Driving through the darkest, narrowest byways, exploring the remotest parts of London, studying The Knowledge late at night and into the earliest hours of the morning, could at times, be a rather depressing, sometimes frightening experience.
Driving around dim, lonely streets in a small car during unsociable hours, one of the commonest problems I faced on The Knowledge was that I looked like a ‘kerb-crawler’; a punter looking to pick up prostitutes.
In some areas- such as Sussex Gardens in Paddington; a notorious late-night, red-light district bristling with seedy hotels- there were large, official yellow metal signs related to this sordid activity.
In most parts of London, these yellow sign-boards announce that a either a fatal road accident, or a serious crime (usually a murder via a stabbing or shooting) has occurred and witnesses are being sought.
However, in Sussex Gardens, these signs acted as warnings, instructing men not to kerb crawl, and that undercover Policewomen worked in the area to keep an eye over proceedings. I was often aware, therefore, that driving slowly along a road, in order to make notes of points and restrictions, could bring potential suspicion.
My fear of being apprehended would worsen when prostitutes actually tried to approach me. This first time this happened to me was in South London.
I’d pulled over onto a street which, although quiet, was not far from the centre of lively Brixton. Being a warm night, I had the window wound down slightly. With the handbrake on, I began to make a few notes on road restrictions in the area.
There I sat, with my clipboard on my knee, jotting down a few words. With my head down, I didn’t see the young woman approach my car. As I wrote, I suddenly heard the voice through the small gap in the window;
“Got a light mate?“
The woman posing the question looked quite ill; her eyes were heavy and red, her hair-although fairly long and blonde, was scruffy and straw like. A cheap necklace hung around her neck, and she wore a grubby, sky-blue jogging-top and loose tracksuit bottoms.
“Sorry” I replied, “I don’t smoke.”
The woman then crossed her arms, hugging herself and appearing to shiver, despite the warm air. She looked around quickly and said;
“How about a bit of business then?”
I suddenly realised her real reason for approaching me. Being a little young and naïve, I didn’t really know how to respond.
“Oh… no, I’m sorry” I replied…. pausing a moment before adding, rather pathetically;
“I’m… just out doing The Knowledge.”
The woman shrugged and slunk off. I felt sorry for her; she was clearly very dependent on drugs and I dread to think where her next lot of cash came from.
Another time, I was in Dalston, not far from Ridley Road Market; a bustling and lively place by day. However, this was around 1am and, once again, I’d quickly pulled over at a quiet spot in order to jot down a few notes on the area’s one-way systems and road prohibitions.
As I wrote, I suddenly heard a clunking noise, as someone attempted to open my passenger door (which was thankfully locked). I looked up and saw a young woman, probably no more than 20, wearing a tight trench coat and large, round earrings. A little startled at the interruption, I quickly put the car into first gear and slowly began to drive off, waving my hand, uttering “no, no.”
Despite this, the woman clung onto the door handle, and looked at me through the window with a mixture of pleading and desperation; I distinctly remember her mouthing the word, “Please…”
As I glanced over my shoulder to check that no cars were approaching, I spotted a lone man across the road, dressed in a long, leather coat, his hands thrust into his pockets, carefully surveying the scene. I guessed he was the unfortunate woman’s pimp.
These were the most direct encounters, but I would often see prostitutes standing by the road, attempting to beckon me over. Some would try and walk in front of the car.
Although famously labelled ‘the Oldest Profession in the World’, I always found the presence of prostitution deeply depressing, for it often led me to wonder with dread what had driven these young women to selling themselves in the first place.
London’s Ladies of the Night were not the only ones to try and gain access to my vehicle.
On one occasion, in Whitechapel, a tall man in a tight leather jacket swayed over and tried to open the door. I suppose he must have mistaken me for what is actually the London Cabbies’ sworn enemy- the illegal night tout; a plain, unlicensed car looking to pick up passengers for a quick- & potentially dangerous- buck.
On another occasion, also in Whitechapel, I was waiting at a red traffic light (always frustrating late at night when there is no apparent traffic), when a young fellow, not much older than 18, casually walked over to my car, bent down and peered directly in through the passenger window, squinting as he did so. It looked to me as if he were sourcing items to pinch, so I immediately put the car in gear and pulled off.
Luckily, the lights changed to green as I did so, but I was quite prepared to go through a red-light in order to prevent a potential car-jacking.
Hostility seemed to be everywhere when I was doing the Knowledge by night.
One evening, just off of Hammersmith Broadway (a popular nightspot, bustling with bars and pubs), I was trying to work out a fiddly system of one-way side streets.
As I turned into a little road off of Hammersmith Road, I had to slam my brakes on- a group of four men, clearly drunk and uniformly tailored in jeans and white t-shirts, had swayed out into the road. I managed to manoeuvre around the revellers, despite them hurling insults and abuse as I did so.
As I trundled up the road, I heard shouting and, glancing in my rear-view mirror, I discovered that the inebriated group had decided to give chase!
Although tanked up on booze, they were still quite capable of running, and were pounding up along the road after me, barking what were clearly insults, despite being too thuggish and slurred to understand.
Luckily, my trusty little Peugeot didn’t give up on me and, using the little knowledge of the area which I’d already acquired, I managed to fiddle my way out of the one way system and back out onto the safety of a main road!
Another time, around midnight, I was driving along Surrey Canal Road; a long road which runs through New Cross, and is mainly populated with industrial sites.
At the northern end of the road, there is a railway bridge where the path dips a little in order to pass below it, thus creating embankments on both sides.
As I approached the bridge, I spotted a gang of around seven kids- and they were kids; nobody in the bunch of scallywags appeared to be older than 13 (remember… this is around midnight)- loafing around on the left embankment.
The next thing I clocked was the lump of breezeblock lying in the middle of the road, right beneath the bridge.
As I drove closer, a young lad from the embankment youth club waddled down towards the road and headed for the breezeblock chunk. Picking up the grey brick, he did an audacious dance in the middle of the road, wriggling his tracksuit-clad torso from side to side.
Having commenced this ritual, the diminutive rogue proceeded to run up onto the opposite bank as my vehicle approached. There were no roads to turn down, and a U-turn wasn’t a sound option. I had to drive towards the ambush.
I deliberately slowed the car, in order to bamboozle the youngster’s expectations. Then, as he raised his arm to hurl the missile, I put my foot down, quickly increasing speed (and probably sending quite a shock through the system of my little Peugeot!)
I heard a clacking sound as the breezeblock exploded into gritty pebbles behind me. Glancing in my rear-view mirror, I saw the wee assailant back in the middle of the road, re-commencing his war-dance, his fingers held up in the predictable ritual of the ritual V-sign.
It made me wince to think what would have happened if the rocky lump had managed to smash my driver’s window…