I adore history, especially that of the modern kind and, every now and then, I’m lucky enough to meet someone in my taxi who has directly experienced the effects of recent history; people who have lived through certain eras, and have played witness to chaotic periods which shaped the course of the previous century.
Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting one such person.
I’d just dropped a gentleman off and, as he walked around to the window to pay, raindrops began to splash on the windscreen. Inclement weather is always good for business and, to a cabbie, raindrops really are pennies from heaven. When the skies open up, hands go up too as people strive to avoid a soaking.
Sure enough, before the passenger had even finished paying, a woman eagerly approached, enquiring if I would soon be free. I gave her an affirmative thumbs up.
“St Pancras International, please!”
Despite the downpour, the new passenger was incredibly cheerful and bubbly. As I turned the cab around and snapped the wipers on, I asked whereabouts she was travelling to from St Pancras.
“Paris” she replied; “not a holiday I’m afraid; I live there now, out in the suburbs.”
“That’s certainly not a French accent though” I smile.
“No; I’m from Berlin originally.”
I told my passenger that I’m hoping to take a short break to Berlin at some point in the next few months.
“Ah, you should. It’s a great city. Have you ever been to Germany before?”
I have indeed been to Germany before, but I was very young at time. The last time I was there, Germany was still divided between West and East.
We spent one Christmas visiting my Grandfather, who then worked at ‘Ramstein Air Base’; an immense installation, its huge size firmly securing it as the headquarters of the United States Air Forces in Europe. Even today, Ramstein has the largest American community outside the US.
My main memory of the airbase is of its vast department store and the ‘Garfield’ merchandise which sat upon the well-stocked shelves (a sound indicator that we were on the Capitalist side of the Cold War; I doubt the Soviet bases readily made plush toys so readily available to their servicemen!)
“East and West,” muses my passenger, “ah; I remember those days well.”
Like so many Europeans I meet in the Taxi, the lady spoke perfect, fluent English.
“It must have been quite an experience to live through such times?”
“It was, yes. I was lucky; I was born and grew up in West Germany. My parents however were originally from the East. They defected.
You see, my parents were intellectuals and they wished to train to be teachers. However, in Eastern Germany, this was not so easy. Being Communist, the authorities liked to give university precedence to those from agricultural or industrial backgrounds.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing of course; it is good for all people to receive an education. However, the Communists simply flipped the situation around, favouring one group over another.
My parents realised that it would be very difficult to become teachers in the East. Even if they were accepted, they would have to bow to and promote Soviet ideology, and this is something they knew they would not be able to stomach.
Defecting was a very dangerous, very tense act to carry out. It was illegal of course, and the penalties if caught were severe.
It was also an awful decision to make and, even though those who loved them actively encouraged them to go, they knew that leaving family and friends behind would be very painful indeed.”
“So how did they manage to escape?”
“Well, they finally left in 1961; around the time construction on the Berlin Wall really began to get underway. When that started to go up, they knew they had to get out quickly.
They defected by train. It was still possible to travel between east and west in this way, but is was risky. Naturally my parents couldn’t take any possessions with them at all- to do so would have aroused immediate suspicion. They had to leave everything they owned behind. The only luggage they took was a small brief-case; carried by my father. They had to give the impression they were only making a short day trip.
Thankfully they made it safely to the West without the guards suspecting.
Once there though, my father received a huge shock- when he opened his case, he discovered lots of silver-wear in there; expensive cutlery and so on. My Granny had put it in there without him knowing! She meant well of course, but my father was furious! Can you imagine if he’d been searched? The game would truly have been over…
With nothing to their name, they moved into a one-room apartment. They’d left a nice house with a large garden behind in the east, all of their possessions and memories, friends and family.
But they were free.
When I was growing up, it was possible every now and then to travel into East Germany to visit family. However, it was like calling on them in prison.We were allowed to take small parcels of gifts, but the border guards would search these very thoroughly.”
“What was your main impression of the East?” I ask.
“Grey. It was all so very, very grey; devoid of colour. Especially by the late 1980s, the people looked very depressed and downtrodden indeed.
When we visited, I remember seeing other children the same age as me- waiting in long queues outside shops. They didn’t even know what they queuing for; their mothers would hear a rumour that something or other had appeared in a shop, and they would send their children out to fetch whatever it was, hoping it would be worth the long wait.
When the wall finally came down, that was one of the best days of our lives. I remember a group of our cousins running across a road towards us; their eyes wet with joy.”
Sadly, we’ve reached out destination very quickly. As the gothic spires of St Pancras International loom into view, I find myself wanting to hear lots more about this Berliner’s family and experiences. This is the downside of meeting wonderful people in the cab; they’re gone all too soon.
