Authors: John Healy
Over the years, I have taken quite a lot of long weekend breaks by coach, mostly to Eastbourne, Brighton and other coastal resorts. One of my very best trips was to a sixties and seventies party weekend. They can be fantastic but this depends on how lively the other guests are. I was lucky on one such trip in 2007 as I was the only male on the coach alongside forty-two females, and I must say they were the most wonderful crowd of partygoers I have ever met. I had the time of my life on that particular weekend.
Usually the coach parties come from all over the United Kingdom. I have found that people from the North are always full of beans. As the coach picks up its passengers they are mostly strangers but by the time they arrive at the hotel, everybody knows who's who. It's lovely to meet such people. All they want is a good time.
During one of these trips to Eastbourne I took the Saturday bus to Brighton for the day. I adore this lively city, it seems to radiate the good life after a couple of pints of Old Wallop on the shoreline board walk, a great meal and a good earful of busking near the pier. (And don't forget the hordes of beautiful ladies, most of them three sheets to the wind, down for weekend hen parties.)
When it was time for me to get my bus back to Eastbourne I headed in the direction of the bus stop, passing the side of the Royal Pavilion. It was then that I heard the singing of angels coming from a small concert room at the side of this extremely ornate building. A sign read, âFree Choral Concert today'.
I was pulled into the auditorium like a pin to a magnet by the angelic vocals of a choir of beautiful women, The Shoreham Singers, all wearing long black flowing dresses. At the time I was mourning the loss of my wife in 2008 and was extremely emotional. The song they were singing was called âThe Emptiness Still Bears the Traces of You'. Well! Do try reading those words again and try to understand their full meaning. Even now I feel sad again as I write this.
As I stood quite near to this heavenly choir, a few tears crept into my eyes. A grey-haired man with a kind face came over and said, âAre you OK, mate?' I told him the song reminded me of my wife. This man, who was about seventy or eighty, introduced me to the composer of the song. The kind man's name was Herbie Flowers and he had written the song âGrandad' for Clive Dunn.
Herbie also co-founded the groups Blue Mink and Sky. He played some of the music for the film
The War of the Worlds
and he has appeared alongside many well-known musicians such as Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra, George Harrison, T. Rex, Elton John, Led Zeppelin and David Bowie. I was so lucky to meet such a polite and talented character that day. Herbie Flowers plays the bass guitar, the piano and the tuba and was even kind enough to e-mail me the beautiful song that had brought tears to my eyes. I could keep writing about this accomplished musician forever, but I must move on.
Now we go back to London. There is a famous hat shop in St James's Street called Lock # Co, which has been there since 1676. The present shop window probably dates back to the 1800s and I am sure the interior decor has not changed either. The shop once received a postcard from abroad and the only words on the envelope were: âThe best hatters in the world, London.' The letter was promptly delivered to number six St James's Street. Admiral Lord Nelson, Sir Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin and various kings, dukes, and princes all had their hats made to measure in this shop. I bet they still have some of the original head measurements of these famous people.
A story in circulation is that Lewis Carroll, the writer of
Alice in Wonderland
, got his mad hatter story from this shop. Apparently the hatmakers went a bit loony from inhaling the fumes of the chemicals used in the production of these expensive hats. Also, the internal metal rim transferred dangerous particles of lead into the brain of the wearer and over the years it caused a bit of mental disorder. So you had mad hat makers
mad hat wearers. Lead is known to be extremely dangerous to the human body but these days, safety standards are much higher.
A few doors down from number six we come to Berry Bros wine house. Above this shop existed the Texas Embassy to the Court of St James in 1836. Then there were a few battles between Mexico and the United States, the US won and the Texas embassy ceased to exist. The rooms are still there and so is the original flagpole. My American passengers loved this very obscure but true story. Out came the cameras as usual and up went the tip.
If you walk down Pall Mall you will arrive at Cockspur Street where there is a large restaurant called the Texas Embassy Cantina. This building was once owned by the White Star Line, a major shipping company that owned the famous Titanic. It was on these premises that they sold the first, and of course, the last tickets for the maiden voyage of that doomed liner. I mentioned this ship in an earlier chapter â it was a âone liner' for George Best. There is a hidden joke in there somewhere.
