On the Meter

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Down and Out in London

This is Tom and Francis with their dog, Milo.



I met them and stopped for nice chat recently on Denman Street; a location just off of Shaftesbury Avenue, behind the flashing altar to advertising that is Piccadilly Circus.

Tom and Francis are both Scottish, but have been in London for over twenty years. They’re both ‘Big Issue’ vendors, and have formed a solid friendship with each other on the streets of the capital.

When I met them, they were waiting outside a noodle bar, the owner being kind enough to give the pair a piping-hot noodle-fix every day for a knock-down price. If you look carefully, Tom (on the left) has his own chopsticks, which he produced from his jacket. Francis on the other hand hasn’t mastered the art of Far-Eastern cutlery (I know how he feels), and prefers to dig out his snack with a fork. As he said, in his broad Glaswegian accent;

“Och! It all goes in and doon’ the same way!”

Tom and Francis were exceptionally friendly, and I wish some of the stressed passengers I have in my taxi every now and then were able to adopt the same, laid-back attitude!

*

Cabbing around London, one of the saddest things I see on a daily basis are the large numbers of homeless people.

London is a city of immense wealth. Even in these thrifty times, it is possible to see people out enjoying themselves. West-End restaurants and bars are often heaving, large crowds pour out of glittering theatres every night, and towering office blocks continue to sprout up in the financial districts.

Amongst this however, there are still people sleeping rough.

Walk through any major area in London, and you’ll see examples of destitution; homeless people either begging or sleeping; huddled up in filthy, foul-smelling doorways with nothing more than a grubby sleeping bag or a few sheets of flimsy cardboard to keep themselves warm.

Sadly, the psychology of the human mind tends to make homeless individuals invisible. 

Embarrassment, awkwardness, shame and, unfortunately with some people, disgust, leads passers-by to avert their gaze and walk on as quickly as possible. This is something I’ve been guilty of myself on many occasions.



Sometime ago, I remember seeing a beggar walk past a pub on Villiers Street; a crowded thoroughfare tucked alongside Charing Cross Station.

Being summertime, most of the drinking was being conducted outside, the boozers taking advantage of the warm evening air.

The beggar approached the crowd asking for change and, to a small degree, was successful in procuring a few coins.

However, one of the pub’s patrons decided a violent lecture was in order.

“You make me f***ing SICK. Why don’t you get a f***ing job, you low-life piece of ****.”

The mouthpiece who barked out this tirade was a huge bloke; over six foot tall with a massive gut and powerful arms. A typical bully, with an attitude so stereotypical, it was almost laughable.

As demonstrated above, when not being ignored, the homeless can be subjected to great hostility. Over the years, it has not been unbeknown for rough sleepers to be physically attacked and, in some cases, even murdered.

In 1999, the pop-group ‘Madness’ released a single entitled ‘Johnny the Horse.’ The song told the life-story of a tramp (known by his friends as Johnny the Horse) who was tragically beaten and killed.  As the lyric goes;


“Johnny the horse was kicked to death,
  He died for entertainment.”

*

On a happier note, a few years ago, whilst learning ‘The Knowledge’ and studying the streets of London, I saw an extremely heart-warming sight.

It was a cold evening, a few days before Christmas, and I’d stopped at red lights on Oxford Street, just before Marble Arch. Being the festive season, Oxford Street was buzzing, packed with late-night shoppers. Shop displays glowed invitingly and, overhead, the traditional Christmas lights sparkled away their electric magic.

My attention was soon drawn though to a taxi, which had pulled up on the opposite side of the road (on double red-lines no less- an action which would lead to the driver being fined if he lurked there for too long).

Out of this cab climbed a short, stout cabbie who looked to be in his mid-late 60s. In his hand, he clutched a supermarket carrier bag.

Halfway between a walk and a run, he dodged across Oxford Street towards a souvenir shop. There, in the doorway, sat a West-Indian man; a down-and-out, with long, natty dreads. He was wrapped in a well-worn, grey coat, the window behind displaying cheap trinkets; plastic flags, tacky ashtrays and little Big Ben statues.

