Street hail etiquette

[Y]ou can always tell the regulars; standing prominently by the side of the road, arm outstretched and – here’s the vital part – telling the driver BEFORE they get in the destination and as an aide-mémoire the approximate London area.

I’ve talked in the past to the person at the destination address via my fare’s phone; read the address from their mobile; but recently – courtesy of Steve Jobs – I was shown a photo on his
i-phone of the destination, that wasn’t on The Knowledge being given a selection of photographs and then trying to identify the location.

If the fare needs to return to his hotel, in past years that wasn’t a problem, each hotel had an individual character. At the Carlton Hotel (incidentally Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh was employed there to wash up) guests would be given their room key, and thoughtfully attached to it was a fob, the size of a butcher’s chopping block – but crucially the unique name of the hotel was impressed upon it.

Now most hotels are owned by a global brand and the plastic keys are emblazoned with say Holiday Inn and little else (apart from the one phone number you need to book worldwide), try taking non-English speaking tourists to the right hotel with that amount of information.

One lady recently showed me the telephone list from her room, clearly thinking it had the hotel’s address upon it. If I had only known which hotel I could have booked awake up call and ordered breakfast.

Americans renowned for ‘doing Europe in a fortnight’ just about know what city they are in – red buses, black cabs, hey this must be London.

Asked once by a group who had just made a trans-Atlantic crossing:

“Marriott please”

Which Marriott?

“Well, the London Marriott, we are in London aren’t we?”

There are at the time of writing, but not necessary of reading – hotels spring up like mushrooms – 13 Marriott hotels in London.

On pointing this out a rather entertaining, if unprofitable, question and answer ensued:

What can you see from the hotel’s entrance; is the traffic one-way; does it have flower pots opposite the door; what is the name of the doorman?

My all time favourite and this has happened on numerous occasions, a group will get in without so much as a glance at the driver. After a short period – presumably they think I can read minds like Darren Brown – I’m asked to drive on. “When you tell me the destination, I’ll get right on it.

Dr. Johnson’s magnum opus

Samuel Johnson

[T]hat most quintessential of Londoners Dr. Samuel Johnson has become the capital’s favourite adopted son. He is the most quoted person in the English language after Shakespeare and with his famous verdict on the City “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”, has virtually guaranteed him iconic status.

CABBIE (n.) (colloq). Erudite Fellow much given to express anti-Whig opinion who upon exchange of monies will, by Hansom carriage, convey a Person within London’s northern environs.

Born in Lichfield, Staffordshire in 1709 and educated at Pembroke College, Oxford leaving without a degree due to ill health, Johnson came to London in 1737 and scraped a living as a journalist. By all accounts to remain in Johnson’s company would have required a strong stomach even for those days. He was grossly overweight who “had no passion for clean linen” and “showed no enthusiasm for bathing”, his wig didn’t even fit properly, and was usually singed on one side from holding a candle too near on account of his poor eyesight.

MINI-CAB  (n.) A Sedan with oriental provenance of indeterminate age used to convey the Inebriated by its Driver whose paucity of English is matched only by his geographical knowledge.

Johnson’s wife Elizabeth “Tetty” Porter was no better, who in the opinion of his friend Robert Levett, was “always drunk and reading romances in her bed where she killed herself by taking opium”.

In 1746 Johnson was commissioned by a syndicate of booksellers to write the first comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language. He rented at £30 per annum 17 Gough Square and with the help of his six amanuenses compiled the Dictionary in the garret. It was published in 1755. The painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, on a visit to view the great man at work noted that “besides his books, all covered with dust, there was an old crazy deal table and a still worse and older elbow chair having only three legs”, which Johnson managed to sit upon without support.

KNOWLEDGE, THE  (n.) An accumulation of local information which doth give one granted the illusion of superior powers and wisdom.

For here in 1755 Johnson despatched a messenger with the last proofs of the dictionary to Andrew Millar, the bookseller, in the Strand. When he returned Johnson asked what Millar had said. “Sir,” answered the messenger, “Thank God I have done with him.”

