Authors: John Healy
Back to Royal Hospital Road. On my right hand side is the Chelsea Physic Garden, known locally as the Secret Garden. It was founded in 1673, for the purpose of training apprentices in identifying plants. Here apothecaries grew all sorts of herbs to try and cure all manner of ailments. I was told they even grew the first strain of cotton for the American southern states. The garden claims to be to be London's oldest botanical garden and is well worth a visit.
Further down the same road we pass Tite Street, home to the famous Irish writer and flamboyant dresser Oscar Wilde. Born in Dublin in 1854 and christened Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde, he attended Trinity College but was pilloried for being a homosexual, something that would never happen in modern times.
A blue plaque on the Tite Street house commemorates Oscar Wilde's life as author of classics such as
The Importance of Being Earnest
Lady Windermere's Fan
. In 1895 he was imprisoned for having a homosexual affair with a teenage boy â the whole thing was a great scandal in Victorian times â and after a devastating trial, was sentenced to two years' hard labour in Reading prison. He wrote about the experience in
The Ballad of Reading Gaol
. When he was released, the playwright was bankrupt and had lost everything: his wife, his children, his house, the plays, poems and most of the literature that he had written, which had been auctioned off cheaply. Oscar Wilde fled to France and soon after, in 1900, died penniless and was buried in PÃ¨re Lachaise cemetery, Paris. A few graves along is the resting place of Jim Morrison, American singer/songwriter with The Doors. The band
had an unbelievable cult following, and pilgrimages to Morrison's tomb are a regular occurrence. Amazing how famous people still get together, even in death.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol
has well over 100 verses. That is the work of a genius.
A little further along Royal Hospital Road, we find the Army Museum, which contains the skeleton of Napoleon's horse. He must have run out of hay. There is lots of interesting Army memorabilia to be seen at this small museum and it is definitely worth a visit.
Moving along we come across the Royal Hospital Chelsea, founded by King Charles II in 1682 to look after wounded, homeless and retired old soldiers from all the wars as far back as the late 1600s. King Charles II's father, King Charles I, was beheaded by the Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell and his mob of Roundheads. I like to joke that the first Charles was not a very tall man but when they took his head off he suddenly became even less tall, although I don't think they stood him up to see just how tall he was after decapitation. It's very sad to do that to any human being; after all, he was only doing his job of being King.
I'm told that a few years after Cromwell's death, Loyalists removed the remains from his tomb and mutilated the body. They chopped off his head and displayed it in a public place in order to be mocked.
But enough of the gory stuff. Back we go to the Royal Hospital, a beautiful old building built by Christopher Wren. Today you can observe the retired old soldiers walking around Chelsea in their bright crimson tunics sporting highly polished medals. They are known as the Chelsea Pensioners and display a great sense of pride. It is here in the Royal Hospital grounds the famous Chelsea Flower Show is held every year.
Opposite the Royal Hospital and through Burton's Court we find St Leonard's Terrace. A house with a blue plaque states âThe author of Dracula lived here'. He was an Irish writer called Bram Stoker who got his inspiration from the ruins of a very large medieval abbey in Whitby, North Yorkshire. This abbey was started in 657
, and was wrecked by King Henry VIII in 1538. It's
an extremely eerie place to be, especially if a mist rolls in from the sea to completely enshroud the skeletal remains of what was once a beautiful building. There are 199 steps to climb to get to this foreboding structure. During World War I a couple of German cruisers took a few pot shots at the remains of this old abbey, bringing down at least two of the flimsy towers.
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Back in London, we are now on the King's Road, heading towards Sloane Square, where we find Royal Avenue. This is the address author Ian Fleming used for James Bond's London flat in his famous spy books.
Here in the King's Road, a very attractive fashion designer called Mary Quant created the mini skirt and hot pants. This world-famous road saw the comings and goings of punks and hippies, and was the âplace to be' in the sixties and seventies. The Stones, the Beatles, Bowie; they were all here and left their mark.
