All posts by Gibson Square

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

My Radio Times

“Yours is the only cab I’ve been in that the driver listens to Radio 4”, was said to me once by my passenger. On reflection afterwards I pondered – how could someone be cooped up in the driver’s compartment for 10 hours a day, listening to a daily dish of either the top 20 current hits or the 20 golden oldies that are churned out by London’s commercial stations 24 hours a day – and stay sane?

[I] was brought up in a time when most families didn’t have a television and weren’t likely to for another decade. Steam Radio, as my father was given to call it, was the entertainment of choice – frankly the only choice. The Light Programme, with Workers Playtime, Listen With Mother and The Archers (still going strong after more than 60 years); The Home Service with its output of informed discussion and news; The Third Programme broadcasting mainly classical music; and the world’s finest broadcaster of unbiased news content – The World Service, who would always boast that the information was sourced by ‘Their Own Correspondent’, and the source was not from some rag bag news agency.

In 1967 to compete with the ever increasing spread of pirate radio and to acknowledge the new wave of what we now called the Swinging Sixties, the BBC took the best of the Light Programme and Home Service to form what was to become the world’s greatest radio station, Radio Four, at the same time starting the fledgling Radio One for a younger audience.

Transistors supplanted the old valve wireless sets which had been manufactured by Bush and Pye and we listened through our trannies (as we called them in the naïve days of the 60s, before the term took on another connotation), and Radio 4’s output of dramas, comedies, quizzes and features have been the background to my working day for as long as I can recall. Any Questions, Does the Team Think?, Brain of Britain, From our own Correspondent, PM, Letter from America, Just a Minute, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue are among programmes that I would prefer to listen to rather than engage in small talk with my customers.

Since that time some of Radio 4’s output has transferred to television with greater or lesser success. Programmes transplanted from Radio 4 to television have included: After Henry; Goodness Gracious Me; Hancock’s Half Hour; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; The News Quiz (renamed Have I Got News For You); The League of Gentlemen; Room 101; Little Britain and many more.

A trip down Memory Lane might be a pleasant nostalgic experience for me, but what has that to do with being a London Cabbie? Well, the British Broadcasting Corporation have decided for reasons only understood by their senior executives and some Guardian readers, that The Corporation, as it likes to be known, was too middle class; too London centric, whatever that might mean; and how can I put this? White. Which I suppose is why my customer exclaimed surprise at finding a London Cabbie who doesn’t listen all day to Talk Sport.

Now the BBC’s production teams are to be scattered to the four winds in an attempt at what Radio 4’s controller calls changing “the general tone of the station away from formality and perceived didacticism towards spontaneity and conversation”, which presumably means dumbing down and moving away from London to encourage people other than middle class Londoner’s to tune in and understand its content. With many of Radio 4’s programmes already having hosts possessing attractive regional accents, and most quiz, debate and documentary programmes transmitted from around Britain I fail to understand the reasons for this enormous upheaval. Is Today in Parliament going to be reported from, say, Bristol? Farming Today could be given a makeover and relate topical news items of interest to farmers in Manchester. Woman’s Hour could talk at length about the causation of man flu. Would The Archers be improved if it were the tale of simple farming folk living in Hackney? And the Shipping Forecast with its sleep inducing 00.48 am broadcast intoning Rockall, Malin, Forth, Dogger etc, might it be improved if its predictions for the weather were transferred to forecasts of The Serpentine’s weather?

But what do I know about how to run the BBC? Nothing I’m only a consumer and licence payer. I do know this, that a rather busy taxi rank alongside Langham Place will, over time, be rather quiet. But at least I’ll be able to listen to The Archers without any interruptions from customers.

Food for Thought

[F]or a city which has a 2,000 years old history London has surprisingly few local dishes attributed to the region. Even HP Sauce once known as Houses of Parliament Sauce doesn’t originate in London. Here for your consumption is a taster of foods that were once found only in London:

Bunhouse PlaceChelsea Bun
The Chelsea bun is a type of currant bun that was first created in the 18th century at The Chelsea Bun House, which was situated on the borders of Chelsea and Pimlico and favoured by Hanoverian royalty and demolished in 1839. The Chelsea Bun House was in business for the best part of a century, at the height of its success in the 18th century it was frequented by high society, including Kings George II and III, who called in for a bun en route to the nearby Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens.