Down the side of Berry Bros is a very narrow passageway leading to Pickering Place and a sign on the side that tells its story. This is the smallest square in Great Britain and dates back to 1531, during the reign of King Henry VIII. Just before they built the square there was a nuns' leper colony on the site. It seems there was quite a lot of leprosy in medieval days. The very last duel with swords was fought to the death in this square. Soon after, duelling was outlawed. Gambling dens, bear baiting, dog fighting and bare knuckle fighting could also be found in this low-life square but today the place is extremely upmarket and tranquil. The original Georgian houses are still there and are hugely expensive.
At the bottom of St James's Street is St James's Palace, where King Charles I walked to his execution. As it was a cold day, the king asked for extra clothing to stop him shivering, worried that the onlookers might think he was shaking with fear. He was a man with great courage and dignity.
Driving to the top of St James's Street, we cross over Piccadilly into Albemarle Street where we find Browns Hotel. This is where Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his new invention, the telephone. Apparently he rang Buckingham Palace where a telephone had been installed and spoke to Queen Victoria. It is written that she said to Bell, âWe are not amused'.
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I was on the Hilton Hotel rank in Park Lane when two American media men came out and asked to be taken to Doris Stokes.
This lady was a fairly famous medium on the telly many years ago. She claimed to be able to talk to the dead and read people's minds from a distance. âOK,' I said, âCan I have the address?' She lived somewhere out in the sticks. The Yanks said they had heard that all London cab drivers knew everything. I was lost for words. âCan you not contact her mentally, or better still, give her a ring?' I asked them. So they rang this lady and she lived thirty miles out of town, and off we went.
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You never know who is going to emerge from these top hotels. I picked up Buzz Aldrin's wife once who chatted to me about her famous spaceman husband. They were the astronauts on Apollo 11 â Aldrin was the second man to step on the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong being the first. Is it not uncanny that the mother of the second man to walk on the moon had the maiden name of Marion Moon? Sadly, Aldrin was not in London at the time. I would have loved to have met him, he might have brought me back a cheese sandwich from the lunar surface!
Another time, probably in the late eighties, I spoke to Tom Jones. He was not as tall as I expected. Mr Jones was dressed in running gear, heading for the âgreen, green grass' of Hyde Park for a jog. This amazing Welsh singer has given pleasure to millions of lovers on the dance floors all over the world and he radiated one of the strongest personalities I have ever experienced. Well, most Welsh people do, don't they? Mr Jones could have been an opera singer, he certainly had the voice, and he also had the courtesy to speak to anybody that wanted to have a little chat. That is a rare quality, is it not?
On another occasion, I was on the rank outside the Inn on the Park in Park Lane when Amir Khan the boxer came out to show off his newly won champions belt. It was a world title belt and the trophy was nearly as big as Khan was. Again, another pleasant kind of a guy.
About twenty years ago, I was on my way to Mitre Square in the City with a teenage female passenger. When we arrived at our destination I wanted to tell this young girl what had happened in this square but it was dark and I did not want to frighten her. However, this was one of the murder sites of Jack the Ripper. In 1888, the mutilated body of Catherine Eddows was discovered in this square. Her reproductive organs and other vital bits had been removed.
Not far away is the Ten Bells public house. It was in this pub that Annie Chapman had her last drink. Apparently she left the pub and turned right into Hanbury Street, only to be butchered by an unknown assailant. Jack was the only suspect.
Jack the Ripper's last victim was Mary Kelly from Limerick, and she was the most mutilated of all his victims. She was found in her bed, the main part of her stomach and reproductive system removed and other organs strewn all over the room. Both her breasts had been sliced off and placed on the mantelpiece. There is very little evidence that Mary was a prostitute and her grave can be seen in St Patrick's Roman Catholic graveyard in Leytonstone, East London. Flowers appear on her grave every year. Who is that person who leaves flowers to someone who died over 120 years ago, I wonder? Weird, is it not.
I met some Americans who were keen on the gruesome activities of Jack, so I took them to the Ten Bells public house. It was closed at the time but the landlord saw my cab and let us in for a private view. It was like walking into the past, you could feel the atmosphere of more than one hundred years ago. This is
where some of Jack's victims supped their ale and gin. All of my passengers were in awe, they had never seen a place like it. This pub was used in two films about Jack the Ripper, one with Johnny Depp and the other for television with Michael Caine, both playing police inspector Frederick Abberline. The film people did not have to change much of the pub decor for the films because it looks exactly the same as it did 120 years ago.
