Today (April 11) in London History – “Move Your Bloomin’ Arse”

George Bernard Shaw’s wonderful romantic comedy Pygmalion opened on April 11, 1914. It’s the subject of this Today in London History podcast.


The three-minute rule. It’s worth knowing about.

It’s the rule of thumb Londoners use to calculate how long a Tube Journey will take. You allow an average – or figure an average – of three minutes between stops.

So, for example – a personal example – I live in West Hampstead. My Underground station is West Hampstead Station. On the Jubilee Line. The Tube – the London Underground – is colour-coded. The Jubilee Line that West Hampstead Tube station is on is the grey line in the colour-coding scheme. Just for the record, the London Underground is much easier to use – much easier to get a handle on – than, say, the New York Subway system. Anyway, back to our three-minute rule. My local station is West Hampstead on the Jubilee Line. West Hampstead is seven stops from Westminster Station. The stops – in sequence from West Hampstead to Westminster Station – are: Finchley Road, Swiss Cottage, St. John’s Wood, Baker Street, Bond Street, Green Park and Westminster. You count ‘em up, Westminster station is seven stations away from West Hampstead station. Apply the three-minute rule – seven stations times three minutes gives you 21 minutes. Result: I as a Londoner can figure that journey will take me about 21 minutes. So, it’s easy to remember, easy to use. How Londoners calculate about how long a Tube journey in central London will take. There are apps now that will do it for you as well – but why bother. Using the three-minute rule you don’t have to worry about roaming charges or battery expenditure or getting a signal when you’re underground. The three-minute rule is old fashioned – and you know what, it’s better. 

And as long as we’re at it, I described it as a rule of thumb. That English idiomatic expression is history-laden. Hundreds of years ago there was a law that said if a husband was going to beat his wife with a stick the stick couldn’t be wider than the width of his thumb. 

So there you go, a useful London tip and a colourful but ugly bit of history into the bargain.

And you know what, this was in medias res. In medias res is a classical Latin phrase that students of the history of drama have to learn. In medias res literally means into the middle of things. So a play that opens in medias res is a play that opens in the middle of the plot. You’re plunged right into the middle of action. There’s no preliminary setting things up or priming with an introduction. 

In baseball terms, I threw you a change-up. Normally I introduce these podcasts by saying something like Welcome to London, welcome to London Walks, to the London Walks Today in History Podcast. I talk a little bit about London Walks and this podcast series. I talk about how the remit of the series has evolved – namely that’s no longer just a Today in London History episode, it now starts with a Today in London tip or recommendation. Up until now that daily Today in London recommendation has been for museum or gallery visit. Or a special exhibition. Or a specific London Walk. Or a restaurant recommendation. Etc. But today, that remit just expanded a little bit. From time to time I’m going to give you a “how Londoners do it” tip in this slot. Today it was the useful three-minute rule. From time to time there’ll be something akin to it that will be served up here in the Today in London segment of the London Walks podcast. So, yes, shows and museums and galleries and restaurants and walks – but also, from time to time, a bit of London nous, a bit of here’s how Londoners do it. Stuff that’s good to know, stuff that will make your visit here just that bit more efficient. 

Ok, let’s now get on to the main course, Today in London History. It’s April 11th, 1914. It’s an opening night – the first-ever performance – for quite an important play, George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. 

Which of course in time became the musical My Fair Lady.

And let’s just for a minute look at the way the language is being played with in that title for the musical. The purchase they get from that title. My Fair Lady. Can you hear it? Listen again. With your mind lubricated just a little bit. Let those three words slide a bit. My Fair Lady. Mayfair Lady. Nice huh. And it’s perfect, isn’t it, for the subject matter the play – and the musical addresses – namely the importance the English attach to accents, to the way people talk. Time to stop beating about the bush here – the play is about class. About the way the English are branded on the tongue. The way their accent identifies their place – to a certain extent – on the scale of that pernicious English class system. Which, happily, is now less rigid than it was 108 years ago when George Bernard Shaw wrote and put on his play.

Shaw, remember, was Irish. And like just about everybody else who’s not to the manner born here, he was fascinated by this whole extraordinary state of affairs – being branded on the tongue. In the preface to the play, Shaw, the Irishman, says, “an Englishman cannot open his mouth without making another Englishman either hate or despise him.”

