Today, the 9th March 2017, a new book focusing on London goes on sale- ‘For the Love of London‘, compiled by Conrad Gamble.
The book features many contributors including Stephen Fry, Dom Joly and the late Dame Zaha Hadid, all saying what makes this wonderful city great for them. I’m also very pleased to say that I make an appearance!
(Please note; although I have used stars to block them out, this post contains some offensive words)
As I often say, the vast majority of people I meet in my cab are polite, friendly and pose no hassle whatsoever.
However, every now and then, you will encounter the sort of job which made you wish you’d driven on by.
January is always quiet in the taxi trade; so much so that, in London Taxi driver slang, it is known as the ‘Kipper Season.’
The origins of this phrase are uncertain, but the two main theories are that it either refers to the amount of work being ‘flat’ (i.e. like a kipper), or that kippers, being a relatively cheap food, is all a cabbie can afford to feed himself with during the slow months.
Anyway, the kipper season is a pretty desperate time (made even worse at the moment of course due to the current, dire economic climate which is having a negative impact on many), and passengers are very difficult to come by.
During the slow season, it is not uncommon to drive around for well over an hour or two; cab empty and hair being torn out as you strive to locate a fare; your precious reserve of diesel being roasted in the process.
A way of conserving diesel of course is to find a taxi rank, but these are always chock-full. A few days ago, I saw the rank at Waterloo stretching right around the station; approximately ¼ of a mile.
Bearing this in mind, when you see a hand go out during the Kipper season, you don’t hesitate to snap the job up with little rational thought.
Such a job happened last Friday evening.
I was driving along Old Street and, although a piercing headache was throbbing away over my right temple, I was happy that I had at least covered my costs for the week, so was no longer working at a loss.
Suddenly, on the other side of the road, a hand went up, accompanied by a whistle. The hailer was a short, young man, smartly dressed. He twirled his hand around in the air; a signal often made when people require you to spin the cab around and head in the other direction.
Quickly checking my mirrors and blind spot, I put the wheel lock on and spun around accordingly. The young fellow came to the window and appeared polite enough.
“Cheers for that, mate.”
“No problem. Where do you want to go?”
His polite nature vanished suddenly as he ignored the question and watched his four mates jog over. Apparently, they’d been a few yards away, trying to hail a cab to no avail. In they piled; their laughter and rowdiness making the intercom strain, whistle and rattle.
The door slammed and they chatted and laughed amongst themselves. The taxi was pulled over, hazard lights blinking, but still in the way of traffic.
“Where are we going?” I ask again.
They continue to jostle each other.
“Lads, I need a destination” I say a little more sharply.
“Oh… hang on…”
“Ha ha! Where…where are we going?” slurs one of the group.
Out comes the I-phone, his thumb scrolling the portable internet. A blended stench of beer fumes, tobacco breath and an array of various aftershaves wafts through the Perspex divide, the combination of which does my headache no favours.
“Erm… do you know Browns, mate?”
“Yep, no problem.”
The drunkest member pipes up again.
“That’s it! Yeah! Browns!” he slurs, “Browns– the strip joint! We wanna’ go and see the slags dancing! Those f****** slags, ha ha!”
The young gentleman was indeed right as to the nature of the club- Browns is one of London’s seedier entertainments; a famous and long-established lap-dancing club, spilling garish pink and blue neon flashes across the junction of Hackney Road and Shoreditch High Street.
Four of the passengers appear to be relatively sober and chat boisterously amongst themselves with good humour.
It is the scrawny, heavily inebriated young fellow sitting directly behind me who is the real pain in the proverbial.
I hear the various switches, located on the passenger door, being clicked and snapped as he strives to wind the window down.
“What is this?” he slurs… “Why can’t you get a proper f****** vehicle?!”
He then drunkenly turns towards his chuckling mates and makes further, charming comments about the women who dance in Browns and their various assets.
Now that the window is finally down, he starts to shout abuse at the public.
“Bus w******!” he laughs, actively encouraged by his pals.
“Bus w******!” he shouts again, passing a line of people waiting in the cold at a bus stop.
“Ha ha! You know that dontcha’?” he manages to ask the others, “that scene in the Inbetweeners!”
(For those unaware, The Inbetweeners is a popular Channel 4 comedy, about a group of teenage misfits at sixth-form college.
