Category Archives: A window on My World

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Voices from the Void

Not driving a cab and in possession of a Freedom Pass (an oxymoron if ever there were these days), I have discovered the Underground network to be a pretty scary subterranean place.

Signs everywhere warn of impending danger lurking around every corner: Stand on the right; Wear a face mask; Carry dogs; Fold pushchairs; and for we Baby Boomers: Please hold on to the handrail, which for me should have ‘for dear life’ appended.

You don’t want to hear this

The warning you don’t want to hear over the announcements is “Inspector Sands…”. Apparently, this is a warning of fire somewhere in the bowels of the system.

Luckily the most ubiquitous announcement is “Mind the Gap”, in fact, a whole souvenir industry has sprung up around this urgent warning of impending danger: tee shirts, mugs and even underwear.

When taking my daughter for her first job interview some years ago, we were sitting on the tube when a drunk sitting opposite awoke to the announcement “Mind the Gap”. Our slumbering passenger then started to doze off again, until that is, we reached another station and upon hearing the Mind the Gap announced a second time declared to the rest of the carriage “F**k Me! That bloke gets around”.

First announcement

The original Mind the Gap announcement which had awoken our slumbering friend was first heard in 1968 when AEG Telefunken supplied the recording of an unknown actor, unfortunately, the fellow had insisted on being paid a royalty every time his voice was heard. Unsurprisingly that recording was scrubbed and re-recorded by someone cheaper.
Sound engineer Peter Lodge then took up the baton and his sound tests proved so popular with the powers that be it was decided that his voice should be the announcement broadcast.

Listen to the 12th Earl of Portland

The Earl of Portland was a title bestowed on the first Earl for mopping the fevered brow of King William III who at that time was struck down with smallpox. The 12th and current Earl could once have been heard on the Piccadilly Line, his Mind the Gap announcement earning him the princely sum of £200. Tim Bentinck is best known as the actor who plays David Archer in Radio 4’s The Archers.

The gap problem like so much these days can be blamed on London’s bankers. When tunnelling commenced early in the last century, engineers were concerned that the excavations would undermine the City’s banks. It was decided, where possible, to tunnel beneath the roads, many of which followed their Medieval routes.

As a consequence despite billions being spent on planning, building, refurbishing and rebuilding our trains just don’t fit the stations. Passengers on the Central line at Bank are regularly reminded of this fundamental flaw in the Tube system, gaping enough to accommodate mobile phones, umbrellas, wallets and purses, and Oyster cards.

The sharpest bend

This fear of being sued by powerful property owners has meant Bank station has one of the sharpest bends on the Tube network. This sharp bend has even become represented on Harry Beck’s iconic Tube map where Bank Station is given its own unique kink. There is even some speculation the bend had to be made even sharper so the tunnel didn’t end up in the Bank of England’s vaults.

So just in case you didn’t hear the announcement or are hearing-impaired, platforms now also have the warning painted on the edge at regular intervals. At Baker Street, the worst for gap incidents on an annual basis (which brings a whole new meaning to the term ‘gap year’), blue warning lights have been installed as an extra precaution. Apart from Tim Bentinck, another sounds a bit like Joanna Lumley, and I wait in vain for a ‘darling’ to be added to the end of the announcement.

Voice from Beyond.

At Embankment Station the doom-laden tones of the ‘Mind the Gap’ message on the Northern line station are those of theatrically-trained Mr Oswald Laurence whose stentorian performance is worthy of Shakespeare. He enunciates perfectly, and adds a dramatic pause between the word ‘Mind’ and ‘the’, just to get our attention. His voice had been heard at many a station on the Northern Line, but it was slowly phased out until Embankment was the last place it was used.

After he died in 2007, his widow Margaret would still enjoy listening to his voice, but one day just before Christmas 2012 she was devastated to find he had been replaced. No longer could she enjoy her late husband’s announcements. But when TfL learned that she was missing her Oswald’s voice they did a wonderful thing – they reinstated him.