I doubt she often has the opportunity to speak so openly about her parents’ experience, and it seems like our chat has sent many memories rushing to the surface. As we say our goodbyes, the woman lets out a melancholy sigh and shakes her head.
“Enclosing people with a big wall. Just imagine! What ever possessed them to do it?”
* * * *
The Berlin Wall was famously torn down in November 1989. Today, parts of it can be seen and touched right here in London.
The largest section is to be found in the grounds of the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth. The slab boasts an excellent example of the type of graffiti which characterized the western side of the wall. This section of the wall was located near the Brandenburg Gate, and was acquired by the Museum in January 1991; not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A photo of the wall-section can be seen at the top of this post.
Inside the museum itself, there is a gallery dedicated to the Cold War and the Berlin Wall.
Another piece of the Berlin Wall was introduced to London earlier this year, when a statue of President Ronald Reagan was unveiled on Grosvenor Square. Set in the statue’s plinth is a plaque, which contains a small block of the wall, along with a quote; Reagan’s plea to Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”
Whilst out working in the cab, London-based radio stations can be a useful tool.
As well as warding off loneliness and boredom, their news and traffic updates can provide key information to a London Taxi Driver, and as such I’ll often have the radio on as low background noise, quietly ticking away with the regularity of a metronome.
Once in a while, the traffic bulletin will warn of “massive delays” at one of London’s major railway terminals. This, especially when coupled with the complete closure of a rail-line, can be music to a cabbie’s ears and, if you’re anywhere near the doomed station, it’s wise to get yourself over to its rank.
As you dart there, cursing red traffic lights and tardy road-users (why, oh why do people drive so sluggishly when you’re in a rush?!), you’ll have wild dreams about where your luck will take you once you meet up with the inconvenienced passengers.
If the stricken station is Paddington, well that is where the ‘Heathrow Express’ runs from, so you’ll be hoping for a job to the airport….or, if you’re even luckier, Bristol or Cardiff (never happens of course, but one can always dream!)
If it’s Euston or St Pancras, then you might nab a job out to Luton Airport, Milton Keynes or even Glasgow (a once in a life-time job, but you never know; it may be your lucky day!)
Recently, the radio divulged that lines out of Liverpool Street station were closed. Being only a few minutes away, I hurried over, banking on a possible journey out towards the quiet roads of the Essex countryside; preferably Stanstead Airport.
Once I arrived, there was, unsurprisingly, chaos.
At the moment, most major London railway stations are an utter nightmare to get into and out of; a toxic combination of long-term building works, frustrating road closures, baffling restrictions and general overcrowding. Negotiating them is like trying to work out the infinite staircases of an Escher painting.
At Liverpool Street, the main taxi rank is on a road outside the station. This road is a dead end, forcing the cabs to pull up and queue around in a ‘U’ shape.
This thoroughfare is also a drop-off point, which creates major jams- after taxis and other vehicles have pulled up and dropped their passengers off, they’re required to turn around in order to exit. With the road being narrow and lined on both sides by black cabs, space is greatly reduced, thus making this far from easy!
As such, people attempting such a manoeuvre understandably take a long time; their woes compounded as more vehicles dropping off people nudge in, adding to the turbulent mix.
The traffic outside Liverpool Street station is therefore an awful jumble and a dangerous threat to one’s blood pressure. Despite this, I decided to rank up and persevere, eager to secure an enticing job.
As I approached my turn on the rank (what we taxi drivers call ‘being on point’), I could see a young man up front asking several cabbies for a ride. Two refused him and, as he approached me, I guessed that he was asking if he could pay by credit card (not all cabs boasting that facility).
I gritted my teeth as he walked up to my window. The fare looked agitated, tired and fed-up. My instincts suggested that he had the potential to cause grief.
“I need to go south… to Stockwell.”
It wasn’t quite the pastures of Essex, but it was still a good fare.
“No problem, Sir.”
“Thank you so much.”
And in he hopped; a tall, dark-haired man, dressed in a snappy suit. Looking to be in his late 20s, he immediately made himself at home, stretching out on the back seat as if he were laying on a chaise-lounge.
I immediately apologised for the traffic, and told the passenger that it would be some time before we could even leave the confines of Liverpool Street.
“No problem, my friend. It’s not your fault.”
It’s always a boost when passengers adopt this attitude; their patience and understanding does wonders for my stress levels.
As we waited, glowing red-traffic lights shining off of my cab’s black bonnet, I asked the passenger how his day had been.
“Exhausting, my friend. I just flew black from South Africa this afternoon.”
It turned out that this fellow travelled a lot for business, and had even spent time living in India and Russia; experiences which he described with great passion and enthusiasm.
“India blew me away; I lived in Mumbai for six months. Oh… just the colour and the intensity of the place. Cows walking through the streets. And the food; nothing like the curry-houses you get here. We were eating real, authentic stuff every night; food to die for. Mostly vegetarian too; but so, so good. You don’t even need to touch meat there.”