In one episode, they drive to London, seeking nightlife and excitement. Boastful that they have the privilege of a car, one of the group decides to shout out the insulting phrase, “bus w******” at a group of innocent bystanders waiting by a bus stop.
The joke backfires when their car is abruptly made to stop at a set of red-lights- and two, burly looking men from the bus-stop walk over to teach the group a lesson. It is funny of course, because it is fiction, and the joke is on the boys themselves; their pathetic immaturity and the consequences which follow.
Sadly, in this real-life re-enactment, no such humour is generated, although the drunk’s mates seem to find it funny and laugh uproariously).
Bringing his head back in from the open window, the little troublemaker surveys the road ahead.
“Where is this bloke going? For f**** sake? We want Browns.”
I’m not sure exactly what route he wants, but Old Street to Browns lap-dancing establishment is the simplest route I’ve had all week; straight all the way. In Knowledge speak it would be described thus: ‘forward Old Street, comply Old Street roundabout, leave by Old Street continued, forward Hackney Road… set down Browns on left.’ Simple!
I can only imagine that the drunk’s head is spinning, a symptom which has lead him to believe he is been driven around all over the place. Quite how someone can be so intoxicated at 8.15pm in the evening I do not know.
The drunk then brushes the seat on which he’s sitting and mutters loudly to himself… “it’s clean… clean in here… ha ha! Bet this ****’s never had anyone drunk in here before.”
Of course I’ve conveyed drunks before, but this is the first time I’ve ever had anyone complain about my cab being clean.
In cases such as this, many cabbies would feel obliged to pull over and politely ask the rowdy bunch to vacate the vehicle. However, we are very close to our destination and to ask such a thing would certainly create confrontation and a ‘scene’; things I don’t need with my already aching head. Best to just get them there and have done with it.
As we approach, I hear further banter; a line both clichéd and tiresome which is commonly employed by those out on the binge:
“You know we haven’t got any money, dontcha, cabbie?! Ha ha! Don’t expect us to be paying ya!”
Even as I pull up outside the club, the drunkest of the group is barking at me, “No! It’s on HACKNEY ROAD… Hackney Road…. We want Hackney Road!”
One of his friends tells him that we are in fact here, and to shut up. The drunk waves off his scolder and fumbles for his wallet. The digital meter, with its little, glowing red numbers, states that the total fare is £5.40.
“It’s ok, I’ve got this…”
His mates pile out, leaving the heavily drunk fellow alone in the back.
As he tries to stand, he tumbles around, rather like a toddler in a playpen. Gripping a yellow handle by the door, he steadies himself and stuffs a £20 onto the pay-tray. A little way up the kerb, a young street-sweeper has paused to watch the spectacle, smiling and shaking his head in disbelief.
“There you go, mate,” he burps.
I hand him back a £10 note and start to count out the remaining change- but he staggers off after his pals, arms held aloft like a gibbon, before I have time to hand it over. I’ll assume that’s a tip then!
Driving off, I feel immense pity for the lap-dancing girls who have to put up with such characters in even closer quarters… then again, I’m certain the club’s bouncers, decked out in their long, black Crombie coats and smart-bow ties, will have plenty to get their teeth into later on…
I was recently driving along ‘Parkway’; a busy road lined with bars and restaurants which ploughs through trendy Camden.
Being a Monday afternoon, it wasn’t exactly the busiest part of the day for the area, and I wasn’t really expecting a job. If truth be told, I was in fact heading towards Camley Street, a small, Camden backwater which happens to be home to a popular cabbie’s café (where a cup of will set you back a mere 60p!)
However, whilst waiting at a set of traffic lights, a woman jogged towards me, arm held aloft.
“I need to get to Earl’s Court please.”
From Camden, that’s a very good journey indeed, and I was more than happy to forfeit my cuppa!
Only problem was, we were in the middle of Camden’s complex one-way system and, in order to head in the right direction, a bit of twisting and turning along a number of small side-streets was required. Whenever I have to do this (which, unsurprisingly in London, is quite often), I often quickly explain the reason to my passenger, for fear that it looks like I’m deliberately going around the block in order to nudge the meter up!
“No problem; you’re the boss! Do what you have to do.”
The passenger was most cheerful and clearly very friendly; an energetic woman colourfully dressed in a long, purple coat and red hat.
“Have you been shopping at the markets?” I asked, turning into yet another one-way street.
“Oh no, I wish! No, I’ve been working at rehearsals.”
“Oh… are you an actress?”