Featured image: Passengers have to “Mind the gap” at Bank Central Line station by David Hawgood (CC BY-SA 2.0). The Central Line through Bank station is curved sufficiently that the well-known announcement “Mind the gap” warns of a substantial gap between the end doors of a carriage and the platform. The girl in the photo is jumping onto the platform, the woman behind waits to step out.

Where are we?

They would say that if The Knowledge wasn’t taking over your life, you weren’t doing it right. The problem, once qualified, is that it doesn’t leave you.

Soon after receiving my Green Badge, I watched one of my favourite London films, Brannigan, starring John Wayne as a Chicago detective. It is as if Visit London had commissioned Paul Greengrass to direct a travel documentary aimed at American tourists.

Fast-paced it has The Duke pursuing villains around London with each shot featuring a tourist destination and his ability to cross the capital at speed is impressive.

One minute he’s in Battersea’s Prince of Wales Drive (my first question on The Knowledge), then next Buckingham Palace appears behind his shoulder as he tears around London. Within minutes he is driving his 1973 Ford Capri over an opening Tower Bridge in pursuit of justice.

Watching dramas at home I’m still forever trying to spot the location, no matter how tight the shot.

I’ve spotted Bridget Jones’ flat above the Globe pub on Bedale Street, just around the corner from Borough Market. Another market easily identified was Leadenhall Market in one of the Harry Potter sequels.

You can tell when a film is getting tedious when instead of listening to the dialogue I try to locate the exact street. Having worked in Clerkenwell my concentration was focused in and around the diamond district in The Hatton Garden Job, by my reckoning the ‘job’ was on the corner of Greville Street and Hatton Garden.

Years earlier a group of us rode our motorcycles to Pride and Clarke in Stockwell Road, London’s biggest motorcycle dealer known as ‘Snide and Shark’. Our long trek was partly due to its appearance in Blow-Up with David Hemmings driving a Rolls Royce past the blood-red building, but more I suspect his co-star – Veruschka a 6’4″ model. Then decades later I spotted the shop now painted white when on The Knowledge.

In Killing Eve I identified the Barbican Estate, but couldn’t place the ‘nearby’ churchyard, not surprising it was St. George in the East in Shadwell.

But the one that has evaded me is 221b Baker Street in the latest BBC adaption of Sherlock Holmes. The famous sleuth’s flat is above Speedy’s Sandwich Bar and isn’t to be found in Baker Street. Sadly I had to resort to the world wide web to find it’s just around the corner in Euston Road.

Highest and lowest

Ihave been thinking recently of just how high and how low I’ve travelled whilst driving a cab.

If you take sea level as the mean, the lowest seems easy

The UK’s Ordnance Datum is based on measurements at Newlyn in Cornwall, so it’ll come as no surprise to hear that the midpoint between high and low tides is generally how the zero point for altitude is defined. The highest spring tides at North Woolwich reach 12ft above sea level whereas the very lowest gets down to 9½ft below.

How low can you go?

As they say, every cloud has a silver lining. One night one of those fortuitous events happened, the London to Brighton train service was cancelled.

So here I was in a convoy of cabs heading for Brighton. Long after midnight found me parked on Madeira Drive on the seafront taking a picture of the pier, with the cab a few feet above the sea, although I’m not sure how close the tide was to the Datum Mean.

But where was the highest?

Heights can be measured above ground level, which is what we do with tall buildings, or above sea level, which is what we normally do with hills. The two measurements give different answers. The bottom of the Shard is 43ft above sea level, for example, which lifts the elevation of the observation deck from 1,014ft to 1,057ft. This turns out to be important because the highest ground in London at Westerham Heights is 804ft above sea level, and that extra 43ft makes the Shard substantially higher.

Obviously, I couldn’t take the cab to the top of the Shard, so just where have I been whilst sitting in the cab?

Researching this post using Wikipedia (naturally), I’ve discovered that a road and a house with the most magical name and address, the Grade II Listed house is very near me – Blue Boar Hall on Orange Tree Hill in Havering-Atte-Bower is at 344ft the 18th highest in London.

One of my favourite places in London, the curiously named Vale of Health in Hampstead, is slightly higher at 427ft above sea level.