I've seen shops in the King's Road with the strangest names, such as a shoe shop called R. Soles and a Chinese restaurant called Ho Lee Fook. That reminds me, in north London there is a taxidermist shop called âGet Stuffed'. These are names that one does not easily forget, and that's called good advertising.
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Many a time as I drove my cab along the King's Road, I would observe a man sitting at a table outside a certain restaurant, who, in my opinion, was one of the greatest footballers in the world. He always had a bottle of wine and a full glass on his table, which he would regularly raise to passers-by. Yes, it was the famous George Best. I picked him up one day and took him from one pub to another. I suppose that by doing that I must have played a tiny part in his downfall. George eventually had a liver transplant but even so, the demon drink won the day in the end. I have a great photo that I treasure of him smiling and looking into my cab window. I think it's quite rare because he was nearing the end of his life.
The day Mr Best was in my cab he asked me if I knew any jokes. âYes,' I said to him. âYou are from the City of Belfast where the Titanic was built. Well, that ship was not really made in Belfast as you thought. It was rumoured that it was made in the Far East, in Thailand, hence the name “
”. They just spelled it wrong.' (OK, it's a bit weak.)
Anyway, that was only a part of the joke. I went on to say that more people would have been saved if they had listened to the onboard speaker announcement. âSome people were waiting for the dancing because the ship's Tannoy had said there was a band on ship,' I told him. He did not get the joke straight away, so I said âAbandon ship!' and then he said, âOh, I get it,' and laughed.
Then he told me a joke about the two Northern Irish ducks on a tandem bicycle. The one at the back said, âQuack' and the one at the front said, âI can't go no quacker'. I had heard it before but it was nice to have it told in a proper Northern Irish accent. I did laugh.
George Best lived just off the King's Road, near Oakley Street with his lovely [second] wife, Alex, who stood by him for as long as she could. Sadly, he died in 2005. In the same street lived Cynthia Payne, more commonly known as Madam Cyn, whose house of ill repute was some way away in Streatham), and just a few doors along there is a blue plaque to one of the most famous adventurers of all, Robert Falcon Scott of the Antarctic.
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Close by, and spanning the River Thames, is the beautiful and ever-so-flimsy Albert Bridge, built in 1842. This bridge can take most cars but no Rolls Royce or Bentley is allowed across, due to the two-ton weight limit. The Roller and the Bentley each weigh two-and-a-half tons. It must really annoy the owners of these expensive, high-status cars that they cannot legally follow an old banger over the bridge. A black cab is just on the twoton limit but with four or five large passengers on board it is over, although the boys in blue tend to turn a blind eye.
Some years ago the cab trade fell out with the police and a few cabbies felt the full force of the law. This small disagreement did not last very long as the cab trade and the police tend to work together. There are signs on the bridge requesting troops from the nearby Chelsea Barracks to break their marching step. Can you imagine those troops bringing down this bridge with pure vibration? I am sure it would take at least two or three platoons banging their big heavy boots down on the road surface to do that. The bridge still has the original toll booths, although they are no longer in use.
Back on my imagined taxi journey I have arrived in Ebury Street, where there is a house with a brown plaque commemorating one of the most famous of all composers and a favourite of mine: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Brown plaques were used exclusively for famous foreign people whereas the blue ones were for well-known British people. The story goes that a member of the Mozart family was seriously ill, so to receive the proper treatment the family came to London and rented the house in Ebury Street. It was here that the young Amadeus wrote his first symphony. Mozart was one of the greatest child prodigies that ever lived and was only 35 when the grim reaper gave him the call. He died a penniless pauper in Vienna in 1791. I wonder what great classical works he would have produced if he had been given just a few more years to live? There is a full-size statue of Mozart at one end of Ebury Street in a small triangular area dividing two roads, lovingly known as Mozart Square. It depicts him as a young boy playing a violin, in dancing mode, dressed in the correct period clothes. It is worth a visit.
