We talk to Chris Ross, the Cockney poet taking social media by storm with his poems about everyday life in the East End.
A skinny latte in Costa Coffee might not seem the most obvious choice of beverage for an East End lad on a trip down The Roman, but then Chris Ross is not your average geezer.
In a pair of relaxed shorts, Costa del Sol white linen shirt and a cross hanging from a leather thong around his neck, he’s the cheeky chappie anyone would want at their summer BBQ. With Ross, every question is an opportunity for a story or funny anecdote. His cheery face, recognisable by many from social media, is exactly the same as it appears online – creased with laughter.
At the grand age of 60 – having never picked up a book of poetry before in his life – he woke up with a poem ready-formed in his mind.
‘I woke up in the middle of the night – I know this is really cliché but it’s true! – and I couldn’t sleep. So I came downstairs and turned the laptop on, and got back on to Facebook as always, and I wrote this little thing. It was called ‘If and when,’ and I just wrote it and posted it and closed the laptop and went to bed.’
After that, something clicked in his head, and he was writing every day. At first, it was just friends reading them online, then over time, fans from all corners of the world tuned in to listen to Ross’ poems, sprinkled with laughter and delivered from the sofa in his lounge.
Ross’ poems are musings on everyday life. Some feel off-the-cuff and say it as it is with a smile: ‘Today’s going to be Tuesday,’ while others capture everyday struggles with heart-wrenching simplicity, such as a loved one living with dementia. And of course, cockney slang, East End boozers and pints of cockles make frequent appearances.
Many of Ross’ poems seek nothing more than a chuckle, sometimes a belly laugh, and are ‘best kept by the loo… if your guests leave the bathroom laughing I’ve done my job right,’ he says. Accessible and uplifting, their gentle rhymes are appealing to those who, like Ross, had little interest in Keats or Byron at school.
In writing and sharing his poems with ‘strangers he knows’ on the internet, it seems that Ross has found a purpose he never found in conventional jobs.
I used to see people on the telly complaining there are no jobs, and I’d sit there and say “you can have mine!” I don’t want to go to work.’
Now retired, Ross looks back over his working life, peppered with various jobs. ‘I’ve done pretty much every job there is,’ he says, ‘from driving a van to working a pub, I just kind of drifted a lot,’ he says.
Having started as a Would Be East End Poet, Ross published his first book of poems in 2015. ‘The original idea of putting them down in a book was that I wanted my mum to have a book of my poems because mum used to read them and laugh,’ he says.
It took until the publication of his third book in 2018 to drop the ‘would be’ and embrace his role as the East End Poet. Ross’ fourth book is currently at the publishers, titled ‘Bubbles, Beigels and a Nice Cup of Tea’ it deals with getting through the pandemic, ‘but enough other stuff as to not make it all about that.’
Ross has lived in a cul-de-sac in Beckton for 35 years, but he couldn’t tell you the name of the next close over from his and his wife Mary’s home.
What he can tell you though, is every street ‘round here, in Mile End, Stepney Green, because that’s where he grew up. Educated at St. Paul’s Way School in Bow, he’s a West Ham supporter with the claret and blue facemask to prove it. You won’t find many more East End than Ross.
‘To me, Roman Road is the heart of the East End. It could be argued that Brick Lane is, I suppose, but for me, it’s here.’
In the late 70s, Ross and his mates would drink in what is now the Salmon and Ball pub – back then it was called Tipples – ‘ on Friday nights you couldn’t get through the door!’
It was here, leaning over the bar to chat up the lovely barmaid, that Ross met his wife Mary. They’ve been married for 37 years, love nothing more than spending time with their six grandchildren.
Back in the 50s and 60s, he remembers his parents heading out, ‘dressed up to the nines,’ for a night out in The White Horse pub (now Dominos Pizza) where his dad, Al Ross, sang with a band. People still recognise Ross as ‘Al’s son,’ and it’s clear he’s inherited his father’s musical talent and dapper charm.
While Ross has fond memories of his years growing up around the Roman, ‘I get fed up with people saying the East End isn’t what it was, I say, “neither are you!”’
He loves a bit of nostalgia but is also a realist. This area is ever-changing, and Ross embraces that with open arms. ‘When I was a kid in Poplar, that was London’s Chinatown, and now it’s totally different, and I still love it.’
Once you understand this, it makes sense why Ross would embrace a branch of the chain Costa on Roman Road. Simply put, he likes it, and why shouldn’t he embrace this change? Of course, it’s off to G Kelly’s afterwards for a pie and mash – with liquor and orange squash of course – but to Ross, it’s silly to reject change on the principle of it.
It’s the immediate feedback that draws Ross into social media. When Ross makes someone laugh or brightens their day via the world wide web, they tell him, and in turn, this brightens his day. Many of Ross’ fans find him through their shared love of Cockney culture, but he’ll still receive messages asking, ‘by the way… what’s the Roman?’ from friends in far-flung places.
For Ross, there’s no chance Cockney culture will die out. Because Cockney culture – while visible in all the old adages like pie and mash, apples and pears – is a state of mind. It’s about being an entrepreneur, a bit of a show-off, and being unpretentious – without any airs ‘n’ graces.
In true Chris Ross style, it’s best explained with a story: ‘I went down the seaside to Southend in my blue crocs and had a pint of cockles. And someone said to me, “mate, you are way too cool to be wearing crocs!”
And I said, “look mate, I’ve got more layers than an onion. I wear crocs and I like The Spice Girls, what can I tell you!?”’
Cockney Sparra’ – Chris Ross
I’m what they called a Cockney Sparra’, back in days of old
A song and a smile, as wide as a mile, with a Heart of solid gold
Look after our own, reap what we’ve sown and moan about everything else
Live for today, work rest and play, and tomorrow will take care of itself
Meaning no harm, our old Cockney charm and all done with a glint in our eyes
Fish with our chips, pickles for dips and liquer and mash with our pies
Working Class faces, a day at the races, Cockles and God Save the Queen
Dropping our aitches, no aires and graces, Londoners, living the dream
Bethnal Green Road and a London postcode, the things that make us who we are
Roman Road market, an eye for a bargain, and days down Southend in the car
Old cockney songs and pub singalongs, may all be a thing of the past
But West Ham United and getting overexcited, these are the things that will last
They say that we’re a dying breed, well I guess that might be true
But I’m not dead yet anyway, so at least there’s me and you
A pride in our roots and Doc Martin boots and a story that needs to be told
I’m what they called a Cockney Sparra’, back in days of old
If you liked reading about Chris Ross, read our interview with reformed criminal Gary Hutton on being a product of a postcode.
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