Sit on Bismarck’s Bench

The ‘baby-boomers’ among you will recall the name, Bismarck. At the beginning of World War II, it was the name of the most powerful battleship in the world. In 1960 the film Sink the Bismarck starring Kenneth More was released and became for many the defining account of naval battles.

The ship was named after Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg, known as Otto von Bismarck.

It was he who was instrumental in unifying Germany in the second half of the 19th century. In 1885, as Germany’s Chancellor, he came to England on a state visit, and having expressed an interest in English ale he was taken to the now forgotten Barclay Brewery in Southwark.

Naturally, at the end of the tour, eager to prove English beer was the equal of the German variety, he was asked if he would like to partake a ‘drop’ of the company’s strongest brew.

A delighted Bismarck was given a half-flagon full of their finest. Etiquette demanded that the visitor would take just a sip and hand the flagon back.

Somehow the courtesy was lost in translation and Bismarck emptied the half-flagon. The manager, probably to hide his embarrassment, commentated to the Chancellor that very few men had ever drunk two half-gallon tankards. In true Germanic tradition, Bismarck proved them wrong by insisting on a refill and proceeded to down the second.

After leaving the brewery his carriage was passing over Westminster Bridge, when one of Europe’s most powerful men ordered his vehicle to stop, alighted and promptly lurched towards a bench. Giving instructions to be woken an hour fell into a deep sleep as senior members of the Foreign Office waited patiently for the slumbering Chancellor to awake.

On the hour he awoke, refreshed and continued his State visit unperturbed.

Alas, the bench opposite Boudica’s statue has been removed and lost, but Scottish brewers BrewDog have risen to the occasion admirably.

Sink The Bismarck is believed to be the strongest beer in the world with a 41 per cent alcohol content and costing £55 for a 330ml bottle. I would like to see the current Chancellor knock that back.

London in Quotations: Virginia Woolf

One might fancy that day, the London day, was just beginning. Like a woman who had slipped off her print dress and white apron to array herself in blue and pearls, the day changed, put off stuff, took gauze, changed to evening, and with the same sigh of exhilaration that a woman breathes … but London would have none of it, and rushed her bayonets into the sky, pinioned her, constrained her to partnership in her revelry.

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), Mrs. Dalloway

London Trivia: First Poll Tax riot

On 18 April 1988 in a heated debate on the Poll Tax Scottish Labour member Ron Brown, grabbed the mace and angrily threw it to the floor. Parliament cannot lawfully meet without the Mace, representing the monarch’s authority, being present in the chambers. Afterward he agreed to read out a pre-written apology to the House, attempting to add his own comments. Suspended from Parliament for 20 days, he was ordered to pay £1,500.

On 18 April 1930 during its 8.45 bulletin, a BBC announcer said: “There is no news.” The rest of the programme featured piano music

According to tradition, the Bowyer Tower was where the Duke of Clarence, troublesome brother of Edward IV and Richard III, was drowned in a butt of malmsey wine

On 18 April 1968 London Bridge was sold to entrepreneur Robert P. McCulloch of McCulloch Oil for £1,029,000 at Guildhall

Domestic servants with visible smallpox scars were preferred to those unmarked, proof that they would not bring smallpox into the household

Smoking was banned in the House of Commons as early as 1693. It was still smokey though from candles and fires that lit and warmed the place

Since 1768 the Royal Academy has been housed in: Pall Mall; Somerset House; and the National Gallery. Its present site dates from 1868

The Bedford on Bedford Hill, Balham hosts the regular Banana Cabaret it has hosted acts such as Jack Dee, Catherine Tate and Eddie Izzard

Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Sugar Ray Leonard and Henry Cooper have all sparred at the Thomas à Beckett boxing gym on Old Kent Road

Swiss visitor César de Saussure in 1725 recorded being knocked over four times by sedan chairs during his visit to London

Samuel Morse the American painter and inventor of the Morse Code lived at 141 Cleveland Street between 1812-15

There have been ghostly reports of drivers picking up a young hitchhiker at the mouth of Blackwall Tunnel only disappear by the other end

CabbieBlog-cab.gifTrivial Matter: London in 140 characters is taken from the daily Twitter feed @cabbieblog.
A guide to the symbols used here and source material can be found on the Trivial Matter page.