“No, nothing that glamorous I’m afraid! I’m a make-up artist; been working on a sitcom for the BBC.”
Now that I’m finally out of Camden’s labyrinth one-way network and heading through the quicker, tranquil roads of Regent’s Park, I ask the passenger where exactly in Earl’s Court she’s heading for.
“Redcliffe Square, please; I’m meeting a friend there.”
I’m interested to learn a little bit more about my passenger’s experience in make-up.
“You probably get asked this all the time,” I ask, “but what shows and films have you worked on?”
“Oh, quite a lot… I’ve been doing makeup professionally for over 25 years now. I suppose my favourite job I worked on was ‘Frankenstein’; the one directed in the 1990s by Kenneth Branagh.”
I’m quite familiar with that version, mainly because the creature cobbled together from various corpses is played by Robert De Niro; a popular actor amongst cabbies thanks to his role as ‘Travis Bickle’, the troubled loner in the classic 1976 movie, ‘Taxi Driver.’
It is perhaps the most clichéd question I could possibly ask on the subject, but I can’t help but inquire;
“What was De Niro like to work with?…”
“He’s very approachable… a polite man but, when working; whilst in character, he is deeply intense.
I worked on Saving Private Ryan too; that was an interesting job. Very upsetting though.
I did make-up on the opening scene… you know; where the soldiers storm the beach and get shot at and blasted from all sides.
It made you realise what those men went through. For that scene, they used a lot of amputees; guys with arms and legs missing. False limbs were made, and then blown off; graphic stuff. That wasn’t filmed in France though; they did it on a beach over in Ireland.”
“Do you get to travel much with your job then?” I ask.
“Quite a lot yes. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful; I know how lucky I am, but it can get pretty tiring sometimes; especially when you’re stuck in an open field for 12 hours in the freezing rain, it doesn’t feel that glamorous!
I did another film though with Kenneth Branagh; ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ and that was wonderful… got to spend lots of time in the Mediterranean sunshine; a real treat!”
By now, we’ve hit the inevitable traffic. I apologise for the hitch, and start to wind through a number of twisting shortcuts.
“Oh, don’t worry about it” my passenger reassures me.
“I grew up in London; I know what the roads are like around here.
When I was younger, I used to drive around town all the time. It was so much easier back then; traffic didn’t seem quite as bad, you could park a lot easier. No cameras watching your every move- that’s the worst thing, isn’t it? You know the ‘Ritz’ Hotel; where they have that covered walkway outside?”
I do indeed know it. The passenger is referring to a fancy pedestrian walkway; a colonnade sheltered by a long, fancy roof. It runs along the front of the famous hotel; the windows and blue-coated doormen offering a tantalising glimpse into the luxury which lies within.
“Well, I was just a kid at the time; only about 19. I’d just passed my driving test, and I became the proud owner of an old Mini.
I went all around London in it and, early one Sunday morning, I drove through the Ritz’s walkway! Ha ha! It was like something out of the ‘Italian Job’! You’d never get away with that now would you; the CCTV would catch you out like a shot!”
The image which this conjures up in my mind makes me laugh so much that I nearly have to pull the taxi over! The make-up artist laughs too, amused at the impact her tale of juvenile anarchy has on me.
“I bet you’ll never be able to look at the Ritz in quite the same way again now, will you?!”
Usually, I’d take such a story with a pinch of salt, but the passenger is certainly eccentric enough to have committed such a reckless stunt!
As we drive on, I’m reminded of a film; revolutionary in its make-up and special effects which was filmed in the very square to which we are headed.
“Going back to movie make-up,” I say, “do you know the film, ‘An American Werewolf in London’?”
“Ohh, of course I do… it was the very first film I worked on!”
“You’re kidding? Did you know that they actually filmed that on Redcliffe Square?!”
“I do indeed… “
She pauses and looks out of the window briefly, clearly remembering, and then smiles to herself.
“Didn’t really think about it until you mentioned it, but I’m returning to where my career started aren’t I?”
To those unaware, ‘An American Werewolf in London’ is a film which has steadily gained the status of cult classic.
Released in 1981, the movie tells the story of two young, American friends; David and Jack who, as the story begins, are backpacking across the windswept, Yorkshire Moors.
Seeking a hot meal and a cup of tea, the pair come across a rather sinister pub called ‘The Slaughtered Lamb’.
