Look Behind You

It’s pantomime time again, when small children get their first experience of live theatre and for those of you who aren’t lucky enough to experience this Christmas treat, a small explanation is necessary. Panto originated about 16th century and in the tradition of the time audience participation was to be encouraged, another essential ingredient today, as then, is trans-gender dressing with a shapely young woman dressing up as the best “boy”, while middle aged male actors don outlandish female clothes as the ugly sisters. The narrative is usually based on a children’s story or fable and a perennial favourite is Dick Whittington and his Cat, drawing inspiration from the poem:

Turn again, Whittington,
Once Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Twice Lord Mayor of London!
Turn again, Whittington,
Thrice Lord Mayor of London!

Dick's cat The story of Dick Whittington is a familiar one, poor boy comes to the metropolis thinking the streets were paved with gold and seeking his fame and fortune. Unable to achieve his goal he leaves London travelling northward accompanied by his black cat. Upon reaching Highgate Hill (about three miles north from the City of London) he turns for one last glance and hears the bells of Bow Church in Cheapside, itself very improbable given the distance involved. Believing the bells are sending him a message, telling him to turn back, he returns to the City, becomes Lord Mayor of London and makes his fortune.

At the bottom of Highgate Hill a small stone plinth with a cat marks the spot where Dick Whittington is said to have heard the sound of the bells and a nearby hospital still carries his name.

The story of Richard Whittington (1354-1423) is somewhat different from the fable and if anything is more fascinating.

Born into a rich aristocratic family in the Forest of Dean, Richard Whittington entered the City in the 1380s, and was apprenticed as a Mercer (a dealer in cloth). After completing his apprenticeship he quickly established himself as a merchant and became a major importer of European fabrics. An appointment to the royal court firmly established him as a gentleman of repute, and with astute commercial enterprise he amassed a huge fortune, becoming a money lender counting sovereigns among others as his clients. Whittington was now at the height of his powers among London’s elite and was awarded many titles including four times Lord Mayor, Alderman, a Member of Parliament and a High Court Judge.

For someone so wealthy, Richard Whittington was a man of conscience, but his charitable work among the City’s poor and disadvantaged is little known. In his lifetime Whittington gave to a variety of good causes, a ward for unmarried mothers at St Thomas’ Hospital, rebuilding of the Guildhall, installing the first public drinking fountains and drainage systems for the city streets. He left the majority of his huge fortune to charity, providing in his Will a sum of £7,000 (£3 million today) to be used for good causes, also the buildings and repair of many City Institutions were benefactors of Whittington’s legacy. London’s poor were not forgotten with the building of almshouses and a hospital in the street that his house stood. These charitable dwellings still exist and are located in Felbridge near Surrey; its occupants consist mainly of elderly women and the Whittington Charity continues to disburse its funds to the disadvantaged through the Mercer’s Company.

But perhaps for the Pantomime Season his revolutionary scheme for public hygiene should be recreated. Located close to where Southwark Bridge now stands Whittington engineered his grand project to improve personal hygiene for the poor, building all-purpose latrines across the River Thames foreshore; there was enough seating for 40 people in one sitting (so to speak), and using the tide to flush to effluent downriver. Ironically the Corporation of London later built their health and hygiene department of works on this site.

A Winter’s Tale

Today in keeping with the Christmas tradition of bringing Joy to all Mankind, CabbieBlog brings you a tale from New York with a happy ending; the names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Joe Grimaldi was driving his Checker Cab through Lower East Side, wondering what the day would bring. He needed money for his three children’s Christmas presents and there was that little matter of the rent arrears.

Quite unexpectedly he was flagged down in this area of the city not renowned as a honeypot of work.

“Can you take me to the junction of 2ndand 4th? the fare enquired.

“Sure”, said Joe thinking what a great start to the day this was.

“How much would it cost?” enquired the fare.

Joe realised that the fare wasn’t dressed as smartly as many of his customers, but a fare’s a fare these days, so he replied “2nd and 4th would be $20 give or take some”.

“What!” exclaimed the fare, “that’s goddam daylight robbery”?

With that he produced a gun and ordered Joe out of his vehicle. The assailant then jumped in behind the wheel and drove off.

Now Joe a man of few words, but clearly great reasoning powers phoned the police.

So when his assailant stopped 20 minutes later at 2nd and 4th there was a reception committee of New York’s Finest.

Sometimes, just sometimes, it feels good to be a cabbie, seeing your fellow cabbies help protect these people from their own stupidity at this Festive Time.

Happy Christmas to you all and Be Lucky.

