Authors: John Healy
I was driving along the Embankment once when I was hailed by a well-known millionaire, who asked me to loan him fifty pence to buy a newspaper. When we arrived at his gargantuan property he went into the house to get some cash and when he emerged he said, âThere is your fare, and there is your fifty pence, and this is fifty pence for yourself.' Well! I drove The Hack at breakneck speed to the nearest shop to purchase a lollipop with this huge tip. I would love to say who he was but it would be unfair to his family â they might find out how he was squandering the family fortune. He really was a well-respected character that everybody knows and looked up to and the temptation is killing me but I still cannot reveal his name. He might sue me for my measly few pounds and add it to his millions.
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As I continue on my imaginary tour, I have just dropped off some people at the Temple. This place has some history. Inside, there is the Temple church where you can find nine, full-size stone effigies of the Knights Templar laid out on the floor. It looks very scary.
The church was built by the Knights Templar, who were known as the Crusading Soldier Monks from the order of Saint John in the twelfth century. They were the Crusaders of God and had great influence in the Holy Land and lots of other places such as Malta. Many relics of their escapades can still be found all over the world. In this church they filmed some of the scenes for the movie
The Da Vinci Code
Nowadays, the Temple is where all the top lawyers have their Chambers. We are talking money. They make loads of cash out of terrible sadness: divorce, law suits, immigration, human rights, slander etc, and their fees are unreal. A poor labourer earns a fraction of their inflated charges. He would have to work at least a week to earn what they can make in a couple of hours. But if I was a lawyer I probably would do the same as they do.
We are now leaving the Temple and turning left into Fleet Street. This was the hub of the newspaper world. It's sad that it's all gone now. Most have moved to Wapping and the Docklands area.
At number 186 Fleet Street there was a barbershop on the corner of Bell Yard belonging to the infamous Sweeney Todd. He was credited with over fifty murders, although this number was only an estimate. Todd had a trapdoor under his special barber's chair. He would slit his customers' throats, rob them, and then pull a lever that dropped the client into the basement, where he would carve the best portions of meat from the body. Then his girlfriend, Mrs Lovett, would cook the meat into tasty pies.
This was around the year 1785. The remains of the corpses were hidden under the crypt of the nearby St Dunstan's church but the carved-up bodies started to decay, giving off a foul smell. People complained about the whiff, an investigation was carried out and Todd was apprehended. He was hanged at Tyburn and his body went for medical experiments. So, he too got carved up. However, there is no proof that Todd ever existed and some historians dispute this grisly tale, but where there is smoke, there's fire, I say.
The story of Sweeney Todd first appeared in a magazine known as a âPenny Dreadful', which was like a comic book for the working man in the 1830s. Charles Dickens wrote a weekly magazine costing one shilling but only the well-off could afford his well-cultured magazine. The âPenny Dreadful' was for the lower classes. That's all they could afford to pay, one penny. Then
came the âPenny Horrible', the âPenny Awful', the âPenny Blood' and various others.
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Driving along Fleet Street we come to Saint Clement Danes church. It is thought to have featured in the old nursery rhyme, âOranges and Lemons said the bells of St Clements', although some say that was another church in the City. Anyway, the church in Fleet Street is now called the RAF church. The first Saint Clements church was built in the ninth century, the present one was built by Christopher Wren.
We move along now to the Strand and at some time around the year 2000 I was next on point (at the front of the rank to pick up) at the Savoy Hotel cab rank. The actor Richard Harris lived in these opulent premises and he came to my cab window and asked me to drive him to a specialist wig shop just off Berkeley Square.
He was going to have his head measured for a wig, which he was to wear in a film. For some reason I got the impression that this was the film Harry Potter. I know for sure that he played the part of Professor Albus Dumbledore, head of Hogwarts Academy. During my brief meeting with this extraordinary man he told me he had given up the drink but to me he looked fairly poorly and I could not help feeling that his end was nigh. Harris died soon after my encounter with him and I think the Harry Potter film was the last movie he ever made.
Richard Harris was born in Limerick in Ireland and became a well-established Shakespearean actor who went on to star in
The Guns of Navarone
Mutiny on the Bounty
. He had so many successful films under his belt. I enquired about the song he once recorded, âMacArthur Park' and asked him what it was about. It included the words, âI left the cake out in the rain'. He said, âI haven't got a clue what that song was about, I just sang it and took the money.' He was quite chatty to me on the cab journey and this might have been because I too was born in the county of Limerick.
