About the Author

Marie is an instructor of English at Sacred Heart University and recently completed her MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University. She lives in Connecticut with her husband and two children and her faithful English Springer Spaniel, "the artful" Dodger.
More about Marie ยป

Spread the Word

Fish in a Tank

Teach me half the gladness

The world should listen then – as I am listening now.

That thy brain must know,

Such harmonious madness

From my lips would flow

 -          Percy Bysshe Shelley

When I think of New York City cabs, I think of weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds, rushing through yellow lights, and swerving recklessly to avoid buses and bicycles. Not a day in the park and best avoided by pregnant women and the faint- hearted. When I think about Black cabs in London, I think of large, elegant vehicles, a uniquely London silhouette, and an experience that is worth every pound of my waitress/shop girl wages. They are like an oasis in a city which to the untrained eye makes no sense at all – no grid system here. London cabbies are expertly trained in getting from point A to point B in the most efficient way, with just a dose of history and good-natured humor thrown in. They spend years studying what is aptly named, “the knowledge” and many seem to be frustrated historians or thespians – or perhaps just the perfect combination of both.

I once had a cabbie tell me that Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor are the only two non-cabbies given the honor of being allowed in one of the many distinct green shed-like structures where cabbies can stop off for a cup of tea during the course of a long day’s work driving around the city. I think they’re called “cabmen shelters”. You really wouldn’t notice them unless someone points one out to you; often they’re tucked amidst a bit of greenery on the corner of a square. Imagining Elizabeth Taylor requesting a cup of tea in a cabbie hut enroute to a suite at The Ritz is a bit of a stretch for me to believe, but then again, she did seem very down to earth.  I’m not sure how much of what I hear in a London cab is actually true, but I know that I enjoy every minute of hearing it; it may stem back to the time when I first came to London as a little girl of seven and stepped into the cool, dark recesses of one for the first time.

I remember my parents, brother, sister, grandmother and I watching the changing of the guards outside of Buckingham Palace and the band, as if on cue, was playing “If You’re Irish Come into the Parlor”, to everyone’s delight. We had just traveled for five days aboard the elegant ocean liner the S.S. United States, then the fastest ship on the seas, to bring my grandmother back for a visit to family and friends in her native Ireland following the death of my grandfather.  We had stopped in London for a few days of sightseeing before continuing on. Not altogether unexpectedly, it began to rain.  My father put out his arm to hail a cab and my love affair began. The roomy, comfortable interior was a welcome relief from the heat, and all the walking we had been doing, on that steamy, rainy July morning.

“Mornin’ Sir, where to?” asked our driver.

“Well, how long do you have to drive us around?” asked my father, obviously looking over at three small, tired children, an elderly parent, a weary wife, the persistent rain and hoping for a bit of a reprieve.

“Well, that depends on how long the good Lord intends for me to ‘ave dunnit?”, he said with a smile. “As far as I know, I ‘ave all of today, tomorrow and many a day beyond.”

And so, Mr. Ringold became our tour guide for the next two days of our stay in London. He drove us all around the sites of the city that day, picked us up outside the Hilton Hotel on Hyde Park the next day, and entertained us with stories and history and suggestions for places to eat. But for all his knowledge, charm and dedication to his job, what sealed my respect for him, and by association all drivers since, was his unique ability to read his audience and to respond accordingly to their needs. For my sister, being quite a bit younger than me, was not too enthralled with all the sightseeing that was going on and began to get a bit cranky, making for a less than pleasant ride for all of us. That’s when the long hours of training and natural intuitive nature of someone used to interacting with all kinds of people kicked in.

“See that light on the side of the seat back there?” said Mr. Ringold to my sister, pointing to the standard interior light in the back seat. “Well, that’s my naughty girl light, ‘idinit’, and you don’t want to know what ‘appens if I need to turn it on”.

My sister never made a peep for the rest of the trip for fear of triggering the “naughty girl light” and I was impressed. Ever since, climbing into the back of a beautiful black cab, I am certain that I’ll enjoy the ride.  I can honestly say that I love London cabs and the extremely well educated, resourceful and entertaining cabbies who drive them. Whenever I can, I splurge on one. Tonight, is one of those times.

I’m feeling rather ‘flush’ having just had a generous evening crowd at Brescia and decide to hail a cab for home instead of heading for the tube station.  I settle happily in to the vast back of the impeccably kept cab and the driver pulls his glass window across to ask me where I’m going. As I give him my address, he says “So, you’re a fish”.

Now I have been called many things, but never a fish – a crab, yes, on many occasions – but never a fish. In my tired state, I’m sure that I’ve misheard him.

“Sorry, I thought you said that I’m a fish”.

“I did. You’re  ‘a fish in a tank’, a Yank”, he continues.

“Oh, I guess I am”. And so begins my journey home and a half hour lesson on Cockney Rhyming Slang, the archaic yet charming language unique to a  group of Londoners raised “within the sound of Bow Bells”, or in the East End of the city.

Bow Bells, or more precisely, Mary-Le-Bow Church, is in East London, a colorful area of markets and shops which, now, is mostly commercial. I don’t think many newborns are hearing those bells today as the area is no longer residential. However, at some time in the not too distant past, those whose fate of birth placed them in that vicinity of the East End qualified as an authentic Cockney. As with any dialect, part of the appeal to its speakers is the exclusive nature of it – saying something without an “outsider” knowing what is being said.  It’s like a secret code among a brotherhood (or sisterhood) who share some racial, ethnic, or, in this case, geographic similarity. To make the comprehension for those born outside the sound of the Bow Bells even more elusive, the rhyming is abbreviated, leaving the actual rhyming part out, as it was by my informative cabbie. I wasn’t a “fish in a tank” for a Yank, I was merely a “fish”.

“My father taught me the rhymes and ‘is father before ‘im”, my driver explained. “I can speak in a string of rhymin’ sentences and be perfectly understood by anyone in my family. For example, if I say “come in awf de frog an ‘ave a cuppa rosie before you go to bo – why that just means “come in off the frog and toad – road-  and ‘ave a cup of Rosie Lee -tea -before you go to Bo Peeps-sleep. See ‘ow that works?”

Not sure I actually see how that works, but completely charmed, I ask him for more examples and he obliges all the way to Fulham...(continued)


p.p.s. For the uninitiated in Cockney Rhyming Slang, the following may be of help:

Skin and Blister, sister

Rub-a-Dub-Dub, pub

Pig’s ear, beer

Tom and Dick, sick

Cat and Mouse, house

Rosie Lee, tea

April Showers, flowers

Artful Dodger, lodger

Sausage and Mash, cash

Dickory Dock, clock

Elephant’s Trunk, drunk

Boat Race, face

Bees and Honey, money

Fisherman’s Daughter, water

Pleasure and Pain, rain

Auntie Ella, umbrella

Frog and Toad, road

China Plate, mate