I’ve never been to Westerham Heights, but if memory serves me right, its got be Stanmore Hill, the third-highest in London at 499ft that is the highest I’ve pushed the cab.

As we are on distances, what were the shortest and longest journeys?

The short is very short

The shortest journey I ever undertook involved picking up two young Japanese girls from the Heathrow Express rank in Paddington. Both were carrying suitcases twice as heavy as them and nearly their height. Not knowing their hotel’s location, and with my Japanese a little rusty, they thrust a piece of paper at me. The Prince William Hotel is located just 400 yards from the station’s exit. After much giggling and struggling, they left my cab after paying the princely sum of £1.80.

And the long is much longer

On a Saturday night, a desperate pair hailed me near Victoria station. The men had gone to a football match and downed a pint – or two. Then they discovered that a replacement rail service was in operation. Nothing unusual you might say, except there was a two- or three-hour wait for the bus and they had to get back to close their wine bar – in Bristol. I questioned their overall planning abilities but dutifully drove them home. Before leaving Bristol I was even hailed again! Pity I didn’t hold a Bristol licence.

Featured image: Havering Atte Bower farm is the 18,306th highest peak in the British Isles and the 3,942nd tallest in England © Derek Voller (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The End of the Beginning

Journeys. Everyone is always talking about a journey: Life’s journey; journey of a lifetime; a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. To add to that canon of sayings I give you ‘A blog’s journey’.

My on-line journey has taken in being contacted by three BA students, whose courses somehow covered something of the cab trade, to an MA student using CabbieBlog in part for their thesis. While participating in a French travel guide, I had to sign a consent form in French (I suppose it was, not understanding the language). An American website, devoted to England, featured a piece by me about Green Cabbie Shelters and an international credit card company took it on themselves to feature this humble cabbie.

Naturally, most London centric magazines and newspapers have popped into CabbieBlog’s virtual office requesting information or a quote. The national broadcaster once had me sitting at the side of the Thames in my cab asking for my opinion, something I can supply to my customers for free.

Talking of television appearances, I’ve turned down Tony Robinson twice, nothing personal, I just wasn’t available. And surprisingly for the bible of lost cultures, National Geographic wrote a piece about cabbies after interviewing me I suppose they considered the London cabbie is now on the endangered list.

Her Majesty the Queen was given the benefit of my thoughts when I wrote for a book which was presented to her during the 2012 Olympics. Unfortunately, the wider public has been denied this as my memoir which was due to be published by Michael Joseph will not be seeing the light of day.

CabbieBlog’s journey started with a single step in June 2008 and really has travelled a thousand miles. I’ve turned down as many opportunities as I’ve accepted and my voice has been heard on a podcast produced over 4,000 miles away.

So what is the point of this post, or indeed the reason to blog?

Obviously, vanity, thinking the world wants to know your opinion of London and discover the life of a cabbie. Writing regularly does help you organise your thoughts rather than have random ideas. For me, it has certainly improved my English, although reading this you might wonder how bad it was before I started all those years ago.

The 1 per cent rule

Uploading matter does set you apart from the crowd with the 1 per cent rule. This estimates that only 1 per cent upload new content, while the other 99 per cent merely read or pass it on, this is self-evident on social media sites. Not that this post is all that original much of which regarding CabbieBlog’s history I’ve featured before.

But it does discipline you, here I post three original posts a week and regular posting brings you into the orbit of like-minded souls. You get together, and nerd out about things that only you and a chosen few can get so excited about. You create material and share what you have. You swap stories. It’s also hugely satisfying to introduce people to the culture of sharing and discovering something about London.

The end of the beginning or the beginning of the end?

What I get back from these blogger’s relationships goes beyond the affirmation of my written word, or the occasional piece of well-received advice. It’s a gateway to a community that keeps helping me do what I like doing, furnishes me with the tools and know-how, and supports me to get better at it, so obviously it’s the End of the Beginning.

To me, that’s exactly what a hobby is, and should be.

Featured image: End of Story by Nick Youngson (CC BY-SA 3.0) Alpha Stock Images