Old gangsters and terriers, lingering in the shadows of London

‘The Irish and Jack Russells are part of a London that has convinced people it no longer exists’

“Lion-hearted, that’s what these lads are. Lion-hearted.”

“Lion-hearted, that’s what these lads are. Lion-hearted.”

 

Seven doors down from me, opposite the Chinese supermarket, live two very old and somewhat-famous gangsters. I won’t name them now, because they are very easily Google-able, and having been in and out of prison for so much of their 80-odd years (“I’ve had more porridge than the three bears, luv”), I think they have probably earned a bit of peace and quiet now.

The two men are brothers, and they own a furniture shop that doubles as a cafe for the elderly. It’s a funny experience, going in there. It feels very brave and very London to buy an end table off a man who used to regularly spar with the Kray twins, but it can’t really be that brave, because three old dears are sharing a slice of coconut cake in the corner.

I’m passing early one morning, and both brothers are outside the shop, sitting on wooden kitchen chairs, their eyes closed to the sun. Like all good criminals, they subscribe to Roald Dahl’s “Boggis, Bunce and Bean” logic, in that one is short and stout and one is long and lean. I’m walking my dog Sylvie, and within seconds, she’s sniffing the trouser leg of an octogenarian gangster.

“Oi-oi-oi,” says the long, lean one. “Who’s this?”

“It’s Sav!” says the other. “Sav n’ Chips!”

Cockney

I’ve lived in London for six years, and it took me four to realise that when a Cockney is saying “sav n’chips” they are talking about saveloy, a sort of bright boiled sausage, and not saying “seven chips”.

I tug on Sylvie’s lead, anxious that two old murderers are planning to boil my dog.

But no: Sav n’ Chips were the names of their long-departed dogs. They were Jack Russell Terriers, you see. Just like Sylvie.

The two men get out of their chairs and crouch down to pet her, offering their faces to be puppy-licked. I sit down on one of the kitchen chairs, and hear a long litany of compliments about terriers.

“Lion-hearted, that’s what these lads are. Lion-hearted.”

“They never give up, these guys.”

“A bit like us, eh eh?”

They exchange a look, and I immediately imagine Sav and Chips tearing the lips off a restaurant owner and screaming “I’ll get you the money! Please! Not the face! Not the face!”

Before long, a little crowd has gathered around my dog, except she’s not my dog anymore, she’s every dog that has ever lived. Mindy, who used to sleep under the counter, or Jack, the dog who used to get the bus on his own. All Jack Russell Terriers, all dead, all missed fiercely. There’s an unmistakable air of “they don’t make em like this anymore”, coupled with no small amount of snobbery around these “new dogs”.

“The missus has a cockapoo,” I’m told, as though a cockapoo were a rare tropical disease. “Absolute nutter.”

Novelty

Sylvie’s a novelty here now, in this London that is currently low on gangsters and high on prim little Chihuahuas and emotionally detached French bulldogs.

It’s hard not to think of home, where – in Cork, at least – you can’t leave your house without running into one of these little dogs, usually either asleep under a pub table or barking through someone’s front door. Irish people and Jack Russells are in a funny, tough little marriage with one another. It’s very “he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”, but to the tune of “you’re small and crazy, please live in my house and be one with my small craziness”.

The Irish and Jack Russell Terriers are both part of a London that has convinced people it no longer exists. I read about this city in the papers: I read about luxury flats, and Brexit, and pop-up restaurants offering faddy food items. I read about a vast cultural blandness and an endemic fear of other people. You don’t hear about Kilburn and the Kray twins anymore. You don’t read about hordes of hardy Irish, shipping themselves over to build the roads. You don’t think about the old men who used to be young men, who used to run these streets. You don’t see a lot of terriers, but they’re here. We’re all here.

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