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The Savoy Theatre was built in 1889 by impresario Richard D'Oyly. He owned the D'Oyly Carte Company, who performed
The Pirates of Penzance
, operettas written by Gilbert and Sullivan. Some of the rich and famous who have stayed in the Savoy include Frank Sinatra, Sir Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland, President Harry S Truman, John Wayne, the famous Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, Humphrey Bogart, Elizabeth Taylor, and others too numerous to mention.
I recall the time I was hailed by a most attractive lady who wanted to go to a place near St Paul's Cathedral. She looked very familiar. As we headed along Fleet Street we got chatting. I showed her some photos of famous people I had previously picked up such as Charlton Heston, Jean Alexander who played Hilda Ogden in
, Kenneth Williams, Michael Caine and Ken Livingstone. There are really too many to mention. When we got to her destination, she said, âGo on, take my picture, I am a fairly famous singer'. I did not have my camera that day and I was so annoyed but she just smiled and refused to tell me her name. I'm convinced now that she was Elaine Paige â and I never forgot my camera again.
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There is a fairly large statue of Queen Anne (1665â1714) outside St Paul's Cathedral. The statue is life-size, carved in marble and surrounded by circular railings. Queen Anne had seventeen children and not one of them ever lived beyond the age of twelve. How sad is that, even for a queen.
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There was a time in the late eighties when I had to take a colleague out with me on a television job to repair a colour television for a high-class prostitute in Orange Street, Soho. We rang the bell, which was answered by the maid, who took us into the kitchen and explained that her boss was with a very high profile Government minister in the bedroom. He was
having his wicked way and would we mind waiting for a little longer.
When the minister had done the business, the Madam came out of the bedroom wearing only her knickers and bra. She told us that her client did not want to be identified but that the only exit was through the kitchen. The near-naked lady asked us if we would mind holding on to one end of a blanket while she and Romeo held the far end, but they would be on the reverse side. We all held the blanket above our heads and did a little dance. We went to the left, they went to the right. When the half circular dance was completed we found ourselves in the bedroom where the television was. The minister meanwhile was gone in a flash and we did not see his face at all. The harlot gave us Â£20 each, which was a week's wages at that time. Whatever was the client being charged for his little bit of nookie? My colleague and I left the premises singing âBlanket Going Round' instead of Blanket on the Ground, the Billie Jo Spears hit.
I remember picking up a very sweet old lady in the East End once. We got chatting, and during the course of our chat she told me that she was in possession of a rent book for 10 Rillington Place. This was a rare thing indeed. There were about eight women murdered at that premises in the forties and fifties. In 1950, a man called Timothy Evans was wrongly hanged for two of these murders but the real culprit was John Reginald Christie. He murdered Evans's wife and daughter, his own wife and quite a number of innocent girls, plus a number of unwitting prostitutes. He hid the bodies behind wallpaper, in cubby holes, under the floorboards, in the outhouse and in the back garden. He was hanged in 1953 in Pentonville Prison by Albert Pierrepoint, who had also hanged Evans. That rent book must be worth quite a few pounds to the many ghoulish collectors of murder memorabilia.
In 1966, Evans was given a posthumous pardon. They dug him up from his prison grave and he was eventually laid to rest in a proper cemetery. A lot of good that was to him. Rillington Place was eventually pulled down and rebuilt. They changed the name twice because too many people were turning up to see the site where these infamous murders took place and still they kept turning up, so the authorities placed a large gate at the entrance. This gives the present residents much more privacy from the weirdos who gather to stare at nothing.
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I once picked up a young couple from St Pancras Station. They wanted to go to a block of flats in the Oval. Us cabbies had
already experienced a bit of trouble with punters from these flats. The man told me that he came from the Caribbean and his girlfriend was English. She was very scantily clad with a giant pair of boobies fully on display. If she looked to the left her boobies swung to the right and vice versa. Anyway, when we arrived at the flats, he opened the passenger door and took to his heels. I wasn't going to give chase so I got out of the cab, went to the already opened door and asked her if she had the metered fare, to which she said no. She then burst into tears, although I think they were crocodile tears. I knew I had lost the fare but I still could not take my eyes away from those non-stop-moving boobies.
