This is Tom and Francis with their dog, Milo.
I met them and stopped for nice chat recently on Denman Street; a location just off of Shaftesbury Avenue, behind the flashing altar to advertising that is Piccadilly Circus.
Tom and Francis are both Scottish, but have been in London for over twenty years. They’re both ‘Big Issue’ vendors, and have formed a solid friendship with each other on the streets of the capital.
When I met them, they were waiting outside a noodle bar, the owner being kind enough to give the pair a piping-hot noodle-fix every day for a knock-down price. If you look carefully, Tom (on the left) has his own chopsticks, which he produced from his jacket. Francis on the other hand hasn’t mastered the art of Far-Eastern cutlery (I know how he feels), and prefers to dig out his snack with a fork. As he said, in his broad Glaswegian accent;
“Och! It all goes in and doon’ the same way!”
Tom and Francis were exceptionally friendly, and I wish some of the stressed passengers I have in my taxi every now and then were able to adopt the same, laid-back attitude!
Cabbing around London, one of the saddest things I see on a daily basis are the large numbers of homeless people.
London is a city of immense wealth. Even in these thrifty times, it is possible to see people out enjoying themselves. West-End restaurants and bars are often heaving, large crowds pour out of glittering theatres every night, and towering office blocks continue to sprout up in the financial districts.
Amongst this however, there are still people sleeping rough.
Walk through any major area in London, and you’ll see examples of destitution; homeless people either begging or sleeping; huddled up in filthy, foul-smelling doorways with nothing more than a grubby sleeping bag or a few sheets of flimsy cardboard to keep themselves warm.
Sadly, the psychology of the human mind tends to make homeless individuals invisible.
Embarrassment, awkwardness, shame and, unfortunately with some people, disgust, leads passers-by to avert their gaze and walk on as quickly as possible. This is something I’ve been guilty of myself on many occasions.
Sometime ago, I remember seeing a beggar walk past a pub on Villiers Street; a crowded thoroughfare tucked alongside Charing Cross Station.
Being summertime, most of the drinking was being conducted outside, the boozers taking advantage of the warm evening air.
The beggar approached the crowd asking for change and, to a small degree, was successful in procuring a few coins.
However, one of the pub’s patrons decided a violent lecture was in order.
“You make me f***ing SICK. Why don’t you get a f***ing job, you low-life piece of ****.”
The mouthpiece who barked out this tirade was a huge bloke; over six foot tall with a massive gut and powerful arms. A typical bully, with an attitude so stereotypical, it was almost laughable.
As demonstrated above, when not being ignored, the homeless can be subjected to great hostility. Over the years, it has not been unbeknown for rough sleepers to be physically attacked and, in some cases, even murdered.
In 1999, the pop-group ‘Madness’ released a single entitled ‘Johnny the Horse.’ The song told the life-story of a tramp (known by his friends as Johnny the Horse) who was beaten and killed. As the lyric goes;
“Johnny the horse was kicked to death,
He died for entertainment.”
On a happier note, a few years ago, whilst learning ‘The Knowledge’ and studying the streets of London, I saw an extremely heart-warming sight.
It was a cold evening, a few days before Christmas, and I’d stopped at red lights on Oxford Street, just before Marble Arch. Being the festive season, Oxford Street was buzzing, packed with late-night shoppers. Shop displays glowed invitingly and, overhead, the traditional Christmas lights sparkled away their electric magic.
My attention was soon drawn though to a taxi, which had pulled up on the opposite side of the road (on double red-lines no less- an action which would lead to the driver being fined if he lurked there for too long).
Out of this cab climbed a short, stout cabbie who looked to be in his mid-late 60s. In his hand, he clutched a supermarket carrier bag.
Halfway between a walk and a run, he dodged across Oxford Street towards a souvenir shop. There, in the doorway, sat a West-Indian man; a down-and-out, with long, natty dreads. He was wrapped in a well-worn, grey coat, the window behind displaying cheap trinkets; plastic flags, tacky ashtrays and little Big Ben statues.
The cabbie approached the homeless fellow and knelt down beside him. The two appeared to be about the same age and were clearly familiar with each other. As he crouched on the tiled floor, the cabbie quickly took items out of the bag, showing them to his transient friend. The goods were all food-stuffs; packets of biscuits, crisps, tins of soft drink and so on.
The traffic light then turned green, and I had to drive off. I’ve never forgotten that scene though, and I often find myself wondering what story and history lay behind that bond.
One down and out I do know a bit more about is Clefrin Frederick, also known as ‘Mad Fred’ or ‘Fred the Tramp.’
I grew up in South Harrow in the 1980s and, at that time, Fred the Tramp was a well-known, local figure.