The cabbie approached the homeless fellow and knelt down beside him. The two appeared to be about the same age and were clearly familiar with each other. As he crouched on the tiled floor, the cabbie quickly took items out of the bag, showing them to his transient friend. The goods were all food-stuffs; packets of biscuits, crisps, tins of soft drink and so on.

The traffic light then turned green, and I had to drive off. I’ve never forgotten that scene though, and I often find myself wondering what story and history lay behind that bond.

*

One down and out I do know a bit more about is Clefrin Frederick, also known as ‘Mad Fred’ or ‘Fred the Tramp.’

I grew up in South Harrow in the 1980s and, at that time, Fred the Tramp was a well-known, local figure.

Originally from the island of Grenada, Fred had swapped the Caribbean’s lush beauty for the grey suburbs of North-West London.

To a child, Fred the Tramp could be a terrifying figure. His sported a huge, bristling beard (which would have given any cut-throat pirate a run for their money), and always wore rustling supermarket bags on his feet, often in varying states of decay.  

Opposite the tube station, there was a small communal area, constructed from worn stones and containing wooden benches and a collection of bushes. Fred had commandeered this as his pitch, and he would hold court there, hoarding rubbish, knocking back Special Brew (he was a chronic alcoholic), talking to himself and shouting every now and then at passers-by. His makeshift home was also opposite the area’s toughest pub; ‘The Constellation’ (aka ‘The Con’), where Fred no doubt managed to scrounge the odd pint.

Although we lived in a flat and had no garden, the Council provided my parents with a pitch on the nearby allotments. Fred could often be seen here too, loitering amongst the long, muddy strips. He even introduced a dartboard to the allotments; attaching it to the Council’s fading blue rules and notices sign.

At other times, I’d peer through the living-room’s net curtains, and see Fred tramping across the estate’s car-park in his improvised footwear, muttering away to himself.

Although ‘Mad Fred’ initially appeared an intimidating character, he was in fact rather popular amongst those adults who took the time to chat and get to know him.

He was also something of a philosopher, and would leave shabby, improvised signs lying around for all to see- rather like an early prelude to Banksy. Amongst his written wisdom was this gem, which I assume was a reference to the then current Cold War.


“All good things must come to an end, but there’s no use pushing the wrong button in this computer.”


My father often spoke to Mad Fred. He first came to know him when his van once broke down. Fred approached my Dad and, after a look under the vehicle’s bonnet, he located the problem and soon had the van running again.

It turned out that Fred was a gifted mechanic.

Before turning to the streets, he’d been employed by the London Fire Brigade, working as a mechanic on their fire engines.

Fred also had a wife and children, but sadly this relationship was destroyed. Laden with heart-ache, he’d turned to the streets and alcohol, gradually morphing into the shambling, bearded figure whom the public came to regard as the crazed tramp of Northolt Road.

Luckily, Frederick’s story has a happy ending; one which is quite unbelievable, and a classic example of ‘you couldn’t script it.’

In the mid-1970s, Fred had owned a house, which was repossessed by the building society. They sold the house ten years later, for a tidy profit. However, they refused to hand over Fred’s share, claiming that he was “incapable of handling his own affairs.”

Whilst he was living rough, Fred was in fact owed some £50,000.

He would often approach the building society but, with bags on his feet and an alcoholic haze surrounding him, he would be sent right out.

Fred finally managed to secure his cash in the early 1990s, with the help of a kindly local shop keeper, who contacted his solicitors and spent seven months fighting his corner. The building society finally handed over £50,000 plus £6,000 in interest.

But the story does not end there.

Suited and cleaned up, Mad Fred was now able to afford a trip back to his native Grenada.

It was there that he discovered his father, who had passed away whilst Fred was living rough 1,000s of miles away, had left his son a home and a large plot of land.

After years of heartache, alcoholism and hard-living, Fred had gained his very own slice of paradise.


*


I don’t know what the solution is for London’s homeless population. Nor am I na├»ve enough to believe that many vagrants do not carry extremely complex issues with them

However, as Mad Fred’s story demonstrates; never be judgemental.

The people we see huddled in London’s doorways, subways and stairwells are all individuals.  

Alcohol and drug abuse, depression, leaving the army and being unable to cope with civilian life, financial problems, loosing loved ones, escaping violence; these are all possible causes of homelessness, and each and every down-and-out sleeping rough in London tonight will have their own separate tale to tell.



