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.