Royal pub crawl

Henry VIII wine cellar

Whitehall, which incidentally is the widest road in central London, takes its name from the palace which once stood on the site. The main residence of English monarchs from 1530 until it burnt down in 1698, it was at the time the largest palace in Europe with over 2,000 rooms and 23 acres of grounds.

All that survives to this day is Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House with its ceiling pained by Rubens, which is one of the last things Charles I saw before being led out of one of the buildings upper floor windows to a newly erected platform to have his head removed; the gable wall of Henry VIII’s tennis court set now within the Cabinet Office (if you wish to see an intact Tudor tennis court go to Hampton Court); and below ground Henry VIII’s wine room.

[O]riginally built by Cardinal Wolsey when Lord Chancellor, Henry wasted no time when Wolsey fell from the King’s favour by requisitioning his well-stocked wine room. This 70ft by 30ft building once stood above ground, at the point that today’s Emmanuel Vincent Harris designed Ministry of Defence building now stands. All there is left to see above ground is the steps on the green between the MoD building and the Thames. Now called Queen Anne’s steps these might have been used to take the barrels of wine from boats moored nearby to be loaded into the wine room.

When the MoD building was proposed in the early 1950s the news that the cellar was to be destroyed caused a public uproar. Encased in a steel frame designed by ingenious engineers, the room was literally inched (a quarter of an inch at a time) 9ft north-west and 19ft down to create what it should have always have been a wine cellar.

Accessed via drab corridors and downstairs into a murky chamber lined with heating pipes, this gem with its Tudor vaulting, pillars and original brickwork is now only used as a backdrop for Ministry parties. The wine barrels lining the walls are only used for cosmetic purposes. Heavily guarded guided tours are available to groups only

Being overheard

Watching the new series of Downton Abbey I’m struck by people’s lack of discretion when within earshot of modern cabbies and the similarities with the butlers of Edwardian England. We may not be as erudite nor have the manners of Carson superbly played by Jim Carter but we are just as invisible, for at the dinner table the Granthams discuss the most personal aspects of their lives, quite oblivious that the butler waiting at table can hear their intimate details.

[W]hen driving the cab it’s impossible not to hear snatches of conversation and the adage ‘to keep one’s own council’ would seem apposite for the more verbose of my passengers. Some of my colleagues once would brag about making money on the Stock Exchange after overhearing City dealers conversations, no doubt they are now losing money by being so indiscreet. While only last week in my cab I had two women and a man discussing their drunken exploits and sexual conquests in graphic detail, and quite frankly I don’t need this during my working day.

It wasn’t so long ago that our vehicles weren’t fitted with internal rear view mirrors preventing the driver even looking at their passenger, let alone listening in on their conversation by way of the intercom.

An openness to one’s thoughts have now become common place with e-mails which are as private as a Donald McGill holiday postcard; Twitter; blogs; and Facebook broadcasting to the entire world a person’s life and innermost thoughts. My father’s generation was told in the war that “careless talk cost lives”, but now anybody who travels on public transport is subject to the minutiae of strangers’ lives as they chatter incessantly on their mobile phones.

Now award-winning poet and novelist Lavinia Greenlaw has recognised this chatter that surrounds us all in the modern city can give inspiration to writers and has created Audio Obscura a new sound work, conceived for the public spaces of St. Pancras International station. Audio Obscura is an aural version of the camera obscura, giving a heightened reflection of the passing world and its snippets of conversation. The audience listen to the work on personal headsets while wandering amongst the crowds of the Lower Concourse. Listeners will hear concentrated fragments of interior worlds drawn from monologues that glance off one another, listening to these many different voices it is hoped will enable visitors to engage with the connections, a process that Mark Mason has used with effect in his recently published book Walk the Lines. Audio Obscura is intended to remind people of the potency of the “fragment” and aims to explore our compulsion to construct narratives, to impose meaning, and to seek conclusion; the experience is not one of being told something but of becoming conscious of what we do with what we listen to, a bit like my colleagues who dabble on the Stock Exchange.