Thanks to the Harrow Observer; 2/12/1993 for the details of Frederick's case.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Remembering my first day as a London Cabbie

I’d finally been awarded the coveted green badge; the small, oval-shaped, metal brooch which allowed me to go out onto London’s streets and ply for hire.

Of course, in order to kick-start my new career, I also needed a taxi.

For over four years, I’d fantasised about driving the iconic London Black Cab, and now, like so many drivers before me, it was time to go out and secure one.

There are two types of London Cabbie. In slang terms, they are known as:

1) ‘Mushers’- those who own their taxi outright.

&

2) ‘Journeymen’- cabbies who rent their vehicle from a taxi fleet.


Black Cabs do not come cheap (the latest models start at around £30,000) and, when you first begin your career, it is recommended that you rent for some time whilst you get a feel for the job.

So I was about to become a Journeyman.

When renting, although you don’t own the vehicle in which you work, the cash you pay provides an umbrella of sorts; covering the tax, insurance, breakdown cover and any repairs which may be required, so it's a pretty good deal.

A friend of a friend had recommended a taxi rental garage to me and, after getting in contact, a cab was arranged for me. The day after receiving my badge, I made my way to the depot in the early afternoon.

It seems to be a prerequisite that any garage dealing with vehicles should be located in an arch below a railway viaduct, and this one was no exception. 

Although about 30 minutes away from where I currently live, the taxi depot was a stones-throw from the council flat in which I grew up in, and it was a therefore a warm feeling to return to a familiar area; a place which meant something to me, as I sought to begin my new career.

Being December, it was chilly and the last few days had seen unusually heavy snowfalls. For a while I'd feared that the snow and ice would prevent me from picking up the cab and going to work. Luckily, when the day arrived, the snow had mostly thawed to a grey mush, and driving didn’t prove too much of a problem.

Trudging up along the narrow strip which ran alongside the railway arches, dirty grey ice piled on each side, I spotted the taxi reserved for me parked up ahead, tucked up tight against a wire fence, through which weeds grew, despite the bitter weather and criss-crossed metal links.

The taxi was a ‘Fairway’; a model originally known as the Austin FX4; the classic, iconic design which was in production for an amazing length of time; 1958 to 1997. 

I’d longed to drive one of these dear old vehicles for years, and now my chance was close at hand.

The garage unit was cluttered with all manner of cabs in varying states of disorder and repair. These vehicles were lined up in a tight zigzag line alongside the railway arches and a few more sat inside; one hoisted up on a sturdy, well-used lift, its radiator absent. The garage echoed to the tinny tones of a crackling radio, tuned into an AM station which blared out golden oldies from the 60s, 70s and 80s.

I entered the garage, not quite sure if I was allowed to or not (health and safety and all that). It appeared that the floor had once been painted red, but it was now flaking, caked in sticky muck and grease. The atmosphere reeked of stale engine oil, as most garages do.

I finally found the proprietor upstairs (upstairs being a balcony, accessed by a steep, metal staircase). He was a short, squat man- not unlike an unshaven Danny DeVito (who, by coincidence, starred in the US comedy drama; 'Taxi'), dressed in a grubby, blue tracksuit, his head topped off with a dark blue beanie hat.

The garage owner’s desk was heaving under paperwork, most of which seemed to be smudged with oily thumb marks. The rickety ledge upon which we perched seemed in danger of collapsing every time a Piccadilly line tube rumbled overhead, rattling the brick cavern like a bowling alley.

The proprietor removed a short cigarette butt from his lips and held his hand up in a halting gesture. The fingers and palm were congealed in accumulated grease and oil.

“I’d better not shake your hand,” he said politely.

Even indoors, the air was frigid enough to turn his breath to steam.

Eager to settle the rent, I counted out a wad of notes. They were fresh and crisp from the bank but , like the files on the desk, would probably soon end up besmirched with oily smears.

“Thank you very much.”

Picking up a set of keys and, maintaining his desire to not contaminate my person with engine muck, the garage owner dropped them into my hand from a short height.

