Authors: John Healy
I was on the rank at the King's Cross Hilton one day when the lady concierge came to my cab window and asked if I could take a guest to St Mary's Hospital, Paddington, and drop her off at the Accident # Emergency department. This foreign lady was very ill and deteriorating rapidly, she said. The hotel staff had tried in vain to get an ambulance but there was nothing available.
The concierge and a porter assisted a frail woman of about forty into my cab. When she was firmly installed behind me, I could see the anguish in her eyes and the fear we might not make it in time. The porter said he thought she'd had a heart attack. I asked the concierge to ring the A#E department to alert them that we were on our way and put my foot down, but when we reached Euston Road we hit the traffic. Luckily I saw a police car and sounded my very loud hooter, to which they responded. I informed them of the situation and they immediately said, âFollow us'. Well! They cleared a way through that traffic like Moses parting the waters, with me hot on their tail. I was breaking the speed limit with the blessing of the law.
We sped along the Euston Road, into the Marylebone Road and were there in no time at all. As we pulled up at A#E, I could see a whole team of nurses, doctors, porters and a host of medical equipment at the ready. The doctors were in the back of my cab straightaway. I could not even open my door to get out of the cab with all the milling medics.
They quickly fitted an oxygen mask to my fare's face to help her breathe, and started doing some tests. I could not believe what happened next: the patient would not leave my cab until
she had paid the fare. I insisted she should not bother as there were more pressing things to get on with such as her immediate treatment, but she would not budge. This lovely lady handed her handbag to one of the doctors and made him take the fare from her purse and pay me. The meter was not even on but she gave me Â£20. If I did not take the cash, there would be no moving her into the hospital, so I took the fare.
Straightaway the doctors had her in a special wheelchair and wheeled her straight into A#E. I never saw this lady again and do not know how she got on. Did she survive the heart attack? I sincerely hope so, but I will never know unless she reads this book and gets in contact.
I once had a fare to Lord's Cricket Ground. The passenger told me he was on the committee at Lord's. As we drove through Dorset Square I pointed to a green hut that looked like a garden shed. There are two plaques on the door and I asked him if he knew what it was all about. I was surprised when he said no. The plaques on the door state that this was the original home of Lord's Cricket Ground. Thomas Lord was the head groundsman and as the fans grew in number they had to move to their present home in St John's Wood. Thomas Lord took all the topsoil from this tiny square to the new site. He had nursed this high quality loam for years and he would not leave it behind. The new cricket club grew in popularity and became one of the most famous in the world. They called it Lord's, after him. What a great honour for the groundsman to have the new cricket club named in his memory, not that my fare knew that. How can you be a bigwig at Lord's and not know its history?
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Leaving Dorset Square on my re-created cab journey, I pass Chagford Street, where there is a blue plaque on a garage door. This sign is not to any man or woman but to a car. It reads: âOut of these garage doors, which are the original, rolled the very first Bentley in 1919.' This was the prototype and its number plate reads NUMBER ONE. This was the birthplace of the Bentley car. How about that for useless information!
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If I turn right and drive down from the top of Baker Street, I pass Number 221b on the right hand side. This is the legendary address of Sherlock Holmes. It is now a museum visited by people from all over the world, especially America. The staff regularly get mail addressed to Sherlock or even to Dr Watson. Some of these letters ask the famous sleuth to solve the odd mystery, even though he never existed, but then some people are dreamers and there is no harm in that. Sherlock Holmes' study has been recreated from the writings of the books to a high degree of accuracy. It all looks impressively authentic with Holmes' deerstalker hat and violin on display for all to see. And there is always a policeman dressed in nineteenth century uniform standing outside during opening hours.
Across Baker Street from the Sherlock Holmes museum is the lost property office. At the time of writing this book there is a small exhibition of unusual things that were lost long ago displayed in the window. One particular piece of lost property that took my interest was an item that was left on a number 23 bus in 1934: an old, coal-heated smoothing iron. How can one lose such a thing and whatever was it doing on the bus? It was never claimed and I'm sure it never will be.
