Ever wondered why Only Fools and Horses, one of the most popular comedy series in British TV history, was set in Peckham, South East London?
Peter Linebaugh makes an argument, in his fascinating book The London Hanged, that goes something like this: the proletarian classes of London, as they formed-up in the modern period, took on a peculiar and distinctive character. Because the metropolis was so big, and life was so hard and chaotic, and there was so much crime, and small scale business activity, and competitive individualism, and because it was all so hard to get under control and regulate, that…things got weird.
A way of doing things - of getting a living - came about in which the line between legal and illegal, between being respectable and disreputable, became very sketchy and a culture emerged in which people could be both. Sort of. Take, for example, the Dockers of the great Pool of London, to the East of the City and on both sides of the river, who would help themselves to generous portions of the cargo they unloaded as a matter of course - nicking stuff and doing a hard day’s work blended into the same thing. No contradiction there for the chaps involved.
There are plenty of other examples of this, and the ‘dodgy’ London character who did a ‘bit of this and a bit of that’ gradually became a type, following a particular kind of self-directed, independent, entrepreneurial economic pattern. Garry goes into all of this in his book No One Likes Us, We Don’t Care; suffice to say for now that the much loved Del Boy Trotter and Harry ‘H’ Hawkins characters belong to the long and (ig)noble tradition of London duckers and divers. And why is Del Boy so loved? Perhaps because he not only has charm, and wit, and character…but is also his own man and gets away with murders?