Legend has it that on Good Friday in 1829, 240,000 hot-cross buns were sold from the shop, and crowds of over 50,000 thronged outside the shop in anticipation of delicious buns hot from the kitchen’s ovens. Sources disagree about the exact historic location of the Bun House – either Grosvenor Row or Jew’s Row according to what you read. Neither exists now, but in today’s Pimlico there is a Bunhouse Place, which is within strolling distance of the remains of Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens.

The bun is made of rich yeast dough flavoured with lemon peel, cinnamon or a sweet spice mixture. Prior to being rolled into a square spiral shape the dough is spread with a mixture of currants, brown sugar and butter. A sweet glaze covering is added before the rolled-up dough is sliced into individual buns and baked. The process of making this bun is very similar to that involved in producing the cinnamon roll.

Maids of HonourMaids of Honour
Rumour has it that these delectable little curd cheese tarts were named after the Maids of Honour who served at Richmond Palace in the 16th century. It is said that Henry VIII was the first to use the name aids of Honour Cake when he met Ann Boleyn and other Maids of Honour eating them. He was so delighted with the cakes that the recipe was kept secret and locked in an iron box in Richmond Palace. The recipe remains a closely kept secret to this day. True or not, they taste wonderful made with crisp puff pastry and a filling of squidgy cheese and lemon curd.

Fred CookeJellied Eels
Fred Cooke started selling jellied eels on Broadway Market in 1900. It grew to serve shepherds driving their flocks to the City of London. Broadway Market was a bawdy, drunken, vibrant street, the heart of an East London community that was to survive social turmoil and the bombs of two world wars. But by the nineties, the community was crumbling – those who could, moved to Essex. Then in 2004, volunteers from the Broadway Market Traders’ and Residents’ Association revived the community. It has grown beyond expectations. It is now described as the most successful community market in London. And Fred Cooke’s grandson, Bob, is introducing a new generation to jellied eels.

pie and mashPie and mash
Pie and Mash is quite simply the most traditional food that London has to offer. Forget your chip shops and burger bars, ‘Eel Pie and Mash Houses’ have been around since the early 1800’s – the first ones opening in pre-Dickensian and Victorian London. Historically, the pies were made from scraps of beef and vegetables the leftovers from the local markets, under a pastry crust. The mashed potatoes were liberally covered in parsley gravy or ‘liquor’. Since that time there has been a great revival in these dishes and quite a number of Pie ‘n’ Mash restaurants can now be found across London.

Londoners might not have many local delicacies to their name but it didn’t stop them using food references in their native East London language, these phrases have now been adopted by the Mockney speakers (a blend of ‘mock’ and ‘cockney’) with their affected imitation of cockney it is spoken by among others – you guessed it a celebrity cook- Jamie Oliver:

Bacon and egg – Legs
Bacon and egg tie – A nickname for the red-and-yellow tie worn by members of the MCC
Bangers and Mash – cash
Biscuits [and cheese] – knees
Bottle [and glass] – arse
Bread [and honey] – money
Bubble [and squeak] – Greek, referring to a person of that nationality
Butcher’s [hook] – look
Butterboy – A black cab driver who has passed The Knowledge within the previous year implying he is “but a boy”
Cake is getting thin – One’s funds are running low
Cream crackered – knackered
Crust [of bread] – head
Currant bun – sun, now adopted by the daily paper of the same name
Duck and dive – skive
Duck’s arse – grass
Gammon rasher – smasher
Greengages – wages
Ice cream [freezer] – geezer
Jacob’s [cream crackers] – knackers (testicles)
Jam jar – car
Kipper Season – Among black cab drivers, the period immediately following Christmas and the New Year when business is slow, originally this term referred up unto the start of the Chelsea Flower Show. It possibly derives from the diet upon which one might have to subsist at such times.
Loaf [of bread] – head
Lovely Jubbly – Excellent! Coined from the sitcom Only Fools and Horses and possibly has roots in the advertising slogan of the 1950s for an orange drink called “Jubbly”
Mince pies – eyes
Pie [and mash] – cash
Porky [pork pie] – lie
Rabbit [and pork] – talk
Rosie [Lee] – tea
Ruby [Murray] – curry
Sausage [and mash] – cash
Saveloy – Nickname for the Savoy Hotel
Sherbet [dab] – cab
Stewed prune – tune (a 19th century saying)
Strawberry [tart] – heart
Syrup [of fig] – wig
Tea leaf – thief
Teapot [lid] – kid
Treacle [tart] – sweethearts

