Tag Archives: London icons

My Radio Times

“Yours is the only cab I’ve been in that the driver listens to Radio 4”, was said to me once by my passenger. On reflection afterwards I pondered – how could someone be cooped up in the driver’s compartment for 10 hours a day, listening to a daily dish of either the top 20 current hits or the 20 golden oldies that are churned out by London’s commercial stations 24 hours a day – and stay sane?

[I] was brought up in a time when most families didn’t have a television and weren’t likely to for another decade. Steam Radio, as my father was given to call it, was the entertainment of choice – frankly the only choice. The Light Programme, with Workers Playtime, Listen With Mother and The Archers (still going strong after more than 60 years); The Home Service with its output of informed discussion and news; The Third Programme broadcasting mainly classical music; and the world’s finest broadcaster of unbiased news content – The World Service, who would always boast that the information was sourced by ‘Their Own Correspondent’, and the source was not from some rag bag news agency.

In 1967 to compete with the ever increasing spread of pirate radio and to acknowledge the new wave of what we now called the Swinging Sixties, the BBC took the best of the Light Programme and Home Service to form what was to become the world’s greatest radio station, Radio Four, at the same time starting the fledgling Radio One for a younger audience.

Transistors supplanted the old valve wireless sets which had been manufactured by Bush and Pye and we listened through our trannies (as we called them in the naïve days of the 60s, before the term took on another connotation), and Radio 4’s output of dramas, comedies, quizzes and features have been the background to my working day for as long as I can recall. Any Questions, Does the Team Think?, Brain of Britain, From our own Correspondent, PM, Letter from America, Just a Minute, I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue are among programmes that I would prefer to listen to rather than engage in small talk with my customers.

Since that time some of Radio 4’s output has transferred to television with greater or lesser success. Programmes transplanted from Radio 4 to television have included: After Henry; Goodness Gracious Me; Hancock’s Half Hour; The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; The News Quiz (renamed Have I Got News For You); The League of Gentlemen; Room 101; Little Britain and many more.

A trip down Memory Lane might be a pleasant nostalgic experience for me, but what has that to do with being a London Cabbie? Well, the British Broadcasting Corporation have decided for reasons only understood by their senior executives and some Guardian readers, that The Corporation, as it likes to be known, was too middle class; too London centric, whatever that might mean; and how can I put this? White. Which I suppose is why my customer exclaimed surprise at finding a London Cabbie who doesn’t listen all day to Talk Sport.

Now the BBC’s production teams are to be scattered to the four winds in an attempt at what Radio 4’s controller calls changing “the general tone of the station away from formality and perceived didacticism towards spontaneity and conversation”, which presumably means dumbing down and moving away from London to encourage people other than middle class Londoner’s to tune in and understand its content. With many of Radio 4’s programmes already having hosts possessing attractive regional accents, and most quiz, debate and documentary programmes transmitted from around Britain I fail to understand the reasons for this enormous upheaval. Is Today in Parliament going to be reported from, say, Bristol? Farming Today could be given a makeover and relate topical news items of interest to farmers in Manchester. Woman’s Hour could talk at length about the causation of man flu. Would The Archers be improved if it were the tale of simple farming folk living in Hackney? And the Shipping Forecast with its sleep inducing 00.48 am broadcast intoning Rockall, Malin, Forth, Dogger etc, might it be improved if its predictions for the weather were transferred to forecasts of The Serpentine’s weather?

But what do I know about how to run the BBC? Nothing I’m only a consumer and licence payer. I do know this, that a rather busy taxi rank alongside Langham Place will, over time, be rather quiet. But at least I’ll be able to listen to The Archers without any interruptions from customers.

Not before time

Nelsons ColumnWhile waiting to enter Trafalgar Square via Admiralty Gate it occurred to me that this public space has always been about time delays.

