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!