Tag Archives: London books

Before we pull away from the curb . . .

During this lockdown, I’ve taken to shouting at the television. The set is turned on you understand, and tuned to our National Broadcaster, the one that I am paying their salaries.

The other day they were interviewing a man whose young wife, a nurse working in intensive care, had lost her life. In his hour of grief, he was trying to articulate his thoughts, and the BBC had obviously persuaded him to sign a consent form.

In the ‘woke world’ of the Beeb, there must have been a box to tick on the form to register how you view your gender, and this distressed man had ticked ‘woman’ for below his name displayed on the television screen was that he was a widow and not a widower.

In today’s digital environment having up-to-the-minute stories is vital to keep ahead of the competition. But the pressure to get content online creates its own problems – the faster you rush something into ‘print’ the less time there is to proofread and the more chances of mistakes getting through – more of which later.

In this recent piece, with its missing ‘has’, the journalist at the BBC appears rather conversant in Pidgin English.

Now Leicester University has recently announced they are dropping Middle English from their English curriculum, so out goes Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Beowulf. So presumably we can expect more of the likes of this on our television screens.

Which brings me neatly back to my ‘curb’ on misspellings. Having run numerous spellchecker passes over my book, and having recently completed a line edit (the result of being dropped by Penguin Random House), I glanced down at a chapter title and found ‘Before we pull away from the Curb…’

No spellcheck or the Grammarly app would pick that up, only a measured, and more diligent approach to the written word, which seems to be missing, both in my book and at the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Now if you’ll excuse me I must go and proofread what I’ve just written – about 15 times.

Nowhere to go

First a confession. Those of you of a more inquiring mind will have spotted on the sidebar an advert for my ‘soon-to-be-published’ autobiography. In fact, those of you who have been good enough to become Patrons should, by now, have received a personalised copy.

That was before the pandemic struck

But first a few statistics. You would have thought with half the population sitting at home with little to do, book sales would have boomed last year. Alas, the sales didn’t reflect this. Global sales of printed books by British publishers plunged by £55 million in the first six months of last year, as schools and bookshops remained closed due to coronavirus. Conversely ebooks, after six years of declining sales were up by 17 per cent, boosted by the scrapping of VAT, and those staying at home have increased sales of audiobooks by 42 per cent.

The fall by 12 per cent of book sales has not been consistent across all genres. Write a cookbook, advice on healthy lifestyle (ironic with many lounging around at home in their pyjamas), or children’s books you were on a winner, especially if the title started with A Pinch of Nom, having two titles in the top five sales.

On the other hand, memoirs have faired rather badly, which leads neatly to Everyone Is Entitled To My Opinion. Michael Joseph, a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, had given me a publishing agreement; accepted the manuscript; spent some considerable time on the developmental edit by the same editor who worked on Jeremy Clarkson’s books, aided with input from a successful television scriptwriter whose credits include The Now Show and The News Quiz; before being copy-edited by myself. Only the final proofread was required.

Now the memoir has been given back to me with thanks and apologies, which leaves me with 80,000 words and nowhere to go, and more importantly nothing to give supporters of CabbieBlog.

So should you want a taste of Everyone Is Entitled To My Opinion here is a short extract:

The last outpost of the British Empire

Entering the old Public Carriage Office in Penton Street you might have just wandered into a 1960s police station, which it really was in all but name. A lady of advancing age was positioned at the entrance vestibule, her job was to check the visitors’ credentials, although her only concession to security was to occasionally ask to see the Appointment Cards of those destined to an Appearance. She was more likely to ask of Knowledge Boys how they managed to answer the questions than check on anyone entering the building. Upstairs, on the second floor, was a wall of reception desks with heavy wooden surrounds much like a railway ticket office in a 1930s black-and-white film, each of the windows with its designated use indicated by signs above in bold black type. At one, you were required to book-in, a minute late and you risked being turned away that day and directed to the adjacent desk boldly marked booking-out.

They say predators can smell their prey when it is nervous, well the waiting room had the brain chemical serotonin permeated into its walls. Inside chairs were placed around the edge of the room with a coffee table in the centre. Upon the table were publications waiting to be read, not that any in that room were ever in a mood to peruse this informative literature.

Each applicant carried their Appointment Card, known by many nowadays as a scorecard. On the reverse you were informed, should it have inexplicably slipped your mind: ‘Knowledge of London Appointments have been made as shown overleaf. This card must be brought at each attendance and presented at the Knowledge of London window, 2nd Floor, on arrival.’ Your Appointment Card contained the obvious information as to the time and date of your Appearance, in addition after an Appearance, scribbled in pencil in the upper right-hand corner was a series of three sets of letters each separated by a shilling stroke. These were the Rosetta Stone for Knowledge Boys, these hieroglyphs were the code as to who was likely to be your next inquisitor, but as in archaeology, the marks were hidden, having been erased by the booking-out clerk, so before making another appointment the more astute would quickly copy the code to be prepared for their next Appearance. If the letters OR were among those indicated, you stood a one-in-three chance of getting the frightening Mr Ormes. In fact, if Mr Ormes called another from the waiting room, a smirk could be detected on the face of any other who had seen those dreaded markings upon their card.

Once called you were expected to answer with “Yes, Sir”, before following the examiner along the ‘corridor of fear’, as it became known, to their office. The utilitarian decor, with its grey lino flooring, cream painted walls, now turning grey and heavy wooden doors, the building could have been used as the blueprint for the Stasi state security headquarters.

At this point, you are probably asking: “So what’s different from when I sat for exams in college, or being summoned to the master’s office at uni to account for an indiscretion?”

The Knowledge, of course, is a test of the applicant’s knowledge of London’s 22,000 streets and what is to be found upon those streets. It also is a test of character. According to research for the Discovery Channel’s 2006 Hard Labour programme, London cabbies top the list of the ten most ‘arduous’ jobs in Britain, even ahead of trawlermen and lumberjacks. The reasons given for putting cabbies at the top of this list were ‘the nightmarish state of London’s road network’, even worse now since the bike lanes arrived, and ‘the stress of dealing with abusive and frequently drunk passengers’. The problem is exacerbated by having to deal with these problems on your own, and if the situation starts to get out of hand the police are unlikely to come to your aid.

Each Public Carriage Officer, who had once served in the Metropolitan Police, had been very inventive in formulating their own tests of the applicant’s suitability, a polite way of describing how they intended to intimidate and humiliate any prospective London cabbie. Upon entering their office you sat on a small chair positioned in the centre of the room, moving the chair was forbidden, while the examiner sat at his desk behind a high sloped board so that only his upper face was visible. The board also had the advantage of obscuring from the applicant what the examiner was doing, this often was used to heighten the tension as he ignored his victim pretending to be engrossed in some important paperwork concerning the Knowledge Boy who was rapidly losing weight worrying about his fate.

Not for nothing has the Public Carriage Office been described as ‘The last outpost of the British Empire’. Strict discipline was enforced: a suit and tie to be worn by the applicant; never refer to a Carriage Officer by name, always calling him Sir; only speak when spoken to, and never to question, only obey.

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