Crossing the Marylebone Road and continuing down Baker Street we come across a blue plaque high up on a second floor flat. It is dedicated to the talented Beatle John Lennon who lived here for a period of time. It's a shame he ever left this flat to go to America just to get shot by a Yankee nutcase. John Lennon had a lot of lovely tunes still to write but his young life was taken away for no reason at all. Who knows what great masterpieces were lurking in the back of his mind? They were all snuffed out like the flame of a dying candle. Lennon and McCartney's music will live on forever.
As I continue down Baker Street I cross George Street, where I remember being called out to a television repair in the eighties. I recall that I was kneeling behind the large colour set and when I got it going, I stood up â only to see the customer standing there with his trousers dropped, enjoying himself with one hand. Now, that is a horrible sight for a working man. I looked at the screen and realised he must have been watching a blue movie the previous day when the television broke down. When I got it going the video had started automatically, the customer had got
excited and started doing what he was doing, forgetting I was still behind the television. I ran for the door and legged it like a gazelle. I am glad to say that the company I worked for terminated his contract immediately. I can do without people like that.
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We are now passing Selfridges where I was once hailed by the lady who starred as M in some of the James Bond films, Dame Judi Dench. She wanted to go to Sotheby's in Bond Street. Actually there is no such place as Bond Street but there is New Bond Street and Old Bond Street. Anyway, as the cab was going down Brook Street I pointed out two joined-up houses with a plaque on the outside wall of each building. One said Jimi Hendrix had lived there, the other said George Frederick Handel once lived there (that's the guy who wrote
and the famous
). Miss Dench said that she had never noticed these plaques before, and was quite impressed.
She then said, âI bet Handel is turning over in his grave at the difference in their music,' so I thought I would try one of my cornball jokes on her. I asked her if she knew what was written on Fredrick Handel's coffin. She said no, and I said, âHandle with care'. She thought it was a fairly good joke, had a little giggle and said she would use it in the future.
I dropped this very pleasant lady outside Sotheby's and lingered a while to see her disappear through the auction house doors. In my mind, I jokingly wondered how much she was sold for, and I laughed at my daft thought. But I am sure that she is priceless. It was lovely to have actually met one of the fictional Bond crowd in real life.
Outside Sotheby's there is a small Egyptian statue over the door of a lion-shaped goddess called Sekhmet, the warrior goddess and goddess of healing for Upper Egypt. The black basalt statue is about three feet tall and is the oldest outside statue in London, dating to around 1320
. It has been Sotheby's muse since the
1880s, when it was sold at auction for Â£40 but was never collected. I would like to think that the buyer is now in heaven, looking down at the statue, and wondering if it will ever be delivered up to the Pearly Gates by DHL. After all, they say they will deliver anything anywhere.
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Another extremely old statue in London is Cleopatra's Needle on the Embankment. It dates back to around 1460
and is covered with ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. When the Needle was being installed on the Embankment in 1878, they sealed a time capsule inside its base. There are copies of daily newspapers, some cigars, a packet of hair pins, a railway ticket, cigarettes, photographs of some of the most beautiful women of the time, a full set of coins of the realm and various other artefacts.
This giant obelisk was discovered deep in the sands of Alexandria, where it had lain for nearly 2,000 years. In 1877, it was on its way to England by barge but the tow ropes broke in a storm off the Bay of Biscay. Six men lost their lives trying to secure the tow ropes and their names are written at the base of the obelisk. There are actually three of these giant monuments, one in London, one in Paris, and the third in Central Park, New York.
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On the other side of New Bond Street there is a blue plaque dedicated to the memory of the famous Admiral Horatio Nelson, one of England's greatest heroes. He lost the sight in his right eye in 1794, but not in a battle as some people think. Later on in his adventurous life he was on board the Victory when he was shot dead by a sniper on a French vessel. This was the Battle of Trafalgar, in which he won the day. The crew placed his body in a barrel of brandy to preserve it so he could be returned to England intact. Apparently, some sailors did not know that he was in the brandy barrel, tapped off a couple tots and consumed them. They must have felt sick when they were told that Nelson
was in the barrel. He was laid to rest in a large tomb in St Paul's Cathedral.