Voices from the Void

Not driving a cab and in possession of a Freedom Pass (an oxymoron if ever there were these days), I have discovered the Underground network to be a pretty scary subterranean place.

Signs everywhere warn of impending danger lurking around every corner: Stand on the right; Wear a face mask; Carry dogs; Fold pushchairs; and for we Baby Boomers: Please hold on to the handrail, which for me should have ‘for dear life’ appended.

You don’t want to hear this

The warning you don’t want to hear over the announcements is “Inspector Sands…”. Apparently, this is a warning of fire somewhere in the bowels of the system.

Luckily the most ubiquitous announcement is “Mind the Gap”, in fact, a whole souvenir industry has sprung up around this urgent warning of impending danger: tee shirts, mugs and even underwear.

When taking my daughter for her first job interview some years ago, we were sitting on the tube when a drunk sitting opposite awoke to the announcement “Mind the Gap”. Our slumbering passenger then started to doze off again, until that is, we reached another station and upon hearing the Mind the Gap announced a second time declared to the rest of the carriage “F**k Me! That bloke gets around”.

First announcement

The original Mind the Gap announcement which had awoken our slumbering friend was first heard in 1968 when AEG Telefunken supplied the recording of an unknown actor, unfortunately, the fellow had insisted on being paid a royalty every time his voice was heard. Unsurprisingly that recording was scrubbed and re-recorded by someone cheaper.
Sound engineer Peter Lodge then took up the baton and his sound tests proved so popular with the powers that be it was decided that his voice should be the announcement broadcast.

Listen to the 12th Earl of Portland

The Earl of Portland was a title bestowed on the first Earl for mopping the fevered brow of King William III who at that time was struck down with smallpox. The 12th and current Earl could once have been heard on the Piccadilly Line, his Mind the Gap announcement earning him the princely sum of £200. Tim Bentinck is best known as the actor who plays David Archer in Radio 4’s The Archers.

The gap problem like so much these days can be blamed on London’s bankers. When tunnelling commenced early in the last century, engineers were concerned that the excavations would undermine the City’s banks. It was decided, where possible, to tunnel beneath the roads, many of which followed their Medieval routes.

As a consequence despite billions being spent on planning, building, refurbishing and rebuilding our trains just don’t fit the stations. Passengers on the Central line at Bank are regularly reminded of this fundamental flaw in the Tube system, gaping enough to accommodate mobile phones, umbrellas, wallets and purses, and Oyster cards.

The sharpest bend

This fear of being sued by powerful property owners has meant Bank station has one of the sharpest bends on the Tube network. This sharp bend has even become represented on Harry Beck’s iconic Tube map where Bank Station is given its own unique kink. There is even some speculation the bend had to be made even sharper so the tunnel didn’t end up in the Bank of England’s vaults.

So just in case you didn’t hear the announcement or are hearing-impaired, platforms now also have the warning painted on the edge at regular intervals. At Baker Street, the worst for gap incidents on an annual basis (which brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘gap year’), blue warning lights have been installed as an extra precaution. Apart from Tim Bentinck, another sounds a bit like Joanna Lumley, and I wait in vain for a ‘darling’ to be added to the end of the announcement.

Voice from Beyond.

At Embankment Station the doom-laden tones of the ‘Mind the Gap’ message on the Northern line station are those of theatrically-trained Mr Oswald Laurence whose stentorian performance is worthy of Shakespeare. He enunciates perfectly, and adds a dramatic pause between the word ‘Mind’ and ‘the’, just to get our attention. His voice had been heard at many a station on the Northern Line, but it was slowly phased out until Embankment was the last place it was used.

After he died in 2007, his widow Margaret would still enjoy listening to his voice, but one day just before Christmas 2012 she was devastated to find he had been replaced. No longer could she enjoy her late husband’s announcements. But when TfL learned that she was missing her Oswald’s voice they did a wonderful thing – they reinstated him.

Featured image: Passengers have to “Mind the gap” at Bank Central Line station by David Hawgood (CC BY-SA 2.0). The Central Line through Bank station is curved sufficiently that the well-known announcement “Mind the gap” warns of a substantial gap between the end doors of a carriage and the platform. The girl in the photo is jumping onto the platform, the woman behind waits to step out.

