Eyes forward

[D]riving a London cab gives you a panoramic view both of the road and into other drivers’ vehicles as they stop beside you and it was with that advantage a couple of years ago I noticed that some prestige cars not only had a built-in Sat-Nav but that the same screen could show a video.

I found that surprising, as my understanding of traffic law was that any monitor must not be visible to the driver; somehow the car manufacturers had managed to circumvent the regulations by ensuring that the device turned off the image when the car moved forward. So that was alright then! Watch TV while sitting at the lights, rather than watching any jaywalking pedestrians, and once your top-of-the-range limousine reaches 5mph you can concentrated on your driving.

This was followed by putting monitors on the back headrests in the manner of an aircraft, anyone who has children must have felt that that was a Godsend, who hasn’t tried to drive with the kids in the back bored and nagging? Every parent knows the stupefying effect that television has on the young – and not so young – so moving image just inches from their noses would keep them quiet all day.

But now not content with a myriad of distractions: Radio (DAB, FM, MW LW); CD players; i-pod compatible; Sat-Navs; even staring at the 2-inch screen of an i-phone, more and more I see drivers watching TV as they drive for unlike their expensive counterparts, the cars they seek to emulate, its image doesn’t turn off while the vehicle is on the move. So with one eye on the road they can watch the latest music video or shoot-em-up flick.

If a driver was foolish to talk on his mobile phone whilst driving he could expect three points on his license and a £60 fine, but I’ve yet to read of anyone prosecuted for watching the latest Lady Gaga album whilst driving through London’s congested streets.

The wider question must be is that how can anyone watch a television programme or movie with the distractions of driving? How can they watch anything in bite-sized chunks? Do they only have an the attention span of the time it takes the light to return back to green or is it that they are so addicted to the moving image it doesn’t really matter what is showing as long as something appears on that little screen.

There have been numerous studies on our television habits. In May last year the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board found that viewers were watching more television than ever before, concluding that the average number of hours each person spends in front of the television each week has risen by more than 8 per cent. to 30 hours 4 minutes. Thinkbox, the British marketing body for commercial broadcasters, defended this rise by stating that the greater choice offered by digital television, new technologies such as digital recorders, on-demand services and yes, it’s been blamed again, the recession is encouraging people to spend more time at home. The watching of television whilst driving apparently did not enter their radar.

Jack The Lad

Jack Sheppard by Thornhill

The term “lovable rogue” has been applied to many crooks over the years, most are just unpopular villains, but one from the 18th century remains known to us even today, in fact so great was his popularity over one-quarter of London’s population came to his execution.

John Shepherd known to all as Jack was a fairly diminutive chap at 5’4” and was by all accounts very strong for his size. Born in 1702 in Spitalfields he was Christened with some haste due to his frail condition at St. Dunstan’s. At six years old he was apprenticed to a cane chair maker, that didn’t last, but later following in the footsteps of his father he took up an apprenticeship as a carpenter; he was probably only accepted as his mother’s current lover had taught him to read and write. Leaving his employer after five years he took up with a bad lot at a pub in Drury Lane called the Black Lion and would frequent an area, now developed as the London School of Economics, called Clare Market frequented at that time by prostitutes and later would become the centre for pornography.

[H]e made friends with a criminal called Joseph “Blueskin” Blake and Jonathan Wilde known as the Thieftaker General. Wilde led a double life and was high up in what purported to be the police force at that time, he also led a group of thieves who would steal property and then he would return the stolen goods to the rightful owners for a fee. He also met a prostitute Elizabeth Lyon known to all as Edgeworth Bess who was, not to be ungallant, a woman with a fuller figure.

In 1723 Jack – who by that time had given up his apprenticeship and was partial to a drink – stole two silver spoons from the Rummel Tavern at Charing Cross. He was caught and put into St. Giles Roundhouse a prison that was situated near modern day Seven Dials.

So far nothing unusual, hundreds of small time crooks in London must have taken the same road to the hangman’s noose at that time.

Jack was somewhat different and would have put Houdini to shame. He overcame his first incarceration by breaking through the cell’s timber ceiling and fashioned a rope from sheets with which he shimmed down while still wearing his leg irons.

He was rearrested two years later for picking pockets in Leicester Fields (known today as Leicester Square). This time he was sent to New Prison in Clerkenwell. When later Edgeworth Bess came to visit him he broke out of prison ending up on the roof, from there jumping down into an adjacent building only to find himself in Bridewell Prison next door, this time he climbed a 22ft wall while still manacled and helped Buxom Bess along the way.

Later after being plied with a copious amount of alcohol Bess disclosed to the authorities Jack’s whereabouts, he was duly arrested and this time sentenced to death and put into Newgate. This time he loosened the bars of his window and escaped dressed as a woman. He then went into exile on Finchley Common, but Jack really was Jack The Lad and liked having money, drink and a woman on each arm.

