All posts by Gibson Square

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

Good Moaning

Sid James

[C]ary Cooper the professor organisational psychology at Lancaster University – no doubt taking time away from encouraging his students to man the barricades in Parliament Square – has concluded that the ‘Brits like to enjoy a good moan’.

According to a survey of 4,000 people, we complain for eight minutes a day. Good Brief! Only eight minutes a day, what a strange world it must be in the organisational psychology faculty at Lancaster University (no I hadn’t heard of that esteemed branch of higher learning either).

In my world I come down to breakfast after my wife has had 30 minutes to read the Daily Mail. Ken Clarke’s idea of inspired genius to allow knife wielding yobs off with a slap on the wrist prompts a rather lively debate before my first mouthful of cereal has reached my lips, I seem to recall. My wife then goes on to inform me that I’m donating £300 to bail out the Irish – apparently we export more ‘stuff’ to Ireland than anywhere else. I can’t afford the stuff, but my money is going to Ireland so they can buy it. Thinking my blood pressure can’t rise any further I head for the door to start a day’s work. “Oh! By the way the coalition are building a new aircraft carrier to replace the Ark Royal they have scrapped, but they haven’t any planes to fly from its deck”, my wife informs my retreating back. I can ignore that comment, she’s just trying to ruin my day, and even Gordon Brown in his most insane moments as Chancellor wouldn’t have done that.

I drive my taxi through the chicanes thoughtfully provided by the utility companies, half a million holes in London’s roads this year and counting. Not a workman to be seen, still mustn’t complain, they don’t in Lancaster.

Arriving at Paddington Station where the police have thoughtfully parked their car near the exit while they have a cuppa causing a half mile tailback, I pick our trade newspaper. What this! “Bicycle Clips” Boris plans to scrap all cabs over 15 years old, I’m informed. Far better to release all those dangerous metals locked into my old cab, than offend Europe with my polluting Euro 3 emissions. Oh Well, that’s knocked a few thousand from my cab’s value, maybe the Irish can have my worthless cab in lieu of the £300.

At last a passenger gets into the cab, completely ignoring my cheery, albeit forced, greeting of good morning.

Bang, the tip up seat crashes into the partition as he removes his dirty feet from it, why didn’t the manufacturers just put in recliner chairs so these slobs could really feel at home?

While driving my way around London’s streets I speculate, will my homecoming be greeted with a letter from a London council informing me of a traffic violation, or is it to be a Red Letter Day, without the need to help fill that council’s coffers, Victor Meldrew had it easy, he should have been a London cabbie.

Some find me curmudgeonly, even accusingly me of being a Luddite (why wouldn’t I want to change my cab every three years). To my passengers and you dear reader I say it’s simply the moaning that helps keep me sane.

The French, they have their Gallic shrug, while our contribution to European culture is a good whinge, it suggests our subliminated anarchic streak, our desire to overthrow the political correctness that’s pervading our lives, and mourning the loss of common sense and courtesy.

Whinging in short is a person’s daily attempt at rebellion, in fact we English excel at it and it should be a source of pride and not shame that we lead the world in this field. And if you are a stoic London taxi driver, you’re really just not trying!

It would seem according to researchers at Bristol University, that since writing this article I have put on weight. According to their findings, distractions such as playing games or checking e-mails, make it harder for us to remember what we have eaten. This absent-mindedness stops us feeling full, and sends us reaching for snacks. It is thought that our memory of what we have eaten plays a key role in dampening appetite – now did I have that fried Mars Bar, or didn’t I?

London’s smallest square

As Westminster Council spends thousands of pounds turning Pall Mall into a dual-carriageway racetrack, parts of St. James’s remain an oasis of peace and calm. Thought to be the smallest public open space in London, Pickering Place is perhaps most famous for being the location of the last public duel in England. This gas lit courtyard, which until 1812 was known as Pickering Court is adjacent to some of London’s most famous clubs.

[A]n appealing vision of two fiery young blades slipping out of White’s to settle an old score over their honour can be imagined here in this secluded irregularly shaped paved square.

