Authors: John Healy
I was on the taxi rank at the Churchill Hotel when out came Jean Alexander, who used to play Hilda Ogden in
. She wanted to go to Euston Station and on the way we had a little chat about Corrie. Poor old Stanley had shuffled off this mortal coil and left dear old Hilda all alone. (Of course, this was all just a story written for the soap opera.) I asked her about those famous flying ducks on the wall of her living room wall, and she said it would have been nice if they'd all flown off out of the window as they drove her mad. I asked her could I take a photo of a legend. âNo,' she replied, âbut you can take one of me.' I thought the remark was quite witty. Then she said, âWait until I comb my hair'. So the hair combing took place and I got a lovely picture of the famous Hilda Ogden in my taxi.
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I have a great photograph of the movie star Charlton Heston, who starred in movies like
The Ten Commandments
Planet of the Apes
, looking into my cab window. He asked me what was it like to drive the taxi. I said it was very easy with such things as power steering and power brakes.
âIt was a piece of cake,' I said, then asked him a question. âWhat's it like driving a chariot being pulled by four enormous horses?' to which he replied, âIt was a piece of cake!' and we laughed. He told me he did not really drive the chariot, the stunt men did all the dangerous work and he did the slow bits. His long time wife was standing beside him and she laughed too. They were such a pleasant couple and asked what they should
see in London. I said to see the best of London would require a lifetime. As they did not have a lot of time left in the capital, I recommended the Tate Britain. I would bet money that they really enjoyed that. Sadly, Charlton Heston died in 2008.
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One day I dropped a passenger at Charing Cross Station. When the fare was paid I moved off slowly and immediately braked. They had left the door open. Normally there is an audible alarm but obviously it was not working that day. I had done a little damage to another car and quite a lot of damage to my cab door. The owner of the car told me not worry about it as her vehicle was just a pile of old junk. I was relieved to hear this. I did not want a big insurance claim against me.
This happened near the Queen Eleanor Memorial, which is just inside the station. There were twelve of these very ornate memorials erected by King Edward I in honour of his beloved wife. They started at the village of Harby in Nottinghamshire, and every day the funeral cortÃ¨ge rested, that spot was destined to have a memorial erected. The last one was at Charing Cross. Queen Eleanor was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately, in 1671, Oliver Cromwell destroyed every one of these beautiful reminders of a King's lost love. The one at the station is an exact copy.
Charing Cross station was also the starting point for what became known as the Brighton Trunk Murders. In 1927, a corpse was found in a trunk at the left luggage department of Charing Cross station. Apparently the attendant noticed an extremely bad odour coming from a trunk and called the police. They opened it up and to their horror they discovered the torso of a woman. The legs and arms were cut from the body and separately wrapped in brown paper. These limbs were placed on top of the female torso in the trunk.
Seven years later, in 1934, the remains of a woman were found in a trunk at Brighton Station. The next day a case containing
her legs was found at King's Cross Station. The police called in a man that I had mentioned earlier, the eminent police pathologist Sir Bernard Spillsbury, who had worked on the Dr Crippen case in 1910.
Eventually, the authorities traced the trunk to Brighton. When the police kicked down the door of 52 Kemp Street they found another trunk, which revealed another limbless female torso with all the outer extremities removed. The killer was one Tony Mancini, a heavy drinker, who was found not guilty of murder in 1934. In 1976, aged 68, he confessed to the
News of the World
but could not be tried again and so got away with his crime.
There was a time when I was on a rank at the Conrad Hotel, near Chelsea Wharf. I was next in line when out came this guy of about twenty-five. A crowd of people ran towards him. He was quite good with these people and took the time to satisfy the fans with his autograph. He then came over to my cab and told me where he wanted to go. I said that I knew his face, but I could not put a name to it. He said, âI am Nigel Mansell'. I apologised to him and said that I did not follow motor racing. I asked him if he would like to drive my cab but he declined my offer. Anyway it would have been illegal for him to drive a London cab, so it was an empty gesture.
Speaking of racing drivers, I used to see Stirling Moss quite regularly on a moped, riding up and down Park Lane. Every time I saw him he had a smile on his face. If he was in his racing car he would not have been moving very fast because of the traffic. What a difference between a speedy, souped-up car and a moped, but a moped is the best way to get around London, especially if you are in a hurry.
As a television engineer in the seventies, I once went to Max Bygraves's flat in Victoria. He had had a very long run at the Victoria Palace Theatre and he strolled into our shop one morning and rented a very large colour television. I had to visit his flat quite few times, as these early sets were fairly unreliable. He would regularly ask his wife, Blossom, to make me a cup of tea while we were having a little chat. I would have preferred a couple of free tickets to his show, which was just around the corner, but the tickets never materialised. I thought that with a name like Bygraves he would have done well running a funeral parlour. (Just a joke.) Max was a very successful entertainer at that time and quite a jovial customer. I believe he emigrated to Australia, where his wife Blossom sadly died.