Now that north side has been pedestrianised the flow of vehicles approaching King Charles Statute has been restricted due to the re-phrasing of the traffic lights (Red: 1 minute, 3.1 seconds; Green 8.3 seconds if you’re interested) that allows only six vehicles at a time to enter the square. This triumph of traffic management, which creates a line half way down The Mall, has the bonus that it gives more time to study this celebration of a national hero.

The area around Charing Cross had mostly been a maze of ramshackle dwellings, alleyways and shops when the Prince Regent engaged the landscape architect John Nash to design a square in the area to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar. By the 1830s it had begun to take shape, with the new National Gallery built along the northern side of the quadrangle in the spot where the King’s Mews (stables for royal horses) had previously been located since the 13th century.

[T]he original construction of Nelson’s Column was delayed by budgetary difficulties and rows over taste and artistic merit, the time taken to begin was seen as a national disgrace. Immediately after Nelson’s death at Trafalgar in 1805 there had been calls for a tribute to over sea victory over the French. Time taken for building work for Trafalgar Square has never been “of the essence” for it took nearly 40 years to raise enough money to begin construction, even then the Tsar of Russia had donated a quarter of the monies raised while a certain Mrs. Beeby is recorded to have given 2s 6d.

The eventual cost of the memorial was £47,000 (the equivalent of £4 million today), indeed that seems relatively good value compared with some modern public monuments: for example the ArcelorMittal Orbit observation tower planned for the 2012 Olympic site will cost around £20 million.

At 145ft tall it is still the world’s tallest Corinthian column but not tall enough for William Railton who won £200 for his design, its full designed height was deemed to be dangerously high, and 30ft was lobbed off its proposed height. Other submissions included a gigantic pyramid, an octagonal Gothic cenotaph, mermaids playing water polo and an immense globe.

The sculptor for the statute was Edmund Baily who was forced to modify his plans when no shipper could be found to transport the massive piece of stone required, in the event the stone broke in two solving the problem at what height Nelson should finally be. While Landseer’s bronze lions, modelled from a dead big cat from London Zoo (his neighbours complained at the time of the smell from the decaying animal) were not added until 1863.

In 1888 poor old Nelson was hit by lighting and his remaining left arm broken, a temporary repair was effected using metal braces, but in true Trafalgar Square tradition it was not until 2006 that the repair was carried out properly. Fortunately, the monument being made of granite and sandstone is immune to acid rain and the 2006 inspection found the monument to be in a well preserved condition for anything made from marble or limestone would have been in a dreadful shape by now as evidenced by King Charles’ plinth by Admiralty Arch, the one opposite the traffic lights that give me so much time.

A penny for your thoughts

Penny frontPenny obverse

[G]enerations of schoolboys have searched through their change in the vain hope of finding one and in August of this year on the internet auction site eBay a 1933 penny bearing the head of King George V surfaced. Experts have always worked on the assumption that only seven such coins were minted and, if genuine, this one would have been worth at least £80,000. Two versions to the coin were struck and it is thought that four had a slightly different image of the King in preparation to an updating of his likeness on all coins. These are particularly valuable.

The Royal Mint had no plans to make any pennies in 1933 because there were already plenty around, however, a small number were produced following requests for a commemorative coin and experts have always worked on the basis there were seven. Of these, three were placed by the King under the foundation stones of buildings, two were presented to the British Museum and two found their way to private collectors. In September 1970, during building work, one of the coins was stolen from the cornerstone of the Church of St Cross in Middleton, Leeds and rather than risk a further theft, the Bishop of Ripon ordered that another coin buried at St Mary’s Church in Hawksworth should be unearthed and sold.

Today the Mint Museum, British Museum and the University of London each hold one of the coins, with three in private collections.

Now tonight as the Nation’s attention is focussed on England’s most famous clock it is worth recalling an urban myth that has again resurfaced following the eBay auction of the rare penny.