My Favourite Things

[I]t is that time of year when the media is crammed full of trivia, so in the Christmas tradition, here is CabbieBlog’s London favourites:

Neighbourhood: Clerkenwell; I had my first job in London in this small district populated at the time by Italians giving us great delicatessens, a catholic church and an introduction to their beautiful language. The principle industries there were watchmaking and typesetting.

cardinals-wharf-st-pauls Building: St. Paul’s is obscured by other buildings, so the best place to see it is from Bankside on the other side of the Thames, then cross by Millennium Bridge and climb to the top, and don’t forget to visit the crypt.

Open Space: Hampstead Heath, the highest point in London, with its varied landscape and nutcases swimming in its famous ponds.

odcjxtbluspkxdpo_GetAttachment-23_odcjxtbluspkxdpo View: No problem choosing this one, Waterloo Bridge in the evening. Wordsworth got it wrong, when he wrote Upon Westminster Bridge:
Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear
Nice sentiment, wrong bridge. But to be fair to Will, Waterloo Bridge wasn’t built then, Ray Davis was right though.

32953 Bar/Pub/Restaurant: Bar Italia on Frith Street, Soho, for the best cappuccino north of the Alps, their espresso machine is over 50 years old and still going strong. Open 24 hours a day, they just kick you out into the street when they want to clean the place. Or for a slightly upmarket tea try Claridges, good value, superb service and no tourists.

London book/film/documentary: London Sight Unseen by Snowdon. I was bought this book a few years ago. Snowdon travelled all over the capital photographing anything unusual or fascinating that caught his photographer’s eye. Or watch the play ‘The Knowledge’ by the late Jack Rosenthal, a brilliant comedy about becoming a cabbie.

oldshop Interesting Shop: Pollock’s Toy Museum and shop in Scala Street near Goodge Street. A fascinating collection of toys from a bygone era.

London street/road/square: Queen Anne’s Gate. Unlike her statute outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, this exquisite little turning which takes its name from the aforementioned queen, encapsulates Georgian London, go there and be amazed that there are still places left in London like this, just don’t tell those modern architects, they’ll want to develop it.

200px-William_Hogarth_053 Londoner: Thomas Coram although born in Lyme Regis and spent much of his early life at sea he’s an adopted Londoner. He later became a successful London merchant, as a great philanthropist Coram was appalled by the many abandoned, homeless children living in the streets of London. In 1739 he obtained a Royal Charter granted by George II establishing a “hospital for the maintenance and education of exposed and deserted young children.” Visit the Foundling Museum near the children’s playing fields which take his name, just don’t go into the playground next door, you must be accompanied by a minor.

Period: 1650-1720 This is the time when London was brought to its knees after the Great Fire of London, yet within decades London was reborn as the greatest city in the world, in addition surviving civil war, plague, drought and bankruptcy. It’s a time when London gave rise to a generation of extraordinary men: Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, John Locke, John Evelyn and Nicholas Barbon.

Green Dustmen

article-1063711-0136221B000004B0-32_233x310 Driving in the West End chances are that you will find yourself stuck behind a dustcart. Sorry, environment improving vehicle. I seem to spend more time stationary behind them each day than an MP spends calculating his expenses.

It was on one of these unscheduled stops that I realised that there is more than one organisation collecting this rubbish, many businesses in London use the services of commercial refuse collectors and do not rely on the local council.

Warming, or was that global warming, to my theme I observed that all these vehicles proclaim their green credentials. So how can it be more “green” to have three vehicles twice a day collecting stuff? All are diesel, not electric; all keep their engines running continuously; and worse the traffic stuck behind them sits stationery belching out fumes.

Is it more financially viable to use different collections, or is it that the council refuses to collect the rubbish from these companies?

Surely one vehicle used during the night around these narrow streets would be more friendly to the environment, but more, much more important than that, they wouldn’t get in my way.

CabbieBlog’s Milestone

taxi post  big ben In February of this year I started CabbieBlog, a bi-weekly compilation of thoughts and observations from a London cabbie. Along the way I have touched on subjects as diverse as Gordon Brown to Human Lavatories (maybe there is a link to be made here).

Little did I realise at the time that before the year was out over 100,000 people would visit my site, and with satisfying number taking the trouble to leave a constructive comment on over 100 posts.

[L]ooking back on the posts the first on 23rd February is all about roadworks, well after last weeks’ debacle when the Blackwall Tunnel was closed with the result that East London was still gridlocked long after midnight, it would appear that London is now worse than when I first started writing.

So it looks as though I will just have to keep on whinging, but thank you all for helping me let off steam.

My wife has recently put up a fridge magnet which reads:

Everyone is entitled to my opinion

Should I now make this the strapline to CabbieBlog?