(London has its very own ‘Slaughtered Lamb’ pub, named in homage to its famous movie namesake. It can be found on Great Sutton Street in Clerkenwell, and has a great music venue downstairs).
After being made to feel rather unsettled by the somewhat sinister, cagey locals, the two Americans leave the pub and resume their hike across the moors…
However, shortly after leaving the pub and as night sets in, the pair are attacked by a large and wild, vicious beast. Jack is killed instantly but David, who is severely injured, survives and slips into a coma.
When he awakes several weeks later, David finds himself lying in a London hospital bed.
The authorities tell him that he and Jack were ambushed by a crazed lunatic, but David knows better and insists that the attacker was a creature; a werewolf. Naturally, his bizarre recollections are brushed off as a symptom of the trauma through which he has been.
After being discharged from medical care, David is invited home by a young nurse; Alex Price (played by Jenny Agutter) who has rather fallen in love with the young American. Her flat is on Redcliffe Square, near Earls Court.
As he recuperates, David is haunted by gruesome nightmares and visions of his dead friend, Jack. Every time Jack appears- including a haunting in the Redcliffe Square apartment- he appears to be in an advanced state of decay. He warns David that, as he has been clawed by a werewolf, he is destined to become one himself.
Sure enough, on the full moon, and whilst Alex is on night-duty at the hospital, David undergoes a startling and painful transformation… Never before has Redcliffe Square witnessed something so terrifying!
Following the metamorphosis, David- in werewolf form- proceeds to go on a midnight rampage across London; feasting on a number of hapless victims.
In one of the film’s most famous scenes, the beast finds its way into Tottenham Court Road tube station and chases a late-night commuter along the eerily deserted walkways before cornering him on an escalator…
The following morning, David has returned to his human form. Despite waking up in the unusual location of London Zoo, he has no memory of his violent antics from the night before… and it takes a talkative London cabbie to make him realise what his nocturnal self has become!
(I must say, I wish I could drive from Earl’s Court to Trafalgar Square that quickly; it would do wonders for my blood pressure!)
After failing to get the police or authorities to take him seriously, David is forced to roam the streets of London and, as night falls, he finds himself in the ‘Eros Cinema’ on Piccadilly Circus.
(The Eros was a cinema which used to screen films of a more adult nature. Back in 1981, the area around Soho and Piccadilly Circus was notorious for its seediness and attractions of a more red-lit nature. The Eros closed in 1985, and has since been replaced by a far more clean-cut Gap clothing store).
Being a full moon, David once again warps into a werewolf. Bursting out of the grubby cinema, he proceeds to cause havoc in the West End, as the following clip demonstrates (Warning! Some if it’s a bit gory!)
For this amazing sequence, director John Landis was granted permission to completely close Piccadilly Circus off to the public for a night-time shoot.
All of the people you can see are actors, all of the vehicles carefully choreographed. The only other film to have been granted this amount of access to this famous London landmark was the more recent Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
When the American Werewolf in London scene was being prepared, the film crew had to do a sweep of the area, making sure all entrance points were closed, and no members of the public were around to stumble upon the carefully organised set.
There is a story (probably an urban legend, but fun all the same!) that an elderly homeless fellow, tucked away and fast asleep in an alleyway was missed by these roaming checks.
A few hours later, when he awoke, the filming was well underway; complete with crashing cars, screaming actors and a marauding, animatronic werewolf… needless to say, the elderly tramp received quite a shock!
* * *
“I was 16 years old when I got that job” continues the make-up artist. “Gosh, I was a precocious kid; a little snot really! I just went up to them and asked them to take me on. I practically insisted.
But you could do that in those days- it was certainly a lot easier to get into that business than it is today. Nowadays, you have to go through all sorts of hoop-jumping; lots of expensive courses and training.
On the American Werewolf set, I was just a tea girl; they had me running all over the place. I got to see things though; I picked up lots of knowledge on set.
I remember seeing one of the werewolf models; it was on a sort of see-saw contraption, and I got to move that up and down a bit.. quite primitive really, but then I still think models and puppets like that are miles better than the computer animation they use today, don’t you agree? You can’t beat having something solid in front of you; you know; something that actually exists. I learnt a lot on that job, and I’ll always be grateful to them.”
We finally arrive at Redcliffe Square and the friendly make-up artist bids me a cheerful farewell, leaving a generous tip in the process.
Putting the cab in gear, I drive off, turn the corner, and drive past the apartment where a team of talented make-up artists worked their magic all those years ago.