Category Archives: Thinking allowed

You either love, or hate it

Today we expect the West End’s shopping streets to put up a show at Christmas, but during the 1960s this wasn’t the case, with only Oxford Street entering into the festive spirit.

The Regent Street Association realising their less prestigious cousin was taking all the compliments were not to be It’s that time of year when we expect Oxford and Regent Street to display for their customers a version of Christmas, and this year, for Oxford Street’s 60th anniversary, we’re promised an ‘environmentally-focussed’ event, reassuring their customers that no polar bears have been harmed in its production.

In the past we have been treated to some seasonal favourites: Marmite that much loved Christmas dinner treat and Regent Street was once given over to the soft drink Tango, which showered the area with bright orange bulbs and banners bearing the message “Tis the season to be Tango’d”.

Today advertisers hold sway, but during the 1960s this wasn’t the case. Only Oxford Street entering into the festive spirit, the Regent Street Association realising their less prestigious cousin was taking all the compliments were not to be outdone. They hired a well-known Italian designer charged with producing a ‘tasteful’ display to rival their competitor.

His solution was to produce giant white flying angels made out of papier-mâché posed with their faces looking down serenely at the crowds below.

London in those days was renowned for rain, in fact, you could spot an American a mile-off for they came here prepared for their visit wearing the ubiquitous white raincoat, Columbo style.

This particular November had seen an exceptional amount of rain, even by London standards.
The Italian designer just hadn’t taken in the fact that Northern Europe is considerably damper than the Mediterranean. Soon the press was running the story about Pregnant Angels, no doubt to the amusement of Oxford Street retailers.

Journalist and author Alf Townsend takes up the story:

I noticed a guy done up in heavy waterproof gear and wearing a yellow sou’wester. He was sitting on a cart that Westminster Council road sweepers used in those days and I thought to myself, “this bloke is out late”. He came over to ask for a light and we got talking. He said his job started after the traffic had died down and, picking up this long pole with a wicked-looking blade at the end, he told me that the pole could reach some 40 feet when it was extended. His job was to pierce the angel’s tummies and let the water out – hence his heavy waterproofs! We had a good laugh over it – especially when he said the guys back at the depot called him, “the Holy Terminator”.

The Regent Street ‘Angels’ can be found on the Guardian’s vintage photographs of Christmas in London.

Featured image: Regent Street – Angel Christmas Lights (2016-2018). The theme is angels, inspired by the first Regent Street Christmas lights in 1954, by Oast House Archive (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Sprucing up London

With its 500 white lights and central location, the Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is one of the most iconic Yuletide symbols for the festive season. Since 1947 the giant Norway spruce has been given annually as a gift from the Norwegian government to thank the British nation for their role in providing a safe haven for King Haakon VII and their government in exile, as well as the small matter of eradicating the Nazis from their country.

What few realise is the inordinate care that the Norwegians take to grow the ‘perfect’ tree. It takes 15 years for your Christmas tree to grow to 6ft to display in your home. For Trafalgar Square’s tree 120 years are needed to reach the optimal height.

A group of eight to ten possible trees are selected from forests outside Oslo. These then undergo special preparation for up to eight years. The surrounding trees are cut down so the chosen ones get enough light. The trees are fertilised to help establish the dark green colour and trimmed to the correct shape.

Then finally, when a tree is to be shipped, the best is selected. For the past decade this we vision has been made by Jon Christiansen, he perfect name for Christmas and the chief city forester for Oslo City Council. The selected tree between 70ft and 75ft is then named ‘The Queen of the Forest’.

During the felling Oslo’s mayor, the Mayor of Westminster Council, the British Ambassador to Norway and local schoolchildren are in attendance.

Carefully moving such a heavy and delicate object is undertaken by truck to Oslo, thence by DFDS Seaways, a Danish freight line and finally by a low loader from the embarkation port to Trafalgar Square. Unloaded and positioned by hydraulic crane, then secured by guy ropes it stands erect outside the National Gallery.

On 3rd December each year, the honour of turning on the lights is usually given to a member of the Norwegian Royal Family.

