Old Father Thames

[A]s I hope CabbieBlog highlights, there’s so much of and so many things in London, but only one river. When, at the start of Three Men in a Boat, George says, “Let’s go up the river!” nobody says, “What river?” Ray Davies felt no need to identify the Thames by name when, at the start of Waterloo Sunset, he declares “Dirty old river, must you keep rolling . . .”

Until the late 19th Century, the Thames was not quite the tranquil pleasure ground it largely is today. In fact, it was more of a traffic jam. By 1700, the London quays were handling 70 per cent of the country’s imports and, in 1799, for the purpose of bringing some order to the jumble of landing places, they started to build the docks.

Now, that word ‘dirty’, from Ray Davies’ composition is very accurate. From the mid-19th century, toilets began to be flushed straight into the subterranean sewage pipes that had originally been built to convey rainfall into the Thames. Then, in 1859, Joseph Bazalgette began building his intercepting sewers to carry the waste to a treatment plant. But the river remained stubbornly brown because, right up until the 1960s, factories along its banks were allowed to dump waste into it.

Although Bazalgette’s improvements denied Londoner’s from having the fun of Ice Fairs on the Thames, as a consequence of the river running faster after being narrowed with the construction of Victoria Embankment, the project was a resounding success.

Other projects did not far so well:
In 1796 Willey Reveley proposed to dig a new channel nearly a mile long in order to save ships the time wasted sailing round the Isle of Dogs.

Engineer Robert Stephenson dipped his toes into the waters of the Thames, approving plans for a giant latticework of steel, to enable trains to run down the centre of the river.

Several eminent Victorians favoured a scheme to dam the river at Woolwich, thereby making the Thames a giant inner-city freshwater lake.

A more recent proposal would have involved covering the river with a concrete deck and building a 6-lane motorway over it, which if completed, would have provided many hours of entertainment when London had the spring tidal surges, that the Thames Barrier was designed to minimise.

new tube mapIn the spirit of daft ideas, Transport for London proposed removing the Thames entirely from its Underground maps.

John Beck’s innovative London Underground map that he designed in 1931, renders the vermicelli of the various lines in the form of a diagram: a circuit board as opposed to a scale map. And there in its lower portion, the Thames, shepherded into neat diagonals. The map is a model of elegance and simplicity that has been imitated the world over. Then, with one click of a designer’s mouse, the Thames was no more. As with so many River Thames “projects” common sense prevailed when London’s mayor, Boris Johnston told them that the great North-South divide must remain.

Today, that North-South divide is as strong as ever. North Londoners crow about the Heath, the civilised, literary atmosphere, while South Londoners boast about . . . well, search me (but then I’m North, you see). The antithesis has always been in place and it has always been of the same order: the North is salubrious, the South much funkier.

Already in Roman times, there was a red light area to the south of the bridge, and in medieval times, Southwark was fully established as an antidote to the moneyed pieties of the City. The brothels south of the river and close to the bridge were called stewes. These stewes were indirectly licensed by the Bishops of Winchester, and existed in close proximity to the houses of various leading churchmen – a sort of News of the World reporter’s dream.

Between the 13th and 18th Centuries, there were houses on London Bridge, and it’s quite captivating to think that, somewhere around the centre of the bridge, there would have been a householder who lived in North London right next door to someone who lived in South London. Of course, they wouldn’t have got on. The one to the north would have always been talking about how going to Hampstead was just like being in the countryside (and he would have had a point in, say, 1400), and the one in the south would have been banging on constantly about how he could never get a cab to take him South of the River’.

Blue Sky Thinking

Driving past The London Dungeon recently I noticed that they charge £68 for a family ticket to have that gruesome experience of death in its many guises, but with queues around the block of people willing to pay that exorbitant amount there must an insatiable appetite for death.

So for you, dear reader, who like that sort of thing, I have done some research about Tyburn Gallows.

[E]rected in 1571 condemned prisoners were driven there in a cart, via St. Giles in the Fields where they received a mug of ale, they dressed either in mourning or in the dress of a bridegroom if they could. Unfortunately the clothes, post-mortem, were the property of the hangman. Well cabbies still expect a tip! In 1447 five men had already been hanged, cut down while still alive, stripped, and marked out of quartering when their pardon arrived, but the hangman declined to give them back their clothes and they were obliged to walk home naked. It really must have been one of those days.

Hanging days were public holidays, as it was considered that the sight of an execution would prove a deterrent. Twenty-one prisoners could be hanged at once (time and motion consultants were even around in the 16th century), and convention dictated the order of precedence so that highwaymen as ”the aristocrats of crime’, and the most popular were dispatched first, then common thieves, with traitors being left to bring up the rear. With over 300 offences carrying the death penalty, there was never a shortage of participants.

The site of the gallows is marked by a stone in the traffic island at Marble Arch. But some historians suggest that the original site is on a spot near the south-west corner of Connaught Square.