He came back into London and was rearrested, put back into Newgate. This time he found himself in “The Castle” which was a prison within a prison and was thought by the authorities to be impregnable. He was clapped in leg irons and chained to two metal staples attached to the stone floor. He escaped again climbing up a chimney and scaling a 60ft wall making his escape via six barred doors. Back outside with a crowd forming upon hearing of yet another escape and while still in leg irons he diverted their attention by claiming to see somebody on the roof.

Thinking himself untouchable he was at large for two weeks before he broke into Rawlings a pawnbroker in Drury Lane. There he stole a number of items including a fashionable black silk suit which he proceeded to put on and went out on the lash. So conspicuous was he that inevitably he was arrested and put in the “Middle Stone Room” of Newgate and this time loaded with 300lbs of iron weights.

Loved for his escapology people pleaded for commuting his death sentence to deportation but to no avail. Taken by cart from Newgate, a journey that could take two hours, he was plied with drink along the way. At one hostelry, the City of Oxford on modern Oxford Street they gave his a pint of sherry.

When London’s population was estimated at 700,000 an audience of over 200,000 turned up for his execution. He did not die immediately as his diminutive frame was too light to allow the rope to break his neck. After 15 minutes the crowd surged forward wanting a memento of Jack which prevented his friends cutting him down, and trying to resuscitate him.

Buried at the recently rebuilt St. Martin’s in the Fields he was known in his time as Jack The Lad and Gentleman Jack and has had over the years a huge following in popular culture. Painted while in Newgate by Sir James Thornhill the Serjeant Painter to the Crown [see illustration]; the Beggar’s Opera is loosely based on his life; he has been the subject of two silent films; and Christopher Hibbert wrote The Road to Tyburn based on his life. More recently the 1969 film starring Tommy Steele Where’s Jack was also an adaptation based on Jack’s colourful life.

Go [North] West Young Man

It started with Tony Blair, like so many things, with an idea to London’s detriment. First to appease Europe, power has been devolved away from Westminster thereby continuing the process of turning all Europe’s Member States into a group of provinces rather than countries.

This was closely followed by the BBC moving much of its facilities (and talent) to Salford near Manchester at a cost of £200 million.

[C]reating 500 new posts and relocating 2,300 positions away from London they argue, with some justification, that it will reverse their trend of London bias.

This line of reasoning suggests that we Little Londoners are an enclave of prosperity that excludes outsiders. In reality the majority of professionals working in London have come from everywhere but London having been attracted to our vibrant city.

We shall see how the BBC’s experiment works, but as the majority of people they would want to enter their studios come from the Home Counties, their work will be cut out persuading these contributors to travel to Salford for a studio appearance. For radio interviews the radio car has proved very effective, but for live television, I can’t see somebody travelling 200 miles for a 10 minute book promotion, and should their guests be located in a different studio the intimacy of the one to one interview would be lost.

Now in a reverse of its policy to make Britain less London centric a high speed train is planned between London and, yes you guessed it, Manchester. Most MPs are in favour of the High Speed train (“HP2”) for politicians love big grandiose schemes; it makes it look as if they’re earning their salary.

At a cost of £44 billion, and if previous large Government projects are anything to go by, you could probably treble that figure. Ticket prices won’t cover the cost of construction so a heavy subsidy is envisaged to the tune of £17 billion, that’s about £500 per taxpayer.

It all sound very exciting, China and Japan have got their high speed trains, so why not us? The British, after all, were one of the first countries in the world with a train network and we love the romance of steam. The Railway Children, Brief Encounter and Agatha Christie used trains as a vehicle for some of her most popular novels.

But who would use these Silver Bullets of modernity? The consultation paper argues that the main savings will be made from business users. Because journey times are reduced, managers will spent less of their valuable time staring out of the window watching a moving landscape.

But hold on, wasn’t the point of Devolution and the BBC’s move to Manchester to make these parts of Britain more independent from London? Why would highly paid managers and politicians need to travel – to the tune of £17 billion in savings – if their world is to be based in the North of England?

Or will HP2 be another expensive white elephant used to transport BBC guests from their homes and offices in the Home Counties to a studio somewhere up north and give politicians an excuse to put it yet again on their expenses?

London Lexicon

The perception that most people have of London’s contribution to the English language is restricted to Cockney Rhyming Slang, in reality the only place you’re likely to hear rhyming slang these days is on the set of BBC TV’s Eastenders. But with a little research you discover that the derivation of many of our words and sayings in English sometimes come from a most unlikely quarter as I’ve discovered:

Derrick’s big idea
In the 18th century Ben Johnson – who incidentally was buried standing upright in Westminster Abbey – was sentenced to hanging for murder. The sentence was commuted to branding on his thumb when he proved that he could both read and write, and was thus given the Benefit of the Clergy.