“She’s a decent little motor,” he explained we made our way back downstairs. “Mileage’s good for her age. Only one owner- an old boy who had to give the game up, gutted to sell it. Anyway, here we are.”

The taxi’s door was already unlocked. He opened it and I climbed in.

“Sorry I didn’t have time to clean her yet. You ever driven a Fairway before?”

“No,” I replied; “did the driving test in a TX4.”

“That’s alright; she's simple enough.”

The mechanic lit a fresh smoke and leant in, flicking various switches and levers, the cigarette forcing him to talk out of the side of his mouth.

“Lights, full beam, indicators… hazards… heater. Wipers.”

His demonstration was rapid; too fast to follow. Sooty wisps streamed out of his nostrils as he tapped on the meter and ran through its functions. Again it was impossible to keep up. 

I guessed I’d have to work it out as I went along.

“This is a lucky cab, you know,” he concluded, more smoke billowing from his reddened nose. “You do get ‘em. And this is one of ‘em.”

I didn’t know why he was giving me the hard-sell; I’d already handed over the money!

“You want some advice?” he continued.

“Go easy on the hours. I’ve seen it happen before; especially when they first begin. They work all the hours God sends… and end up burning themselves out before long.  Thing to remember is- treat it as the best part-time job in the world!”…


*

It felt wonderful to finally sit behind the wheel of a working cab.

It took a short while to find the ignition point- unusually, it was located in the middle of the steering coloumn- and, upon turning the key, the powerful diesel engine roared into life. 

After a few revs, it settled down to a steady, rocking, ticking grumble; the sound so characteristic of a London Cab.

The taxi was getting on in age a bit- it was 18 years old. When it rolled off of the production line at Coventry, I was still in secondary school. 

Here's my first cab in all her glory:







After engaging the automatic gear and releasing the handbrake, I edged away from the garage, concentrating with all my might. It was a narrow area to drive through and, not used to the vehicle’s more ample dimensions, I was rather concerned that I'd chip one of the looming railway arches.

However, once on the main, much broader road, I managed to gain a little more confidence, and was soon chugging along feeling rather proud. Being larger than a normal car, the driver’s seat in a taxi is raised higher than usual, providing an excellent view of the road (after driving a cab, sitting behind the controls of a family car feels rather like squatting in a go-kart!)

Soon after departing the garage, my route required a climb up a steep hill, something which the old Fairway rather struggled with! I was quite thankful when the cab reached the summit and its engine settled back down.

My old primary school happens to be situated on this arduous hill and it was a rather strange feeling to drive past, remembering my first day there whilst considering the first day of my new pursuit in life.

Although eager to work, I’d decided to take the vehicle home first; wanting time to get it all in order, and to make sure I was comfortable driving it before I undertook the terrifying task of picking up my first fare.

The cab had been sadly neglected during its time stored at the garage. The interior smelt musky, the carpet and seats were dusty, and the outer body was pretty filthy. Once back home, my father helped me to scrub the Fairway up. He is somewhat obsessive when it comes to car cleaning- he used to clean cars for money as a teenager, and one of his customers was the late, great, boxer, Henry Cooper! (Our ‘Enery drove a white, Ford Granada at the time in case you were wondering).

Needless to say, my Dad did a fantastic job and, before long, the old taxi was gleaming, in prime, show-room condition.

The following day was to be my first as a working London Taxi Driver.

And it was a date special for other reasons too-

It was 24th December.

Christmas Eve.


*


I awoke extremely anxious that morning. 

My first unofficial job was to drive my girlfriend to Euston Station; she’s Scottish, and was travelling back to spend the festive season with her family. Along the way, she helped to keep me calm with kind words of support and encouragement. 

In the dingy, fume-reeking drop off point located deep below the station building, we embraced and I was given a good luck kiss. As my girlfriend disappeared up the stairs and onto the Euston’s concourse, I climbed back into the cab, slamming the heavy door behind me with the distinctive clunk of a taxi door.

I was now on my own.

With a deep breath, I edged the cab up the sloping ramp leading back out into daylight and the main road.

Seconds later, after crossing Euston Road, I was rapidly consumed by nerves. I snapped the left-hand indicator on and pulled over onto one of Bloomsbury’s many picturesque squares. The butterflies taking flight in my guts were worse than ones experienced before the many appearances which I’d undergone whilst studying the Knowledge.

