A Cabbie’s Year

As another year draws remorsefully to a close I’ve taken the opportunity to draw inspiration from my journal.
I have extracted some of the strange behaviour that Londoners are prone to exhibit. Some of the public’s antics have amused or provoked and others just exasperated me.
These are a few as seen by me through windscreen while driving my cab.

[I] had a family of Germans in the cab tonight. Dad wanted to know what is Foxtons? He was quite surprised when I told him they are just estate agents. He couldn’t work out why an estate agent would have a plasma screen and a bar at the entrance.

[A]re they all mad? Driving down Marylebone Road with its 6 lane dual carriageway at 28mph (honest officer) having just passed Baker Street Station, some idiot runs across the road having to swerve to avoid me. There were at least 30 people by the pedestrian crossing waiting for the lights. He just couldn’t wait his turn, must have a death wish.

[I] have just seen a man riding a customised bike up Tottenham Court Road with two children on board, one in front sitting on the handlebars the other as a pillion passenger, none wearing head protection, and no rear lights in the dark.

[O]ccasionally, just occasionally a rather strange series of events play out in a working day. My first job was to pick up actor Ralph Fiennes and take him to an editing suite in Soho. Within yards from dropping him off I was hailed by a guy in a wheelchair. As I was lowering the ramp he told me, and you’ll just have to suspend disbelief here, he had just been asked by a beggar for £15. Whatever happened to “Got any spare change Gov’nr?” Half an hour later, in the back of the cab, I found a camera case with a digital camera memory card within, but no camera. I inserted the card into my own camera that I always carry for the blog. Returning to the rather swish restaurant (OXO Tower) where my fare was dining I proffered my phone showing the punters image to the Maître’d and got him to scour the darkened restaurant. Errant punter found I returned to my cab with a self satisfied smug look and little else.

[L]ots of traffic as there often is in London after heavy rain. Trying to join a major road the brand new Ferrari next to me has stuck his shiny red nose across the major road’s bike lane. Lycra Man on his £2,000 bike spits on his bonnet as he passes – only in London eh?

[A]bsolutely pouring with rain today, so what do I get? I get an idiot crossing the road in front of me with a cardboard box over his head; he hadn’t even cut out some eyeholes so he could see me bearing down upon him.

[I]t is twenty minutes past midnight and just when you think you’ve seen every possible stupid trick a cyclist can make along comes one that leaves you agog. I’m joining Piccadilly from Bolton Street and a cyclist jumps the lights heading towards Hyde Park Corner. But unlike most of the kamikaze traffic light jumpers he has his mate sitting on the handlebars. Without lights – naturally – he peddles furiously around one of the world’s busiest intersections, wobbling as his 12 stone passenger is preventing him move the handlebars effectively.

[I] don’t think a day has gone by since the Romans arrived in London that Bishopsgate has been free of roadworks.

[W]alked through the Blakemore Hotel’s foyer as water started pouring from the ceiling the manager was booking a minicab at the time – poetic justice

[T]onight I was hailed as I drove through Eaton Square and shown a picture of a car park taken on an i-phone. Do I know where we have parked our car? The usual question and answer game ensured whereupon we were all agreed that it was under Kingston House opposite Hyde Park and we were proved right.

[A]fter re-opening Farringdon Road to vehicles after six months, so concerned were they that traffic would start to flow again, they have changed the sequence on the Blackfriars Bridge southbound lights to remain green for only 12 seconds.

[T]esco the ubiquitous retailer has its shops in almost every location. Take the one in Covent Garden it has because its loading bay in a road so small I defy most cabbies to be able to locate New Row. To stock their store Tesco despatch an articulated lorry the size of a small house, its driver just about managing to manoeuvre his vehicle into the tight space. If that wasn’t enough the geniuses in charge of logistics send their lorry at the height of the evening’s theatre going public arriving, so the driver has to contend with negotiating the vehicle as hundreds of people try to squeeze past and then try vainly to get into Strand past dozens of parked cars.

Cab cartoon: Walkabout Crafts – The online gift shop for buying and selling arts and crafts

London’s First Nimby

How devious have you to be when an American banker describes your actions as “the greatest rascality and conspiracy ever heard of”? This criticism was directed at Charles Tyson Yerkes by the founder of a bank recently fined a record $13 billion – J. P. Morgan.

Yerkes (serendipitously pronounced like ‘turkeys’) had served time in his native Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary for larceny and embezzlement before he left the United States, leaving behind his creditors to pick up the pieces from his many failed ventures. One of which was the control of Chicago’s rail network for which he had been nicknamed ’The streetcar Czar of Chicago’.