Bruce Forsyth was another television customer of ours. What a personality that guy had! He was with Anthea Redfern then, although I spoke with her for only a few minutes. What an attractive woman she was. She was on the Bruce Forsyth show and I do believe they got married in 1973. Bruce Forsyth starred in
Sunday Night at the London Palladium
The Generation Game
and since 2004,
Strictly Come Dancing
. What a career this guy has had, and he is still going strong. He was born in 1928, so that makes him 85.
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Back on my cab crawl of memories round London, I remember driving into Liverpool Street Station where there was a big queue for taxis. When I picked up my passenger, he had a big cue in
his hand. It was Terry Griffiths, the snooker player. Again I had to ask who he was. I admit, this sort of question can be a wee bit embarrassing. He had a nice but strong Welsh accent and was a great snooker player, but he took so long to take a shot. It was almost painful waiting, although when he eventually cued the ball it was usually pretty accurate.
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Shirley Bassey was once one of our television customers. She was living in a house in Chester Square, possibly even the same house that Margaret Thatcher lives in at present. I remember the housekeeper let me in. As she walked me up a beautiful semi-circular white staircase I could see all of Shirley Bassey's number one gold hit awards. Each record was in the middle of its own frame with a small plaque just below the record that had all the relevant information. For every third step there was a gold disc award. It looked just like a Hollywood scene. The records included hits such as âGoldfinger' and âBig Spender'.
The second floor living room was palatial. There was a striking white grand piano in this Aladdin's cave, the lid lifted to show off its lines. Shirley Bassey was home but not seeing any one that day and I was a little upset about that.
Just as I was driving away from Chester Square I saw Tony Curtis standing on the corner of Eaton Square. One of his more famous movies was
. He was notable for his extremely black hair, which had gone completely grey. I would have preferred to see his gorgeous daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis. Belgravia is crawling with famous people.
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At number 202 Bishopsgate, in the City of London, there is a public house called Dirty Dicks that dates back to 1875. Nearby there lived a certain Nathaniel Bentley. He was to be wed to the love of his life but sadly she died on the eve of their wedding. A broken-hearted Mr Bentley closed the wedding breakfast room,
which was already prepared for the next day. He became a complete recluse until he died.
The empty house lay dormant for the next forty years. Eventually, the nearby pub purchased all of Bentley's effects, including the remains of a dried out old moggy, dusty, rusty old pots and pans complete with cobwebs, and put the lot on display. They then changed the name of the pub to Dirty Dicks. Soon it became a thriving, worldwide tourist attraction.
On one occasion my parents were visiting the pub to sample the ale and the atmosphere. My mother read the sign on the bar that said, âAsk the barman to show you Dirty Dick's chamber'. She thought it meant his bed chamber and duly asked to see it.
Well! The barman slapped the biggest chamber pot that I have ever seen on the bar. My poor mum was a bit of a lady and she went completely red-faced, although she eventually joined in the laughter.
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Speaking of dead cats, there is a dog cemetery in Hyde Park just to the right of the Victoria Gate lodge in Bayswater Road, which dates back to 1881. It is no longer in use. I found it sad to look through the railings and see these tiny gravestones scattered randomly about. They must have broken the hearts of their proud owners who have since joined them in heaven, or wherever we go when we leave this mortal coil.
It was never an official cemetery. A member of the gentry took along the remains of her dead dog, Cherry, a Maltese terrier, and the lodge keeper buried her in his garden. Soon word spread of a free canine cemetery. It closed in 1903, with a dog body count of about 300, with names like Chin Chin, Pupsey, Fairy, Bobbit and Scamp. The tiny cemetery gets overgrown every year and disappears under all the weeds. Luckily the Park's Commission give the place a good clean-up once a year. This gives the public a chance to view the tiny gravestones and feel the sadness that radiates from this tiny plot.
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Back in my cab again and driving down Park Lane from Marble Arch, I spot a recently erected memorial wall to animals that were used in war. This monument is enormous. On either side of a concave wall there is a vast grass area where there are lifesize bronze statues of two pack horses, a dog and a mule. Many of the horses and mules sustained unreasonable treatment in times of war and I am sure they were all unwilling participants.
There are mentions of pigeons and canaries on the wall. These canaries were used to sniff out the deadly mustard gas in the 1914/18 War. If there was gas in the area, the poor old yellow bird keeled over, stone dead. It saved many lives, as it gave the soldiers time to don their gas masks. Canaries were widely used by coal miners in the mines to detect coal gas.
There is also a tribute to glow worms, believe it or not. A friend of mine known as Dublin Joe told me that a certain quantity were placed in a clean jam jar, the lid was screwed back on and the result is a kind of living torch that was used to light up maps, or newly arrived orders from the generals (who were at the rear of the battle). Incidentally, the glow worm is not a worm at all, it's the larvae of a beetle type bug.
I have repeatedly looked for the glow worms on the monument, but to no avail. Maybe they have gone to ground or the stone pigeons have scoffed the lot. The troops should have trained a nest of fireflies to hover over enemy positions in order to light them up, then the army gunners could see their target clearly. PS: I'm joking!
Years ago, I remember a man coming to my cab window and asking me to take him to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Woolwich. I asked him was that anywhere near Ha-Ha Road.
