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 based mainly on something very unscientific called ‘gut instinct’ and I of course decided to believe Simons assertion that it would be a doddle. Well my gut and Simon were wrong, 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 minivan 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 by the way. We agonised over straight lines across London and consoled each other over appearances that had gone wrong. I lived in a very Victorian 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.
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