Big Brother is your friend

The Coalition, in an attempt to divert the public’s attention away from the morass they have got themselves into with the National Health Service Reforms, have unleashed their attack dog: Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond. Politicians know that nothing, almost nothing, exercises voters’ minds more than dangerous driving, we all think that we are better than average drivers, a statistical impossibility, and it’s always the other chap who’s to blame.

[W]ithin hours of hearing the proposals to bring in tougher new penalties for dangerous driving, while sitting stationary in my cab at a set of traffic lights on the Tottenham gyratory system, three motorists blatantly jumped a red light, I can only assume that after eleven at night red lights in Tottenham are only a suggestion and not an instruction to stop.

When driving it will not have escaped your attention that drivers can manage to drive with care and courtesy when in the vicinity of a police car, indeed if you see this unusual behaviour on a motorway you can be sure that amongst the slower moving cars is a member of the motorway patrol.

The Government’s proposals are to get away from fixed speed cameras having already scrapped grants to local authorities which enabled them to install and the monitor these devices. The proposals are to give greater powers to the police to stop bad driving, this will mean that more officers are taken from crime prevention and put on the road to catch the minority of motorists who flout the law.

London’s bus network is one of the largest and most comprehensive urban transport systems in the world, every weekday over 6,800 scheduled buses travel on over 700 different routes travelling over 300 million miles per year. If CCTV cameras were installed on every bus with a device that the driver could press when he saw dangerous driving which would put a mark on the image at the time of the alleged offence to assist retrieval, and as with many motoring offences at present, civilians could access the marked image and forward it to the driver with a fixed penalty notice. Likewise London’s 24,000 cabs could over time be converted to take these images, for it seems to me that slower moving public service vehicles are more likely to witness dangerous driving, as for some reason the few lunatics who persist in the practice of driving without due care, feel that buses and cabs are just in their way.

Over time drivers in London would have to improve their standards, or face the penalty, just as they always managed to drive with care when confronted with a police car in their path.

A bear called Martin

I can never recall a time when we were not sharing our home with an animal. My father, and his father before him, held senior positions at London Zoo and from time to time he would, as they say, bring his work home. Until recently I assumed that London Zoo was the capital’s first menagerie, little realising that not long after the Tower of London was built, and it was to become London’s first house for animals.

[E]xotic creatures have long been considered an appropriate gift from one ruler to another, as early as the 12th century there is evidence that King John (1199-1216) received three boatloads of wild beasts from Normandy. Records show that in 1235 the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II gave Henry III three leopards on the occasion of his wedding to Eleanor of Provence, a lion followed and in 1252 a polar bear complete with its keeper both gifts from Haakon IV of Norway.

The only place to house these dangerous creatures was in England’s most secure citadel, the Tower of London, whose walls provided the perfect enclosure. At that time the creatures were locked away from public view, except the time when the shackled polar bear would be led onto the Thames foreshore to wash and fish for food.

When in 1255 Louis IX of France gave Henry an elephant the Sheriffs of London were asked to build and pay for a 40ft long wooden elephant house, later it was put to good use as one of the Tower’s many prison cells.

The menagerie grew and Edward I created the official position of The Master of the King’s Bears and Apes. By the 16th century the collection was opened to limited public view, and by James I’s reign within the Tower’s confines were recorded a flying squirrel, a tiger, a lioness, five camels and an elephant.

Christopher Wren was charged with designing a lion house in 1672. Built in the south-eastern corner it comprised two stories, an attic and cellars. I could never understand when in the modern London Zoo people would eat their lunch in the Lion House for a lion’s faeces have an odour all of their own. In Stow’s Survey of London published in 1720 he records: “The creatures have a rank smell, which hath so affected the air of the place (tho’ there is a garden adjoining) that it hath much injured the health of the man that attends them, so stuffed up his head, that it affects his speech.”

Animal husbandry was in its infancy: ostriches were believed to have the ability to digest iron – one died after being fed no fewer than 80 nails. An Indian elephant housed in St. James’s Palace was given a daily glass of wine from April to September as they believed it couldn’t drink water during those months.

By 1821 the collection had dwindled to four lions, a panther, leopard, a tiger and a grizzly bear called Martin.

A new keeper was appointed, Alfred Cops, who was devoted to his charges. For the first time in the menagerie’s history Cops went out and purchased animals for the collection. Soon the Tower contained over 280 animals and the public flocked to view them. In one unfortunate incident a boa constrictor wrapped itself around Cops’ neck as he was feeding it in a bid to entertain the tourists.

A victim of its own success most of the animals were transferred to the new Zoological Society of London, in Regents Park was the society had established London’s first zoo. That transfer started in 1832 and by 1835 the last of Alfred Cops’ collection had been rehomed ending 600 years of exotic animals at The Tower of London.

