Every big city contains certain kinds of characters who come to represent some deep and fundamental truth about the place. They capture some timeless essence of their being. One of the most enduring social types familar to anyone who’s spent much time in London is the wide boy.
Wide boys are working-class, exclusively male, and survive on the margins of society by basically using their wits – their ability to think quickly and make good decisions. Wide boys are the characters you may see in Oxford Street selling knock-off (fake) botles of brand-name perfumes out of a suitcase that can easily be packed up should the seller need to run when the police turn up. And they’re the guys in the warm sheepskin-coats who’ll do a great job of selling you a dodgy second-hand motor (a car that’s had at least one previous owner and may well not be working properly and may even be stolen!) . . . but not remember this ever happened when you take it back the next week after it dies a slow and painful death! Basically, everything about wide boys is a little bit dodgy: they are not to be trusted!
You might think that such characters would be hated and made into social outcasts, but actually there’s a strong tradition of people having grudging respect for them. Partly, this is a recognition of the fact that they’re frequntly charming. Most wide boys have the gift of the gab – they’re able to talk a lot without feeling shy, especially when it gets them out of potentially awkward situations! They’re often quick-witted and able to think on their feet – and, above all, they’re survivors, and one of the myths Londoners tell themselves about the city is that it’s a survivor. It’s survived the Great Fire of London, the Plague, the Blitz (when the Germans dropped countless bombs on the city during the Second World War), terrorist attacks, and so on. We endure!
Wide boys survive by wheeling and dealing and ducking and diving – using clever (and often slightly dishonest) methods to gain advantages in business situations. They buy from here, and sell there, always looking to make a profit in the process. It’s this base-level raw capitalist instinct that has won them admiration and there have been countless depictions of wide boys as loveable rogues – people who behave badly, but are still liked by others – on TV. There was Arthur Daley, the dodgy second-hand car dealer in Minder (a show so named becuase he had to employ a minder – a bodyguard – to look after him!), the south-east London market trader Derek Trotter – better known as Del Boy – in Only Fools and Horses, and there was this comic character in The Fast Show, to name just a few.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, the idea of being a wide boy comes from the fact they’re seen as always being wide awake, sharp-eyed, always alert for the moments still to come.
- Do characters like wide boys exist where you live? How are they generally seen by the public?
- What other kind of social types do you think represent the timeless essence of where you live?
- Would you know where to get knock-off brand name products if you wanted them? Have you ever bought any?
- Can you think of any dodgy areas / bars / clubs where you live?
- Do you know anyone who’s got the gift of the gab?