Johnson fell on hard times and left the house the following year, he was arrested for debt in 1758 and was bailed out by his friend Samuel Richardson. He went on to live in a number of lodgings dying in 1784, leaving a body of work as an essayist, journalist, satirist, novelist and as the leading literary critic of his time. He laid down standard for the use of English comparative literature and founded the Literary Club, but his Dictionary of the English Language was not (as is often claimed) the first English dictionary, but it was certainly the most important one published up to that date. It went through numerous editions, and was not superseded until the publication in 1928 of the Oxford English Dictionary.

MUSEUM  (n.) A repository of historic memorabilia much frequented by Children carrying pencils and clipboards, each bearing a bored countenance.

dr johnson house


Little is known of 17 Gough Square after Johnson’s departure until Thomas Carlyle visited it in 1832, who noted its dilapidated condition and described the tiny garden as little larger than a bed quilt. In 1910 the newspaper baron and Liberal Member of Parliament Cecil Harmsworth purchased the property for a reputed £3,500 and restored the house at his own expense to its original condition, opening it to the public in 1912 and at the same time a cottage was built as the Curator’s residence. The City of London suffered extensive damage during the Second World War and Dr. Johnson’s House was nearly destroyed on three occasions during the bombing of 1940-41.

This elegant late 17th century house is the only original house in Gough Square, and the only remaining house of those many in which Johnson lived in London. The timber used in its construction is American white and yellow pine which was bought back as ballast in ships trading with the colonies. The House (open to the public) is now run by the Dr Johnson’s House Trust and the present Lord Harmsworth is the Chairman of the Board of Governors.

BLOG  (n.) Electronick diary unto which earnest fools do commit their innermost thoughts, safe in the knowledge that no man shall ever read them.



Kensington Palace is undergoing cosmetic architectural surgery and a total facelift to the grounds. The ambitious plan to remove most of the railing to “encourage a more intimate connection with the Palace and the Park itself”, by removing the physical and some might feel mental barrier between the great house and the public. Republicans might rejoice at another barrier being removed between the privileged few and the citizens of England, but what next?

[D]aily I see crowds of tourists, noses pressed against Buckingham Palace’s railings, are these to be removed to provide a more intimate connection?

During the war most of the fashionable houses of London were shorn of their railings, the metal was needed for the war effort, so to retain one’s own was at the very least unpatriotic, in fact very little of this wrought iron was ever used – but hey, there was a war on.

Now cast your mind back to late September of 1997, Tony Blair had recently won a convincing victory for New Labour and the young were optimistic of a brave new world for Britain.

Then tragedy struck the young icon (and that’s not an exaggeration) of their generation – Lady Diana died in a Paris underpass. Within days a sea of flowers had been placed around Kensington Palace, each bearing a note expressing the outpourings of so many lives.

We were living through a seismic moment in our nation’s history, not just in the perception of the English character but also in our attitude to the Monarchy. Britain almost overnight lost its stiff upper lip and we started acting like, and here it pains me to say it – Europeans.

Day after day I would be taking distressed; grieving girls to lay flowers in what had become a very visible break with our staid Victorian post.

And those railings became the focus of the media; every day the field of flowers grew, and the railing began to symbolise the division of Queen and her subjects. The railings became a secular altar as a place to grieve for the loss of the hopes and dreams for England. So those railings are in short history.

We often have to decide what to keep and what to obliterate, only time can judge our decisions which we make today. But I fear that the Simon Schama of future generations when educating our great grandchildren about the late 20th century might say a few words of criticism at the decision to destroy this symbol of England.

7 London Sevens

Seven dials

[D]riving through Covent Garden recently it occurred to me that there are a lot of sevens in London, many of which, it would seem, do not have very happy connections:

Seven Dials was originally a seven-road junction; Great Earl Street and Little Earl Street; Great White Lion Street and Little White Lion Street; Great St. Andrew’s Street and Little St. Andrew’s Street and Queen Street, with a Doric pillar at their intersection, topped with a sundial pointing down each street, but to be pedantic one pair of streets had to share a sundial but it got its name anyway.

