Translator's notes

Guy Fawkes Night from Hoxton Stories

By Karen McCarthy Woolf

My grandfather Charlie Robinson was born in Wilmer Gardens, Hoxton, east London in 1919 and died in Chichester in West Sussex on 1 January 2009. He lived in Islington until the early 1970s after which he joined many other working-class families in a mass exodus from sitting tenancies to council housing on the south coast, which paved the way for an urban gentrification that began in earnest in the 1980s. In just two generations the Hoxton of his youth in the 1920s and 1930s has transformed from a working class ‘slum’ brimming with overcrowded Victorian tenement blocks to the highly priced metropolitan hub of converted warehouses and nightclubs that it is today.

All through our lives he was a consummate storyteller and would enthral the family with his tales of growing up in East London between the Wars. He was working class, poor, and his mother, Florrie Robinson, taught him and his brothers to live on their wits. Being born within the sound of Bow Bells, as the saying goes, he was a bona fide cockney.

As such, he could speak cockney rhyming slang, although its usage is lighter in the stories I include here which are ‘translated’ from a tape he made with my mother a few years before he died. This is partly because rhyming slang would have been something he spoke with his peers, the boys he grew up with at the time. In his ‘translation’ of telling the story to his daughters and grandchildren he has adapted the language to audience: as we couldn’t understand it, he used it less often. However, the syntax and vocabulary, characters and events are very much within the cockney vernacular and I have attempted to give a sense of the rhythms, cadences and nuances of his speech.

Most importantly, I have endeavoured to be faithful to his voice and the poems are almost verbatim reproductions from the tapes, although not quite, as I have used very loose rhyming couplets and terza rima rhyme schemes as a holding device. I have also allowed the stories to follow a more meandering arc in keeping with the oral tradition rather than the more formal structures of written narrative. There are some inconsistencies in the dropping and retaining of the letter ‘h’. This is faithful to the speech patterns on the tape and reflects, I think, both a sense of aspiration in terms of social mobility, a natural proclivity towards dramatic emphasis and a desire to ensure that he was always understood. Throughout the process, every time I thought about changing something, I would usually defer to the original: he had the gift of the gab and there was little I could do to improve on it.

These ‘Hoxton Stories’ I hope not only will help to preserve a part of London’s cultural history, but also record the spoken dialect of a particular tribe in a particular era.

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