Authors: John Healy
Back on my cab tour, I remember being hailed by a punter in the City just outside what I thought was a bank counting house. We were joined by three other men who looked as if they were straight out of an
movie, all wearing trilby hats and trench coats. They loaded two large, trunk-type containers into my cab and directed me to a nearby City bank. When the containers were safely in the building, they asked me to take them back to the point of the original pick-up. I heard them whisper, âShall we tell him?' One of them said, âOf course, why not?'
It turned out I had just delivered Â£4 million in Â£50 notes and cashable bonds. They said that we had been followed by a heavily-armed, unmarked police car. I really don't think they should have put me in such danger. After all, I was just a meagre cab driver, what if a robbery had been planned by thieves? I might have been an unwilling target. Even so, the tip was pretty good but the excitement of that day was priceless. I never found out why they used a London black cab but I got the distinct impression that the police had received a tip that there was going to be a hit on the regular security van.
Another time in the City I picked up a couple of hoodies â you know, the ones that wear their coat hoods up around their heads, even in the height of summer. They jumped into my cab at the traffic lights before I knew it, asking for a garage in Wandsworth. I knew this place and was friends with the owner, so I expected no trouble.
The big guys in the back were quite nice passengers. After they had paid me off from a bundle of Â£20 notes, they went on their
way. It was then that I noticed a brown wallet lying on the floor of the cab. On examination, I saw it had a debit card and a City business card in a secret compartment. I assumed that the wallet had been pick-pocketed somewhere in the area where I had picked up my hoodies. It certainly had not been there when they boarded the taxi.
I phoned the number on the business card and the man on the other end had not even missed his wallet. He asked me to put the meter on and drive to his office. I do believe he suspected me at one stage but he must have asked himself why I would telephone him if I had stolen from him. He thanked me and gave me a nice shiny Â£20 note for my trouble but told me he had lost about Â£300 from the wallet â all in Â£20 notes...
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A lovely Japanese couple once gave me a Â£50 note for a Â£5 fare. I ran after them. They were ever so grateful â so grateful, in fact, that they did not even give me a tip. Why am I so honest? It is probably down to my upbringing. Also, there could have been a candid camera hidden somewhere, you never know who is watching. It could have been a set-up, and if the cabbie succumbs to temptation, bang goes his cabbie licence.
A long time ago, I was a heavy smoker who used to puff away at cigars, a pipe and at least thirty cigarettes per day. My twins said I smelled like a three-day-old, well-used ashtray. Anyway, about forty years ago I was called to do a television repair in the now closed Westminster Teaching Hospital on Horseferry Road. I was instantly brainwashed into giving up smoking. This is what happened.
I had successfully completed the repair of a colour television in the nurse's sitting room and as I was waiting for the imminent arrival of the lift I noticed a sign that had an arrow pointing the way to âMorbid Surgery'. There were no people about because everybody had gone to lunch, and my curiosity pulled me in the direction of that arrow. I found myself in a room that frightened the living daylights out of me. There, on a special table, I could see a newly-removed set of human lungs. It was absolutely horrible. Nearby was a label that read âThese are the lungs of a fifty-five-year-old man who smoked most of his life'.
I could have picked up a piece of those black lungs and sprinkled it like pepper. The label went on to say, âThe damage was irreversible when he was alive. His death was totally brought about by a lifetime of non-stop smoking'. Next to those black lungs was a perfectly good set of lungs, put there as a comparison. The unfortunate person who owned the second set of lungs had died from some other terminal complaint.
That comparison must have thrown some sort of a switch deep in the back of my brain because I have not touched tobacco since, although I don't mind anyone smoking in my company. What a priceless and accidental cure.
There were also other exhibits on the table such as the shrivelled livers of some heavy drinkers. I admit that I enjoy a social drink or two and the shrivelled-up livers did not make me pack up drinking, but I am pretty careful these days about how much alcohol I consume.
For the next ten years I would stand in Horseferry Road, look up to the fourth floor window of that teaching hospital and see large preserving jars with human organs displayed in a solution of formaldehyde. The jars were in cabinets without backs and were framed in the windows, easily spotted from the road. They were not a pretty sight, and should not have been in the window for public viewing, even if they were on the fourth floor.
The hospital closed a few years later and was converted into prestigious flats, the jars now replaced by flowers and brightly coloured curtains. I don't think I would like to live in one of the fourth floor apartments. I might have nightmares of floating lungs and livers in the dead of night.
By the way, it's called Horseferry Road because it led to one of the few Thames ferry crossings for miles around. The first ferry was in 1513 and then Westminster Bridge was built in 1740, followed by an early version of Lambeth Bridge in 1862. This was the death knell for the ferrymen but the name of Horseferry Road has lived on, especially as the Horseferry Road Magistrates Court is well known to many convicted criminals.
A little bit further down the road toward the Houses of Parliament in Victoria Tower Gardens there is a reproduction of Auguste Rodin's statue, The Burghers of Calais, comprising five life-size bronze men in a semi circle, all in the dress of 1889. They seem to be whispering together. For all I know, they may even be whispering about my first book. I must say that for art lovers, this impressive gathering of bronze figures is worth a visit.