Photo: Trafalgar Square – Christmas Eve 2011 Peter Trimming (CC BY 2.0)

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 2nd December 2016

Escape to the Country

Now retired, I’m able to sample the delights of afternoon television, and what a feast for the eyes.

Take one random Friday afternoon’s fare from the BBC, consisting of four quiz shows and a diet for avarice: Bargain Hunt; Money for Nothing; Antique Road Trip; Street Auction; and Coast and Country Auctions. Clearly, all designed to show my fellow Baby Boomers the value of their tat or alternatively an attempt to stave off dementia.

The most successful of these formats is Escape to the Country, shown every afternoon, with one satellite station showing almost wall-to-wall repeats of the programme.

This is hardly surprising, for apart from watching the goggle box, the oldies other preoccupation is considering leaving The Smoke.

While the population of England as a whole is ageing (primarily brought about by better health care), recent figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that London has become a turn-off for the over-65s.

At the beginning of Escape to the Country, the featured couple is asked just why they are considering leaving their urban home. Predictably, being screened by Auntie, the pair don’t cite graffiti, litter, the proliferation of fast food outlets, mugging, teenage stabbing, or their new neighbours which hail from a different ethnic or cultural background, it’s always traffic, accompanied by a location shot of a few cars passing their front door.

Well, back to those statistics geeks. For they have found only 11.9 per cent of Londoners are now oldies, a decline of 3 per cent over the last 30 years; in fact, 25-34-year-olds make up 24 per cent of inner London’s population.

A professor from that hot-bed of youthful protest, The London School of Economics, blames high property prices (something the BBC fails to mention featuring couples wanting to cash in their accumulated property wealth), and the Prof. elaborated for we simpletons, asserting that youngsters flood into the capital from around the world. Let’s face it if you want to work and/or get laid there are more opportunities in London than say, Nether Wallop.

Assuming that I’m in possession of a winning Euro Millions ticket (will they be available after Brexit, no one says), what is the right choice for this old codger?

My choice would be a small house near the coast for weekends, while a low-maintenance apartment in the Barbican with easy access (and free travel) to theatres, museums, galleries and the inevitable hospital visit.

So should the nation’s broadcaster start a new afternoon slot featuring those wishing to return, my suggestion, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, would be: ‘When a man is tired of Life, he is also tired of the Countryside’.

Featured image: Cows in a beautiful green field by Fir0002 (CC BY-NC)

Pulp fiction featuring cabbies

I have been thinking of how many novels have been written using a Black London Cab Driver as its main protagonist, and the answer as far I could ascertain is surprisingly few.

The Devil’s in the Detail by Matthew S. Wilson

David Shepherd awakes in a cell. The middle-aged London cab driver has vague recollections of attempting to protect his female passenger from a gang of drunken youths. Patchy flash-backs of blood and screams leave him with the ominous feeling that he may have done something rather quite rash. Did he kill one of the attackers?

This question is answered by the matter-of-fact Olivia, who assures him that this isn’t jail and that David hasn’t murdered anyone. His relief is short-lived when Olivia also reveals herself to be an Angel and that David is, in fact, in Purgatory. It appears that there was one fatality the previous night: him.

And so begins the Trial of David Shepherd in the Court of Saint Peter. A court that is presided over by Angels prosecuted by Demons and ultimately judged by a soul’s adherence to the Ten Commandments.

The Devil’s in the Detail is a religious satire, for atheists, agnostics and believers alike. It poses questions that we will all one day ponder: How are the actions we take in this life, ultimately judged? What constitutes a good life? What does it really take to pass through the Pearly Gates? As David tries to answer these questions he will discover that sometimes . . . The Devil’s in the Detail.

Black Cabs by John McLaren

John McLaren has sold the film rights to Black Cabs. Using three London cabbies as his protagonists, the uncompromising picture of London life on both sides of the river is idiosyncratic and astringent.

When three cabbies attempt to make a killing on the stock market by eavesdropping on the plans of a corporate magnate to engineer a huge take-over, they find they have taken on the sinister might of international banking community. The beleaguered heroes, Len, Terry and Einstein, soon find the sharp suits they are up against have no scruples about using extreme violence to protect their interests – a top financial executive is discovered dead in the back of a cab, and the boys are forced to investigate a monumental cover-up. A further turn of the screw is provided by Len’s desperation for the money–on which his daughter’s life depends.