Taking place from 13th September to 23rd October 2011, Audio Obscura is 30 minutes long, it’s free, no booking required, but you’ll be asked to leave a credit card or mobile phone as a deposit. Lavinia Greenlaw will be in conversation with Cornelia Parker at the St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel on 3rd October at 6.30pm. Tickets are free but booking is essential – visit to reserve a place.

We’re surrounded by other people’s conversations and while many of us try to block them out, for CabbieBlog fragments of overheard talk have been a valuable source of material for the blog and have even helped me get over a case of writer’s block.

Horsing around

[L]ondon is often likened to just a collection of villages and with one area just south of Paddington has given itself the title of Connaught Village, but with the machine gun totting police it’s not like any village that I know, they are there to protect the area’s most famous adopted son the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Another resident of this little area is Jimmy Choo one of the most generous of my passengers, who was willing to share the cab with two lost American tourists, talking to them and not wanting to take from them a penny.

On the last Sunday in September the Connaught Villagers have their annual fete – you know the sort of thing; tombola; children’s face painting; home baked cakes; and err . . . free tandoori chicken, it’s almost like Ambridge.

It all takes place around St. John’s Church in Hyde Park Crescent which also holds an annual service to mark the occasion. So far everything is as you would expect until that is the vicar concludes the service, where he then mounts his horse wearing an bright emerald green cape and donning a black padre hat – aka Father Ted – and is joined by up to 100 horses and their riders: Shetland ponies; rich little girls in jodhpurs; sleek stallions needing restraint; heavy dray horses; and Harrods carriage with its livered drivers in the store’s distinctive green apparel.

It’s called Horseman’s Sunday which began in 1968 to highlight the need to maintain stables along the north of Hyde Park and has become a unique local institution attracting local residents, tourists and of course horse lovers. The vicar concludes by giving thanks “to all the animals that give us pleasure in our homes and in the world” and probably expressing all our feelings quotes John Wayne: “Courage is when you’re scared to death and still get into the saddle”.

Now I seem to remember Eddie Grundy fancying himself as The Duke once in an episode of The Archers.

Museums of medical matters


[L]ondon is full of wonderfully eccentric museums and bizarre historic collections, these unique places off the tourist trail offer an insight into the progress of medical science over the past 300 years and are an ideal way to discover lesser-known artefacts, learn more about the history of the stranger sides of London, and delve into some the city’s quirkier corners. For a full list and description visit London Museums of Health & Medicine.

Are you feeling drowsy?
The Anaesthesia Museum
21 Portland Place W1
Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday 10-4
Admission Free

You’ll be knocked out by the 2,000 objects related to anaesthesia at the Anaesthesia Heritage Museum. Whether you’re an anaesthetist or just curious, the collection dating from 1774 to the present day provides an absorbing story and historical account of advancements in medicine and pain relief. See the display on the misuse of anaesthesia, Cox’s horse mask or Dr D. Willatts chloroform dropper

Pay attention at the back
The Old Operating Theatre
9a St. Thomas Street SE1
Monday to Saturday 10.30-5
Admission adults £4.95/children £2.95

In 1815 the government of the day passed the Apothecaries Act requiring apprentice apothecaries to watch operations at public hospital before embarking on a career of butchery. The rich of the day usually were operated in the privacy of their own home (Samuel Pepys recounts in his diary of having a bladder stone removed on 26th March 1658 in the bedroom of his own house), this meant that only the poor were the subjects to provide a demonstration in surgery on their bodies all carried out without anaesthetic.

This, the oldest surviving operating theatre in the country, was only rediscovered in 1957 during repairs on the eaves of St. Thomas Church, the original site of St. Thomas Hospital.

Here in the shadow of the Shard you can see a collection of terrifying instruments used for cupping, bleeding and trepanning, I get a headache just thinking about it. You can watch demonstrations of surgical techniques and volunteer to be ‘operated on’, with the smells emanating from the herb garret (originally used to store and cure medicinal herbs) just add to the atmosphere.