Their story is this: In the year 1347, King Edward III laid siege to the city of Calais. Starvation soon occurred within the city walls. Eventually, the King offered to spare everybody, provided that six city leaders emerged for execution. Eventually, six badly
emaciated and hungry Burghers came out to be hanged, and in the nick of time, Queen Philippa of Hainault saved them by appealing to the king for clemency. Well known for her pity, this multiple statue was dedicated to Queen Philippa and her heart of gold.
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William Huskisson was a Member of Parliament for Liverpool in the 1830s. He has the unusual reputation of being the first person to be killed on the railway. This unlucky man was opening a branch line out of Liverpool when he fell on to the tracks and was run over by none other than Stephenson's Rocket steam engine. There is a statue in Pimlico Gardens, Westminster, dedicated to this very unlucky man. God only knows why the statue shows him dressed in a Roman toga. More useless information, but it's fairly interesting, I must admit.
As a television engineer, many strange things occur. I was doing a service call in a flat in Fitzrovia, a beautiful area full of continental restaurants quite near Tottenham Court Road tube station. I had been to this flat before and was fairly friendly with the tenants, a couple of lesbians whom I quite liked. One was fairly good looking but a little butch. The other was a very shapely blonde.
This particular day I was alone with the really attractive one in the flat. I was young then and fairly handsome, even though I say it myself, and also I was a bachelor. The tasty little piece was standing very close to me when suddenly she slapped a banger straight on my lips and it turned into a long, lingering kiss. Unfortunately it lingered a little too long. The door suddenly opened and in walked her large lover.
Well! This lady flew at me like a wild animal, grabbed me by my collar and shook me. This was a big girl and I was only tenand-a-half stone. Suddenly she released my collar, and said, âMy friend has not fully made up her mind: is she, or isn't she?'
Then she added, âMind you, if I wasn't a lezzie I might also have given you a snog.' So I was let off the hook. Thank the Lord, I lived to snog another day.
These things happened quite often in the television service trade because one regularly met lonely housewives, widows and quite a lot of very flirty single females. I loved my work. It sounds as if I was a bit of a gigolo but I was never that, just a naive young man with little experience. Mind you, I was always willing to learn. I never went back to that flat but the memory of that kiss is still in my mind to this day. I wonder if the little blonde ever
made up her mind as to whether she liked men or women? Mind you, she may have gone both ways.
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Once I had a service call in a large house in Eaton Square. The lady of the house opened the door and I said I had come to repair her television set. This very elegant lady said the tradesmen's entrance was round the back in the mews. I enquired as to where the telly was and she pointed to the front room, which was only a couple of yards away. I would have had to drive around three streets to get to the mews in question and then walk through the kitchen and various corridors to get back to where I was standing at the front door. So I dove straight back to our service department and told them the story. Two days later the posh lady rang the firm and asked, âWhere is the engineer, I have not been able to watch television for two days.'
This lady was told that she had not let the repairman in and we could not send another man for at least another couple of days. Actually, we were not very busy at that time but the firm backed me one hundred per cent. The day of the tradesman's entrance had died out after World War II.
On my mythical cab journey, I have been talking a lot about Belgravia, Westminster and Knightsbridge. The Duke of Westminster owned most of these areas until fairly recently, when a law was passed that forced him to sell some of his property. The family date back quite a few hundred years. I had a tour of Cheshire once â his family home, Eaton Hall, is in this county. As the coach passed through a through a small village, the driver told us that it was owned by the Duke of Westminster. He went on to say that sometime during the seventeenth century (although it could have been later), the Duke was riding his horse through this village and the men who were drinking outside the pub did not lift their caps to show respect. In anger, the Duke had the pub closed down and to this day there is still no public house in this village. This was how the gentry behaved in those days. Today they are a finer breed of men and women, and they respect us peasants now. I think.
On this tour, we visited a church near the village, which was probably also owned by the Duke, and were shown some gravestones. The headstones all said that the interned corpses had been buried in linen. Apparently, at some stage the linen cloth trade had started to flounder, the mills were failing and a new law was created, stating that at all funerals the undertaker must arrange for the deceased to be wrapped in linen. What a way to save a trade from going bust! We should pass a new law today stating that all corpses be dressed in newly-bought clothes in order to meet their Maker. This would help some of the struggling tailors, cobblers and milliners clamber out of the recession. The tradespeople
could even advertise on the side of the coffin. Is that enterprising or what?
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In an earlier chapter I wrote about Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, who had an evil trapdoor under his barber's chair. Oddly enough there was a similar episode of customer murder in the Ostrich Inn in Colnbrook, near Heathrow. This inn is the third oldest public house in the land. It is supposed to be haunted because in the seventeenth century, some sixty travelling guests were murdered in one particular bedroom over a period of time. A device had been attached to the bed and a trap door was opened, tipping the poor old sleeping guest down into the kitchen and into an extremely large vat of boiling water. The victim was dead instantly â just like the killing of a lobster â and the unfortunate traveller's belongings were then pilfered. The landlord, one John Jarman, and his evil wife, were hanged for these heinous deeds.
