The Undercovercabby

Don't walk away

A while ago I attended a hastily organised appointment close to where I live. As we all shuffled into place I took a close look at the assembled people (all women) sitting in front of me. The room wasn’t big enough for all of us and I began to let my mind wander, I felt a little disconnected like things were happening to me without any effort or steer. I felt drunk almost, I looked at the people sitting in a line in front of me and I felt like the floor could creak and give way, sending us all into the depths below. Oblivion, falling into the abyss, what is that famous quote ? ‘If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you’. I was actually thinking about Neitzsche whilst these people were wondering how to start.

Someone coughed and the largish woman sitting directly in front of me began to speak in that all too familiar way, thank you for coming blah blah, how are you feeling ? blah blah. Then something woke me up with a start, like the snap of a hypnotists fingers she said the words “affective dysregulation” which in layman’s terms means emotional instability. ‘Are you listening ? the largish woman asked, ‘I’m thinking’ I answered, ‘do you know what a personality disorder is ?’ She replied. ‘I should do, it fits me like a glove love’.

After a year back in sales it looks likely I’ll be going back to driving my old black cab around London once more. I feel like a crab that lost its shell, grubbing around aimlessly I found it again and I’m edging and shuffling my way back underneath it, to rise up on my feet soon with the shell resplendent back in place where it’s supposed to be.

At least the ‘kipper’ as we like to refer to the baron period after the New Year is over now, lines and lines of empty cabs waiting at stations and ranks all over London. The feeling of triumph at being able to squeeze on to the back of one as no doubt a desperate cabbie had pulled off and gone home freeing up a space for me. A book is brought out of the bag and the pages begin the process of being stared at with moving eyes analysing the words, fingers keen to turn the pages as the story unfolds. The cabs edging slowly forward all the time and the small feeling of anticipation building as the wheels roll.

The 21 year old me was up early every morning, rushing to the tube to get to the west end as early as possible. The smell and the heaving mass of bodies on the tube as it rocked and bounced along the district line every morning filled my eyes and ears, every day the same people reading the same newspapers. It’s an odd place and you quickly learn the unsaid and unwritten rules. These, as I found out included don’t get too close, don’t catch anybody’s eye and definitely don’t try to strike up a random conversation. The deep suspicion towards anyone who appears friendly lies just below the average Londoners skin, they usually respond with absolute silence and if you persist they don’t mind turning through 180 degrees inviting you to study the back of their heads.

My first job of the day was to develop the negatives Steve had shot the night before, I would then make a contact sheet that looks like a square strip of  passport photos and put them in the studio. All too often Steve would shuffle in, glass of wine and one of the sheets in hand grumbling that they were out of focus. I would explain that they were shot that way he would disagree, I would show him and he would shuffle out again muttering to himself. A large proportion of his clientele were the ladies that appeared in the magazines that newsagents used to put on the top shelf, so that either short men or young boys couldn’t reach, unless of course they were to ask a taller person to pass one down for them, that though would cross the red line of embarrassment and would guarantee a family member or a girl you had your eye on wandering in just at the wrong moment. Far too risky even for a risk taker. Steve had been a photographer in the West End of London since the fifties and had seen it all, he could be quite entertaining once had warmed up a little, probably after the first bottle and certainly by the third. He would seem to forget he had a glass in his hand and wine would fly in all directions as he regaled us with another one of his numerous stories. He once told us that the Kray twins came into his studio demanding protection money, when Steve asked who he needed protection from one of them said “us”. I’d heard many stories about the twins and was eager to hear more, I pushed him a little more and he told me he got rid of them by showing them his piece. Now the mind began to boggle at this revelation and he must have sensed my doubt because he stumbled out of the room and came back a few minutes later holding a revolver ! All hell let loose I jumped up and so did Roy, Steve was waving this thing around and laughing. One of the ladies came in behind him and grabbed his arm and thankfully he put it back where it had come from.

I couldn’t imagine Steve being able to shoot anyone if he wanted to, his hands were so unsteady the window cleaner would have been more likely to have been shot than either of us but never the less, I began to realise there was more to Steve than the initial impression of a middle aged, kindly but sloshed sleazy photographer. He still had his gun and I began to watch things at the studio more closely.

In 1981 I landed a job most teenage boys would have killed for, I started work as a photographic assistant at a model agency in Heddon Street in the West End of London. I had landed, the place was knee deep in women, tall elegant women who smelt overwhelmingly erotic. The agency was run by an ageing Jewish photographer called Steve who had a flimsy association with the American Air Force. He was an alcoholic who’s wine intake was extraordinary, he would start shortly after he arrived at lunchtime and as the afternoon moved into evening his grasp on the job in hand became more and more slippery. Part of my job was to get in early to develop his photographs from the night before and I could generally tell what time of the evening each roll of film had been taken.

My boss was a short energetic little man called Roy, he was my parents next door neighbour and so I knew all about him. His infant son thought he lived at the Cricketers, a pub in Hornchurch which by coincidence was one of the many pubs my Dad also spent lots of time inside. Roy liked women, beer and money and was no good at managing any of them, he had a little posse of similarly minded mates and these were the people I also would begin to associate with. Life had changed abruptly, I had left a job at The Press Association in Fleet Street for this, Roy had waited for me in his orange Mini van outside the building and driven to Heddon Street, I clearly remember the feeling of liberation throwing my bag in the back, climbing into the passenger seat and being whisked away to the West End leaving the 9 to 5 behind me and with it my ambitions of becoming a press photographer. I felt no fear just excitement at the prospects ahead of me. First stop was the pub of course and I inevitably got completely plastered having to stagger back from Roys favourite pub The Clachen in Kingly Street Soho. Roy had an ability to function almost normally after a skinful that I hadn’t come across before, my Dad was also a heavy drinker but he couldn’t have covered it up like Roy did. We arrived at the studio, the door opened with a loud bleep and as we walked inside the reception area I began to realise that this was going to be a very different experience to anything I’d had before. Roy showed me around the studio and the dark room, he had built the tanks where the films and photos would go through the chemical process himself and he had bought lots of photographic equipment which all stood proudly awaiting the big switch on, just like the Christmas lights in nearby Regent Street. A bearded overweight man dressed a little too casually walked into the room, Roy introduced us and I shook the already unsteady hand of the pornographer of Heddon Street.

To be continued …..

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