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 …..
Finally in the summer of 1988 the day any London Cab Driver will never forget arrived. Despite my ridiculous nerves I emerged from that ‘cold war’ looking building in Penton Street with a very shiny green badge with the number 46587 stamped on it. I went in a knowledge boy and emerged as a cab driver….
I went to see Michael at the garage with my badge in hand. I walked into the office feeling at least a foot taller than the last week time I had been there, he was on the phone and looked at me with absolutely no bodily acknowledgement whatsoever. Eventually, the phone slammed down and he said “so you want a cab do you”. We walked out onto the forecourt and he pointed to some dirty old cabs that were along a wall. They all had adverts on them and looked very unappealing, he opened the drivers door of the first one and an A to Z fell out of the door pocket, it stank of cigarette smoke and I found myself taking a step backwards. “How much ?” I asked “£140” he replied, it was only a marginal improvement on my wangle cab, he wandered off as I shut the door and found the oldest one. It turned out to be the cleanest with the least battle scars. I went to find him and we walked back to the office where he gave me a card with the date and the registration number on it, next to the date he had written £127.00. “pay me at the end of the week” he said. I watched him go as a train rattled above the old railway arch.
London cabbies are a superstitious lot and I had been warned time and time again to give away the first fare. In other words, the first fare is free to facilitate a long a prosperous career. I was far more concerned that I wouldn’t know the first destination. I rattled along the cobblestones towards Bethnal Green Road and I switched my light on. I could almost hear my heart pounding. I neared Shoreditch High Street and I saw them, I felt sick as they spun around and started waving their arms, they shrieked “TAXI”. I think I was actually reciting the Lords Prayer as I pulled in beside the two largish west indian women who were so obviously excited to see me. I prayed I would know the destination as one of them pressed her face into the nearside window. I waited and watched her lips as she mouthed the words “Lemon Road Please”.
Shit … Lemon Road ? I repeated the words back to them to make sure I’d heard them properly “yes Lemon Road” they said as they opened the back door and climbed inside, my mind raced frantically, I spun around “so whereabouts is Lemon Road then ?” I asked. “Its near Aldgate” one of them said. I breathed and felt my body relax. “Do you mean Leman Street ?”, “Oh yeah thats right” came the reply. I pressed the big button on the front of my meter and off we went. They looked like they were going to molest me when I told them that the journey was free but I managed to escape by turning into Prescott Street and on towards the City…
My dad loved to gamble, he came from a long line of gamblers and both he and my uncle were bookmakers in fact my uncle managed a number of shops until he retired a few years ago. Some of my earliest memories were the sound of Dad whistling at the horse racing on the television, I was amazed at how much noise he could generate. Years after the event he told me that he had won so much money on a bet that he had managed to pay off the mortgage early, he whispered ‘don’t tell your mother’ and I didn’t.
I had a brief but idyllic spell after leaving school of being unable to get a job, lazing around at home, no school no work was totally fantastic but I had heard the rumblings of discontent from both my parents. Apparently Dad had told mum that I could work with him in the betting shop, the one in Soho no less, now if I had known that I would have invented a job and waited for him at the top of the road, Soho had a magical allure for a teenage me. Inevitably, despite her desire to get me working she refused to allow me to work in a betting shop I suspect she thought it would corrupt me but at 17 I wholeheartedly wanted to be corrupted.
I went on to dislike gambling preferring to keep a firm grip on my hard earned money. I have though had a couple of lapses in my time, many years ago whilst working as a London Cabby I picked up a lucky gambler in the west end. He excitedly told me that he had won big that night and as I steered the cab through the dark streets towards Charing Cross Station he replayed every turn of the card and every winning hand until eventually I pulled on to the cobbled forecourt at the front of the station. Still in the cab he asked me if I had had a good night and of course I replied that I had only just started and only had my float cash on me, just in case. He climbed out and came to the nearside window, he held out a leather bag, very similar to the one I used to hold my notes in. He said ‘do you fancy a gamble?’ Well I always want to win but the thought of losing made me feel sick. ‘What kind of gamble?’ I replied. ‘Flick a coin and call heads or tails in the air’ he replied ‘if you win you keep my winnings and if you lose I keep what’s in your money bag’. I looked at the bag then at him and then back to the bag, ‘ok’ I mumbled, I reached into my bag and pulled out a coin. ‘Let me see it’ he said and so I handed the pound coin over, he examined it this way and that before handing it back, ‘go for it’ he said.
