It was a Sunday afternoon and rather quiet; a pleasant enough day. I decided to have a drive through Covent Garden; a maze of streets not far from the north bank of the Thames.
Covent Garden in the 1960s
Covent Garden was once a notorious slum; a hotbed of crime. Things were so bad here that, in 1749, the ‘Bow Street Runners‘- effectively the UK’s first organised police force, were established, in order to bring some order to the area (as you can probably tell, I adore London history, and like to mention snippets of it whenever I can).
Nowadays, Covent Garden is a tourist magnet; an area buzzing with boutique shops, street performers and cobbled roads. It was along one of these cobbled streets that I was flagged down by a tourist; a young American fellow.
As he climbed in, he explained that the taxi wasn’t in fact for him.
“There’s an old guy; just around the corner- in the pub. We’ve been having a drink with him… he’s crazy, been tellin’ us a bunch of stories!”
As I turned into the requested street; an even narrower thoroughfare, I immediately spotted the ‘old guy’ in question. A frail, but sprightly looking gentleman in a bright, scarlet-red coat which stretched down past his knees. Firmly fastened with a row of immaculate, shining buttons, the coat also boasted an impressive barrage of medals and, upon the fellow’s head, there sat a smart, black, three-pointed hat. The gentleman was quite clearly a Chelsea Pensioner; a former long-serving soldier, who now resided at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea.
As I pulled up, the Chelsea Pensioner bade goodbye to his young American pals. “Take care lads; nice meeting yer’!”
I quickly got out of the cab and went to help the elderly gentleman into the taxi. Although frail, he had a surprisingly strong grip, and simply needed help to steady himself on his feet.
“I’ve been having dizzy spells” he explained as we drove off towards his destination- The Albert pub near Victoria. “It’s the nicotine patches what’ve been doing it.”
“You’re trying to stop smoking?” I ask.
“Aye… but those patches make me feel ill. And dizzy. Doctor told me to forget about them; said I may as well keep smoking! I’m 87 now… no need to be dealing with nicotine patches at my age.”
“You’ve got a distinctive accent, Sir” I say, “you’re from up north originally?”
“Aye; from Doncaster… not been back since I were’ a kid though.”
I couldn’t resist asking the elderly gentleman a little about his past. I had to shout rather loudly though; the old soldier’s hearing was on the wane somewhat, and my taxi’s intercom isn’t the best!
“I left school when I were’ 14. There was a big mining industry in those days of course, and my father told me I was best off going down’ pit. I didn’t want none of that though so I went straight to the army recruitment office; was in the army by the time I were’ 15.”
“I were’ in Palestine just after the war. I were’ shot and injured there. I spent over a year in traction; they used lead weights to pull my bones back into place.”
The Chelsea Pensioner (he told me his real name, but I shall call him ‘Edward’ for the sake of privacy) then went onto tell me how, in the 1950s, he worked as an inspector at a factory, where ejector seats were made for fighter planes with new-fangled jet engines.
Testing an ejector seat in the 1950s
However, perhaps his most poignant story happened fairly recently. Edward told me about his wife; a lady whom he’d been with for many years and, naturally, loved very dearly.
“She had to go in a nursing home a few years back… she didn’t stand a chance. It were’ in the news- there were’ an accident…. they were given something to drink. The workers thought it were’ blackcurrant juice, but it were’ bleach. Purple cleaning fluid. Some of them died. She didn’t last ten days in there.”
Edward has clearly seen some terrible things in his long life, but he’s a cheerful chap and we share a joke and a laugh. When we arrive at the pub, I go to help him out, but the door lock is playing up. I have to run back to the driver’s seat- in a bit of a panic- I’ve pulled up at the only place I can; near a pedestrian crossing, something which isn’t appreciated by the council and their cameras. If I’m snapped in the action by a sneaky camera, I’ll be fined- and the excuse that I was helping a respected Chelsea Pensioner out of the cab won’t be viewed as sufficient.
After some fiddling with the lock, Edward is finally set free.
Being a sunny day, there are lots of people standing outside with their cold glasses of booze, and Edward, in his bright, red, medal-adorned coat attracts immediate attention. A nearby tourist instinctively raises their camera and clicks a picture. Women lean and whisper to each other, and men stand in mild awe; one hand tucked in their pocket, the other clutching a pint.
I say goodbye to Edward and watch him as he makes his way through the pub door. Although he’s oblivious to the fact he’s something of a celebrity, I’m sure he’ll have no trouble in making more friends and paying for his drinks!