London’s secret languages

Being born at the Middlesex Hospital, I speculated, not unreasonably if thought, that with the lower traffic noise levels of post-war London I could claim to be a cockney, as the sound of Bow Bells were just within earshot. Unfortunately, once embarking on The Knowledge I discovered the Bow Bells had been destroyed by a German bomb on 10th May 1941.


The cockney language better described as barrow boy vernacular is derived from secret conversations during the 19th century to obscure conversations from the authorities. The memoirs of James Hardy Vaux, a professional thief around Covent Garden’s, then red-light district, is the first reliably recorded account of cockney. He was eventually deported to Australia, his memoir lists around 700 phrases commonly used by London’s thieves. As an aside, it was the first autobiography written Down Under.

Back slang

Ever wondered where ‘yob’ first came from? Read it backwards, and you’ll also have a sense of the language that created it. The first recorded instance of which is apparently in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Butchers would tell their assistants to bring the oldest pieces of meat out for the customer by reversing the lettering of words, but occasionally simple phonetics demanded the addition of an extra vowel or two. ‘Old’ is therefore pronounced as ‘dillo’ or ‘dello’.


When I was very young and even more naive than today, I loved listening to the BBC radio show Round the Horne. One regular piece featured ‘Julian’ and ‘Sandy’ played by Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams talking between themselves and throwing in the odd strange word which I found fascinating adding it to my lexicon. Little did I know they were speaking Polari, a language primarily spoken by London’s gay community until around the time homosexuality was decriminalised in 1967. My rapt attention added to my burgeoning vocabulary. Naff is now an accepted term for ‘a bit rubbish’, but it originated as an acronym for someone who was ‘not available for f… well, you get the idea, little did I realise at the time.


Another comic of my childhood was Stanley Unwin who made a good living speaking rubbish. In Victorian times, this absurd ‘anti-language was used humorously by the working classes, deliberately toying with linguistics in a way that could be complex in itself. Perhaps the biggest irony is that the modern definition of Gobbledygook is most associated with bureaucrats — the straight-laced higher classes it was first set up to mock. If you want to find a modern-day torchbearer, look no further than Russell Brand and his ‘My Booky Wook’.

On a sclip to the flyers

In 2006 Stuart Pessok, the then Managing Editor of Taxi the trade’s biggest selling newspaper, ran a series entitled ‘We Speak Your Language’ in which he invited readers to submit examples of cab slang in an attempt to keep the language alive. He put together a ten-page glossary of the cabbie’s lexicon.

As London’s cabbies have been working the streets for nearly 400 years, it should come as no surprise that the trade is rich in parochial slang. Acolytes of The Knowledge have our own language, although, since it stems from a closed, occupational group, the terms should be referred to as jargon.

Driving a cab is a lonely profession, for much of your working life is spent with only strangers for company. So when cabbies meet colleagues it is hardly surprising that much banter takes place. Jargon proper comes from within the drivers and the vehicles. An owner-driver has been a Musher since the 1880s, the cab roof being equivalent to a mush, an umbrella; the Gantville Cowboys are predominantly Jewish cabbies who live around Gants Hill, Newbury Park, Ilford and Claybury; Copperarse or Leatherarse is one who works long hours hence the condition of their trousers; Butterboy is a novice, as butter won’t melt in that innocent’s mouth.

To Suck the Mop is to be left on a rank when everyone else has got Jobs (literally trips, figuratively passengers). Ranking on a Long ‘Un is driving around in search of fares and Hanging it Up is waiting outside hotels, lights off, ready to jump on the Billy Bunters (punters: an Old Squirt is an ageing gent; a Mystery a young woman). A Shtumer, originally a bad cheque, is a booked job that on arrival has evaporated.

“Driving your Sherbet you might be given a Shtoomer by your radio circuit or at Harabs when on Point you could forget to hit the Zeiger when a punter gets in which would mean that you would do a Stalker as you duck and dive through the Dirty Dozen in Soho.”.

Many nicknames for destinations and ranks seem to have fallen into disuse. The lines of cabs that once marked The Ditch, the jargon for Fleet Street, are no longer needed. Some of the punning and disinformation terms have fallen out of favour. Bishopsgate is the Athenaeum Club wherein members were comprised of the senior clergy. The Deaf and Dumb is the wartime ministry of information. The Flowerpot was once Covent Garden market and Harley Street was The Resistance as consultants were then in 1948 fighting against the nascent National Health Service.

Taxi talk without tipping

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