Safe to say I drove home empty handed, the lucky gambler had cleaned me out. My dad used to say to me ‘quit while you’re ahead’ and I used to reply ‘how do you know when you’re ahead?’ He would just smile and say ‘you’ve got a lot to learn’. I still have
Mardy Bum. Arctic Monkeys
“Now then Mardy Bum, I see your frown, and it’s like looking down the barrel of a gun”
In nineties London marches and road closures seemed to be less frequent and so avoiding them was much easier than it is today. Even so, when you’ve got passengers in the back it’s difficult to avoid a Gay Pride march which is about a mile long and is steadily snaking its way through central London. There was no twitter and no google traffic info to make life easier, you had to rely on your instincts and the occasional gamble.
You may have guessed by now where this is going, if my memory is correct I was traveling along Bayswater Road heading towards Marble Arch when the traffic began to slow down dramatically, I could feel the tension in the back rising as we edged very slowly forward. Eventually we reached Marble Arch and it became obvious that a highly exuberant Gay Pride march was making its way across the junction towards Park Lane and it wasn’t stopping for anyone or anything. The drivers in front and either side of me had taken advantage of a small gap in the proceedings leaving me at the head of the queue and straining at the leash to get through. I glanced to my left, there were thousands of brightly dressed men and women tightly packed in but I thought I noticed a slight chink in the armour, a small gap had opened up and I was desperate to exploit it. The tension in the back was rising steadily, I could hear the low grumbling noises and the foot stamping but the small gap was getting nearer and nearer until eventually with the engine revving I released the handbrake and thundered forward. I’d committed myself I had to make that gap but as I got closer to getting through a Margret Thatcher lookalike threw himself in front of my cab bringing me to a grinding halt, he was wearing high heels, fishnet stockings, lacy knickers, a corset and a big blonde wig, he stood in front of the cab, hand on hip and pointing his finger at me. He gave me the kind of look that the Arctic Monkeys so eloquently described in the opening lines of ‘Mardy Bum’.
I wanted to get out and take the tube home, the embarrassment was overwhelming as dozens and dozens of marchers whistled, laughed and waved at me. I daren’t look in the back I just had to wait out in the middle of the junction whilst kisses were blown at me from all angles.
Eventually I made it through and dropped the passengers off, all of us grateful the journey was over.
The first cab I owned was an FX4, it was dark green and I had been warned by everyone that it was going to be an unlucky cab. No one knew quite why but London cabbies are not short of an opinion or two. It smelt of fresh polish and that black paint garages used to apply to everything they could find underneath the body. It had a very basic turny knob radio under the top light and above my head, the speaker was in a plastic housing underneath the radio. There were no pre-set stations and so when I wanted to listen to something else I had to I had to turn the dial until I heard something familiar. My favourite programme was a late night agony aunt phone in show hosted by Anna Raeburn and a resident doctor, she didn’t mess about with niceties she got straight to the point with an abrupt approach towards her phone in guests, it was great night time radio. However, the reception in the City was appalling, the signal used to come and go randomly as I turned corners and crossed bridges. One night I was listening to a particularly graphic problem that an unfortunate listener had phoned in about, I can remember being very frustrated that I couldn’t hear properly, I had my fingers on the dial twiddling away try to improve the reception when two elderly ladies climbed in the back near the Bank Junction. They were happily chatting away in the back and my mind returned to that interesting problem that Anna was dealing with, I turned up the volume slowly and carefully and angled my head so that my left ear was as close to the speaker as possible without it being overheard in the back. The reception was awful but I could roughly follow what the poor man’s problem was. It seemed he had got his girlfriend pregnant before he had dumped her for another girl, she and her family had confronted him and now his life seemed to depend upon Anna’s advice. Well this was exactly what she loved, she tore into this man with gusto and was telling him exactly what she thought of him when the reception died. I was beside myself, I twiddled that dial and fiddled with the volume all the time keeping one eye on the ladies in the back to ensure they couldn’t hear. Well, driving in London requires full attention and so I had to abandon the radio as I approached a major junction and of course that was the exact moment that the signal suddenly improved and Anna’s voice boomed out into the cab and before I could get to the dial she had said ‘it’s your fault she’s pregnant you should have kept your penis in your pants’. The ‘penis’ word hung in the atmosphere like an elephant in the room, I sheepishly peeped at the rear view mirror I saw them both staring, open mouthed at the radio, I began to mumble my apologies and tried to explain the reception difficulties but they were definitely not amused and were not buying my apology either. I decided the best thing was to stop talking and to get them to their destination without any further embarrassment. I watched them clip clop off, their faces stiff with outrage at the awful language they’d heard in the back of my cab, as they turned the corner and disappeared from view I switched the radio back on and turned the volume up.
Can’t please them all can you.