Open wide please
The British Dental Association Museum
64 Wimpole Street W1
Tuesday and Thursday 1-4
Admission free

Incredibly it’s only in the last 90 years that dentists have been regulated, before that anybody could have a prod around inside your mouth. This little museum an annex to the library of The British Dental Association displays some of the fearsome tools once used in orthodontics. Dental drills adapted from carpentry tools, replacement teeth made from hippo or walrus ivory and numerous devices for tooth extraction, their use usually resulting in a broken jaw.

The exhibition is primarily for dental students but concessions have been made for the layman. A series of dental health films which can be hilarious and terrifying in equal measure: ‘No toothache for Eskimos’ or ‘Oral Surgery Part II 1948’ should put you off your next dental check up.

Strangely enough there isn’t a shop selling souvenirs of your visit or boiled sweets.

Read the card from the top
The British Optical Association Museum
42 Craven Street WC2
Open by appointment Monday-Friday 9.30-5
Admission free £5 for a tour of meeting rooms

This little museum seeks to inform and entertain the visitor with a personal guided tour from the curator Neil Handley. It contains over 11,000 objects relating to the history of optometry. Ronnie Corbett’s glasses along with 2,000 other pairs. Leonardo DiCaprio’s contact lenses. Spectacles with windscreen wipers, opera glasses with secret snuff compartments, Victorian self-testing machine with a religious text testing vision as well as morals. Draws containing deformed eyes dating from 1880 await your inspection. ‘Jealousy glasses’ with concealed side lenses to keep an eye on your lover, and yes rose-tinted sunglasses. For a fee a tour of the meeting rooms with its portraits of bespectacled sitters and cartoons about optical matters.

My fifteen minutes


[R]ecently I was contacted by the BBC London Arts Unit with a view to my contributing to a documentary they were making to be transmitted in the run up to the 2012 Olympics. Entitled ”A Picture of London’ the assistant producer/researcher explained to me over the phone that they wanted to feature a number of people who work and live in the capital, who would relate their favourite places in London.

Meeting with the documentary’s producer in of all places the Museum of Childhood – would that be a reflection of childhood memories – he explained over a cup of coffee that they were filming about nine individuals and some would eventually end up on the proverbial cutting room floor.

Filming was scheduled for a Sunday evening a week or so later to rendezvous in a car park near Tower Bridge. My cab had a camera mounted on its bonnet by the grips man Garth (I had always wondered what grips were) and after about half an hour we were driving to Battersea via Tower Bridge.

One of my favourite spots in London is the beautiful Georgian church of St. Mary’s perched above the Thames in Battersea. It is said that Turner painted some of his rivers cape studies of light from the vestry window of the church and was rowed over every day by his servant in order that he might paint.

While taking numerous zoom shots of the cab approaching the water’s edge we were scrutinised by the River Police inquisitive of our intentions. It was explained to me that this was an occupational hazard of film units and they had already been stopped more than once that day.

Next was a drive across the capital with a camera pointing into my left ear with me trying to negotiate London’s traffic while commentating of what life was like for a London cabbie, not as easy as it looks with everybody cutting you up.

One arrival at the London Zoo (where both my father and grandfather worked) it was pitch dark but that didn’t stop them taking another round of rolling shots of the cab, which again drew the attention of this time the Zoo’s security staff, hardly surprising as the main entrance by now was illuminated by their floodlights. A short piece of commentary by me as an audio recording rounded off the day.

Would I be contacted again by the BBC? Could this mark a career in broadcasting? These thoughts ran through my, by now, exhausted head.

Two weeks later I picked up a copy of our trade’s newspaper, there inside was a full page article written by the doyen of cabbie journalism – Al Fresco – writer, raconteur, sometime editor and a cabbie of some 40 years, describing how on a Sunday morning recently he was filming for the BBC.

How could I compete? Here was an erudite part time journalist, old fashioned Jewish cabbie who had more tales of London’s East End after the war, a place where most of the cabbies hailed from at the time, featuring in a documentary entitled A Picture of London.

Oh well! My Andy Warhol moment will have to wait.