billy Murray, a youth who played for a local school team and tried out for West Ham, bore a remarkable resemblance to the boy in the painting and his headmaster accordingly encouraged supporters to sing ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ at school matches. The headmaster was a friend of West Ham trainer (and later manager) Charlie Paynter, who introduced the song to his club’s fans. The lyric’s pessimistic tone marks it out from most football anthems.
I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air.
They fly so high, they reach the sky,
And like my dreams they fade and die.
Fortune’s always hiding, I’ve looked everywhere,
I’m forever blowing bubbles, pretty bubbles in the air.
John Kellette and Jaan Kenbrovin (version usually sung by West Ham fans) (1918)

Little Ilford Park

Itchycoo Park
A song by the east London group the Small Faces that reached No.3 in the British singles chart in 1967. The inspirational park has not been conclusively identified, largely because of conflicting remarks later made by the band’s members. Little Ilford Park is named most often by geo-musicologists but others have proposed Valentines Park, West Ham Park and Wanstead Flats. The ‘itchycoo’ nickname could have derived from the presence of biting insects or stinging flora. Alternatively, the song may have been about Oxford – the lyric mentions ‘dreaming spires’ – or entirely drug-induced, with no connection to any real park, in east London or beyond.

it’s the poor what gets the blame
A traditional cockney expression of lamentation, taken from a music hall song that dates from the late 19th or early 20th century. The song’s title is rendered either as ‘It’s the Same the Whole World Over’ or ‘She Was Poor but She Was Honest’. A 1930 version by Bob Weston and Bert Lee was regularly performed by the comic entertainer Billy Bennett (1887–1942). The lyric exists in varying forms, and has been lewdly adapted for drinking songs, but the gist is always of a country girl who is seduced and abandoned by a wicked squire. Fleeing to London, she receives similar treatment from gentlemen in positions of authority. Finally she throws herself from a bridge into the Thames at midnight. In one version she drowns but in others she is rescued and rises to her feet to repeat the chorus:
It’s the same the whole world over,
It’s the poor what gets the blame.
It’s the rich what gets the pleasure [or ‘gravy’],
Ain’t it all a blooming [or ‘bleeding’] shame?

Jack Jones
To be on one’s Jack Jones is to be alone; on one’s own. This imperfect piece of cockney rhyming slang appears to derive from the music hall song ‘’E Dunno Where ’E Are’ (early 1890s), written by Fred Eplett and made famous by Gus Elen. The lyric concerns one Jack Jones, a former Covent Garden market porter who has come into some money and now considers himself above his old workmates. He reads the Telegraph instead of the Star, calls his mother ‘ma’ instead of ‘muvver’ and stands alone at the bar drinking Scotch and soda. However, modern usage of the term rarely implies aloofness on the part of the person alone; more often it is close to the opposite – he or she may feel abandoned. For example, ‘You lot went off and left me on my Jack Jones!’
And why you all over there on your Jack Jones?
You need to let me get behind your backbone.
D. Mills and C. Harris: ‘Dance wiv Me’ (song by Dizzee Rascal feat. Calvin Harris and Chrome) (2008)

Streets of London
Possibly the most famous song about London since the music hall era. Written in 1969 by Ralph McTell (b.1944), who grew up in Croydon, it became a hit for him in 1974 and subsequently served as the title for his 1980s television series and his ‘greatest hits’ album. The song recommends sympathetic observation of the lifestyles of London’s down-and-outs as an antidote to feelings of loneliness or dissatisfaction. According to McTell’s official website there are 212 known recorded versions of the song.
So how can you tell me you’re lonely,
And say for you that the sun don’t shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London,
I’ll show you something to make you change your mind.
‘Streets of London’ (chorus)

Tom o’ Bedlam
An anonymously written ballad telling the first-person story of an Abraham Man, probably dating from the beginning of the 17th century. The work exists in several forms; the ‘mad song’ entitled ‘Old Tom of Bedlam’, reproduced in Percy’s Reliques, bears only a passing resemblance to versions that are nowadays better known. Although it provides some biographical glimpses, much of the ballad consists of ‘strokes of sublime imagination’, as Isaac D’Israeli put it, ‘mixed with familiar comic humour’.
With a heart of furious fancies,
Whereof I am commander,
With a burning spear
And a horse of air
To the wilderness I wander;
With a knight of ghosts and shadows,
I summoned am to Tourney,
Ten leagues beyond
The wide world’s end,
Methinks it is no journey.

A small selection from the ballads and songs mentioned in Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase & Fable (excluding images), published September 2009

Brewer's London Phrase & Fable

Text and selected images are reproduced with the permission of Chambers but may differ from the published versions
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