Copyright © Jude Cowan Montague

The Pip and the Morf

in History/Latest/Music/Spotlight

Gus Elen was the best known of the ‘coster’ comedians of the Music Hall of old London. He was born and bred in London and his songs were rooted in the poverty and life of the East End.

The costers, or costermongers were street sellers of fruit and vegetables, not only in London although the role has become associated with Cockney culture through the stage characters of Gus Elen, Albert Chevalier, Bessie Bellwood, Charles Seel and others. The performers mimicked accents and manners for entertainment. In their coster personas the actors could be outspoken and argue with hecklers, yet perform sentimental lyrics and melodies that touched hearts and spoke of those who lived in difficulties with close affection. This entertainment ‘by the poor, for the poor’, with its sardonic comments on hardship, made living in poverty less rancid by its art and humour.

Elen’s most famous song was ‘If it Wasn’t for the ‘Ouses in Between’. This line is the hook of a song about his garden in the overcrowded tenements. The lyrics were written by Edgar Bateman and the music by George Le Brunn, a prolific Music Hall composer. Elen recorded the song on 21st of February 1899.

The lyrics tell how the garden looked bloomin’ lovely when storing the cabbages and turnip tops ‘what the people doesn’t buy’. ‘It really is a very pretty garden,’ the chorus begins. But the part of the song that stuck with audiences then and now were the lines concerning the view, which now sound like an estate agent’s repurposing of the truth to market a property in its best light.

Wiv a ladder and some glasses
You could see to ‘Ackney marshes
If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between

The overcrowding of the East End is returning for a new generation where the poor and vulnerable are being exploited in the housing crisis of 2019. Night shifts, low pay and poor housing are returning, but with no Music Hall songs to be simultaneously a form of resistance and release. These songs testify to a community identity and response to poverty.

Gus Elen’s coster keeps close to nature. His city is countrified and rustic, not in a respectable way, but a working life living with animals. It’s a London of which I recognise the tail end. When I came to the city in the very late 1980s there were little ponies tethered on the housing estate in Mile End where I had a squat. As an immigrant from the North West provinces (Bolton!) I was delighted to see something of the country. I found the flatness of the area a little bit overbearing, being used to the hills of the north, but it was cheering to see the animals so close. Stepping Stones City Farm was another oasis for me, allowing Eastenders to continue to live alongside farm animals.

The lyrics follow the coster through the day. He proudly describes his animals in their own cramped quarters.

Copyright © Jude Cowan Montague

                             

the bunny shares ‘is egg-box
with the cross-eyed cock and hen
though they ‘as got the pip and him the morf

I’m not sure what exactly are the pip and the morf, but the obscure language no doubt refers to two diseases or conditions. Mould? Canker? Illness spreads when creatures live so close to each other with limited air and space. The coster means to rig up a dairy, ‘put the donkey in the wash-house/ Wiv some imitation ‘orns/For we’re teaching him to moo just like a cow’.

The song compares the world of the broken-down, unhealthy tenement to the picturesque delights of Alpine views so prized by Romantic artists and the middle class. Looking on the bright side, the gas-works could pass for mountains. The rural bliss is further imitated and mocked by the ‘mushrooms in the dust hole’ and ‘the cowcumbers so green’.

Good humour, sarcasm, pastische and irony were part of working class resistance and entertainment. There are many rewritings of the past and opinion by each generation, and recently comedy has been a target of moralists. Expression, it seems, can be deliberately misunderstood. On social media people harangue each other for explanation for casual jokes. Intention must be spelled out, unambigious Humour is misinterpreted in the war for the moral high ground. It’s a difficult time for comedians as the right and left entrench to their camps to leave humourists exposed as a target in the battle of tweets and trolls.

Gus Elen took his coster act to America in 1907 where he appeared at the New York Theatre on the same bill as Harry Lauder and Will Evans. The reviewer for the ‘New York Dramatic News’ recognised that he portrayed ‘the coster as if he actually exists in his natural element’. But his rough style was not as popular as that of the more smooth style of coster comedian Albert Chevalier. Elen returned to London, it seems that he was happy to be at home, being a domestic, private man who did not enjoy socialising with his fellow acts as being with his family.

Retiring from the stage in 1914, Elen continued to live a life connected to nature, living in London but loving the countryside and animals. He lived mostly in Balham where he bred poultry. He was also a keen fisherman. A blue plaque marks his former home, 3 Thurleigh Avenue.

The song continues to be relevant and performed. Tracy Coleman sings it with meaning for her cabaret family entertainment in Plum Busby and it’s a favourite of Suzie Hanna, who performs with Robert Hanna as ‘The Roaring Hannas’. She notices how the coster tries ‘to recreate the landscape that he can no longer see or be part of in his little back yard,’ with an attitude of ‘eternal optimism’. They note the song is in the context of the growing urbanisation of London. The opportunity provided to capital by the increase in population led to the exploitation of those in need of lodging by property speculators and greedy landlords. In this way it’s a time that reflects today only too well.

Whereas the colourful world of the coster, who provides pickled walnuts, fruit, vegetables healthy food with aplomb for the impoverished. has a pleasant contemporary resonance in the new start-up of festively flavoured companies promoting organic food, using illustration as an important part of their presentation. Yet such modern enterprises stemfrom a more middle class background. The social researcher and reformist Henry Mayhew regarded the costers among all the street sellers of nineteenth-century London as a ‘dangerous class’.

The last word shall go to Betty May, the ‘Tiger Woman’, a Bohemian artist who appreciated the showiness of the coster world of 1900 London. In her autobiography she remembers visits to Limehouse and loving to see the women ‘with their gaudy shawls and heads of ostrich feathers, like clouds in a wind, and the men in their caps, silk neckerchiefs and bright yellow pointed boots in which they took such pride.’ The costers, and other entertaining characters on and off stage were what made East End life as agreeable as it could be.

             

      

Jude Cowan Montague is an artist and broadcaster. She produces 'The News Agents' for Resonance FM, a weekly show experimenting with international story and the arts. She worked at Reuters Television News for many years as an archivist and this has informed her poetry and some of her art. She's an award winning printmaker and a composer. Her graphic memoir 'Love on the Isle of Dogs' is available from Central Books.

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