Approached from St. James’s Street through a narrow 18th century oak-panelled tunnel which lies alongside Berry Brothers and Rudd, thought to be Britain’s oldest wine and spirit merchant, having traded from the same shop for over 300 years. Berry’s was established in 1698 by the Widow Bourne, whose son-in-law, James Pickering built Picking Court as it was then known in 1731. By 1765, at the “Sign of the Coffee Mill”, Berry’s not only supplied the fashionable Coffee Houses (later to become Clubs such as Boodles and Whites) but also began weighing customers on giant coffee scales. Records of customers’ weights, including those of Lord Byron, William Pitt and the Aga Khan, span three centuries and continue to be added to, to this day. Their extensive cellars running under Pickering Place and down Pall Mall store over 200,000 bottles. Today members of the Berry and Rudd families continue to own and manage the family-run wine merchant.

Texas LegationThis tiny Georgian alleyway and courtyard has another secret, in that Texas (yes that one!) was once a republic and had its own Legation in London. The Republic of Texas covered modern-day Texas as well as parts of New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming and existed from 1836 to 1846 when it was annexed by the United States. Its Legation had their office in the premises of Berry Brothers and Rudd.

Other residents have been the author Graham Greene who kept a set of rooms overlooking the courtyard and Lord Palmerston who lived here for a time, a stone bust commemorates the former Prime Minister’s property.

Not surprisingly St James’s has the highest concentration of listed buildings in England, with nearly 60 listed Grade I and Grade II* buildings, and perhaps a 100 more listed Grade II, and it is this fact that Picking Place and its neighbours manage somehow to able to cling on to its little eccentricities and charms.

The tipping point

The earliest explanation for tipping I can find refers us back to the days of Dr. Johnson and his 18th century circle of wits. Upon entering his local coffee shop for a session of epigram-flinging, Dr. Johnson (or rather, one presumes, his flunky, Mr. Boswell) would drop a few pence in a box labelled ‘To Insure Promptness’ (T.I.P.–get it?) in order to encourage a greater display of vigour on the part of the generally listless attendants.

[N]ow, you can tell that Christmas is near when this old chestnut of tipping is discussed among London’s cabbie fraternity; should you give a gratuity as a means of rewarding personal service; is the practice outmoded; and should cabbies go down the road of adding a service charge to the fare on completion of a journey?

Hairdressers are usually the major recipients, if only because we see the same person every time. I tell my barber to pay special attention to the back of my head as this is the side of me that my customers see, he tells me that it is my best side, but still I always tip him.

Older drivers claim that in the 1960s, while there may have been fewer customers, their regulars would generally tip, often adding 25 per cent on the metered fare. Nowadays those that do tip will generally round up the fare to the nearest £1.

Now an increasing ground swell of opinion is suggesting that traditional tipping should be replaced by a service charge, negotiated at an agreed rate with the Licensing Authority and built into the tariff.

But why tip? It’s not likely you will see the waiter, doorman or your cabbie again. Surely the service charge should already be built into the salary of those who work in service industries, not compulsorily added as an addendum to one’s bill.

Many companies are now telling employees when using a cab on company business not to tip and so your passenger will ask that the receipt doesn’t show a tip even when proffered.

The next few years will see taxi tariffs rise considerably as insurance increases due to uninsured London drivers causing accidents, fuel duty rising remorselessly, and if Boris gets his 10 years limit on the age that cabs can be licensed, write down values will increase and will have to be added to the tariff.

If I was a fare paying passenger in a London taxi I would be very annoyed at having a 10-15 per cent service charge added to the fare, whilst being driven by a self-employed driver, who is let’s face it, just doing his job.

CabbieBlog will of course be happy to receive any donations that you feel I have deserve for the service that is provided.

George Train’s Trams

If ever a man was destined to run a transport system it was George Train for the aptly named Mr Train who gave us the tram, a mode of transport that would last for 100 years. At its peak 2,500 tramcars carried seven million passengers a year, when the last tramcar made her final run from Westminster to Woolwich on 5th July 1952 thousands turned out to see it, some even placing pennies on to the tramlines to obtain a small, if bent souvenir of the occasion.