Interestingly, I do not expect the builders knew what an ostrich was when the pub was originally erected in the twelfth century. Some say it was probably a distortion of the words âoyster bridge'.
In the early seventies, the television firm that I worked for developed a mobile workshop that would promote the television rental business's quick service and all that went with it. The vehicle had its own generator so that television sets could be repaired on board the vehicle. It looked like a red ice-cream van and had a drop flap at the side, just like Mister Softee's triple cone van. One day, a kid actually came to the van and asked for an ice cream. The lad was so disappointed when I said, âWe have no ice cream'. The boy's mother was not very happy either.
Anyway, my driver and I were sent to a Luton fair to show off the new service van and Harry H Corbett and Wilfred Bramble were there to promote their show,
Steptoe and Son
. They actually came into our service van and we had such a great laugh. They are both dead now but I was so proud to meet these two hilarious actors.
As we were in Luton for the weekend my colleague and I had to book into a hotel for the night. We were given an expense account, so we both went to the local hop, where I met a girl that worked for the Luton Hoo country estate. We had a few dances and a few drinks together and we got on pretty well. Then she said she had a moped parked outside and I replied, foolishly, that I could drive the bike with her on the back.
What I did not realise was that the bike was an automatic, and when I kick started the machine, off it went on its own. I had to run with it, holding tight on to the handlebars in sheer panic. The girl started running on the other side of the bike. She was screaming, and shouting, âMind my bike, mind my bike. It's
not paid for yet'. I didn't know how to stop the thing, it was like a scene from a
movie. Eventually, we got the machine under control and she jumped onto the bike, looked me straight in the eyes and said rather aggressively âGoodbye', before riding off, leaving me there all alone. It was all very embarrassing. I had just been dumped by a raging girl on a moped and I did not even know where my hotel was.
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On Chelsea Embankment one day in 1985, I was hailed by a colourful American Red Indian chief. I was just about to say âHow' (as in the Red Indian greeting) but stopped myself in time â he may have thought I was being rude. Anyway, he pointed across the Thames to the Peace Pagoda in Battersea Park, and said, âI go there'. It was a command from a real Indian warrior.
During the journey he said he was a fund-raiser for these worldwide monuments. The Peace Pagoda houses an enormous gold Buddha in the classic cross-legged sitting position. The Buddha is Japanese although I was told those who built it in 1985 were Tibetan and actually lived in the park in makeshift tents. These unpaid builders were men of religion who lived on their wits plus handouts from the public, because as sincere vegetarian Buddhists they had absolutely no money. In those days you could always find them at the Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market in Nine Elms, where they foraged for thrown-away food at the close of market trading. Even to the present day you can always find a monk in attendance at the Peace Pagoda â I suppose he is some sort of unpaid permanent caretaker. The Japanese â and the Tibetans â are such well-cultured people.
When the taxi fare was paid, I got out of the cab to have a stretch. This is a very serene and mentally rewarding place and I recommend a trip to this holy shrine if you ever want total peace of mind. It's a good thing that I hung around. My fare only asked me to take him to Heathrow afterwards â a fare of Â£18, which was a lot of money in those days. What a result.
Battersea Park was not always there. It was opened in 1858 and before that it had been fertile marshland where they grew lavender for the perfume industry. These marshy fields ran all the way up to what is now called Lavender Hill, in Clapham. At the time they were clearing the Battersea marshlands they were also constructing the docks in East London, so they used barges to move all the excavated clay from the docks to Battersea Park. One could say Battersea Park was imported from East London.
In 1951, Battersea Park opened the Festival of Britain, held to boost the low morale of the people who had been through two devastating world wars. The Festival was extremely successful and attracted hordes of people from all over the world. The Pleasure Gardens in the northern part of the park included a great funfair with a big rollercoaster, a tree walk, a water chute and lots of great stuff to amuse the excited punters. In 1972, one of the rollercoaster cars lost its grip on the holding rail at the very top of the ride and started to roll backwards, with devastating consequences. Five children were killed and 13 seriously injured. The amusements declined in popularity after this and the funfair was closed in 1974.
Today Battersea Park is really worth a visit. Take the kids. There is a lovely zoo for children with all sorts of beasties. There is a pump house that has lots of art displays, where they perform marriage ceremonies âby arrangement only'. And don't forget to have a look at the famous Guinness Clock. Battersea Park is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. I have even seen the Henry Moore statues, Three Standing Figures, here.
Moore made his name by casting huge, distorted figures of animals and human beings in bronze, which are mostly on loan to various parks. I remember I was driving through Hyde Park on the day that he died in 1986. I saw all the Moore exhibits being taken away on low loaders, probably on the orders of the executors of his will. These abstract sculptures were, and still are, priceless.