Tag Archives: London books

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

Bradshaw’s London Guide

CaptureBy the beginning of Victoria’s reign such was the fervour to build railways over 150 companies operated the thousands of miles of track that criss-crossed Britain. Greenwich Mean Time had established a uniform time across the rail network (before each town ran to its own version of time), but travelling across Britain trying to connect with different trains operated by separate companies had become well neigh impossible.

One publication, Bradshaw’s would become the indispensable companion for the traveller, giving timetables for every operator, to the extent that a ‘Bradshaw’ entered into common usage as the name for a reliable timetable.

As late as between the two world wars, the verb ‘to Bradshaw’ was a derogatory term used in the Royal Air Force to refer to pilots who could not navigate well, perhaps related to a perceived lack of ability shown by those who navigated by following railway lines.

[R]ecently Michael Portillo in his television series ‘Great Rail Journeys’ has revived this one-time handy companion and reproductions of this book back on to booksellers’ shelves.

So it was recently that I picked up a copy of the original Bradshaw’s Illustrated Hand-Book to London and its Environs 1862 published by Conway.

The original volume was produced for visitors coming to the capital for the Great International Exhibition of 1862 and is written as a series of walking tours.

It gives an insight into a London unrecognisable to us today:

Newgate Market, which is productive of considerable inconvenience to the public, from its ill-chosen situation. On market-days, it frequently happens that the streets in the vicinity are completely blocked up by the butchers’ carts. In thirteen slaughterhouses here, there are as many as 600 sheep, and from 50 to 110 bullocks slaughtered every day. It will, certainly, be a great public convenience, of Old Smithfield, which is close at hand, as suggested, be converted into a dead meat market.

Bridewell a City house of correction . . . the prison affords accommodation for seventy male and thirty female prisoners, who are incarcerated in single cells. The sentences vary from three days to three months. The treadmill is kept in active operation.

Regent Street . . . A new building called the London Crystal Palace, to form a Bazaar, is just completed . . . there is a conservatory, aquarium, and aviary attached.

Soho Square . . . is chiefly tenanted by music publishers and those connected with the music profession. In the centre is a stable of Charles II, in whose reign the ground was principally built upon.

There is also advice for tourists on coping with London smog, avoiding pickpockets, dealing with London’s muddy streets and ferocious din, and many other topics including advice on the hiring of cabs.

Speed and Distance – When hired by distance the driver is bound to drive at a proper speed, not less than six miles an hour, except requested by the hirer to drive at a slower pace, or in cases of unavoidable delay. When hired by time to drive at the rate of four miles an hour, or if desired to drive at a greater speed, the driver shall be entitled to an additional fare of sixpence per mile over and above the four miles per hour.

But the biggest revelation is the table of cab fares:

Leicester Square to the Tower of London – 1s 6d

St. Paul’s Church to the Strand – 6d

Paddington Station (Great Western) to the Lyceum Theatre -2s 6d

This meticulously detailed and comprehensive book makes a fascinating read for anyone interested in London’s rich history.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 14th December 2012

London books review: Abstracts of Black Cab Lore

It is hard to categorise Abstracts of Black Cab Lore: A History of the London Cab Driver by Sean Farrell.

Is it a detailed history of the London cabbie; a guide to the rules and regulations that any cabbie has to adhere; or a comprehensive dissertation on the legal aspects of driving in London for the black cabbie? The author, after all, has been awarded a BA in history with honours, which certainly shows with the book’s meticulous research.

[T]O ANSWER THE PURPOSE of the book Sean Farrell poses the question, taken from an episode of BBC TV’s Sherlock, A Study in Pink: “Who is it that hunts in a pack but is unseen by all?” It is, of course, the London cabbie.

A Cabbie’s Bill of Health

What could have been a series of dry court judgments has been broken down into everything that a modern London cabbie is expected to know and adhere to, with each section devoted to just one of those rules.