[O]n seeing the rapid expansion of London’s Tube network he resolved to turn his hand to the same complex and questionable deals he had practiced in America. Astoundingly before long he found himself in control of the failing Metropolitan District Railway, the half-built Bakerloo, and the as-yet unbuilt Piccadilly Lines.

But it was the extension of the Northern Line – the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead – that Yerkes was to meet his nemesis in the shape of a middle class social reformer – Dame Henrietta Octavia Weston Barnett.

Despite fierce local opposition to the proposal, Yerkes won the Parliamentary permission he needed for his ambitious, if not dubious scheme, he had after all in the past had his 33 month sentence in the slammer reduced to 7 after threatening to blackmail a number of powerful, influential Pennsylvanian political bigwigs.

Having raised the necessary funds Yerks started tunnelling, with the intention of constructing a station close to the Bull and Bush pub in North End Road the station was to be named North End.

His plan was to use investor’s money to build the railway line and the station and then develop the surrounding farmland around his station into street after street of gleaming new houses – all built by him of course – the residents using his station on their commute to work.

Charles Tyson Yerkes Yerks had seriously underestimated the English middle class. Henrietta who a few years ago had acquired Evergreen Hill as a weekend home at Spaniard’s End really didn’t want Yerkes’s ghastly new homes on her patch. She wasn’t short of a bob or two either and while Yerkes was busying himself with underground excavations, she established a trust which bought 243 acres of prime real estate around ‘North End’ and incorporated it into Hampstead Heath.

It was a strategic fait accompli, Yerkes could continue to tunnel until he was blue in the face but without permission to develop above ground, his grand scheme suddenly became a white elephant and in 1906 work on the new station stopped.

By the time the line was opened North End had already been bricked up to spare everybody’s blushes. The new trains rattled past, oblivious to the abandoned platforms.

Much of the land which Yerkes was denied developing became the Hampstead Garden Suburb, a model garden city which no doubt attracted the sort of people that Henrietta did approve of to be her neighbours.

While there are 43 other ‘ghost’ or disused stations on the Underground network North End holds the dubious distinction of being the only one built that never actually saw active service. Or a single passenger.

If does, however, boast one tenuous claim to fame, at 221 feet below ground, North End would have been the Tube’s deepest station but for Barnett’s intervention, rather than a vast underground void.

The renamed ‘Bull and Bush’ ghost station remains in its pristine unused state. Unfortunately it is closed to the general public. But one lucky person Hywel Williams on his excellent site Underground History gives an account of his visit.

Mayfair’s leering peer

When the Les Enfant terribles of apparel arrived at London’s centre of bespoke tailoring of all places opposite Prince Charles’s tailor the makers of sartorial elegance were up in arms to protect their image. Even worse when Messrs. Abercrombie & Fitch opened their flagship store at 7 Burlington Gardens shoppers were greeted by male models stripped to the waist.

[A]ll this might be seen as innovative edgy retail and the American retailers must have thought they were the first owners of that property to shock – how wrong they were. This grand building, known as Queensbury House was once owned by The Duke of Queensbury who seems to have spent his long life as a gambler, drinker and notorious womaniser.

He was the last person to employ a running footman, during one interview for the post; the candidate was given a full livery outfit to wear, despite the particularly hot weather. He was then made to run back and forth in front of the house while the Duke timed him from the balcony. When the Duke shouted “You’ll do for me”, the candidate briskly replied, “and this” (pointing at the gold braided uniform) “will do for me!” at which point he sprinted off, never to be seen again.

William_Douglas,_4th_Duke_of_Queensberry_by_John_Opie The Duke seems to have single handily stopped the consumption of milk in London, for he was said to believe bathing in milk ‘maintained his potency’ and gallons were needed for each bathe, for many years Londoners avoided drinking milk because they feared it may have come from his bath.

In 1752 he moved to 17 Arlington Street, for the primary reason that it was next door to Miss Frances Pelham to whom had come to the attention of his lecherous eyes. Miss Pelham’s brother, the Hon. Henry Pelham, was not enamoured of Lord March as he was then, as a suitor for his sister and had him thrown out of the house. His Lordship was undaunted; he had a bow window built in his house which commanded a view of a convenient window of Miss Pelham’s so he could continue his ardent courtship with her.

He was given the Dukedom in 1778 at the age of 58 when his uncle the Third Duke of Queensbury died having been predeceased by his two children.