Now he’s choosing his verbs very carefully in the second half of that sentence. The first verb – hate – that’s a working-class Englishman looking up at and shaking his fist at and resenting, indeed hating, the ruling class, who he feels are looking down at him. And the second verb – despise – well, that’s your upper-class Englishman looking down at, for example, Alfred Doolittle, the cockney dustman – an American would say “garbage man” – who’s the father of Eliza Doolittle, the Covent Garden Market Cockney flower girl who’s the heroine of the play. She and her father are lower-class Londoners. Professor Higgins meets her by chance at Covent Garden Market and makes the claim that by giving her elocution lessons – giving her an upper-class accent – he can pass her off as a member of the upper class. As a Mayfair Lady. Remember, Mayfair is the poshest part of London – the most expensive district in central London, the haunt and groves of the English upper class. That idea is the nub of the play. And Shaw has great fun with it. Professor Higgins is much able to do what he says he can do: turn a Cockney flower girl into an upper-class English lady simply by getting her to master a posh accent. There are any number of wonderful moments in the play – but surely everybody’s favourite is when Eliza, armed with her newly acquired upper-class accent and some apparel finery – a beautiful dress and hat and shoes – goes to Ascot – to the poshest of horse races – places a bet on a horse – gets excited and in her excitement, forgets herself, forgets her upper-class accent, leaps to her feet and shouts at her horse, “move your bloomin arse.” Which is not, needless to say, upper-class parlance or an upper-class way of conducting oneself.

Anyway, what most fascinates me about the play is how spot on Shaw was. He certainly knew his London.

Let’s think about the opening of the play. It opens sometime after 10 o’clock at night. In other words, right at the time the theatres have just let out. It opens under the portico of St Paul’s Covent Garden Church. St. Paul’s Covent Garden is just a stone’s throw away from the two poshest theatres in London – the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the Royal Opera House. Remember the weather report. It’s bucketing down rain. So 10.30 at night. The curtain’s just come down on the opera at the Royal Opera House and the play at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Hundreds of posh theatre-goers come out of the Opera House, out of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, it’s bucketing down rain. And of course nobody can get a taxi. The demand for taxis when it’s bucketing down rain far exceeds the supply of taxis. So what do those posh theatre-goers do, they take refuge under the portico of St. Paul’s Covent Garden. 

And they’re not the only ones taking refuge there. So does Eliza Doolittle, the Cockney flower girl. She’s there because until 1973 Covent Garden was the central London fruit, flower and vegetable market. I was very lucky. I got to see it in its final days as London’s fruit and vegetable market. It was dirty, it was raucous, it was lively, it was noisy, it was full of life, London life, Cockney porters and hawkers and yes, flower sellers. A wonderful London memory. Now just a memory. Those days are bygone. The market’s moved to New Covent Garden Market on the other side of the river. The piazza’s become gentrified. It’s tourists’ London. Still lively, still fun. But a different kind of liveliness, a different kind of fun.

Anyway, the point here is that portico was pretty much the only place in London where Shaw could plausibly – and plausibly is the mot juste – bring together that tremendous range of London accents. The accent of a working-class, Cockney flower seller and the upper-class accents of Freddie Eynsford-Hill (notice the double-barrelled name) and his sister Clara and their mother. They’ve just been to the theatre or the opera. Normally the two worlds epitomised by those two very different accents – the Cockney flower girl’s accent and the posh upper-class accents of the Eynsford-Hill family – those two worlds just don’t cross paths. They inhabit different London. Eliza’s life and experience and home and way of talking is a world away from that of Freddy and his sister and their mother.

But here, under that portico at Covent Garden, at that time of night, and in those weather conditions – Shaw’s done it, he’s found the one place in London where, given the right time of day and the right weather conditions – he could plausibly bring together those two London worlds.

Well observed GBS. You were Irish. But you knew your London.

And on that note, good night from my London, from our London – London Walks’ London – see you tomorrow. 

Post Script time. Made good on it, didn’t I. Promised you yesterday that this one would be a lot more agreeable than yesterday’s grim fare of IRA bombs.

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