Originally from the island of Grenada, Fred had swapped the Caribbean’s lush beauty for the grey suburbs of North-West London.
To a child, Fred the Tramp could be a terrifying figure. His sported a huge, bristling beard (which would have given any cut-throat pirate a run for their money), and always wore rustling supermarket bags on his feet, often in varying states of decay.
Opposite the tube station, there was a small communal area, constructed from worn stones and containing wooden benches and a collection of bushes. Fred had commandeered this as his pitch, and he would hold court there, hoarding rubbish, knocking back Special Brew (he was a chronic alcoholic), talking to himself and shouting every now and then at passers-by.
His makeshift home was also opposite the area’s toughest pub; ‘The Constellation’ (aka ‘The Con’), where Fred no doubt managed to scrounge the odd pint.
Although we lived in a flat and had no garden, the Council provided my parents with a pitch on the nearby allotments. Fred could often be seen here too, loitering amongst the long, muddy strips. He even introduced a dartboard to the allotments; attaching it to the Council’s fading blue rules and notices sign.
At other times, I’d peer through the living-room’s net curtains, and see Fred tramping across the estate’s car-park in his improvised footwear, muttering away to himself.
Although ‘Mad Fred’ initially appeared an intimidating character, he was in fact rather popular amongst those adults who took the time to chat and get to know him.
He was also something of a philosopher, and would leave shabby, improvised signs lying around for all to see- rather like an early prelude to Banksy. Amongst his written wisdom was this gem, which I assume was a reference to the then current Cold War.
“All good things must come to an end, but there’s no use pushing the wrong button in this computer.”
My father often spoke to Mad Fred. He first came to know him when his van once broke down. Fred approached my Dad and, after a look under the vehicle’s bonnet, he located the problem and soon had the van running again.
It turned out that Fred was a gifted mechanic.
Before turning to the streets, he’d been employed by the London Fire Brigade, working as a mechanic on their fire engines.
Fred also had a wife and children, but sadly this relationship was destroyed. Laden with heart-ache, he’d turned to the streets and alcohol, gradually morphing into the shambling, bearded figure whom the public came to regard as the crazed tramp of Northolt Road.
Luckily, Frederick’s story has a happy ending; one which is quite unbelievable, and a classic example of ‘you couldn’t script it.’
In the mid-1970s, Fred had owned a house, which was repossessed by the building society. They sold the house ten years later, for a tidy profit. However, they refused to hand over Fred’s share, claiming that he was “incapable of handling his own affairs.”
Whilst he was living rough, Fred was in fact owed some £50,000.
He would often approach the building society but, with bags on his feet and an alcoholic haze surrounding him, he would be sent right out.
Fred finally managed to secure his cash in the early 1990s, with the help of a kindly local shop keeper, who contacted his solicitors and spent seven months fighting his corner. The building society finally handed over £50,000 plus £6,000 in interest.
But the story does not end there.
Suited and cleaned up, Mad Fred was now able to afford a trip back to his native Grenada.
It was there that he discovered his father, who had passed away whilst Fred was living rough 1,000s of miles away, had left his son a home and a large plot of land.
After years of heartache, alcoholism and hard-living, Fred had gained his very own slice of paradise.
I don’t know what the solution is for London’s homeless population. Nor am I naïve enough to believe that many vagrants do not carry extremely complex issues with them
However, as Mad Fred’s story demonstrates; never be judgemental.
The people we see huddled in London’s doorways, subways and stairwells are all individuals.
Alcohol and drug abuse, depression, leaving the army and being unable to cope with civilian life, financial problems, loosing loved ones, escaping violence; these are all possible causes of homelessness, and each and every down-and-out sleeping rough in London tonight will have their own separate tale to tell.
When out prowling the streets of London for a fare, you generally expect to pick up people on business, tourists enjoying the wonders of London, or those who’ve had one-too-many, and need to be taken home so they can slump into their beds with a pounding head.
However, on the odd occasion, you’ll come across a job in which the general rules of being a cabbie are turned completely on their head.
A few months ago, I was driving along West End Lane; a fairly long road which winds through West Hampstead, boasting lots of fancy apartments, bars, shops and restaurants. Just off of West End Lane, there’s a road called ‘Broadhurst Gardens‘ where, in 1962, Decca Records had a studio. It was at this studio that a little known group of Liverpudlians named The Beatles failed an audition. After their disappointment in West Hampstead, the cheeky Scousers managed to sign a deal with Parlaphone instead, and the rest is history.
Anyway, a few months ago, I’d just passed the junction with Broadhurst Gardens, when I was flagged down by a rugged looking man in his early 40s. The gentleman was wearing a black t-shirt, his arms boasting a formidable gallery of tattoos. In these art-clad arms, he clasped a young girl in a pink jacket, no older than two.