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We move along now to Bruton Street where we find another plaque on a modern building stating that the present Queen Elizabeth was born in a house on this site. She lived here with her mum, Elizabeth, and her father George. The house has long since been demolished.
When Edward VIII abdicated over his love for an American divorcee called Mrs Simpson, his brother George became king and Elizabeth became queen. They then moved to Buckingham Palace. George died when the young Elizabeth was abroad, and was quickly recalled for the state funeral. She was then crowned Queen Elizabeth and her mother became affectionately known as the Queen Mother.
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Just around the corner from Berkeley Square in Charles Street there is a pub with a very long name: âI Am The Only Running Footman'. Apparently the original footmen were employed to run in front of their bosses' carriages and clear the way with a big stick through the milling crowds of peasants. (We are talking about between the sixteenth and seventeenth century when life was cheap.) Years later, footmen became the understudies to the butler in wealthy houses, chosen for their charm, height, muscular appearance, good looks and mainly their trustworthy character.
I was hailed one day in Park Lane by a very distressed lady who said she had just been dumped by her lover of ten years. I hate having to deal with these emotional issues. She was crying all the way to her home in Pimlico and told me she was going to end it all the moment she got indoors. When we arrived I got out of the cab and sat down beside her in the passenger seat. It took nearly half an hour to calm her down and get a promise from her that she would do nothing rash. I had forgotten to turn the meter off and all the time I was consoling the passenger it was running, but I had to write off the Â£30. Anyway, I was well pleased when I saw the same lady a few days later, smiling and looking very happy. Maybe I missed my vocation and should have been a psychiatrist instead of a cabbie. I really felt good and I was proud to think I may have contributed to the saving of one single life . . . or was she pulling the wool over my eyes for a free taxi ride?
A gent hailed me once and said to me, âSelfridges', to which I replied, âNo, I just drive the cab'. Get it? Sell Fridges . . . I don't think he got my trivial little joke so I just took him to where he wanted to go in total silence. Yes, you guessed it, again no tip.
A long time ago, I thought that I had the President of France in the back of my cab. He kept saying, âMeter on, meter on'. It's only a joke. For younger readers, Francois Mitterrand was once the French president, it's actually pronounced âMeter on'.
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As a television technician, I was a private engineer to the fabulous Hattie Jacques (1922â1980), who lived in a first floor flat in Eardley Crescent, just a few yards away from the Earls Court exhibition halls. She was a giant lady but with a voice as gentle as an angel and was best known for her matron scenes in the
movies. Once she rang me at home and asked if I could pick her up and take her to her ex-husband's house. He was John Le Mesurier, and his girlfriend's television had gone wrong. Well, when she sat in my car the vehicle leaned away to the left. Her chest actually touched the dashboard.
I have never met anybody with such a radiant personality. She told me that she had had a major tragedy in her immediate family but I do not want to write about that particular event as it might be hurtful to somebody. They placed a plaque outside her house next to one of the windows. Whenever I drive past Eardley Crescent, I look up and give a sad little sigh to the memory of one of my better customers. John Le Mesurier got me all the signatures of the
cast but unfortunately I lost the lot. I think my kids may have swapped them for comic books. What a great loss.
Carrying on with my tour, I now leave Eardley Crescent and turn left into Warwick Road, then right into Cromwell Road. On the left is Logan Place where the star of one of the most famous of all pop groups lived: Queen. The star was Freddie Mercury and even today there are lots of flowers left outside his door by adoring fans. It seems he will never be forgotten.
I continue my imaginary journey along Cromwell Road to another blue plaque commemorating a very famous English man, Alfred Hitchcock. He went to America and made such Hollywood greats as
. A master of suspense, he always appeared in a cameo roll in every one of his films, lurking in the background.