The newly ennobled Duke of Queensbury then took up residence in his Mayfair home and pursued a long and distinguished career as a gambler, drinker and womaniser until his death 203 years today on 23rd December 1810.

Sarah Baartman In his latter years the Duke would sit on the balcony and leer at passing ladies. If any took his fancy he’d have his butler run down and pass lewd messages to them. At the ripe old age of 85 the Duke had Sarah Baartman, the South African Hottentot Venus brought to the house so he could minutely examine her voluptuous figure in private. [ A caricature of Baartman drawn in the early 19th century left ] Regularly lampooned the Duke was known as ’The Star of Piccadilly’ for what the poet Wordsworth satirised his lifestyle in a sonnet as ’degenerate Douglas’.

For all his womanising he is better known for being an inveterate gambler. Men with too much money and time on their hands would wager obscene sums of money on trivial events – which droplet of water will reach the bottom of a window pane, is one often quoted. A member of White’s Club, in 1749 he placed a wager that became known as ’The Race Against Time’. Written in its famous betting book, it’s still in existence and reads:

‘Col Waldegrave betts Ld. March fifty guineas, that his Lordship does not win the Chaise match. N.B. Ld Anson goes col Waldegrave halves. paid.’

In short the Duke wagered that he could get a four wheeled carriage carrying a man and drawn by four horses to run a course of nineteen miles in an hour. It seems incredible now that this should seem so stupendous, but many of that time would have thought it impossible – because even if the state if the roads been better, carriages were heavy and cumbersome, without springs or tyres.

He immediately put all his ingenuity to the problem for he had bet another thousand guineas on the outcome. The rules were carefully regarded and, as no carriage body was required, this was stripped away from the frame by carriage makers he had contracted.

In fact he commissioned several carriages to be built, and at great expense, to find the fastest, lightest one for the race. Even the equipment was given careful scrutiny and the traces were made of silk and harnesses of silk and whalebone. The total weight of the carriage and harness was an incredible two and a half hundredweight.

The event took place on Newmarket Heath on 29th August 1750 at seven o’clock in the morning. Lord Queensbury was a spectator; the dubious privilege of riding in the ‘carriage’ with no seat, no support and little to cling on to was given to his groom. It was said they went off so fast that the carriage had covered four miles in the first 9 minutes. In fact the entire nineteen miles was covered in a phenomenally fast 53 minutes and 27 seconds.

Towards the end of his life Queensbury made a notable figure about London when he drove out. He always wore dark green and had long tailed black horses, and in winter he would also carry a muff. Two servants were seated behind him and his groom, Jack Radford followed on horseback ready to execute any commissions. As Radford’s commissions were usually taking notes and messages to desirable looking girls that took the Duke’s eye he managed to increase his unsavoury reputation.

The London Grill: Diane Burstein

We challenge our contributor to reply to ten devilishly probing questions about their London and we don’t take “Sorry Gov” for an answer. Everyone sitting in the hot seat will face the same questions that range from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out just what Londoners really think about their city. The questions might be the same but the answers vary wildly.

Diane Burstein[D]iane is a registered London Blue Badge Guide, her contributions to LBC radio’s Steve Allen Show and BBC Radio London’s Saturday Breakfast Show have helped to make her one of London’s best known tour guides. She is the author of London Then and Now and teaches Discovering London courses for the City Lit and Bishopsgate Institute. Diane enjoys showing Londoners and visitors the hidden courtyards, alleyways and back streets of the capital away from the tourist trail. To find out more about Diane’s tours for groups go to Secret London Walks to find out about tours and visits that individuals can join email diane@secretlondonwalks.co.uk.

What’s your secret London tip?
As an alternative to the more touristy Thames, explore the towpaths by the Regents Canal. It will take you through affluent areas, edgy areas, former industrial areas, arty areas and green parkland areas.

What’s your secret London place?
King’s College Chapel, King’s College in the Strand. Lovely Victorian chapel designed by George Gilbert Scott, the architect of the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel and Albert Memorial. Is open to the visitors in term time during the week.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?
That there are too many chain shops and greedy landlords are putting up the rents for the small businesses which are finding it difficult to survive.

Then and NowWhat’s your favourite building?
RIBA Headquarters in Portland Place (I love Art Deco).

What’s your most hated building?
The Robin Hood Estate in Poplar.

What’s the best view in London?
The view of the City skyline from 1 New Change, the new shopping centre in Cheapside.

