Cockneys didn't welcome incomers

They clung to their families and glorified poverty and violence
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The Independent Online

With the funeral of Reggie Kray last week I hope that one cancer in our society can now be excised. I refer to cockney culture, with its glorification of a bygone age when rough justice prevailed, it was a badge of honour to have an outside toilet, little or no education (after all, there would be plenty of time in jail later to catch up on qualifications and the reading of books) and men went about their business while women did the washing up.

With the funeral of Reggie Kray last week I hope that one cancer in our society can now be excised. I refer to cockney culture, with its glorification of a bygone age when rough justice prevailed, it was a badge of honour to have an outside toilet, little or no education (after all, there would be plenty of time in jail later to catch up on qualifications and the reading of books) and men went about their business while women did the washing up.

The fictitious world of the lovable cockney rogue has been perpetrated through the cinema, via Ealing comedies and more recent rubbish like Lock, Stock ... and whatever. On television we still get a sanitised version of it from EastEnders. But it's worth asking whether this world really existed other than in the half-baked minds of people like the Krays and their cronies.

Tens of thousands of words were generated by Reggie's death, and probably the most depressing was the obituary in the Guardian, written by Duncan Campbell, a decent journalist. "Other families ... may have emerged on the criminal scene, but none ever had the Kray cachet," he wrote. "Reggie was a man who spent the first half of his life breaking the law and the second half paying for it."

The Daily Mail reported a neighbour describing the Krays as "cruel but kind". This split-personality syndrome emerged at the funeral itself, where a Christian academic described Reggie as "honest and open". In the Times John Pearson waffled on about middle England taking the Krays to its heart. Only Brian Reade in the Mirror pointed out that the funeral marked the fulfilment of Reggie's dream to acquire the status of a legend, and that the Kray industry - of shirts, websites and books - shames us.

You did not see any black or brown faces lining the streets of the East End as Reggie's tawdry cortÿge made its way past. Instead, we were treated to the image of overweight white men wearing cheap sunglasses and armbands (more like the bodyguards of a dictator in some banana republic) standing to attention, accompanied by the inevitable strains of "My Way".

In a week when the notion of Britishness has been under attack, and allied by some to a form of racism, let us think about what life is really like in the East End in 2000. People live and work in cramped and substandard conditions, alongside gentrified restored terraces, luxury flats and the wealth of the City. The real East End is a vibrant racial mix, where people do their best to bring up their families and live decent lives.

Cockneys didn't welcome incomers; they clung to their families, their glorification of poverty and illiteracy, their use of physical violence to settle disputes and their contempt for religion. Church was somewhere you sent the kids on Sunday afternoon so you could doze in front of the television. The pub was somewhere you went to get away from the wife. Women knew their place, which was to look good, breed and shut up. Kids could be silenced with a clip around the ear. Revolting food like jellied eels, stuffed hearts and whelks went with a vast consumption of white, sliced bread. The words cockney and cuisine shouldn't share the same sentence.

I can't think of anything good to say about the culture that spawned the Krays and Barbara Windsor, pleasant though she is. Can we now confine it to the dustbin of history, along with Pearly Kings and Queens, "Roll out the Barrel" and Alf Garnett? Perhaps now the Krays have been buried we can celebrate the reality that is the East End today, the positive benefits of a multi-racial city and the richer culture that has emerged. I leave you with one thought. Could you imagine cockneys ever creating the Notting Hill Carnival? They would have run out of songs by Ladbroke Grove and stabbed each other to death by Golborne Road. Not to mention the fact that you can't dance to "My Way".

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