Now this whole forgotten chapter is to be celebrated with a special exhibition at the Tower, called Royal Beasts, which opens tomorrow. Watching over the visitors will be one of its most unusual tenants a polar bear which will sit outside the Bloody Tower, where there was once direct access to the Thames. But really to welcome visitors to the exhibition it should have been a bear called Martin.

STaN’s not The Man

London at Night

Known as London’s curry capital, Brick Lane boasts over 50 Indian restaurants, some of which have won plaudits for the quality of their food.

According to some restaurateurs their neighbours began touting for customers in a bid to lure passing punters into their premises, but after a decade of gentle influence the council has received complaints that touts were harassing and intimidating people possibly discouraging them from ever returning to the area.

Tower Hamlets councillor Abdal Ullah commentating on the proliferation of touting has said “It began with just one or two touting for business but this started to affect some other restaurants so badly that they had to start doing the same and before long the situation spiralled”.

[A]fter a voluntary initiative by restaurants to stop touting Tower Hamlets have brought in a bye-law which enables the council to impose a £20,000 fine or 6-month imprisonment if a restaurant employs touts and fining individuals up to £500 if found guilty of the offence.

Annoying touting may be, but I’d be surprised if a woman has ever been raped whilst eating in an Indian restaurant. Unlike London’s Public Hire Vehicles which last year saw reported sexual assaults rising by 54 per cent with 143 sexual attacks including 29 rapes – and what are the authorities doing? Zero.

In October 2002 the Safer Travel at Night ( STaN ) initiative was set up to reduce the rise in sexual assaults, which had reached epidemic proportions with 212 recorded assaults in illegal minicabs in one year alone. Initially thoroughly vetted cab offices were set up, the owners having to keep detailed records for every driver operating out of their premises including ensuring that an Enhanced Criminal Record Check (“CRB”) being made on every driver.

Transport for London in 2006 accelerated their agenda, in proposals recently discovered TfL plans to identify clubs, bars and other venues where satellite cab offices could be set up. We now have a situation where every club, bar or hotel can become a satellite cab office and employ a tout with a clipboard to inveigle young women into the cars illegally parked outside these venues. At the same time CRB checks on foreign nationals coming to work in London have sometimes proved to be ineffectual as their country of origin do not have or will not supply the relevant information on an individual’s criminal record.

There are only 56 PCO enforcement officers to control nearly 10,000 Private Hire and Taxis. Taking into account shift patterns, holiday and sick leave, we are lucky if there are even five officers out that at any one time, and astonishingly there are currently only four, that work at night when they are most needed. This gives you some idea why it really is a sexual predator’s paradise out there. New York, a city of similar size, with a similar number of vehicles has 413 officers.

Should you wish to study the proposals by Steve Burton, Deputy Director of Transport Policing and Enforcement, Transport for London the 95 page document may be accessed at:

This year has shown a marked improvement in the number of cab-related sexual offences at 111, compared to the previous year, where there were 140 offences, there was a decrease of 20.7% and since 2003 the Cab Enforcement Unit has made more than 7,000 arrests for touting and cab-related offences but as anyone knows who visits London at night the results still falls way short of removing these preditators.

Recently the Evening Standard’s Rob Parsons accompanied officers on an undercover operation to tackle touting in the West End; his article was published on the 23 May.

Denise Gabbard has contributed to CabbieBlog with the problems that American cabbies face every working day and how their problems can be ameliorated:

She writes:
Driving a taxicab is much different from what most people do for a living. Some reports place taxi drivers at the top of the list of most dangerous occupations, above even police officers and firemen. In fact, since 1990, more than 180 taxi drivers have been killed just in New York City.

Obviously, safety should be the top priority of everyone who earns their pay by driving a cab.

What makes it so dangerous?
There are a number of reasons why driving a taxicab is such a dangerous occupation, and drivers should always be alert to those reasons and be on guard against violence:
Drivers work completely alone
Drivers have cash readily available on board
Drivers can work in isolated or seedy areas
Drivers frequently work long and tiring shifts
Drivers deal with strangers, and visitors, constantly
Drivers are often immigrants, and language barriers and racism play a factor
Drivers overall have a poor reputation with the public
Drivers sometimes are treated less human because of negative perceptions

Reading your customers
It’s important to understand the complexity and nature of people when driving a taxicab, in order to keep yourself safe. Realize that every person is different, but that the vast majority of people are good, though sometimes there are bad days even for the nicest folks. Also know that there are people who are simply psychopaths, and these people have no empathy or feelings for others.

If your passenger looks angry or hostile, stares angrily, tenses his body or makes sudden jerky movements, those things should send up a red flag to you. Likewise, if they avoid eye contact all together, you should be on high alert. Body language says as much as the words coming from your customer’s mouth. You must never underestimate a customer, regardless of how they look, because you never know what they are capable of doing.