Many weren’t so lucky and would meet Thomas Derrick at Tyburn; in fact Derrick was probably the last person they would meet here on Earth. London needed a hangman and as there hadn’t been many applicants, the Earl of Essex pardoned a rapist and rather unsavoury character by all accounts, on condition that he would fill the post.

Hanging Days were public holidays and as the condemned had been saved up for the purpose, it made the day for Derrick rather long and arduous, for the method of despatch at that time was slow strangulation having had the cart upon which they were standing pulled away from under their feet.

Derrick’s genius was to invent a gallows using ropes and pulleys that could despatch a dozen at the time; in fact it was this method that he used to hang the man who originally gave him his job, the Earl of Essex. The irony of this tale is that the Earl’s name has long been forgotten, while Derrick’s name is used to describe a modern derrick crane.

Quicker than you can say “Jack Robinson”
Sir John Robinson was Constable of the Tower of London who from 1660 until 1679 was in charge of executions and who by all accounts was a stickler for efficiency rather than solemnity. The prisoner was marched out, put on the block and shortened without any opportunity for any famous last words. He did not even have the time to appeal to the overseer by crying “Jack Robinson”.

Being at Sixes and Sevens
Only in London would you find an institution dedicated to the making of clothes, which for over 300 years have had nothing to do with tailoring instead its members devote their time to personal networking and charitable works, for like most of London’s guilds the Merchant Tailors are now run by the men in grey suits. Merchant Tailors who were later joined by the Linen Armourers, originally actually made clothes, its most famous being the gambeson, a thick padded jacked worn under a suit of armour by the nobility or on its own by foot soldiers when going into battle. But when swords and pikes gave way to firearms this piece of apparel became redundant and they moved on to produce tents for the army, until even that became a pointless exercise.

Receiving its charter in 1327 it became as a result one of the 12 great livery companies in the City, so named for the distinctive clothing (or livery) that members of these venerable institutions would once wear. Early in their history the guilds fought for their place in the order of precedence during any progress of the Lord Mayor of London. After many years of arguments with the Guild of Skinners about who should take sixth place and who seventh in the order of precedence, the Lord Mayor issued an order in the late 15th century to the effect that the Skinners and Merchant Tailors would alternate in precedence; odd-numbered years Merchant Tailors would be sixth in order, while in even-numbered years Skinners would take sixth and Merchant Tailors seventh. Hence the phrase – to be at sixes and sevens. This alternating precedence continues to this day.

Robbing Peter to pay Paul
As Michael Caine might say not a lot of people know that Westminster Abbey’s official name is “The Collegiate Church of Saint Peter at Westminster”. During the reign of Edward VI after his father’s Reformation that ended Britain’s thousand-year monastic tradition and put power, and money, back into the hands of the Monarch, the churches were dependent on the largess of the reigning King. But St. Peter was forever asking for endowments so much so that the King decided to punish the abbey by taking away the revenue St. Peter had long enjoyed from the proceeds of the Manor of Paddington and gave them to St. Paul’s which had always been known, as nowadays, as London’s cathedral. Thus a Royal church had lost out to the London cathedral, and hence robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Break a Leg
If you want to wish an actor good luck with their performance theatrical tradition has it that you hope they “break a leg”. This curious phrase comes from a time when all London theatres had to have a licence which could only be granted by the Crown. Samuel Foote took over the running of the Little Theatre in the Haymarket but because its previous owner had published a number of pamphlets attacking the government and the Crown the King refused to grant a licence. Foote tried every means he could to curry favour with the King and in desperation found a loophole around the problem. The punters could get in for free but were expected to purchase food and drink at hugely inflated prices, a practice carried on today without the free admission.

The King’s brother the Duke of York overheard Foote boasting about his horsemanship and in revenue for making a fool of the Crown decided to seek revenge. The Duke of York challenged Foote to ride with him the following morning. The next day the Duke had brought with him a horse that had never been ridden, Foote inevitably was thrown from the horse and was badly injured, he broke a leg and had to have it amputated.

Stricken with remorse and wishing to make up for what he had done the Duke granted Foote the Royal licence for which he had waited for so long. In 1766 the Little Theatre became the Theatre Royal, Haymarket a title it has enjoyed ever since. The phrase “break a leg” is now used by the acting fraternity to wish one good luck, but maybe it should be “break a Foote”.

