Though you won’t catch Leanne Black speaking in the Cockney rhyming slang of her childhood, her East End identity is defined by a fighting spirit which she’s passing on to the next generation.
If you’ve ever strolled past G Kelly on Roman Road, chances are you’ve seen Leanne Black dressed in a striped chef’s apron serving pie and mash to an endless stream of customers spilling out onto the pavement.
Born in Stepney Green, growing up Black trialled her fair share of North East London’s housing stock. One flat eviction and her parents’ separation saw Black ferried around from Chrisp Street to Farringdon and Beckton before settling on the Roman which she still calls home.
Now 42, Black lives on Old Ford Road and rarely leaves this stretch of the East End: ‘I don’t really know what life is like outside of Bow. I only know from the top of the Roman to the end of it, I don’t know any further than that.’
Serving G Kelly’s quality working-class fare for more than a decade, it’s clear that Black knows how to command a busy lunch queue. Having previously worked as a barmaid in various East London pubs, she says both jobs require ‘50% acting and 50% serving… whatever’s going on in your own private life, as soon as you come in here you’ve got to be on show.’
Fuelled by an energy reserve as large as G Kelly’s buckets of mash, Black’s spirit never falters as she greets her familiar customers, many of whose orders she knows before they even open their mouths.
In a rare instance when G Kelly’s benches weren’t teeming with their usual hungry customers, I stole a precious thirty minutes of Black’s time to meet the woman behind East London’s most popular pie n’ mash and get to the heart of her Cockney roots.
What was it like growing up in a Cockney household?
‘My parents broke up when I was 15 and we moved around a lot as a family before then but always in East London. When I was seven or eight I remember we got evicted for not paying the rent and we got moved to Farringdon which was awful. We didn’t have the money to live in Farringdon and we had to be taken out of our school when we moved there. My dad was a lorry driver and he would come back here to East London for work every day.
‘So then we went to Beckton but we didn’t know anyone in Beckton either so then finally we were moved back to the Roman and lived near Mulberry School. I went to Ben Johnson Primary in Stepney Green and Morpeth Secondary School, but I didn’t really go there because I got kicked out in my second year. I would just walk in one gate and walk out the other and spend my days at Barking shopping centre. I did get caught eventually and they kicked me out for being naughty but I wasn’t really being naughty I just didn’t like it so I didn’t go!
‘Then I got sent to a school in Cable Street for naughty girls but I didn’t like it so I didn’t go there either! They were too nice to us there, it wasn’t a school, it was just somewhere to put you.’
How would you describe Cockney culture to someone from a different country?
‘We say we’re easygoing and laid back, and as much as we are friendly, I do think we can be a bit stand-offish with outsiders. Cockneys definitely stand our ground about what we think is ours, and a lot of ‘we fought for this country’ and all that load of rubbish still goes on.
‘I think it’s a lot of pretences really, you know, like: ‘Come and live here… just don’t you live near me. Don’t you take my job. Don’t you take my child’s place at school.’ Black laughs: ‘we can definitely be two-faced.’
How important is your Cockney identity to you?
‘I hate my Cockney identity and I’ve always tried to hide it. I think every Cockney person has a different telephone voice because if you ring up the doctor and put on a well-spoken voice they’ll take you seriously and you’ll get an appointment later that day no problem, but if you speak in a Cockney accent that isn’t the case.
‘I’ve found I’ve always had to lie to get anywhere. I’ve had to lie and put on my telephone voice to doctors and hospitals. They’ll say that it isn’t the accent but I’ve tried both and I can say you’ll be treated very differently depending on your voice.
‘If you’re complaining about something a nice tone will get you something for free while a Cockney voice will get you a kick up the arse. I really do think it makes a difference.’
What would you say to those who think that Cockneys are a dying breed?
‘Cockneys are dying out in certain areas. I think a lot of Cockneys like me will go to places like Shoreditch and Hackney Wick and find that it’s really changed around there. I’ll go home and say that those places are full of all the ‘poshies’ and the ‘trendies’. It is very different.
‘But whether it’s dying overall I don’t know because I’m always surrounded by Cockneys. It’s not really something I notice because I go from one end of this road to the other where the people are still the same and I have the same neighbours. But when I go to Brick Lane to get beigels on a Saturday I do feel out of my comfort zone. I think: ‘I’m not paying a fiver for a coffee, I’ve got to go home!’’
‘My 22-year-old daughter is even more Cockney than me. She ain’t even got a posh telephone voice which annoys me because she can’t even get a doctor’s appointment! She just says: ‘Mum I’m not giving in to them. I ain’t changing for no one.’’
What aspect of Cockney culture is alive and kicking?
‘Our fighting attitude. Deep down in all of us is the fighting instinct to bounce back and not give up. You’ve just got to push us hard enough and then you’ll see it.’
What rhyming slang do you still use if any?
‘Cockney rhyming slang doesn’t exist for proper Cockneys anymore, absolutely not.
‘You get people who come in here from Essex who oversell their cockney accent to the point of being irritating. Everyone who comes in here from Essex comes in speaking like Danny Dyer asking for a cuppa Rosy [Tea], and I’m just like, this isn’t a Guy Ritchie film, this is a pie n’ mash shop, please leave it out.
‘It’s just over the top and I can’t stand the over-the-top fake Cockneys, they’re even more annoying than the real ones and they can be pretty annoying sometimes!’
What false assumptions do people make about Cockneys?
‘I think we have a bad reputation in other countries, and I know that because my Dad spent time in a French prison for money laundering and when I visited him there, my God they hated us… I think it stems from football cause when we go over there my God don’t we cause problems?
‘I’m not saying we’re always terrible but let’s be honest, we’re not great and we do get a negative press.’
How has the East End changed since your childhood?
‘The market has changed. We get a lot of people in G Kelly who moved out years ago to Tilbury, or Buckhurst Hill or Loughton – all the Cockneys went to the same area – and then they come back for pie and mash and complain about how everything has changed so much and I say, well yes it’s changed so much because you’ve all moved out, it’s not going to stay the same is it?
‘You’ve got Westfield and bigger shops that have really caused the death of the market. A lot of the old stallholders have gone and I honestly can’t see Roman Road Market being there for too much longer. But other than the market changing It’s all the same people. I should know, I see the same people coming in here week in, week out.’
What meal particularly reminds you of home?
‘Chicken stew. My mum’s chicken stew with pearl barley. If you’ve got a cold you’ll grow back an arm if you eat my mum’s chicken stew.’
If you could live anywhere else, where would you live and why?
‘When we go for a nice day out we go to Greenwich. I do like Greenwich but if I moved there my family would never forgive me. I’d have to get a new identity and everything because my lot can’t stand South London, there’s always been a rivalry there. When a South Londonder comes in here they usually ask for gravy instead of liquor and I always take the mick outta them.’
What is Roman Road’s best-kept secret?
‘It’s gotta be its pie and mash shop doesn’t it? The best in the world.’
If you enjoyed reading this article you might like our interview with the East End poet, Chris Ross.
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