Man the pumps

I read an interesting article regarding the fuel rises of late. Someone with more time on his hands that is really healthy came up with these interesting figures. Being the same age as me he started driving in 1965 and according to his calculations, the national average wage was £700 a year or around £13 a week (I was on £5 per week, but no mind), and I was paying four shilling (20p) for a gallon of diesel.

[T]hat meant I could buy a total of 67.5 gallons if I was earning £13 a week. The national average pay today is £22,000 a year or £423 a week and the average price of diesel is £5.81 a gallon, so I can now buy 73.15 gallons of fuel with a week’s wages. As a percentage of my earnings, I’m paying less for fuel than I was 46 years ago. So why do I get angry over the cost of motoring or is it that as a cabbie I’m buying over £120 of the stuff a week?

This simple “back of a fag packet” calculation would indicate that we have nothing to complain about when it comes to fuel prices, for they are charging less in real terms than they were 40 years ago. Should we be concerned about the companies that sell the product, who cares that Shell was raking in £1.6 million an hour in the final quarter of last year? Well, yes we should.

With oil reserves becoming so inaccessible it produced the fiasco that BP found itself in the Gulf of Mexico last year. And now with proposals to drill under the polar icecaps, and all the difficulty that will entail, not to mention the possible cost to this fragile ecosphere, you would think that the diesel for my cab would be remorselessly rising faster than the cost of living. But according to my fag packet calculations that is not the case.

For more added value can be obtained from processing the black gold. Shell makes the vast bulk of its profits on the “upstream” side of the business – producing oil and gas – rather than the “downstream” refining and petrol sales. These by products are much more profitable than flogging diesel to London cabbies, which after all are only going to burn it and come back for more.

It is for this reason that oil companies are increasingly trying to alienate themselves from the motorist. Take the typical petrol station, its forecourt is dirty, fuel often leaking from nozzles and covering your hands with diesel, and here’s the rub: Notices that tell the motorist – and only the motorist that he’s dishonest. The motorist is photographed from every angle while you brace yourself from the wind that always seems to blow through these soulless places.

There is on the forecourt a presumption of guilt. On each pump the sign reads: “Make sure you have sufficient funds BEFORE you fill up. We will prosecute anyone who drives off without paying for their fuel.” And this might surprise some, at night garages insist on payment up front, so you have to queue up in the cold twice to pay (the second time is because the high prices make it impossible to stop at the desired amount). When paying up front I once requested a receipt and I was told once by the poorly paid attendant I’ll give you a receipt after you have filled up. My reply was of course: “If you don’t trust me, I’m hardly going to trust you”.

If you are lucky to enter the warmth of the shop what do you find? Well, if it is in Chelsea or Fulham everybody doing their weekly shop. So you have to queue as if it was Tesco on a Saturday morning. And here’s the thing: those shoppers don’t have to pay up front for their frozen peas, milk or bread, nor are they told as they peruse the shelves they are potential thieves.

So here are my suggestions taken from when I was paying 20p a gallon: Stop serving coffee and selling groceries; man the pumps and clean the forecourt; have you staff in smart uniforms and pay them enough so they actually do care if I buy diesel; trying getting your attendants to fill the tank so they get covered in diesel and not me; and get them to wash my windscreen if it is necessary. But it’s unlikely to happen for you see the multi-national oil companies only make a few pence profit per litre – some estimates are as little as 2p a litre.

Finally, and I promise this is the last gripe, why, with previous Governments spending a fortune encouraging motorists that drinking and driving don’t mix, are these shops which happen to have petrol pumps attached to them, allowed to sell alcohol?

The petrol pump in a faded Shell petrol station in the Scottish Highlands © Peter Stubbs. www.edinphoto.org.uk

Cabbie’s Monopoly – Part II

Free Parking

You can tell that Monopoly was devised in a more relaxed and gentler age. This, our second trip into Cabbie’s Monopoly, we find a square entitled ‘Free Parking’; for in the 21st century free parking for cabs lasts just two minutes and one second before Westminster Council issue a ticket.