Chinese Takeaways – Second Helpings

Be it Boris; Ken; Bikes; or Cabbies, nothing it seems polarises Londoner’s opinion more than rickshaws. When last writing about these three-wheeled wonders I received more comments than for almost any other subject. So at the risk of being accused of self-interest and ignoring the environmental advantages of using this mode of transport in the Capital, I offer this advice before you decide to be taken for a ride.

Are the vehicles safe?

There have been no major collisions which have resulted in death involving rickshaws, however the ride can be very hairy when traffic is busy, for example during the rush when the theatres finish their performances, or riding at speed around Hyde Park Corner. The rickshaws owned by the large companies who run them, known to them as pedicabs, are all members of the London Pedicabs Operators Association (“LPOA”) and abide by their own code of conduct. They claim to have regular safety checks carried out and a well maintained fleet of vehicles. Unfortunately only their voluntary code of conduct protects the public and therefore is not subject to external scrutiny. The London Taxi Drivers Association (“LTD”) commissioned the Transport Research Laboratory (“TRL”) to undertake an independent safety evaluation of the type of rickshaw most commonly operated on the streets of the capital. TRL concluded that rickshaws provided “little or no protection in the event of almost any accident and posed a significant risk of passengers being dragged along in direct contact with the road surface”; indeed the vehicles were considered to be so dangerous that TRL banned its technicians from testing them at speeds above 9 miles per hour.

Road safety?

The community police make regular checks to ensure that their lights function are turned on and give these vehicles a cursory check when they have the time, which in the West End at night, is rarely done. Rickshaws usually have seat belts, usually lap belts, and are not designed to carry more than three passengers; if there are four or more passengers you should use a second rickshaw. If you do need a second rickshaw, be warned, do not allow them to race; they always seem to want to outperform their colleagues, much to the horror of oncoming drivers. This rickshaw habit of racing around the streets of London at speeds far in excess of 9 mph prompted the LTDA to commission a further study by TRL to enable the handling and stability of these vehicles to be tested by means of computerised simulation, thereby eliminating the risk of physical injury to TRL technicians. Their conclusions reinforced their original findings.


Contrary to popular belief, the rickshaws run by the main companies definitely carry full public liability insurance; this is part of their voluntary code of practice. However, if you exceed the stated number of passengers you may invalidate the insurance. In addition, unlike all other types of regulated public transport an insurance certificate is not displayed on the vehicle so potential punters have no means of checking.

What do they charge?

The fare is a matter of negotiation between the driver and the passengers. Most of the rickshaw companies charge a basic flat rate fare per passenger (between £3.50 and £4) and then the driver negotiates his fee on top of that. How much more you pay is dependent on your negotiating skills and how far you are going. It’s no different than when travelling in a Third World country; you agree a fair price before you get in the cab and then stick to it and don’t listen to the excuses for increasing the fare at the end of your journey. You will find they expect a tip as well, 10 per cent is more than adequate.

Who are the drivers?

The drivers are thought to be mostly young “foreign students” trying to make a bit of money to help fund their studies, very few will be English students, but with university fees set to rise who knows? A few may have shadier backgrounds and unlike drivers of any other transport, they don’t have background checks even though they regularly carry children. If working for one of the larger companies they will have received training via the LPOA. This includes complying with a voluntary Drivers Code of Conduct and training to level three of the National Standards for cycling. The driver should be wearing a name badge; follow the road rules and make sure that passengers are buckled in on every ride. I have yet to observe this in practice.

How legal are they?

In 2003 the LTDA, in an attempt to rid the capital’s streets of rickshaws, launched its own landmark private prosecution (“Oddy v. Bugbugs”). The Association’s challenge eventually progressed to the High Court where Justice Pichford ruled that, due to loopholes in the law, the antics of rickshaw operators and riders were surprisingly, entirely legal, despite the risks which they could pose to unsuspecting passengers. The High Court ruled that an ancient Metropolitan Carriage Act defined rickshaws as “stage carriages” which is the loophole that permits them to legally ply for hire. There is not yet an officially recognised “vehicle definition” for rickshaws and at the present time they are still officially classed as pedal cycles which is another loophole and automatically exempts them from insurance and parking restrictions including standing on pavements and obstructing theatre exits.

There are thought to be 800 rickshaws (double the number two years ago) plying for hire in London, again that cannot be corroborated as the operators are not required to keep records – at least it’s not as bad as Dakar who have approximately 800,000.

Some have suggested that rickshaws be restricted to the Royal Parks as a fun ride for tourists, but commercial vehicles are prohibited from using the parks, again another grey area, are they commercial? Unfortunately Parliament would have to introduce primary legislation to ban them from London or specify their role in providing transport, and MPs it would seem are more concerned with their involvement with newspaper editors than ensuring the safety of rickshaw passengers.

Love them or loath them rickshaws are here to stay for the foreseeable future.