The author has trawled through court records, many from the Victorian era, trade papers, and the Census to produce this comprehensive work, in so doing many gems we take for granted have been unearthed. Who would guess that a cab driver’s licence, referred to as his ‘bill’, is actually short for ‘bill of health’? This is ironic considering that most Victorian cabbies worked until they died, or ended in the workhouse if they couldn’t continue working, despite the efforts of the Cabmen’s Benevolent Association. The health of the horses certainly also wasn’t a consideration, proprietors who rented out the vehicles and animals would use the most distressed horse for night work as there was less chance of being detected by the nascent Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (‘RSPCA’).

The drivers working out in the open, whatever the weather, resorted to finding shelter in the local hostelry, with predictable results. Numerous court appearances are catalogued between these covers, but curiously the driver who could have laid claim for inventing the familiar ‘For Hire’ sign, found himself in court for using a rudimentary board to indicate whether he was available, was also charged with drinking on duty, thus becoming the first cabbie charged with being drunk.

Child exploitation

Unearthed here are child exploitation on a substantial scale, Census records of 1881 cataloguing London’s 12,000 London, four were recorded to be aged 16 and at least 150 under 21 years of age. A cabbies 12-year-old son crashed his father’s cab injuring four including an 18-month baby and incurring a substantial fine and one month’s hard labour for the father.

In the past cabbies could be prosecuted for driving too slowly whilst looking for work, causing, as described on numerous occasions in magistrate’s courts, traffic jams. One wonders what Victorians would say about today’s gridlock.

This 200,000-word resource telling the lives of past cabbies, and giving information as to rules that still appertain today, is essential reading for today’s drivers, and costing less than two coffees for the Kindle version, worth the price for any student of social history.

My only reservation is that I would have liked a more comprehensive index, but for a self-published work without the editorial resources of a large publisher, this is a piece of astoundingly researched work.

Sean Farrell concludes with asking for more information and promising a further book, including tales of today’s drivers, so as they say “Mind how you go”, you could be featured in the next edition.

Abstracts of Black Cab Lore: A History of the London Cab Driver by Sean Farrell is available through Amazon

London Books Review: Streets of Sin

In October 2010 I got a fare to take a famous writer to his home which presciently was situated near the summit of one of the most famous hills in London – Notting Hill.

Richard Curtis has done more to popularise this area than most. It might have the trappings of wealth, but it has a dark underbelly as I found once in Portland Road when my passenger, unlike Richard Curtis, declined to pay.

Notting Hill has a long history as one of the most deprived and dangerous parts of London, a theme richly brought to life by Fiona Rule in her recent book Streets of Sin a dark biography of Notting Hill.

Fiona Hill now seems to specialise in delving into a small area of London and shining a light on its most unsavoury past as she did in her previous book The Worst Street in London.

Her latest work take us from Notting Hill’s days as a smallholding known as Portobello Farm named after a Spanish naval base in Panama and introduces us to characters such as the curiously named Matthew Chitty Downes St. Quintin and the better known Peter Rachman and Christine Keeler.

I was surprised to learn that 10 Rillington Place home of serial killer John Christie was just a stone’s throw from my fare, the award winning playwright.

The multi-award winning BBC documentary The Secret History of our Streets took as its guide the survey map of London compiled by Charles Booth and this map are used for the end papers of Fiona Rule’s book. In the map streets are categorised according to wealth with vast swaths of Notting Hill’s map depicted as being vicious and semi-criminal. Incidentally the BBC chose Portland Road, the very street where my recalcitrant fare alighted in a hurry.

Fiona Rule has used Booth’s survey as her theme and writes in her accessible style of the many less savoury characters that have lived in the area known as ‘Rotting Hill’. On a lighter note she has interestingly discovered the nascent Gay Liberation Front was to be found near Talbot Road; psychedelic counter-culture magazine Oz whose editor would later be tried for obscenity had its origins in Princedale Road; and that Booth noted Christie’s road presciently as Killington Place.