They say that a certain composer in Vienna called Antonio Salieri stole or plagiarised some of Mozart's compositions. It was never proved but about twenty years ago sheet music was found in Salieri's loft, which, when played, sounded surprisingly like the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I once picked up Simon Callow and asked him was he in the film
. His reply was, âPerhaps'. Well, I have seen the movie and I know he had a good part, so there was no âperhaps' about it. How modest can one be?
Continuing our journey, we arrive at swankily expensive and affluent Eaton Square. Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees rented a house here in the late sixties. For a time, I was his private television engineer and I remember him saying he was addicted to his television and could not be without it at any time. That meant he paid me well to be on the phone when he needed me. He was such a handsome devil that I was quite jealous of his looks and his money.
One evening at about nine p.m. the phone rang and my first wife picked up the receiver. After a short time she slammed down the phone, so I asked who the caller was. She said it was some crank caller pretending to be Barry Gibb. Was she surprised when I told her that it really was him! I had forgotten to tell her I was working for him. Luckily he rang back and got a big apology. Then off I went into the night to repair the superstar's television set. He was one of the nicest high profile people I have ever met.
The late Kenny Everett used the Bee Gees' hit song âMassachusetts' on his crazy funny show. With forty or fifty sets of false teeth on a table, Everett sang âMass of Chew Sets' to the same air as the original tune, which was hilarious. I went to Kenny Everett's house once â it was in the Holland Park area. The comedian was sitting on top of a very large colour television set with his usual mad look. âI expect it's full of gremlins,' he said, and, you know, I really think he meant it. Unfortunately, Kenny Everett died in 1995 at the age of 50. How sad is that.
The day, the month, the year will never be forgotten. 9/11, 2001. Nothing was ever achieved by that crazy act. We must never forget the thousands of innocent people that were killed and all those loved ones that were left behind to mourn their passing.
That day I knew a Eurostar train was due to arrive from Paris, so I swung my cab into Waterloo Station and joined the other waiting taxis, hoping to get away quickly with a decent fare. It would be my first that day, and my last, because of what was about to happen. This was one day I will never forget.
I drove my cab along the ever-increasing queue of punters, some tired from their journey, some excited and coming home to loved ones, until it was my turn. There they were, four extremely attractive, teenage American girls. They wanted to hear a Cockney accent but were not too disappointed when all I could provide was an Irish brogue. We laughed and joked in the usual way. They told me they were all from New York â from, of all places, Manhattan. They said they had spent some time touring around Europe and London was their last city to visit. The next day they would all fly home from Heathrow. They were very exited about grabbing a tour bus in order to see London, âthe greatest city in the world'.
These lovely New Yorkers were all much larger than me so I did not get in their way as they loaded their own luggage into the baggage compartment. I might have been squashed in the process.
âWhere to, ladies?' I enquired. They told me they wanted the Lancaster Hotel in Bayswater, so off we went, manoeuvring with
ease around Hyde Park Corner, up Park Lane, around Marble Arch and into Bayswater Road.
It was then that I turned on the radio. I heard the announcer say these two words, âNew York', followed by the word âManhattan'. (As I remember this, a tear has fallen on my keyboard and I've had to take a break to dry my eyes so I can continue with this sad tale.)
One of the American girls asked me to turn up the volume and we heard the newsreader say that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers in Manhattan. He said six people had been killed. (How wrong was that man.) He then went on to say in a broken and shaky voice that another plane had crashed into the second tower, and that both buildings were beginning to collapse.
The American girls were weeping and screaming in the back. Tragically, they all had relatives working in the Twin Towers on that fateful day. We were only a few minutes away from the hotel, so I put my foot down to get them to their destination as quickly as possible. The situation was getting out of hand and I couldn't handle it. When we arrived at the Lancaster I ran into the foyer and alerted the head porter, who then emerged with the concierge and another porter. The girls were now guests of the Lancaster Hotel and it was up to the staff to look after them.
I did not take a fare from these distressed girls, it would have been inappropriate. I never saw any of them again but they pop into my mind quite regularly. I hope they all recovered from their awful ordeal in London. As for me, I drove my cab straight home to get over my traumatic day.