It was now all very real- what if I picked a fare up and I didn’t know where their destination was? What if I forgot the way? What if I failed to remember the direction of one-way streets? I’d done the training, but was terrified about putting it to use!

Thankfully, I still had some ‘Rescue Remedy’ left over from my final appearance exam.

I took the small, yellow canister out of my coat pocket, shook it, and sprayed a good blast of the calming liquid onto my dry tongue. It seemed to do the trick (the brandy-like flavour surely helping), and I pulled away from the kerb.

I didn’t yet turn on the ‘For Hire’ sign though. I decided to carry out that task somewhere symbolic.

And so I headed for Trafalgar Square; the centre of London.

Arriving at the infamous landmark sooner than I’d hoped, I knew that the time had to take the leap. Breathing deeply in and out, I pushed a small rubber button on the meter. The narrow digital readout strip warmed up and, seconds later, little illuminated red words bore the phrase “For Hire.” Outside the cab, just above the windscreen, the yellow Taxi light was now on.

I was live.

Yet nothing happened.

Nobody suddenly shouted, “Taxi!” No arms stuck out into the road.

I drove around Trafalgar Square and through Admiralty Arch; the fine monument which leads to the Mall; the red-tarmac road heading straight towards Buckingham Palace.

I wasn’t thinking straight and, being around 11.30am, this trajectory led me straight into the Changing of the Guard;  the extravagant- yet regular- ceremony, in which the Queen’s Royal  guard essentially clock in and out for duty. 

The roads were jammed with traffic and camera-clicking tourists, as the Queen’s red-coated Royal protectors marched towards the palace, their brass instruments providing a soundtrack to the marvellous spectacle.

Although crawling through this ceremonial jam, I didn’t mind at all. It sent a shiver down my spine, as I realised I’d now become a part of London; one of the established icons which makes the city such a famous and world-renowned place.

The traffic eventually cleared away and, seeing the area as something of a comfort zone, I drove around the Palace, up Whitehall and back towards Trafalgar Square.

Still nothing. 

I craned my neck up and checked the hire light was actually on.

It was.

I returned to the Mall… and it was there that the first hand went out.

Panic seized me but, somehow I managed to pull over safely (as I’d been taught and tested on my taxi-driving lessons of course).

The group who’d flagged me down were a family of tourists from South Africa. Before entering the cab, they stood next to it, posing for photos; something which made my heart swell with pride.

*

Now, in the London Taxi trade, there is an ancient tradition regarding your first day of work. 

And that is you MUST give your first ever fare away for free. To accept payment for your first fare is considered to be most unlucky.

My first job was actually the shortest I’ve ever had to do! 

I picked the tourists up on the Mall, beside a building known as the ICA Gallery, and they wanted to go to Trafalgar Square; a distance of about 900ft! I told them that it wasn’t very far at all and it would be cheaper to walk, but they replied that they knew, and just wanted to experience a ride in a London Black Cab!

The group were very friendly and, as I drove the short distance, I announced;

“I’ve got good news and bad news…. The bad news is that this is my first day, and you’re my first passengers; I’m not very experienced. The good news is that, being my first fare, this journey is on the house; the ride is free!”

The group were amazed that they’d hired such an inexperienced cabbie; it was a real novelty to them.

However, when I arrived at Trafalgar Square (a tricky place to stop for my first job), they insisted on paying me. The fare was around £2.60, and I begged them not to hand the coins over, insisting that it was tradition to provide the journey gratis.

However, they were adamant that I should receive something for my troubles, and proceeded to place a handful of change on the dish- £1.96 in total. Luckily, the cabbie’s tradition states that, if the first punter insists on paying, you can donate the fare to charity, so I managed to avoid plaguing my career with bad fortune!

After my first job, I decided to head towards St Paul’s. As I approached the beautiful Cathedral, an elderly cabbie passed on the opposite side, nodding his head at me and jabbing his thumb behind him. As he had passengers on board, I guessed he was indicating a potential fare he’d been unable to pick up, but I wasn’t too sure, not yet entirely being au-fait with cabbie etiquette.

