All posts by Gibson Square

A Licensed Black London Cab Driver I share my London with you . . . The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

London’s fame menagerie

Camberwell Beauty Camberwell Beauty
First identified in this corner of south-east London around 1748, this butterfly has been adopted as the borough’s icon after the library in Wells Way portrayed a giant mural on its wall in 1920, consisting of ceramic tiles from the Doulton factory in Lambeth. It was painted over during the war when Nazi Lord Haw-Haw in his broadcasts boasted that the Luftwaffe used it for navigation.


Old Cheshire Cheese Cheshire Cheese Parrot
This remarkable bird, long-time resident of Fleet Street’s famous pub could mimic almost anything, and as a result she acquired a very blue vocabulary. Famously garrulous and rude about visitors she didn’t like, Polly celebrated the end of the First World War in 1918 in her own way. She imitated the noise of champagne corks popping an estimated 400 hundred times and then fell off her perch suffering from exhaustion. Upon her death in 1926 the BBC announced solemnly her demise on the wireless, and her obituary appeared in more than 20 newspapers worldwide, it was probably the last time a parrot was so honoured.

800px-Guy_the_Gorilla_statue Guy the Gorilla
Arriving at London Zoo on 5 November 1947, hence his name, Guy proved to be one of the Zoo’s most popular residents, and as my father worked in the zoo, as a young man I’ve been in the cage with Guy when he, and I, were very young. Sadly dying 30 years later his statute is to be seen at the zoo, with another in Crystal Palace. Alas Guy’s body remains forever stuffed at the National History Museum.


Jumboride Jumbo the Elephant
London’s first African elephant arrived at Regents Park in 1865, for fifteen years he enjoyed the affection of an adoring public (even as elephants in Africa were being slaughtered wholesale for their ivory tusks). But perhaps boredom set in, for in 1881 he became increasingly grumpy and unpredictable, and the rides were stopped. Against public opposition he was sold to Barnum’s Circus were they shipped him to America and promptly allowed him to be killed by a train.


Kaspar Kasper the Cat
Nearing completion of a multi-million pound makeover the Savoy in its time would keep a large figure of a cat in the event that 13 people would sit down to dinner. To allay any fears of bad luck that might ensue, the dinner guest list would be made up to a more acceptable number 14. It remains to be seen if the Savoy’s new owners revive this quaint and idiosyncratic custom.



Dick Whittington’s Cat
The 4-times Lord Mayor of London could have had a cat if only to keep down London’s rat population (which has been attributed to the spread of the Plaque). Whittington funded the church of St Michael Paternoster Royal and during a recent restoration the mummified remains of a cat were discovered.

Cocky the Cockatoo
Probably London Zoo’s most long lived bird that died in 1982; this uninspired named bird outlived five Monarchs after arriving in London during reign of Queen Victoria.

Dying for a drink

John Snow
The next time you find yourself in Soho, go to Broadwick Street where at one end you’ll find a village pump, while standing on the junction with Lexington Street is a pub rejoicing in the name John Snow which looks inviting for a swift half in this pub that takes its name from one of London’s forgotten heroes. In 1832 London was to experience a brand new epidemic imported from India, a disease which would strike fear into every person in the Metropolis.

Cholera became known as ‘the poor man’s plague’, with a mortality rate of 50 per cent and most victims coming from poor areas of inner cities the disease was dismissed by the well to do as a consequence of “the Great Unwashed” as William Makepeace Thackeray dubbed them.

[B]ut then cholera began to strike in middle class neighbourhoods too, making it truly a disease to cause panic. One could awake hale and hearty, develop diarrhoea, vomiting, agonising cramps and by teatime succumb to delirium and death.

Now contagion became a national obsession, and incredibly between 1845 and 1856 over 700 books on cholera were published, most expounding the common belief that it arose from impure air, blaming a miasma, or any smell, and in Victorian London there was no shortages of miasmas.

Surmising that ‘All smell is disease’, the founder of the workhouse, Edwin Chadwick managed to keep the scientific establishment off the scent (if you’ll excuse the pun) for two decades declaring if you removed the smell, cholera would go away.

The miasma theory had just one serious flaw: it was entirely without foundation, and one man alone identified this fact, his name was John Snow.

Born in York in 1813 and having a father who was common labourer served him well in terms of insightfulness and unlike his colleagues he did not blame the poor for their own diseases. Snow had studied medicine and became one of the leading anaesthetists of his day, attending Queen Victoria’s eighth childbirth while administering chloroform a dangerous and virtually untried practise.