In the final chapter Notting Hill’s gentrification is covered. The Westway cuts the area in half promising us an optimistically ‘3-minute motorway into London’ as much of the slum property is gentrified.

The Brutalist high-rise flats of Trellick Tower surprising are not given a mention in this chapter. Given they were designed by Erno Goldfinger, a name used by James Bond’s author Ian Fleming who disliked Goldfinger intensely; the tale would have warranted a chapter in itself. I also would have liked more illustrations to bring the characters that Fiona Rule has unearthed more to life.

The book should make for uncomfortable reading for the chattering classes who now regard their community the pillar of propriety. Unfortunately the area now might be considered upmarket but a woman passenger of mine said her office windows remained shut as unemployed men hung around on the street beneath them in Golbourne Road smoking joints giving her and the staff a high.

London Books Review: Bradshaw’s London Guide

By the beginning of Victoria’s reign such was the fervour to build railways over 150 companies operated the thousands of miles of track that criss-crossed Britain. Greenwich Mean Time had established a uniform time across the rail network (before each town ran to its own version of time), but travelling across Britain trying to connect with different trains operated by separate companies had become well neigh impossible.

[O]NE PUBLICATION, Bradshaw’s would become the indispensable companion for the traveller, giving timetables for every operator, to the extent that a ‘Bradshaw’ entered into common usage as the name for a reliable timetable.

As late as between the two world wars, the verb ‘to Bradshaw’ was a derogatory term used in the Royal Air Force to refer to pilots who could not navigate well, perhaps related to a perceived lack of ability shown by those who navigated by following railway lines.
Capture
Recently Michael Portillo in his television series Great Rail Journeys has revived this one-time handy companion and reproductions of this book back on to booksellers’ shelves.

So it was recently that I picked up a copy of the original Bradshaw’s Illustrated Hand Book to London and its Environs 1862 published by Conway.

The original volume was produced for visitors coming to the capital for the Great International Exhibition of 1862 and is written as a series of walking tours.

It gives an insight to a London unrecognisable to us today:

Newgate Market, which is productive of considerable inconvenience to the public, from its ill-chosen situation. On market-days it frequently happens that the streets in the vicinity are completely blocked up by the butchers’ carts. In thirteen slaughter houses here, there are as many as 600 sheep, and from 50 to 110 bullocks slaughtered every day. It will, certainly, be a great public convenience, of Old Smithfield, which is close at hand, as suggested, be converted into a dead meat market.

Bridewell a City house of correction . . . the prison affords accommodation for seventy male and thirty female prisoners, who are incarcerated in single cells. The sentences vary from three days to three months. The treadmill is kept in active operation.

Regent Street . . . A new building called the London Crystal Palace, to form a Bazaar, is just completed . . . there is a conservatory, aquarium, and aviary attached.

Soho Square . . . is chiefly tenanted by music publishers and those connected with the music profession. In the centre is a stable of Charles II, in whose reign the ground was principally built upon.

There is also advice for tourists on coping with London smog, avoiding pickpockets, dealing with London’s muddy streets and ferocious din, and many other topics including advice on the hiring of cabs.

Speed and Distance – When hired by distance the driver is bound to drive at a proper speed, not less than six miles an hour, except requested by the hirer to drive at a slower pace, or in cases of unavoidable delay. When hired by time to drive at the rate of four miles an hour, or if desired to drive at a greater speed, the driver shall be entitled to an additional fare of sixpence per mile over and above the four miles per hour.

But the biggest revelation is the table of cab fares:

Leicester Square to the Tower of London – 1s 6d

St. Paul’s Church to the Strand – 6d

Paddington Station (Great Western) to the Lyceum Theatre -2s 6d

This meticulously detailed and comprehensive book makes a fascinating read for anyone interested in London’s rich history.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 14th December 2012