Well, you should have seen his face. He thought that I was taking the mickey. So out comes my large print A to Z map and I show him a road running through Woolwich Common, quite near the hospital in question. He was a little bit apologetic, so I told him the story.
It all started at Kensington Palace when the head gardener wanted to keep out the public by separating Kensington Gardens from Hyde Park without spoiling the view by building a large wall. So he dug a deep ditch â in effect a sunken fence â and a very successful idea it was too. The public could not cross the deep ditch, and the Royals of Kensington Palace did not have their view spoilt. Every time the public saw this âfence' they laughed, so the ditch became known as a ha-ha and the idea was copied all over the country.
The ha-ha at the Palace has long since gone but Ha-Ha Road, Woolwich really does exist and was built in 1774 to separate Woolwich Arsenal from the grazing fields on the common.
In the eighties, I was called to a house in Eaton Place to repair a defective television. I saw a large blue plaque on the wall stating that Frederic Chopin, the Polish composer, lived here. (There is also a plaque to the composer Franz Liszt in London. I wonder if they ever went out together for groceries... Would they take a shopping list with them? A Chopin Liszt?)
Down the way we find Eaton Terrace, where Enoch Powell lived. He was born in the year that the
was launched, 1912. He was the one that originally welcomed Caribbean immigrants to take the jobs that no one else wanted. Powell soon changed his mind and gave a very powerful speech about Rivers of Blood. I remember two Jamaican house painters from the building next door then sat down on Enoch Powell's front doorstep to eat their lunch every day for the next two weeks. They told me it was a silent protest. They were very nice guys and looked as if they had just stepped off the
, the ship that carried the first wave of immigrants in 1948. Enoch never did ask the painters to move.
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I once dropped off a beautiful, dark-skinned lady in Tavistock Square. She had a very strong Cockney accent that I fell in love with. She stood at the cab window waving a Â£20 note to pay the Â£5 fare and immediately I noticed it was a dud. I told her I would not accept this useless note and if she did not produce the correct cash I was going to stop a passing police car and they would cart her away. Like a magician, the correct fare was produced
within seconds. She thanked me for not stopping the squad car and added that I could have passed the Â£20 onto my next fare. That would have been a criminal act that I would take no part in but as she walked away she gave me such a sexy smile that I instantly forgave her.
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In my mind, as I drive away from Tavistock Square, I can see the memorial marking the spot where the terrible atrocity of 7/7 took place in 2005. The roof of a red double-decker bus was blown off and thirteen people were murdered. The perpetrator also took himself to heaven but I don't think they would let him in. There were other bombings on that fateful day and I remember it well. Just as the radio reported the atrocities, I was on my way to Heathrow with a fare, and no, he was not an escaping terrorist. I was glad to be getting out of London. On the evening news I saw a wrecked black cab right next to the blown-up bus. It could have been mine.
In the same square there is a blue plaque dedicated to Charles Dickens, who had yet another house here, before moving to Doughty Street to accommodate his growing family.
Beautiful, leafy Tavistock Square is also home to the British Medical Association, and there is a statue of Gandhi here holding a long staff and wearing a long white garment. Such a tiny, genteel man but he had a following of millions and changed the face of India.
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A lady once left her handbag in my cab. Taxi drivers hate this as we have to go to a police station and spend a lot of earning time filling out unnecessary paper work. They count all the cash, lipsticks and all the stuff one would expect to find in a woman's handbag. They even counted the amount of Polo mints that were left in a half-used roll! This is, to my mind, just to annoy the cab driver.
One desk officer once asked me why I did not keep the property but that was a long time ago. It's all changed now. The Public
Carriage Office opened a dedicated Lost Property office at the upper end of Baker Street and a driver can now expect a ten per cent reward for the loss of his time due to the negligence of an absent-minded passenger.
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A guy came out of the Cumberland Hotel and asked for the public house in Oxford Street. It's amazing that the world famous Oxford Street is one-and-three-quarter miles long, and has only one pub, The Tottenham, which has been there since 1790 (when it was known as The Flying Horse).
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In my time as a cabbie I have made friends with my overseas passengers, especially from across the pond, and in particular one couple, a New York cop and his wife. His face was battered by violence and time, and he said he had been shot, stabbed, run over and even kidnapped during his twenty-nine year career in the NYPD (New York Police Department). Eventually he retired, studied law, and is now a top lawyer in Florida. They said that they would like to take me to dinner, so I recommended the Albert Pub in Victoria Street.
This ale house is a preserved building and cannot be pulled down or even altered. It is famous with foreign visitors. We were having a very tasty lunch when in comes a very large and intoxicated customer who started causing trouble. Immediately, up jumps our hero cop, gets him in an arm lock and bounces the thug straight out the door. He got a great clap from all the other customers. The landlord gave the three of us a free lunch plus complimentary drinks. The wife said that she had seen it all before. This ex-cop was seventy-two and looked like Ernest Borgnine. I would have loved to have gone out on patrol with this tough guy in his hey day, I bet it would have been better than the movies. But don't forget, one might have been shot dead, just for being there as an observer.