That Angel Look by Mike Ripley

This is Mike Ripley’s eighth novel featuring itinerant trumpet player Fitzroy Maclean Angel who despite being bright, articulate, University-educated and a worldly-wise musician, spends most of his time driving a black cab. Welcome to London in the 1990s on the cusp of the Internet revolution.

When Angel is asked to assist in a leg judging contest, unlike most of the gawking men that surround them, Angel proves to be a smart strategist and lets the right one win as he tells her on the way home. Angel starts a relationship and is soon taken on as her driver (he owns his own de-licensed black cab). Angel tries to help the business, and impress his new girlfriend, by setting up a photoshoot but this ends in disaster when the photographer is found stabbed in the brain. This puts Angel on the receiving end of a barrage of questions from detectives Stokoe and Sell who, when not trying out their sub-Abbot and Costello patter, are content to point Angel in the wrong direction and see what emerges from the troubles he will stir up. This turns out to be considerable as the story combines illegal sweatshops, a witch’s coven, the kidnapping of a drug dealer, blackmail, resurgent European fascism, turf warfare between Turks and Bangladeshis as well as the solution to just who killed the sleazy photographer.

The Book of Dave by Will Self

When cabdriver Dave Rudman’s wife of five years deserts him for another man, taking their only child with her, he is thrown into a tailspin of doubt and discontent. Fearing his son will never know his father, Dave pens a gripping text–part memoir, part deranged philosophical treatise, and part handbook of ‘The Knowledge’. Meant for the boy when he comes of age, the book captures the frustration and anxiety of modern life. Five hundred years later, the ‘Book of Dave’ is discovered by the inhabitants on the island of Ham, where it becomes a sacred text of biblical proportion, and its author is revered as a mighty prophet. Rising sea levels have turned Britain into an archipelago. Small, isolated communities struggle with nature and ideology, their lives a harsh idyll mediated by the Book. The inhabitants of the tiny island of Ham grow wheat and harvest gulls’ eggs from the stacks in the bay. The men, or ‘dads’, live on one side of the village, the women, or ‘mums’, on the other. The children stay with their mums for half the week, and with their dads for the other; after each Changeover it’s as if the kids are ‘other people altogether’. The dads pass on the Knowledge, and along with it their maleness, which consists of screwing the ‘opares’, or teenage girls, and abusing the ‘boilers’, women wrecked by childbirth. The women don’t get much chance to pass anything on, being too busy pulling the island’s only plough. The language of the Book mediates this savagely satirical transfer of taxi-driver values. Dads wear ‘bubbery car coats’; the generic word for food is ‘curry’; when you make an opare pregnant, the bargain you enter into is known as ‘child support’. Language also constructs the Hamsters’ natural world: the young of the motos are known as ‘mopeds’; by day the ‘headlight’ rules the sky, while at night, when the headlight is dipped, you see the ‘dashboard’ laid out in stars. Such conceits are worked into the text with obsessive care.

The Great Satan by David Black

The author David Black was a part-time SAS Special Forces soldier working as a London Black Cabbie, ready to be called into action in times of national emergency. In the Great Satan his main character, Pat Farrell, is so close to the author as to be synonymous. The principal difference is that the author is now retired from the forces, while his fictional counterpart is left to content with the real world with direct relevance to the grisly global horrors being perpetuated today. In the bitterly divisive aftermath of the Iraq War, the former political leaders of the UK and USA were condemned as deceitful and mendacious, allegedly fabricating excuses for their martial actions. In the Great Satan, the first of his new SAS Shadow Squadron series, David Black takes their rationale to its logical conclusion to produce his own fictional nightmare scenario: What if the Iraqi weapons that were said to be dismantled in the late 1990s included the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, a nuclear bomb? What if the deposing of Saddam Hussein left one of his most ruthless military leaders at large, to profit from the weapon’s sale? And what if his buyers were the terrorist ideologues of al-Qaeda, and home-grown British Jihadists?