Snow spent his spare time trying to understand where diseases came from; why for instance was the rate of cholera six times higher in Southwark than neighbouring Lambeth, if the infection was carried by a miasma? Furthermore if smells caused disease would not toshers, flushermen and nightsoil handlers be the most frequent victims?

Snow collected recorded cases in a scientifically robust manner making careful maps of the outbreaks. He found the people of Lambeth drank water piped in from clean sources outside the city, whereas neighbouring Southwark obtained its water from the polluted River Thames.

In 1854, a particularly virulent outbreak hit Soho. In a single neighbourhood around Broad Street (now renamed Broadwick Street) more than 500 people died in 10 days, making it, as Snow notes, probably the most devastating occurrence of sudden mortality in history, worse even than the great plague. The toll would have been higher except that so many people fled the district.

The conclusive proof was in finding a victim of cholera who lived in Hampstead who liked the Broad Street water so much she had it delivered to her door.

Snow managed to persuade the parish council to remove the handle from the water pump in Broad Street, after which cholera deaths vanished.

His finding were rejected by the establishment and at a Parliamentary enquiry he was asked ”Are the Committee to understand, taking the case of bone-boilers, that no matter how offensive to the sense of smell of effluvia that comes from the bone-boiling establishments may be, yet you consider that it is not prejudicial in any way to the health of the inhabitants of the district?”

It is hard now to appreciate just how radical and unwelcome Snow’s views were at the time, he was detested from many quarters, in part, probably because of his humble beginnings.

In 1850 London had a summer heat wave and the ensuing drought prevented waste being washed away. Dubbed “The Great Stink” as the Thames grew so noxious no one could stay near it, Parliament had to suspend its sittings and it was only this disruption to Members of Parliament that gave rise to giving London fresh water and sewers.

Snow never got to see his assumptions vindicated, dying from a stroke during the Great Stink at the young age of 45. At the time, his death was hardly noted.

So raise your first glass in the John Snow Public House and toast the hero who has made it possible to drink the water and well as beer in London.

The Right Type

Johnson Sans

[Y]ou probably haven’t heard his name before and after reading this will probably never again, but Edward Johnston has given us a symbol for London every bit as iconic as a red bus or my black taxi, and we hardly ever notice it.

A font designed nearly a century ago was adopted as the Underground’s corporate typeface and almost subliminally its usage has given an identity to London Transport and is now used for all of Transport for London’s media. With its distinctive sans-serif font for years known as ‘Underground’ it has capitals based on roman square capitals and a lower case said to be taken from 15th century Italian handwriting. A perfectly round ‘O’ the unusual use of a diamond dot above the ‘i’ and ‘j’ and with a capital M its diagonal stroke meeting at its centre, its design quite simply would change the way we read today.

By 1913 Johnston was a man already making a name for himself in the world of type. Then 35, Johnston had only really discovered his talent for (and love of) typography in his mid-twenties. By 1906, however, he had already been recognised as a man who had almost single-handedly revived and rediscovered the art of calligraphical type and lettering, and was the much-loved teacher of many of print’s future greats, his book, Writing & Illuminating & Lettering would be (and indeed still is, I should know, having once been a typesetter) one of the ‘must read’ texts for anyone in the typographical world.

His brief was that the typeface should have ‘the bold simplicity of the authentic lettering of the finest periods  it should also be easy to read from a moving train and in bad lighting, be noticeably up-to-date with the times, and yet also be completely different from anything found on other shops and signage’ and finally, Johnston was told that each letter should be ‘a strong and unmistakeable symbol.’ It took him three years (in fact all likelihood it probably didn’t – Johnston was notorious for leaving commissions until the very last minute), but in 1915 Johnston delivered a character-set that met every single one of those demands.

What Johnston created was, in effect, the very first modern ‘Sans-Serif’ typeface which are ‘fonts without the little kicks’. Open up a word processing program and print out this article (CabbieBlog is set in 9/11pt Arial if you’re interested), first in Times New Roman, then print it out in Arial (or Helvetica if you’re on a Mac) and look at the difference – you’ll see that the letters in the ‘Times’ version are slightly more ornate around the edges. This is because Times is a ‘Serif’ font and Arial is Sans-Serif. In the simplest, most generic terms, this is the difference between the two families.