At this point a passing police car pulled over. The policemen asked if everything was OK, I told them the situation and one of the cops went to speak to the girl. He went back to the squad car with a big smile on his face.
Then all four of the policemen took it in turns to talk to the girl. It was really only to have a stare at this well-stacked, âabandoned' female. They wanted to take her down to the police station but I said no. I did not want the bother of having to be a witness in court, not to mention all that paperwork, so I told her to f . . . off.
I thought that I was reasonably polite. I knew this Caribbean scrote was probably waiting for her around the corner and they would walk away laughing and I would have to take the loss. It was only about Â£15 or so and we always had cash put by for such occurrences.
Then there was a time when a call girl changed her knickers and bra in the back of my cab while on her way to a customer who had phoned her from the Hilton Hotel. She did not mind me having the odd peek in the rear mirror. The trouble was, she threw all her old underclothes out of the window, but she smiled in such a sexy way and she was a good tipper. The temptation for me to be her next customer was unbelievable but I was a happy and contented husband and only entertained those naughty
thoughts for a little while. The thing that worried me most was if the knickers and brassiere had flown out of my cab window and wrapped themselves around a pedestrian's face. What if they had taken my cab number and reported me to the police? My licence could have been suspended.
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As a television engineer I was once called to Ten Downing Street. In the early eighties there were no high iron gates or the extreme security we have today. I parked my company car immediately outside the main door, rang the bell of that famous black door and was admitted straightaway. They did not even open my special television service bag. It was a strange feeling as I found myself in a vast hallway. Suddenly I was surrounded by a lot of burly policemen. They had recognised my Irish accent and as the IRA were doing a lot of bombing at that time I was an immediate suspect. It was a wee bit scary and there were guns about, but all my paperwork was in order.
Not many people can say that they have ever been through that glossy black door. The television was in the top floor flat and belonged to the main Downing Street caretaker who lived there and had seen lots and lots of prime ministers come and go over the past forty or so years. Ted Heath had just become the new prime minister but he never watched television and did not even possess one.
The caretaker's TV was not repairable so I took the set out of the building and placed it on the pavement next to my car, just as a couple of American tourists were passing. They asked me if that was the prime minister's television, and I am afraid I said yes. They then asked if they could photograph it so again I said yes and placed my left foot on the set. They then photographed my left foot plus the telly, and must have told all their friends in America that this was Ted Heath's set. I must say, I did feel a bit of a rogue after telling those little white lies.
I once had to deliver a very large bunch of flowers to Betty Boothroyd, who was the then speaker of the House of Commons. She had a private flat in the inner courtyard of the Commons and was a very feared and powerful woman in Parliament. Her flat was close to St Stephen's Tower, which houses Big Ben. Tourists go home and tell their friends that they have seen Big Ben but that's not true, they can only hear Big Ben. It's a giant bell that weighs nearly fourteen tonnes, which is about equal to seven London taxis hanging from a crane. That's some weight for a bell. By the way, the total length of the minute hands on the clock face measure a massive fourteen feet.
When I had delivered the flowers and was just about to get into my cab, the bell struck the hour. I was directly underneath the tower. My hearing is very sensitive and I could not believe the booming sound that echoed through my head. I have never heard anything like it and do not want to experience anything like it ever again. Imagine if you were actually in the bell tower of St Stephen's when the clock struck the hour of twelve?
There is a pretty big clock on Shell Mex House in the Strand, facing the Thames. This timepiece is lovingly known in the cab trade as Big Bengie. There used to be a fifteen-foot replica of Big Ben that stood outside Victoria Station called Little Ben. So we have Big Ben, Little Ben and Big Bengie. That is the end of the clock stories, and no, I am not winding you up.
When I was leaving the Commons I was asked to wait at the Members' door. There was a fare emerging. Well, when I saw the ever-so-large Member of Parliament for Rochdale, Sir Cyril Smith,
heading towards my cab, I nearly died. He was enormous. When he started to enter the offside passenger door the cab groaned under the weight and leaned to the left. These London cabs are extremely sturdy, so it wasn't a problem and off we went to St Pancras Station.
I have actually had worse than that in my cab in the form of two giant Sumo wrestlers. They had to get in on opposite doors at the same time in order not to create an imbalance and tip the cab over! They were very good tippers but they had to remove each other's wallets from their back pockets because the fat was everywhere and their arms were a wee bit short.