The rain was dribbling in through the broken seal on my windscreen, it trickled steadily down the inside of the glass forming a pool below, the wind was howling outside and trying its best to reduce the already low temperature inside my cab. I squinted into the inky dark night as we rattled through the cobbled backstreets of 1990s London. The headlamps could barely manage a weak glow, shining a little dancing yellow light into the rain. Once again I wiped the inside of the windscreen with my rag, it didn’t help. I decided to go home.
I began to turn the cab around but just as I did I heard a nasty bang. I thought I’d hit something I jumped out but there was nothing there just the empty road, I lifted the bonnet and shone my torch into the engine compartment I took a step back in disbelief. The engine had moved forwards forcing the front fan through the radiator. My night was over and on the train home I decided I needed a change. The next day after the doom laden prognosis on my old cab I made my way to see a lovely looking Fairway I had spotted the week before. It was beautiful, dark blue with a slightly lighter blue vinyl roof, it had air conditioning, a comfy seat and a sliding sunroof. After the briefest of negotiations I happily shook hands, hope completely outweighing expectation.
The cab was great in every respect apart from one very important one, the front started to rust away very badly, it happened slowly but steadily. Almost every day the dark brown patches seemed to grow bigger and more obvious. I mentioned it a few times to the garage owner who’d sold me it, he seemed disinterested but would mumble something about doing it on the next overhaul, this of course would be at my expense.
One day I decided to take it into a main dealer, I asked them to take a look and tell me why the front was rusty and the back wasn’t, the examiner had a good look around all over and eventually turned to me and said the front of this cab is much older than the rear, the best case scenario is that its been in a big crash and they replaced the whole front end but they used old panels. I put my outraged hat on and drove straight to the garage and confronted the owner ‘you sold me a cut and shut’ I told him, he looked genuinely horrified and came out to have a look. As we stood side by side looking at this now rusty old cab he said ‘look it might have had a slight problem but it isn’t a Porsche is it, it doesn’t have every little accident recorded’. ‘Every little accident’ ? I replied, I couldn’t believe his attitude, ‘this cab has had a complete front end smash and to make it worse you fitted old panels to it’. He fixed me with his beady little eyes and looked around to check he couldn’t be overheard. He almost whispered ‘look this is the way it works, if you can wait until I find someone who needs a new rear end we’ll have a little accident right here and I’ll replace the panels with new ones’.
Needless to say he ended up keeping the cab and tearing up the hire purchase agreement, I called the finance company a couple of days later just to check it had been settled….
Now then Mardy Bum, I see your frown and it’s like looking down the barrel of a gun
In the nineties 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 look that the Arctic Monkeys so eloquently described in the opening lines of ‘Mardy Bum’. (Above).
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.
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
It all started in 1986, Simon and I had gone to school together and had remained friends ever since, he worked in his uncles fish factory in Essex and the whole family were suitable well off. For years I had associated that pink fish with money and so when the phone rang and Simon announced that he had signed up for the ‘knowledge’ and did I want to join him I didn’t hesitate. Before Google we all made calculated guesses and I decided to believe Simons assertion that it would be a doddle.Well it wasn’t but more of that later.
Looking back I felt quite lighthearted as I closed my front door and made my way over to the mini van we had decided to start in just in case we got cold and wet. I climbed inside and the salmon smell hit me, I grinned, Simon switched on the radio and off we went. I held the map and the blue book runs Simon had photocopied for me and he did the driving. We made numerous stops for tea, coffee and sandwiches, in fact those journeys felt more like a day out at the seaside than a serious attempt to start the knowledge. However, it soon became compulsive, I took the sheets everywhere, even the toilet and would bore anyone anyone who would listen to my parrot like repetition of the runs. The blue book, which is actually pink, consists of 26 pages and each page has 18 runs printed very neatly. The first run in the book is Manor House Station to Gibson Square. The aim is to learn all the runs both ways and the points of interest around them. Impossible ?
I wondered about the impossibility of the knowledge many times during my self imposed sentence. I tried to console myself with the fact that there were many thousands of cabbies in London to prove it wasn’t. We quickly graduated from the van to mopeds, I bought mine from Southend and rather than take the treacherous journey back to the east end on the A13 I took the train or, to be precise I stood in the guards compartment with my new moped, contemplating life on two wheels on the streets of London. I was in a much more serious mood when we arrived at Liverpool Street Station and I wobbled off towards Bethnal Green to compose myself for the next mornings start.
The moped proved to be far better than the van in terms economy and vision but being on two wheels during that winter was a scary experience, I slipped and slid a few times and being caught in a snow blizzard in Hampstead made me question the sanity of being on two skinny wheels in the dark miles from home.
Simon was joined by Mark another friend and the three of us would meet up every couple of days to obsess and argue about details like whether you could turn right into College Place from Plender Street or not, you can’t btw. We agonised over straight lines across London and consoled each other over appearances that had gone wrong. I lived in a Peabody trust flat in Bethnal Green in the east end, it was on the top floor and had a balcony facing Horatio Street. As Nelson proudly surveyed London from his lofty perch I took this as a sign that I would indeed the conquer London and get my hands on a pretty green badge and a black cab.
Soho was a unique little place, a village really, set in the centre of the west end of London. Its vibrancy was captivating of course I and my friend Simon had been visiting the place for a long time. To a couple of Essex boys in their late teens it was magnetic, dragging us on to a chugging tube from Hornchurch Station to Leicester Square. shuffled through the stinking streets occasionally accosted by a prostitute both male and female and more often a pimp trying to Fagin like pick our pockets for what turned out to be hollow experiences in seedy little clubs. I didn’t go looking for a job there, it found me but I must admit I was quite happy that it had.
The much too young me was up every morning, usually late and rushing to the tube to get to the west end of London as early as possible. The smell of dusty electrically charged wind billowed through the tunnel bursting violently on to the platform and the eyes and ears of the waiting passengers assaulting their senses and preparing them for the fouler air they were soon to zombie walk into on the way to their offices and shops.
Work was a studio a few feet from David Bowies telephone box that featured on Ziggy Stardust, we had borrowed some space from a model agency that I later discovered specialised in the kind of models my mum wouldn’t have approved of. Steve the photographer was a drunken middle aged pornographer who had managed to carve a small niche out for himself in the sex trade and was flourishing, I was like a dog with two tails. 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 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, 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. Well if you watch a kettle it’ll never boil and anyway my mind was wandering, the front door beeped constantly and with the stream of exotic women I found it hard to concentrate on work.