Sans-Serif typefaces, therefore, are those ‘flourishless’ families like Verdana, Arial, Helvetica and the ubiquitous Comic Sans, faces that bless documents everywhere and virtually the entire internet. Sans-Serif faces are, in many ways, the living embodiment of text in the 20th Century and Johnston, with the typeface that he delivered, almost singlehandedly revived them as a valid and useful style. The typeface now renamed as Johnson Sans, has been subtly updated by Eiichi Kono in the late seventies.

The London Transport Roundel again designed by Johnston who took an existing design of the YMCA logo and turned the basic bulls-eye into the clear and strikingly handsome symbol we see today, and like his typeface was tweaked over many years by Johnston, a process which continues today even now.

The London Transport signs are made of vitreous enamel requiring a process of silk-screen printing and five separate firings in a furnace. Incredibly all are made by a third generation family A. J. Wells & Sons of Newport, Isle of Wight.

A call to arms?

The tragedy of the killings in West Cumbria one month today have shown just how ineffectual having an armed police force is in maintaining law and order. For although 42 of Cumbria’s 97 armed response officers were given ‘shoot to kill’ orders, with some of its officers stating they were as little as 30 seconds behind crazed taxi driver Derrick Bird as they pursued him through the roads around Whitehaven, they were unable to stop his three hour rampage.

[E]ven when he crashed his car after hitting a rock and bursting a tyre and escaping on foot into a copse, the armed officers were not in a position to neutralise him. Presumably had he not taken his own life at this point and instead emerged from the other side of the woods, to hijack a car, this massacre would have continued.

We in London should be asking the question, if five helicopters, and dozens of armed police cannot stop a single gunman in a sparsely populated region, for fear of injuring innocent members of the public, how effectual are the Metropolitan Police armed officers on London’s overcrowded streets?

We see them every day, at stations, outside Parliament, patrolling the parameter of New Scotland Yard, or perversely standing by roadblocks, whose sole purpose seems to be catching uninsured mini cab drivers.

Every day these highly trained officers, carrying semi-automatic weapons, and wearing flak jackets can often be seen looking menacingly at any one foolish enough to make eye contact. Even our unlamented ex-Prime Minister’s house in Connaught Square would appear to have a minimum of five visible armed members from the Diplomatic Protection Force at any one time, at a reported cost to the taxpayer of £6 million a year.

When an assassination attempt was made as Princess Anne’s car drove along Constitution Hill her bodyguard’s gun jammed, and recently they could not protect us against Islamist fanatics on 7th July 2005.

The question is very simple, if the situation arose that on London’s busy streets officers should have to discharge their weapons to stop a dangerous individual, would they fire an automatic weapon knowing innocent passers-by would almost certainly be caught in the cross-fire? And because of current ‘health and safety’ considerations the answer is no, what purpose do these expensively trained men and women serve?

Becoming a girl

[B]ear with me on this one, but I fear I might be turning into a girl. And while I realise that I might possibly be reacting in a slightly hysterical manner about this, obviously this only confirms my suspicions that I might be right. Are you with me so far?

Coutts Elephant Right, so there I am, working away driving around London, and everywhere I look are little girls looking and touching these little two metre high elephants which mostly come in two poses, standing and sitting. And you know what I rather like these 258 individually artist-decorated fibreglass creatures that have appeared on London’s streets.

The Elephant Parade which is organised to raise money for the endangered Asian elephant has brightened up our streets these past six weeks. I presume most of the elephants are female as they are tuskless, only the male of the species has tusks, and with their cute decoration they are clearly designed to be attractive to little girls . . . and me.

Their appearance across London can be seen as a unifying spirit behind London’s sprawling diversity and at time drab greyness. These little creatures have started people organising mini safaris with tourists and Londoners alike trying to spot (and photo) as many as the little darlings as possible. We can’t call these elephant hunters’ twitchers so should the elephant groupies be named pachydermions?

A group of these little animals in Trafalgar Square are decorated as Indian Premier League cricketers, while in Berkeley Square a straight line of elephants stands on parade, as if from a scene from Disney’s Jungle Book.

Coutts Elephant 2 Still in touch with my feminine side my favourite is the pink diamante encrusted one on a revolving stand inside Coutts Bank on the Strand. If you didn’t manage to bag all of them they are being herded up and taken to Royal Hospital in Chelsea to be auctioned on 3rd July. You know I might make a bid for one so I can stroke it in the privacy of my own home. A pink diamond encrusted one should appeal to my feminine side, as least that one is a boy, it has tusks.