Sure enough though, a few seconds later, I was flagged down by a group of elderly French people. They were on the other side of the road, so it was time to use the London Taxi’s famous turning circle. Checking the road was clear, I spun the wheel around; turning the cab with ease- no need for a strenuous three point turn.

The group climbed in, all smiles and very amiable. The elderly chap checked a directional message on his phone and, through the partition, asked rather hesitantly for… “Saint… James’s… Square?”

Still a nervous-wreck, I rejoiced at being asked such a straight-forward point.

“Certainly Sir.” I replied.

As I pulled away from the kerb and began the journey, I began to realise just how effective the Knowledge system of training was. Upon hearing the words, “St James’s Square,” something in my mind clicked, and I immediately knew which direction to head, which route to follow. My brain has been conditioned to London and her streets.

Upon arriving at the required destination, I spoke to the group in the extremely limited, very poor French that I know, somehow managing to wish them a happy Christmas. They were lovely people, and waved me off with a smile as I left.

The next fare was just around the corner; on St James’s Street- an area dense with exclusive gentlemen’s clubs (by gents clubs of course, I mean ones of the red-leather chair, brandy sipping, cigar smoking variety. Not the pole-dancing, nudie kind- they’re to be found in other parts of town!)

These passengers consisted of a father and his two, grown-up sons; a fantastic bunch, decked out in tweed suits and boater hats.

The group wanted ‘Simpsons in the Strand’; an exceptionally posh restaurant located next door to the Savoy Hotel. I panicked a little with this journey; several routes presented themselves to me, but I wasn’t sure which one would be best at avoiding traffic.

Luckily I didn’t need to worry; being Christmas Eve, many people had finished work, and the roads were rather quiet. The chaps were also tremendously civil and friendly, and we had a good chuckle along the way. 

When I dropped them off, the father gave me a nice tip and shook me warmly by the hand. 

I was sorry to see him go.

Before departing, he told me to head for the law courts a little further up; “bound to pick a fare up there!”

I acted on the advice and, sure enough, met my next fare. However, it wasn’t a judge, but a young fellow, lugging his Christmas shopping along Fleet Street. He wanted ‘Finchley Road; just past the O2 centre.”

This passenger was rather quiet and, for part of the journey, he actually nodded off! Seeing him in the mirror, head tilted back, eyes closed reminded me of the appearance I’d had when an examiner had feigned sleep...

Thankfully, by the time we neared his destination, he’d awoken from his slumber. Passing the O2 shopping centre, he said

“Just up here on the left, please.”

“Lithos Road?” I responded.

The passenger seemed rather surprised that I knew the place; a small street off of Finchley Road, and it made me extremely gratified to know that the long time I’d spent on the Knowledge had not been in vain.

*

I had a few more fares, and the final passenger that day was a young gentleman from Kuwait. 

I picked him up on Holborn, and he needed to get to a bicycle shop on High Street Kensington. As we set off, he told me that the journey may be a problem, as he’d seen police shutting off a number of roads due to an incident.

Sure enough, as we approached the junction where High Holborn meets Kingsway, a blue and white striped police cordon was in place. Once again, the Knowledge of London etched into my mind kicked in, and negotiating a new route around the blockade was no problem.

I don’t wish to sound arrogant or bombastic, but working my way around London’s pitfalls whilst other people peered over their steering wheels looking lost and bewildered made me feel immensely proud.


*


It was only my first day on the job, but I already adored it.

It was an odd feeling being my own boss and, if truth be told, it didn’t even feel like working at all. As Winston Churchill once said; “if you find something you really love, you’ll never work again.”

Turning off the ‘for hire’ sign, I switched on the cab’s ageing radio, barely capable of picking up the FM frequency. To top the day off, the crackly station I managed to tune into was in the middle of playing, “I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day”; the 1973 hit by Roy Wood and Wizard; one of the greatest, cheeriest festive hits of all time.

My new career as a London Cabbie had begun.

I’d enjoyed a wonderful day at work, and was heading home for Christmas behind the wheel of an iconic Black Taxi, smiling all the way as I realised that the trials, pain and anguish which I’d suffered on the Knowledge had truly been worth it.