Now recently Connaught Square, which was once known as Tyburnia, has gained another form of notoriety in the shape of one of its residents. Number 29 only five doors from the gallows site is now the London residence of ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Now if only some of the old traditions were revived that would really pull in the punters.

Mayflies in Lycra

Mayfly Mayflies have a short and glorious life, and so do many cyclists in London.

The Metropolitan Police’s Collision Investigators have said that there have been 9 cyclists killed in London so far this year, of which 7 have been killed by lorries and at least 6 of these fatalities were female. So why do they want to balance on two wheels while avoiding potholes, pedestrians and cars?

Many of these lunatics habitually ignore traffic regulations, to the annoyance of other road users, and who at The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea had the inspired idea to encourage them to ride up a one-way street in the opposite direction to the traffic?

Was it another Boris Brainwave closing half of central London’s roads recently to allow two men and a dog the experience of a car free Capital, with Sunday’s Skyride.

[H]e also treats us to the colourful spectacle of hundreds of bikes accompanied by a police escort reclaiming the streets on the last Friday of the month with the Critical Mass festival.

Boris is so keen on his pedal pals maybe he should consider replacing the hated bendy buses with rickshaws; he is making no headway to curb this menace.

It was H.G. Wells who said: “When I see a man on a bicycle I don’t despair for the human race”. But then he did write War of the Worlds.

Memory Men

Lord Winston moustache

[Y]ou have to feel sorry for high achievers like Lord Winston. They work hard all their lives and reach the top of their respective professions. Then they find themselves sitting down to dinner with a London Cabbie, possibly sharing a table on a cruise or at a hotel.

The conversation around the table goes something as follows:

Table Chatterbox: turning to Lord Winston “and what do you do Bob”?

Lord Winston: “Well I am a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering and Fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, I am also a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London, and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons, Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the Institute of Biology. I also hold honorary doctorates from fourteen universities. In addition to being British medical doctor and scientist, I’m a television presenter, and sit on the Labour Party benches in the House of Lords.”

Table Chatterbox: stifling a yawn, “Oh, really”. With that he turns to me. “Do you have an interesting career Gibson?”

Gibson Square: “Well actually I’m only a London Cabbie.”

Table Chatterbox: “Well how very interesting, I’ve always wanted to know, just how is it you manage to remember all those roads?”

Just what is the fascination with the Knowledge? I notice you are among the wordpress visitors
who have chosen to read this blog on all things cabbie.

We are not as well educated as many graduates, and contrary to popular opinion we’re not as erudite as we would like to think ourselves. We are reputed, incorrectly, to have narrow Right Wing views, with a propensity to favour the British National Party.

Yet I have shared a table with a nuclear physicist, a director of Unilever and a National Health Service consultant, but all the other diners want to know is, just how it is that I could have done the Knowledge.

If I were clever enough to remember 11,500 roads in central London plus all the theatres, hospitals, clubs, public buildings and all manner of miscellanea and could then take the shortest route between any two of them, I would have the brains to be a barrister and wouldn’t be pushing a cab around London.

If you are reading this Lord Winston, and you find yourself in CabbieBlog’s vehicle, just to help your self esteem I’ll donate the fare (with a generous tip) to the charity of your choice.

Got to go now, I’m halfway through reading Blackstone’s Criminal Practice 2010, it’s a riveting read.

In Memoriam

At the risk of unleashing a river of vitriol I want to address roadside memorials. As drivers we are told that nothing should distract our attention, so no mobiles, loud music, or if the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has their way, no smoking. In the past Eva Herzigova’s advert for Wonderbra caused a string of accidents caused by male drivers being distracted by her female charms displayed on very large hoardings around London.

[T]he appearance of these shrines in England is all the more surprising since the tradition is alien to Protestant cultures. They are contrastingly common in Spain, parts of Austria and much of South America. But I’m getting fed up with seeing these mounds of flowers, soft toys or football shirts placed at the side of the road in this country .

Understandably relations and loved ones of the deceased will get some solace and closure from these shrines, but they are messy and distracting. You crane your neck to try to find out who the victim might be and if there are toys around the base you lose your concentration momentarily.

And what’s the point? Surely you pay your respects at the resting place of your loved one not a lamppost beside the A40. Councils will now remove any homemade signs attached to street signs, so why do they let this clutter remain at the roadside?

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents believes there are important safety messages to be drawn from the trend. “The increase in the number of shrines just highlights how dangerous our roads are,” said a spokeswoman.

But the Society is concerned that the shrines may themselves increase the risk of accidents. “It isn’t something we would like people to stop doing but it’s important they take extra care. The same applies to motorists because it’s easy for them to take their eyes off the road for even a second.”

White Bike-4 The ghost bike memorials by Steve Allen work by just reminding drivers of the need to ‘think bike’. Usually these comprise of a white bike and the victim’s name.

How about a small plaque in a distinctive colour placed where people have died this could serve the dual purpose of a modest memorial and with its distinctive colour a reminder to motorists?