The clock keepers of Big Ben have used pre-decimal pennies stacked on the pendulum of the clock to act as weights to help regulate it since 1859, when the clock tower was completed and the first strikes of its 13.7 ton bell, nicknamed “Big Ben,” were heard. Adding or taking away coins effects the pendulum’s centre of mass and the rate at which it swings, adding just one penny causes the clock to gain two-fifths of a second in 24 hours.

There is a long and historic relationship between Big Ben and the UK’s coins and few people realise the technical role that old pennies have played inside the clock. Now as part of Big Ben’s 150th anniversary celebrations three of the 10 coins in use have now been replaced with a £5 crown – produced as part of the Royal Mint’s collection to celebrate the London 2012 Olympics – which features Big Ben’s clock face.

There is a possibility, although slim, that one of the 1933 coins has been used in this way. Now the clock keepers of the Palace of Westminster intend to keep hold of the old pennies in case they need to be returned to the pendulum at a future date.

So as you watch Big Ben for the correct moment to celebrate the New Year, a penny might, just might, be up there, the value of which could make your New Year wishes come true.

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.

In the Club

No sign on the door, at most perhaps a fleeting appearance of a livered attendant in his vestibule by the entrance in Pall Mall or St. James’s Street, here you’ll find the very hard of London club life. The absence of a sign indicates its exclusivity for members are able to find ‘their club’. without help.

It was Groucho Marks who famously said “I don’t care to belong to a club that accepts people like me as members”.

[F]or Londoner’s of a certain social status their club has remained their refuge for generations. The halcyon days of the club were in the 19th century where once admitted into its inner sanctum, members could eat together in the dinner room; talk or play cards in the smoking room; read in the library all with their every need attended to by devoted servants. In Victorian times the true gentleman pursued his social life in the club, going home only to sleep, so that the responsibilities of marriage under such circumstances became something of a burden, he had everything he wanted at his club.

The club offered another invaluable advantage: not just anybody could join, the fundamental aim and raison d’être of a club was to be exclusively different from the others.

Rain on window The oldest White’s started in 1693 under the name White’s Chocolate House and became one of the most expensive coffee and chocolate houses under its manager John Arthur – offering customers ‘gallantry, pleasure and entertainment’ which translated into gambling for high stakes. In 1750 Lord Arlington was reported to have placed a £3,000 wager on which of two raindrops would be the first to run down to the bottom of a window pane.

White’s then formed an ‘inner club’ upstairs becoming the oldest and most exclusive of all the London clubs numbering among its members: George IV, William IV, Edward VII, The Duke of Wellington, William Pitt and Elder and the doyen of dandies Beau Brummell.

Other clubs soon followed, Marlborough Club (1869) formed from White’s Club members who objected at not being allowed to smoke, as White’s only at the time permitted the taking of snuff, much to the annoyance of the Prince of Wales. The United Services Club (1868) and the Army and Navy Club (1837) for military personnel. Racing enthusiasts formed the Turf Club (1861).

Credited with being the first to introduce into British political life the name ‘Conservatives’ John Wilson Croker established the Athenaeum Club (1824) and after the political defeat in the 1832 elections the Conservatives formed the Carlton Club (1832). An all male institution which found its rules compromised as Tory prime ministers automatically were admitted, when Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first woman Prime Minister.

The Whigs formed the Reform Club (1836) gaining literary fame, for it was here that Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg wagered that he could travel around the world in 80 days.

Other clubs to be found in or near Pall Mall include: Boodle’s (1762); Brook’s (1764); Devonshire Sports and Public Schools Club (1849); Institute of Directors (1903); Naval and Military Club (1862) universally known as ‘The In and Out’ Club from the markings on the gateposts at the entrance to its former premises in Piccadilly; Pratt’s (1841); Royal Automobile Club (1897); Savage (1857) and Traveller’s (1819).

Their influence cannot be too highly regarded, to be a member of the right club can be almost a sine qua non for the furtherance of one’s career. They may not now possess among their members the eccentrics of the past, but they still form the backbone of London’s prosperity.