This part of London had the unenviable reputation for squalor, vice, crime and degradation, Dickens’s Fagin in Oliver Twist could have been based on characters to be found in the vicinity. The area was redeveloped in the 1870s, but retaining only six roads at the junction, its current pillar with sundials was erected in 1989.

Seven Dials Raker is late 19th slang for a prostitute who lived in Seven Dials but plied her trade elsewhere. Nowadays they live in Mayfair and ply their trade in Seven Dials.

A book written by social investigator James Greenwood gave London Seven Curses: Neglected children, professional thieves, professional beggars, fallen women, drunkenness, betting gamblers and a waste of charity. That was in 1869, not much has changed in 150 years.

The original London gates of the City wall through which roads passed have given their names to well known parts of the City of London the Seven Gates of the City are: Ludgate, Aldersgate, Newgate, Cripplegate, Moorgate, Bishopsgate and Aldgate.

A little way to the east lies Seven Kings described as “The people’s surburb” by its developer, others dubbed it “the town built in a year”. An erroneous tale is of seven Royal Huntsmen riding in Hainault Forest stopped in a clearing to allow their horses to drink.

After the 7/7 Bombings a campaign was launched by the London’s Mayor entitled Seven Million Londoner’s, loosely based on London’s population at the time, it aimed to foster the spirit of unity between the capital’s multicultural communities.

In the poor area that is now South Tottenham, in around 1350; seven elm trees were planted around a walnut tree by seven sisters. A Protestant martyr was later supposed to have been burnt there, after which the walnut tree flourished but grew no bigger dying in 1790. The elms lasted long enough to give their name to the new turnpike running north-east – Seven Sisters Road.

A Black Day for Black Cabs

I’m sorry to come over all Cabbie Centric on this post.

But if you want the answer to why there aren’t any cabs are to be found soon on a wet Friday night as you leave the theatre, stick with me here so you’ll know who to blame.

Now here is a clue: Our London Mayor, Boris Johnson is proposing to put a 10 year limit to the age of London’s black taxi fleet.

[A] leading trade journalist has estimated that at a stroke 7,500 cabs will be taken off the road equating to one third of the fleet. Followed by another 1,500 every year after that, so in just over two years nearly half of London cabs would be scrapped. These scrapped cabs are the vehicles approved by TfL and in fact until recent they were virtually the ONLY vehicles cabbies could use with TfL approval.

Not long ago to gain our green credentials every older cab had to undergo an expensive modification to bring it up to Euro 3 compliant. Apparently Boris doesn’t think the £2,000 conversion goes far enough and wants to run fleets of Euro 4 or higher compliant vehicles.

His proposition to cap the age of cabs at 10 years means that their residual value would reduce by approximately £4,000 a year and that dear reader would mean increased fares just at the time of austerity measures for many of London businesses and residents.

Setting aside the environmental impact of dismantling perfectly serviceable vehicles only to replace them with imports from China, yes China, many components from London’s cabs are produced in Asia and the manufacturers are proposing that the vehicles are only assembled in Birmingham, how can that be a realistic option for the environment when many much older cars are allowed into London?

What our passengers don’t realised (and why should they), is that many vehicles are rented. Again the London Taxi Drivers Association (‘LTDA’) estimated this older fleet of rented vehicles will diminish by up to 50 per cent and the operators would be unable to survive this catastrophic blow to their equity. These garages owned by fleet owners would just shut up shop with their staff being made redundant.

Many older drivers, including this writer, would simply retire having decided that to replace their cab or the increase in rent was too a higher price to pay, for what a part-time job is for many. Some younger drivers, particularly firemen supplement their income as cabbies, and would have to consider the viability of replacing their vehicle or seeking alternative employment.

The LTDA have commissioned a report to counter some of the dubious claims made about London cabs green credentials by TfL, and hope to persuade Boris of his folly. But if reasoned persuasion doesn’t work (and Boris is not renowned for about-turns) expect to find an awful lot of empty cabs blocking traffic flow while demonstrating in central London.