[T]rain was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1829, but at the age of four he was orphaned when yellow fever plague killed his family and he was raised by his grandparents in Boston. Train was engaged in the mercantile business in Boston and in Australia; he then went to England in 1860 and undertook to form horse tramway companies in Birkenhead and London where he soon met opposition. Although his trams were popular with passengers, his designs had rails that stood above the road surface and obstructed other traffic. In 1861 Train was arrested and tried for “breaking and injuring” a London street.

Referring to himself as “Citizen Train”, he became a shipping magnate, a prolific writer, a minor presidential candidate, and a confidant of French and Australian revolutionaries. During the American Civil War he gave numerous speeches in England in favour of the Union and denouncing the Confederacy. In 1870 Train undertook a trip around the world and was probably the inspiration for Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, and its protagonist Phileas Fogg.

Now although the trams have themselves gone, the last vehicle was deliberately rolled over in July 1952 and set alight on an anonymous siding in Charlton, we still have some evidence of their existence in London.

By far the largest is the Kingsway Tramway Subway a cut-and-cover Grade II Listed tunnel in central London, built by the London County Council, the only one of its kind in Britain. The decision in 1898 to clear slum districts in the Holborn area provided an opportunity to use the new streets for a tramway connecting the lines in the north and south and, following the pattern of tramway systems in New York and completed in 1908.

A year after the destruction of car E/3-1904 the subway was redeployed to store 120 retired buses in case they were needed for the Coronation and for two years after that served as a railway tunnel in the film Bhowani Junction. The tunnel was then closed owing to the fire risk it was not used until the London County Council proposed making use of the tunnel for light traffic coming from Waterloo Bridge in order to reduce traffic congestion at its junction with Strand and it opened to road traffic as the Strand Underpass on 21 January 1964.

Until the opening of the Thames Barrier in 1984, a portable building near the north of the tunnel was used as a flood control headquarters for the Greater London Council, being underground and close to the Thames one would have though a better location could have been found for London’s flood control.

A degree of skill

Private_Eye_Graduation

I was reading recently that 26.6 per cent of those graduating from South Bank University were still unemployed after six months. It was then that I had this brainwave, now, I hate to boast, but this is a cracking idea, an idea so dazzling in its simplicity that I’m surprised nobody has thought of it before. Well, stop me if you think this is silly, but instead of teaching courses based on administration, academia, or subjects which will have no relevance to student’s future working lives, let’s teach them vocational skills.

We should encourage, no let’s force employees to take on trainees, I know we could call them apprentices, make employers give them a 3 year structured education in return for a lower salary.

[T]he current system with the goal to educate over 50 per cent of our young to graduate level is not working, on average after completing their course over 11 per cent are without employment six months after graduating, and many who have found employment are not pursuing the career ladder they were promised at the start of their university life.

During their course 22.1 per cent drop out of university for various reasons, while for The Knowledge the dropout rate is about 70 per cent, either students at university are more focussed on completing their course or The Knowledge is overly demanding. Or could it be that some university courses are not very demanding, or Knowledge students are the lazy ones?

Those who pass The Knowledge have employment from the day they receive their license, and the majority who have pursued vocational subjects be it a plumber, electrician or IT specialist can find suitable employment within weeks of passing.

Figures released by the Office for National Statistics show that this year a record 100,000 ‘Polish plumbers’ have arrived this year as Britain climbs out of recession. Surely it’s not beyond the ability of this Government to get our young trained to fill these posts?

Educationalists argue, with some justification, that a university education broadens your horizons and encourages the young into a lifetime of learning, but it cannot be right to supply the employment market with thousands of graduates who have worked hard for three years to gain their degree, only to find their qualifications are dismissed by potential employers as being worthless as a means for gaining employment.

In the 1960s employers of many affiliated industries were required to provide apprenticeships, with practical tuition and college days including lessons devoted to English and English literature, those core subjects should be incorporated into adult education for the 21st century. The Government should make employers take on of apprentices; giving them practical as well as academic guidance, while promoting the lifelong education ethos.

After all it’s not rocket science . . . and maybe that is another course they could provide.