The stories about a letter written in blood and the kidney sent through the post to the police were all hype. These stories were written by the editors of their own newspapers to boost the circulation. Many theories exist as to who the killer was but no one knows the answer and I think no one ever will, unless someone invents a time machine.
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In 1888, London was the largest city in the world. It is written that there were well over 1,000 known prostitutes in the Whitechapel slum area at that time. People were so poor they had nowhere to sleep. A double bed in a lodging house cost three pennies, a single bed cost tuppence, and the worst off paid a penny to hang on a rope. A number of ropes were strung from one wall to the opposite side of a room and people would fall asleep with both arms slung over the rope and their feet on the ground. If you were tired you would sleep anywhere. It must have been some sight to see all those human beings hanging on a rope fast asleep. It reminds me of a washing line for tired people, or puppets on a string.
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I remember the time a lady came to my cab window and said to me âlonesome?' I shook my head and said, âWell, maybe a little bit'. She then said, âNo, I want the place called Lonesome, near Streatham'. Well, after all my years driving a cab I had never heard of this place, so out comes my A to Z and there it was, just as she said. What a weird name for a place. I have since
been asked for Snodland in Kent, and a place well out of town called Ugley, in Essex. Talking of weird names, there are two more I must mention: Upper Dicker and Lower Dicker, in East Sussex. What sort of a person named these twin villages? I have just heard that the UK town called âDull' has been unofficially twinned with a town in America called âBoring'. How about that!
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The Irish Embassy is at Seventeen Grosvenor Place. This building was a gift from the Guinness Family to the Irish Government. The number seventeen is very appropriate, as St Patrick's Day falls on 17th March.
Just across the road is the rear wall of Buckingham Palace. In 1982, a man called Michael Fagan infiltrated the grounds, climbed up a drainpipe and entered the royal residence. He parked himself on the Queen's throne, drank her wine and then sat on the side of the monarch's bed and chatted with her for nearly an hour before the police arrived. What a blunder for the royal bodyguard. Mr Fagan had no intention of harming the Queen, in fact he adored Her Majesty.
Since then, the Queen's protection has been well and truly beefed up but a few years later I saw a group of women activists place a ladder on the same wall, climb it and drag another ladder up to the top of the newly-laid barbed wire. They were in the grounds before the police arrived but they were all arrested pretty quickly.
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I have been speaking quite a lot about the stars and other heavenly bodies that I have met. Look to the sky at night. This is what Patrick Moore did, and made a great living out of it. In 1957, Moore started presenting
The Sky at Night
, a monthly programme on astronomy. I believe the programme is still going, making it the world's longest running television series with the same presenter. He is now eighty-nine.
I picked Mr Moore up once and took him to a London University where he was going to give a lecture on astronomy. Patrick Moore told me he was a PT instructor in the RAF. He told me about the time he was a young man and two six-foot thieves set out to rob him. It was such a mistake for them. He walked away leaving the two would-be robbers lying unconscious on the pavement. They had picked on the wrong man. Sir Patrick Alfred Caldwell-Moore, to give him his full name, looked like an unmade bed on the passenger seat of my cab. He was wearing the most ill-fitting blue suit that I have ever seen. He was chairman of the now disbanded anti-immigration United Country party.
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I remember I had just completed a repair on a television set in Bickenhall Mansions off Baker Street and was in the lift with a ten-year-old girl on the way to the ground floor. Suddenly the lift stopped and all the lights went out. It was total darkness. I was feeling a little uneasy when out of the dark silence came a calm little voice saying, âDon't worry, the power will come back on for thirty seconds, it will be long enough for the lift to get us to the ground. It has happened before. Do trust me.' It was like my guardian angel had appeared in the darkness of the lift. Even though I could not see the little girl I felt reassured, and sure enough, on came the lights and the lift moved to the ground floor. The doors opened and the girl walked out of the lift and said, âTold you so'. She then disappeared, not knowing the mental relaxation that she had given to me.
Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister at that time and Arthur Scargill was the main union leader and they literally agreed on nothing. Thatcher's famous statement to Scargill was âThere will be no beer and sandwiches at Downing Street'. I thought it was a bit disrespectful.
There was lots of unrest. The miners were on strike in 1984â5, causing severe power cuts almost every day, hence the lift incident. The mounted police were a little heavy handed on the picket
lines and there were lots of pictures of bloodied miners being shown on the television. Some mining villages became ghost towns and families had to move to other towns. But it's all history now.