My pre-war Monopoly set has tokens comprising a thimble, hot hat and a flat iron more reminders of a bygone age; while this week’s four locations have changed beyond all recognition over the last 75 years.

Old Kent RoadOLD KENT ROAD
When designing the London Monopoly Board in 1936 they didn’t want to go Sarf of the River; a bit like cabbies are accused of saying these days. For the Old Kent Road is the only square on the Monopoly Board from our southern environs, and one of the cheapest. Gentrified nowadays in Southwark and Bermondsey, Old Kent Road remain stubbornly working class.

The route taken by Chaucer’s pilgrims on their journey to Canterbury, there aren’t even any decent watering holes left. The Dun Cow is a surgery and The Thomas à Becket has become a furniture shop.

The Angel IslingtonTHE ANGEL, ISLINGTON
Taking its name from a coaching inn that had stood on the site from at least 1638; I have often wondered what attracts the tree hugging, muesli munching, Guardian readers to this predominantly poor area.

So polarised is it that council tenants live cheek-by-jowl next to £¾ million terraced houses. I then learnt that the republican Thomas Paine, inspired by the French Revolution probably wrote the first part of his The Rights of Man while staying at the pub that gave its name to the area, the Angel in 1790, could the rich be trying to emulate him?

Coventry StreetCOVENTRY STREET
My first question on The Knowledge: Prince of Wales Theatre to Prince of Wales Drive? – Leave on right Coventry Street; right Whitcombe Street; right Panton Street; left Haymarket; right Pall Mall; left Marlborough Gate; forward Marlborough Road; right The Mall; left Spur Road; right Birdcage Walk; forward Buckingham Gate; forward Buckingham Palace Road; forward Ebury Bridge Road; left Chelsea Bridge Road; forward Chelsea Bridge; forward Queenstown Road; comply Queen’s Circus; Prince of Wales Drive on left – easy!

I sat there paralysed like a rabbit caught in headlights.

Marlborough StreetMARLBOROUGH STREET
Correctly entitled Great Marlborough Street and named in honour of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. It is probably the slowest road in London for the pedestrian crossing outside Liberty’s is in constant use, still it gives you the time to look at the famous store with its façade constructed from the timbers of the Navy’s last two wooden warships, HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan. As a footnote Marlboro cigarettes take their name from the street which in the late 19th century the Philip Morris Company’s factory was situated.

Divided by a common language

Thesaurus

[I]t is that time of year again when all the hotels offer cut price breaks to pull in the punters. In the summer months communicating with London’s visitors is simple: the tourists from the Middle East have learnt two or possibly three words of English: “Harrods”, “Selfridges” and “ThankYou”; Europeans on the other hand make a better fist of it: the Dutch have better English grammar than most cabbies I know (I was told once that they watched BBC TV from a young age); most other Europeans have English as their second language and feel the need to brush up their linguistic skills with any cabbie they can find; while the ever resourceful Japanese take some headed notepaper from their hotel room and show it to the driver.

Thank goodness the American’s have a sense of humour for although they speak American it is not easily understood by the English “Our hotel is in South-Waark” or “Li-Cest-Tur Square are common phrases. But after some good humoured banter on the correct pronunciation of tomato or potato we usually manage to arrive at their destination.

But for our bargain mini break visitors, well, it’s frankly embarrassing; to paraphrase it is like two languages conjoined by a common country. If I can do my best at Estuary Speak and sprinkle “geezer”, “wots up” and “fink” into my lexicon, those northern folks after watching Eastenders four times a week since the old King died, should at least try to understand me and I get an inkling to where they want to go.

But help is at hand from of all people, The University of Leeds, who are preparing a “Language and dialect atlas of Britain in the 21st Century”. In an important use of their £460,000 research grant they intend to highlight regional variations of English.

Just how we have got to this stage of the development of English since we have been speaking it among ourselves since Saxon times, with just a slight interruption from the Normans, I don’t know. For by now the BBC’s received English should be the spoken norm for all of us.

But what I do know is that Wayne and Charlene will not be using the research paper to brush up their cockernee for their next visit to the Capital. And certainly can I be bovvered?