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 5th March 2013

Exploding the legend of Guy Fawkes

Ask most children in England what happens on the 5th November and they would tell you that it is Guy Fawkes night. It is a night we commemorate when in 1605 some Catholics in England expecting the new Stuart King – James to be more tolerant of them had decided to kill him. Their hopes were dashed when he had proved to be the opposite and had ordered all Catholic priests to leave England.

This so angered some Catholics that they decided to remove James and put his daughter Elizabeth on the throne ensuring that she was a Catholic.

This led to a plot to assassinate the king of England, but as we shall see it would devastate a sizeable area of Westminster and also kill everyone sitting in the Houses of Parliament at the same time as the James opened Parliament on 5th November 1605.

Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators had rented out a house next to the Houses of Parliament and managed to get 36 barrels of gunpowder into a cellar under the House of Lords.

For an unexplained reason, it was decided this year to search the cellars prior to the opening of Parliament and Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed.

In celebration of his survival, James ordered that the people of England should have a great bonfire on the night on 5th November. This fire was traditionally topped off with an effigy of the Pope rather than Guy Fawkes. His place at the top of the fire came in later as did fireworks. The East Sussex county town of Lewes still has the pope alongside Guy Fawkes when it comes to the effigies being burned.

Many conspiracy theories surround the 5th November plot but the use of gunpowder is an intriguing one.

The government had a monopoly on gunpowder in this country and it was stored in places like the Tower of London. How did the conspirators get hold of 36 barrels of gunpowder without drawing attention to themselves?

How was the gunpowder moved across London from the Tower of London to Westminster (at least two miles distant) without anyone seeing it? The River Thames would not have been used as it could have lead to the gunpowder becoming damp and useless. Thirty-six barrels would have been a sizeable quantity, estimated to be 2,500 kilograms, being moved without causing suspicion.

Experts from the Centre for Explosion Studies, at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth have estimated the Westminster Abbey would have been destroyed and the blast zone would have stretched as far as modern-day Downing Street.

They found that within a radius of about 40 metres, everything would have been razed to the ground. Within 110 metres, buildings would have been at least partially destroyed. And some windows would have been blown out even as far as 900 metres away.

In the 2005 ITV programme The Gunpowder Plot: Exploding The Legend, a full-size replica of the House of Lords was built and destroyed with barrels of gunpowder. The experiment demonstrated that the explosion if the gunpowder was in good order – and there is no reason to believe otherwise as Guy Fawkes was an explosives expert – would have killed all those in the building. The power of the explosion in the experiment was such that the 7-foot deep concrete walls (replicating how archives suggest the walls of the old House of Lords were constructed) were reduced to rubble. Measuring devices placed in the chamber to calculate the force of the blast were themselves destroyed by the explosion; the skull of the dummy representing King James, which had been placed on a throne inside the chamber surrounded by courtiers, peers and bishops, was found a considerable distance from the site. According to the findings of the programme, no one within 330 feet of the blast could have survived. The explosion would have been seen from miles away, and heard from further away still. Even if only half of the gunpowder had gone off, everyone in the House of Lords and its environs would have been killed instantly.

The programme also disproved claims that some deterioration in the quality of the gunpowder would have prevented the explosion. A portion of deliberately deteriorated gunpowder, of such low quality as to make it unusable in firearms, when placed in a heap and ignited, still managed to create a large explosion. The impact of even deteriorated gunpowder would have been magnified by its containment in wooden barrels, compensating for the quality of the contents. The compression would have created a cannon effect, with the powder first blowing up from the top of the barrel before, a millisecond later, blowing out. Calculations showed that Fawkes, who was skilled in the use of gunpowder, had deployed double the amount needed.

As a curious footnote, some of the gunpowder guarded by Fawkes may have survived until recently. In March 2002 workers cataloguing archives of diarist John Evelyn at the British Library found a box containing a number of gunpowder samples, including a compressed bar with a note in Evelyn’s handwriting stating that it had belonged to Guy Fawkes. A further note, written in the 19th century, confirmed this provenance, but in 1952 the document acquired a new comment: “but there was none left”.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 5th November 2012