“It’s an especially interesting place at the moment; with the economy I mean. You’ve got real money cropping up there now. But at the same time, you’ve still got the crushing poverty.”
“Did you see much of that?” I ask. By now, we’re well on our way and have crossed London Bridge.
“You can’t avoid it when you’re there, my friend. The slums… man, the thing about them is just the sheer smell; these people live beside raw sewage. But the odd thing is, many of these people actually seem really happy. They’ve got their communities established, the slums have an infrastructure. A lot of people run businesses from those places. And they’re such decent people; never met a nation so polite.”
“How did you cope with the heat?” I enquire.
“I didn’t!” he laughs.
“The heat was searing; knocks you out. That was the one thing that made it difficult for me. It’s cooler the further north you go though; up towards the Himalayas.”
I remark that his extensive travels must have provided him with a trove of wonderful experiences.
“They do, my friend; but I’m getting tired of it now. A lot of the time- on short trips- you’re stuck in offices; don’t see much of the place you’re in; may as well be stuck in an office here. My wife travels a lot too; we miss each other. She’s a great woman.”
I ask if he’s lived anywhere else apart from India.
“Russia,” he responds instantly; “lived in Moscow last year. “That’s why traffic in London doesn’t bother me, my friend. Moscow traffic is hellish. We once took a ride to the airport, and were stuck for about four hours.”
“Did you pick up any of the language?”
The passenger answers by conveying a long sentence in fluent Russian which, judging from the many Russian passengers I’ve heard in the taxi, sounds authentic enough. He then returns to his native tongue.
“You have to learn the language when you’re there. Especially if you want to chat up women. I used to go this nightclub in Moscow; ‘The Soho Rooms’. So expensive… but oh, the women that go there…amazing…”
The passenger then goes onto speak about the various women of the world, concluding that his favourite members of the female sex are Italian.
“Sleeping with an Italian woman…. Man, it’s like bedding a Da Vinci painting. The quality of it, you know; the class…”
Reading between the lines, it sounded like the fellow frequently cheats on his wife whilst abroad. This was partly confirmed as we approached Kennington, and his mobile phone rang.
“Excuse me, my friend.”
There’s a *beep* as the phone is answered, its little, illuminated screen floating around in the darkness of the rear compartment, bathing the fare’s face in a blue glow. Over the intercom, I can clearly hear the tinny voice of a young woman.
The man grabs his knees and grins.
“Where are you?…. Shoreditch?….Hmm…. I’m tired… South Africa; yeah just got back today…had to pop to the office. In a cab now”
“Aww…. Come on, hun” tinkles the voice north from of the Thames, “it’ll be fun…”
The businessman continues to smile inanely, as if under some form of hypnosis.
“Well… I am tempted….but I’m nearly home now.”
After more verbal arm-twisting, he finally relents.
“Ok… which bar are you in? I know it….sure…”
The phone beeps off, and I have a feeling as to what is coming next.
“Excuse me, my friend…. I know we’re nearly there, but do you mind turning back and heading for Shoreditch?”
He pinches his head and nods, as if considering a vital question on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’
“Yeah…. Go for it.”
So, I spin the cab and aim back towards the area we started from. As we head back north, the passenger slumps back into the seat, a curious mixture of guilt and pleasure apparent on his well-groomed face.
“You meeting friends up there, then?” I ask innocently.
He laughs abruptly in a sort of barking way, rubbing his face like a naughty child who’s been caught red-handed stealing cookies.
“Yeah… you could say that…ahhh…. They’re women.”
“Oh, work friends?”
“No….just… you know, two women. Oh dear…what am I doing?”
As we head for the secondary destination, the fare leans forward, elbows on knees, head in his hands. After the cheeky phone conversation, his personality has now taken on a split form; a sort of benign ‘Jekyll and Hyde.’
“I love my wife, you know…” he announces. “I’m going to regret this in the morning….oh, dear….”
But as we continue, he’s back on the phone.
“Yeah…yep. I’ll be five minutes; get the drinks in. Don’t know- you choose. I’ll give you the money when I get there.”
I’d enjoyed hearing all about the passenger’s exotic experiences abroad at the beginning of the journey, shame it had to take a seedier turn. Of course, I’m a cabbie and it’s par for the course; I’m the back of a head and two eyes in the mirror…. None of my business; discretion is key and I have to know when to switch off.
When we finally arrive, the fare springs up; remorse in his eyes and temptation on his lips. He gives me a substantial tip and taps the Perspex divide with the parting words;
“Nice chatting to you my friend… live life!”
A nice sentiment perhaps, but as I headed back off into the night, I couldn’t help but think his conscience will be suitably stung come morning!
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.