Saturday, June 04, 2005

The Last Cries of London

Looks like me, age 6, after discovering that my sister had broken my toy crane. In fact, this gallant lad is continuing a noble tradition once celebrated by Mozart. Read on for more FASCINATING stuff like that..

The Last Cries of London?

If you loiter, on any weekday evening, at the Villers Street entrance to Embankment Tube, in the West End of old London Town, there is a very good chance you will here an oldish man, apparently in terminal pain, bellowing something that sounds like ‘Eeeeaaaaandaaaaarrggggggggh! Eeeaaandaaarrrrrgggghhhhh! Eeeeaaaaandaaaarrrggggh!’

The noise is, of course, the telltale cry of the Evening Standard seller. All Londoners know this, which is why when they hear it they don’t rush for the paramedics, but nod, and frown, and search for 40p.

But should Londoners be so blasé about this noise? Perhaps not. It is arguable that Londoners should be excited about this peculiar yell, because it seems to represent the very last example of a tradition for which London has been known for centuries: the famous Cries of London.

The history of the Cries of London is the history of London commerce itself. Although we cannot be sure, it seems likely that London’s individual hawkers of food, drink, and small goods were already shouting their wares in Roman times. Whenever the idea was precisely established, it certainly proved tenacious: twelve hundred year later, the cries of the street-vendors were flourishing along London’s medieval markets and thoroughfares. The London Lickpenny, an anonymous poem of 1390, lists several of these calls: ‘Straberry ripe!’, ‘Paris thred’, ‘Ryshes grene!’, ‘Cherryes in the ryse!’

Must have been quite a racket. And it was to get worse. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the cries turned still more colourful and clamorous, as a kind of auditory arms race developed between the vendors. Some of the vendors relied on loud repetition to attract attention: ‘Had-had-had-had haddock!’ Other hawkers cleverly developed more poetic ditties: ‘Pretty Maids, Pretty Pins, Pretty Women!’, ‘Diddle Diddle Dumplens Ho!’

By this time many of the criers had begun to foresake careful enunciation. They relied instead on the distinctive pitch and carolling of their cry to get themselves noticed. And so over time, and with much repetition, the cries altered beyond recognition. Through the centuries the ‘Salted Hake!’ of the dried fish seller became ‘Poor Jake’, then ‘Poor Jack’, finally ‘Poor John’. But the cry still worked: if you were standing in, say, Red Lion Square in the 18th century and you heard someone crying ‘Poor John’ over by Holborn, you knew, by the distinctive maudlin lilt of the noise, just where to go and buy your salted cod.

Another cry that famously evolved was that of the chimney-sweeps. In a few decades, ‘sweep! sweep!’ become ‘weep! weep!’ This poignant phrase in turn inspired young William Blake, who must have heard it many times as he grew up in sooty Soho. As a result Blake wrote the poem The Chimney Sweeper: ‘When my mother died I was very young, And my father sold me while yet my tongue, Could scarcely cry 'weep! 'weep! 'weep! 'weep!’...’

Blake was not the only artist to have been thus inspired. The clattering commercial polyphony of London’s streets was such that almost any visitor of a sensitive disposition was impressed. As Samuel Johnson said: ‘The attention of a newcomer is generally struck by the multiplicity of the cries that stun him’. Among these newcomers were many painters, who attempted to get the remarkable sights and sounds down on paper. These drawings, prints and engravings are now collectively known as The London Cries and have since become globally popular and celebrated.

Composers were likewise inspired, even great composers like Mozart. When the infant Austrian prodigy was wowing Georgian London with his precocious compositions Handel is said to have remarked of Mozart’s music: ‘hints of the very best songs have several of them been owing to the sounds in his ears of cries in the streets’. Closer to our own time, another composer inspired by the Cries was Lionel Bart, in his musical Oliver! The young Oliver’s joyous aria: ‘Who Will Buy....’ begins with a splendid fugue of London Cries: ‘Who will buy my sweet red roses?’

When did the Cries die out? It’s a moot point, but the advent of the noisy motorcar in the last century must have been a factor. And rising prosperity has gradually made the arduous job of street-selling less appealing. Certainly, by the end of the Second World War any remaining criers were largely to be found in the quieter suburbs: e.g. the rag and bone men (‘any old iron?’). And now even they have gone, along with their brethren. For all that Peter Ackroyd, in his magnificent London: The Biography makes the claim that one may still hear ‘the bell of the muffin man’ on the streets of London, this is, surely, wishful thinking. A thorough search of early twenty-first century London apparently produces just the one true crier: the Evening Standard seller.

Moreover, even they seem to be going. There used to be a very noisy Standard-seller on Goodge Street, but he disappeared in the last couple of years. Ditto across London. This makes the few left all the more precious. So, the next time you are by Embankment Station, at the bottom of Villiers Street, cock an ear. You are privileged to be witnessing the final flourish of an ancient and very famous tradition.

‘Eeaaaandddaaaaaarrrrh! Eeeeaaanddaaarggggh! Eaannddaaaarrrgghhhh!!!’

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