My journey to becoming a London Cabby

I got a delivery job that was based on the edge of the city of London. Derek and Jimmy were two London cabbies that had bought a newsagents shop in Fleet Street as an investment, my job was to deliver bundles of newspapers to their customers using Jimmy’s old cab. The tyres were always on the edge of legality and the brakes were non existent, I raised this point with Jimmy who took great pleasure in telling a knowledge boy that cab brakes were meant to be like that, “cabs aren’t built for speed”. I saw it as an initiation into the trade and kept telling myself that as I stood on the brakes with two feet and a prayer to force the old thing to stop. Jimmy’s cab was to become my template for the future, it had a character of its own and would try to have a lie in by refusing to start in the mornings, Derek taught me a trick that coaxed it into life that involved squirting ‘easy start’ into the air intake and partially turning the key in the ignition to warm things up. It worked every time, with an explosion of black soot from the exhaust and an awful rhythmic banging sound from the engine the old girl would burst reluctantly into life. It didn’t have a radio, the windows were on a spring and so I had to push them up and down manually and the screen wash button was a plunger that produced a watery dribble at best.

It all went along well and I got off to a good start on the knowledge, getting 28 days from my first appearance. I began to enjoy whizzing around on my moped. I had my share of set backs though, like the day I bounced off a group of German tourists on London Bridge and ended up flat on my back in the middle of the road, the really cold day when I smelt burning flesh because I’d accidentally touched the exhaust pipe instead of the engine to warm my frozen hands and even hitting a pothole in Earls Court and hearing my thermos flask smash soaking all my knowledge papers. Yes biking was definitely the way forward until of course the fateful day arrived and I got ‘a drop’. In knowledge terms a drop is when an examiner, in my case the scary Mr Miller, decided that I was good enough to take a step forward and he reduced my appearances to 21 days. This meant I was as good as there, well thats what everyone was telling me. I though, had my doubts, after all it could all still go horribly wrong.

Despite my reservations I took a ‘wangle’ cab from a local cab garage in Bethnal Green. They gave me an ancient cab to practice in on the condition that I would rent a cab from them for a year when I got my badge. Well it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The old stones in Smithfield

This is an alleyway in Smithfield Meat Market London. One cold morning I had been walking around the Barbican and decided to head west in search of a cafe for lunch. As I walked past this alley an icy gust stopped me in my tracks, I always carry a camera in my bag and as I crouched down to rummage around for it I saw a movement in the corner of my eye. Something had moved across the alley from left to right, I grabbed the camera and quickly took a photo, this one above. I walked up down for ages examining the walls and the stones in search of a clue I even knocked on the door that you just see on the right but there was no answer and I found no clues. This photo was taken in 2013 and each time I see it I think about that experience and wonder what it was.

The Mardy Bum March

Now then Mardy Bum, I see your frown and it’s like looking down the barrel of a gun

(Arctic Monkeys)

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. 

Quit while you’re ahead

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