Playing it safe
Remember that your radio is your lifeline, and your dispatcher can help you if you get in trouble. Be sure that you have a good working relationship with all dispatchers because you need them to always have your back. They can sometimes sense when there is trouble and send help, give you needed information to keep you safe, and keep you up to date on happenings that might affect you.

Always stay alert, keep an eye on what’s going on around you whether driving or waiting for a fare. Eat right, get enough sleep, and plenty of exercise which will keep your energy level high.

Humanize yourself to your fares by offering them a friendly and polite greeting, smile, and most of all, make eye contact. Eye contact is critical, because you are telling them that you care about them and yourself, and also that you know what they look like and can identify them if needed.

Always have adequate taxi insurance to cover any thefts or damage, so you will not be tempted to fight someone who tries to rob you. Your safety is more important than money!

Horses for courses

With Boris cabs are now becoming Public Enemy Number One and with ever more traffic flow restrictions, and councils trying to turn London’s roads back to Victorian times, an average speed of 8 mph is now still no higher than they were a century ago when we used Shank’s Pony. Nevertheless it is a mistake to imagine that London’s streets would have been more pleasant with four legged horsepower.

[B]y the end of the 19th century 300,000 horses were working in the capital, each producing four tons of dung a year, amounting to a total of one million tons a year which was good for roses, typhoid and dysentery, but little else. Horses were also involved in an average of 175 fatal accidents a year in addition to the deaths caused by transmitted diseases from the dung.

growlerHorse power lasted well into the last century: Old Kent Road’s horse-drawn tram was taken out of service in 1913; incredibly by 1935 five per cent of transport some 20,000 horse-drawn carts were still to be seen in the capital; as nowadays cabbies were reluctant to any change, the last horse drawn cab, a Growler, this plied the Victoria Station rank only retired on 3rd April 1947.

Camden Market, now a shopper’s paradise for the weird and wonderful was once a horse hospital for the 1,300 horses employed in the environs of King’s Cross, treating among other injuries those caused by animals slipping on wet cobblestones.

London’s equine past is commemorated in several street names. Horseferry Road led to one of the few crossings across the Thames, this one from the 16th century was used until 1750 and owned by the Bishops of Lambeth.

582px-Sculpture_Of_'Jacob'_A_Dray_Horse-Queen_Elizabeth_Street-LondonJacob the Circle Dray Horse, Queen Elizabeth Street: The famous courage dray horses were stabled on this site from the early nineteenth century and delivered beer around London, from the brewery on Horselydown Lane near Tower Bridge. In the sixteenth century this area was known as Horselydown which derives its name from Horse-Lie-Down, a thing that horses did here before crossing the river at London Bridge to enter the City of London.

molehill_thumbEquine statutes litter London’s landscape, but one in St. James’s Square illustrates just how dangerous riding horses can be: this statute of King William III was erected in 1806 and there is something strange about it. A small molehill lies at the feet of Sorrel, the King’s horse. What is the molehill for? The answer is that William is said to have died of pneumonia, a complication from a broken collarbone, resulting from a fall off his horse. Because his horse had stumbled into a mole’s burrow. William was the Protestant King brought to England from Holland to replace the last Catholic: King James. James’s supporters and all Jacobites then and now still toast “the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat”. The mole that killed a king. The saying “Dutch Courage” also comes from William III’s reign.

A dressing down

The news recently of the untimely death at 56 of Edward Stobart – who took his father’s small haulage business comprising of eight lorries, and turned it into one of the most successful logistics companies in the country – should remind us all in the transport industry what is meant by customer service and brand awareness. Stobart’s 2,250 trucks make a delivery every 5.5 minutes travelling a total distance every day the equivalent of 21 laps of Earth.

[T]he success of Eddie Stobart can be attributed to Edward’s ability to create an icon; the drivers are always smart and until recently would face disciplinary action if they did not wear a shirt and tie at the wheel. The truck, always immaculately clean and each painted in the highly recognisable corporate colours. The trucks are driven competently with care and consideration to other road users – they say an Eddie Stobart truck is passed on England’s roads every 4.5 minutes – note it’s not the other way round, with the truck thundering past the motorist.

Compare and contrast that with London’s cabs. Once an internationally recognised icon; first the colour was changed from Henry Ford’s ‘you can have any colour you like as long as it’s black’ to a kaleidoscope of colours; next advertising was permitted, and now other manufacturers produce ‘black cabs’; now with the proliferation of private hire vehicles, it’s hardly is surprising that tourists find identifying a cab confusing. Many of London’s cabs are filthy both inside and out, gone are the days when the driver could be ordered to clean his cab before picking up another fare.

Now with summer approaching drivers will be seen with the most bizarre apparel, looking only fit to be seen on a Spanish beach than providing a professional service driving what was once one of the most iconic vehicles in the world.

Stobarts even have their own fan club with 25,000 members, about that same number of London Black Cab Drivers ply for hire on London’s streets. If only black cabs could engender enough loyalty for themselves – many have lost the values that Edward Stobart understood so well.