Interview: Russ Willey, London Expert

By Londonist Last edited 98 months ago
Interview: Russ Willey, London Expert
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Russ_Willey.jpg Russ Willey is the author of Brewer's Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable, which was published earlier this month. Xstream East Radio's Nikk Quentin Woolf asked him about hidden London.

What will people find inside this dictionary?

Dr Ebenezer Cotton Brewer put the first Dictionary of Phrase and Fable together in 1870. It was a mixture of classical legends and all the best-known phrases from the English language, proverbs, sayings, just explaining a bit about them all, but in addition to that he just chucked in all sorts of curios that he found interesting. That book has been through eighteen editions since then and very much continues in the same vein. I've tried to do the same sort of thing with Brewer's London - the essential myths and fables of old London, and any sayings that happen to mention a place in London and have evolved in the East End as so many of them did, but also just a load of interesting little stories that people might come across when browsing through the book. It is very much a browsing sort of book.

How do you go about verifying the veracity of stories?

That doesn't necessarily matter. Quite a lot of stories will be anecdotal or aphoristic. Where possible, I check them, and dig out the truth of the stories that may have been told wrongly for many years. Sometimes I am able to actually contact the person who the story is about. But there are difficulties. There’s a story about Bob Dylan going to Crouch End to see Dave Edmonds, but he got Crouch End and Crouch Hill confused and went to the wrong house. He knocked on the door, the lady let him in, and he was sitting in the living room when another Dave came home, and she said to her son, I've got that Bob Dylan who you like in the living room. And to Dave's astonishment he really was there. So the story goes. Now that sort of thing is pretty hard to verify because I doubt I am going to get Bob Dylan to tell me what really happened. But for the most part stories aren't quite such urban myths. For the most part, with a little digging around you can find the truth. And in some cases actually go out and see. Does Giro the Nazi dog really have a tombstone near Carlton House Terrace? Yes he does, I've seen it. Is there really a nose-shaped protuberance on the inside of one of the Arches of Admiralty Arch? - Yes, I've touched it.

Are people actively contacting you because they know you are doing this?

I would welcome people contacting me via my website with anything they think might be missing from this. But you can now search out-of-print books more easily than Dr Brewer could have done back in 1870. And in compiling my own previous work Chambers London Gazetteer I was familiar with some of the more curious geographically odd stories.

dictionaryphrasefable.jpg Where did your passion for London spring from?

It began years ago with going in to the Barbican Arts Centre, where they had a primitive machine that was supposed to tell you what was going on in London. I asked it simply what was on at the cinema in the West End that night. And it asked me whether I meant the West End of Hillingdon. It prompted me to wonder how many other obscure districts of London there were that I had never heard of. More phrases, terms, expressions, have originated in the East End. The East End has historically been a melting-pot for immigrants, and they've brought their own terms; a lot of Cockney terminology (and London terminology, by extension) derives from roots like Romany or Yiddish. But that evolution comes from all over the place, particularly still from immigrants bringing new words but those immigrant communities could be anywhere, they could be Indians in Southall. There’s ‘Jafaican’ properly called multicultural London dialect, and that combines languages of all sorts of immigrant communities to London, with a bit of Cockney thrown in; that's brought from people all over the world.

A lot of your work has been about place names.

Wapping was originally Wapping on the Wode which meant Wapping on the mud, a settlement of Wappa’s people originally. Limehouse was a place of lime kilns as far back as the Fourteenth Century. There is every different kind of derivation in London place-names all around here. Take Beckton for example, named after Simon Adams Beck who was the chairman of the gas company whose works completely dominated that area. In contrast there is a lot of credibility to the story that Houndsditch got its name because "dead doggies where there cast", piled up in a ditch there, and their carcasses were visible and probably smellable for all to know about and that's how it got that name.

Brewer's Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable is in bookshops now. The Arts Show with Nikk Quentin Woolf is Tuesdays at 3pm on Xstream East Radio.

Last Updated 26 October 2009