What’s your personal London landmark?
Shakesepeare’s Globe Theatre where I worked as a guide for many years and where my late mother worked as a volunteer on the donations desk.

What’s your favourite London film, book or documentary?
“Every Day Except Christmas” – a documentary made by Lindsay Anderson about Covent Garden Market in the 1950s.

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?
Favourite pub: The Princess Louise in Holborn with lots of original Victorian features.

How would you like to spend your ideal day off in London?
Exploring the small art galleries of Mayfair with my partner who loves art followed by a show at one of my favourite Fringe Theatres – The Union at Southwark, The Finborough at Earls Court and the Landor at Clapham usually put on a good show.

This ‘Grill’ was first posted on the Radio Taxis blog.

Ghost lights

Do haunted theatres exist? Many actors believe so, and say they have experienced the supernatural for themselves.

It is this belief that theatres have ‘ghost lights’ which are placed centre stage when the premises are unoccupied.

The practical use of ghost lights is for safety – to avoid tripping over sets or falling into the orchestra pit.

[A]ctors are a superstitious lot (see Pull the Other Leg) which is probably why a simple safety light is called a ‘ghost light’, and many thespians believe that every theatre has its own ghost. By providing illumination when the theatre is closed allows ghosts to perform on stage, thus appeasing them and preventing their apparition from cursing the theatre or current production.

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane lays claim to being the most haunted theatre in England. It is the fourth theatre to occupy the site since 1663. In 1939 the cast of Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years were lined up on stage for a curtain call when a Man in Grey was seen to walk with a limp across the upper circle. Wearing a long cloak, white ruffled front shirt, tricorn hat, powdered wig, thigh-length boots and carrying a dress sword he then abruptly walked through a solid wall.

His appearance might be explained by the secret chamber found behind the wall that the Man in Grey would disappear. It was discovered by workmen during restoration in the 1840s, for walled up they found the skeleton of a man surrounded by remnants of grey cloth with a knife protruding from his back.

He seems to have taken his demise in good spirits for he is invariably spotted during the hours of daylight sometimes sitting in the end seat of the fourth row by the central gangway of the upper circle and his appearance portends to signal the beginning of a successful run – The King and I, South Pacific, Oklahoma and he appeared every time there was a change of cast in the long running Miss Saigon. Or it would be he just likes musicals.

The remains are speculated to be those of a young man who coming to London during the time of Queen Anne, won the affections an actress at the theatre. Her jealous lover murdered him and hid the corpse in the secret recess where it lay undiscovered until the Victorian renovation of the theatre.

Dan Leno Spookier still is the legend of the face in the mirror. Accompanied by the smell of lavender and the sound of ghostly feet practising a tap routine, this apparition is said to be Dan Leno (right), popular in the 19th century for his clog dancing routine and his portrayal of a pantomime dame. At the height of his clog dancing popularity Dan Leno went mad, and died in 1904 aged just 43. He is said to pay a visit to his old dressing room, the location is kept a closely guarded secret by the management for fear of putting the willies up the present incumbent.

Another tale is of a dispute over a wig. Actor Charles Macklin murdered a fellow action in the Green Room. Opinions are divided as to which of these, murderer or victim return to make their grim presence felt.

There is reputedly the ghost of Joseph Grimaldi (below), who in the course of a long and distinctive theatrical career single-handedly laid the foundations of the pantomime tradition. The character of the white faced innocent rogue that he created became so universally popular that clowns are still known ‘Joeys’ in honour of the father of modern clownery. He was overcome by crippling disease that forced him to give up acting and in 1818 now destitute a benefit performance was organised at the Theatre Royal.

Joseph Grimaldi Whether in gratitude to the charity extended to him at his time of need his ghost has returned many times is renowned for administering a mischievous kick, and actors, cleaners, usherettes have all been on the receiving end of his spectral boot as they go about their everyday duties. One of Grimaldi’s final wishes was that his head should be severed from his body prior to burial. This macabre request was, apparently, carried out, and this might account for the disembodied white face, which has been seen floating around the theatre.

Michael Crawford once reported a pair of ghostly hands guiding him through a tricky moment on stage, female performers as they stand in the wings waiting to go on have reported wandering hands and one Drury Lane general manager was convinced that a poltergeist of some sort was at work in his office.

Theatre-speak for pay day is the expression ‘the ghost is still said to walk every Friday’, which probably dates from the time when managers of touring companies invariably doubled as the ghost in Hamlet.

Picture: Most Haunted St Peters Alresford (andreas-photography/flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)