As he climbed in, I could tell that the man was stressed, but amicable.
“Royal Free Hospital, please mate.”
“Is it for her?” I ask, nodding towards the girl- his daughter.
The young girl is clearly upset; she looks woozy and tear traces are smeared down her cheeks.
“Yeah,” replies the father as we set off. “We were in the play-park there, she fell of a climbing frame and bashed her head… I’m really worried about her; she’s gone all quiet.”
Despite his obvious and understandable worry, the passenger is very friendly, with a strong London accent. I try to help him relax by asking him a little about himself. It turns out that he met and married a Norwegian woman, and now lives there (and, consequently, is learning the language). His young daughter was born in Norway. As I drive, we both become increasingly concerned about her; her eyes keep slumping shut, and she looks increasingly ‘out of it.’
This was a journey during which I found myself cursing the road system of London profusely. West Hampstead to the Royal Free Hospital is a relatively short distance. However, as we strove to get the young girl to a medical expert, we were plagued by infuriating obstacles at every turn.
First off were roadworks- the frustrating ‘temporary lights’ which seem to stay red for an eternity, and only allow cars through in 30-second bursts of green. We had to queue for ages, and I found my fingernails biting into the steering wheel. How I longed for a flashing blue emergency light to stick on my roof. As it was, despite having a sick little girl on board, I had to stew in the traffic like everyone else.
After nudging through the temporary lights, I decided to take a shortcut. Although this was traffic-free, the privilege came at a cost- the route was a speed-bump hotspot. Every few feet, I had to slow the cab and crunch over high mounds of brick and tarmac; not good when you’ve got a youngster on board with a suspected head-injury.
As the journey progressed, the concerned father kissed his daughter on the head and glanced at me in the rear view mirror. “She’s very sleepy” he said in a tone; calm yet worried in equal measure. I could see what he meant’ the child was eerily quiet, and I was becoming rather concerned about her wellbeing.
“It’s OK; we’re not far at all now” I reply.
However, moments after uttering this promise, we hit a snag. Although the road I’d chosen to take is cluttered and narrow, it’s usually very quick and easy to ply thorough. I’ve never encountered problems along here…. until now.
At the top of the road, there’s a hotel. As we approach the junction, a Luton lorry, decked out in the hotel’s colourful livery, swings out of the driveway, probably completing a food delivery or beginning a laundry pick-up. The manoeuvre is sharp and dangerous, and even my passenger remarks that was “well dodgy.”
I can sense what is going to happen next… at the top of the road, a passenger car has appeared and is now heading towards the lorry. With parked cars on both sides, there is absolutely no place for the vehicles to pass each other. The passenger car keeps going…. and before long, the van in front of us has ground to a halt.
The man in the back bites his lip and holds his daughter, looking down at her with increasing worry. Although I’m normally a very passive person, I decide that enough is enough. With a strange mixture of panic and anger, I jump out of the cab and walk up to the van-driver’s window.
“What the hell’s going on?” I ask.
The van driver shrugs his shoulders.
“He just got out; says he won’t move.”
As the bemused driver says this, I look towards the passenger car- and notice that it’s empty, the driver’s door wide open. It takes me a few seconds to register what’s happening.
I look around the other side of the van and see a man in his late 50s pacing up and down.
“Oi! Is that your car?” I ask.
“You’ve got to move it. Now.”
The man ignores me. He puts his hands into his pockets and continues to pace, shuffling towards the front of the van where he walks back and forth in defiance.
“I’ve got a sick child in my cab” I explain, “move the car, NOW! Or I’ll move it myself!”
The car’s driver looks up at me through round spectacles.
“That’s your taxi?”
“YES! I’m trying to get a child to the Royal Free Hospital, MOVE THE CAR!” The frustration is becoming unbearable.
The driver slowly looks again at the taxi. He seems to have a moment of clarity, whereupon the absurdity of the situation he’s placed himself in becomes apparent.
“Oh… er… good for you” he exclaims. With his head down, he returns to his car and reverses backwards. As he clears the path, the van moves forward and I leap back into the cab.
“Thanks for doing that, mate” says my passenger.
“There was no choice” I reply, “We’d have been there all day if that bloke had his way.”
Minutes later we pull up outside the hospital’s Accident and Emergency department. I tell my passenger that there’s no charge, “Just get your daughter in there.” The man quickly grips my hand in thanks, and tells me his mother’s London address if I ever want to pop around for a cup of tea!
As I leave the hospital, I reflect upon the vexations of the journey; roadworks, speed humps, near-misses and the crazed stubbornness of the public. It takes me a while to calm down, but as time passes I can smile at the farcical nature of it all. Just as well, because if I let it get to me too much, I’ll be needing a trip to hospital myself!
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!