Tag Archives: London life

Postcard: London 1963

Today marks the 59th anniversary of my commencing a six-year composing apprenticeship in Clerkenwell, at the time an area populated by Italians behind delicatessen counters, greasy spoon cafes. Opposite the factory was the huge Old Holborn tobacco factory on the corner of Leather Lane market and just down the road the beautiful St. Peter’s Italian Church which was commemorating 100 years of welcoming worshippers.

This wasn’t the Swinging Sixties beloved of writers, but old badly maintained Peabody social housing, wide-boys selling hookey gear from suitcases in the market and huge bomb sites.

This great photograph from Christopher Fowler’s excellent blog via the postcard archives of London, shows Piccadilly Circus in 1963, emerging from the austerity of the fifties, but minus the huge snowfall we endured earlier that year.

What surprises me is the vividity of the circus-like colours (forced, obviously, but still very jolly – click to enlarge). Buses each manned by a clippie, only one person sitting on the Eros steps (I’ve never seen that even at night). I rather liked the bright lime green minivan and notice the majority of adverts were for booze and fags.

The number of cars equalled cabs, you’re not likely to see that today, also the nearest cabs were ancient FX3s and note the absence of nearside doors leaving the driver open to the elements.

But most of all I like how the vehicles look like Dinky Toys.

London’s first cuppa

With the mention of a diary today most Londoners would give Samuel Pepys as the most famous of diarists, but this narrative by an obscure civil servant lay undiscovered for nearly 200 years.

The story of the diary’s discovery came from a rather unexpected quarter. In 1812 Scottish historian David Macpherson was researching his prosaic account: The History of European Commerce in India, and for reasons lost over time while working in the Bodleian Library, Magdalen College, Oxford, came across the passage in Pepys’ diary:

And afterwards, I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink), of which I never had drunk before’.

It was the first mention we have in English of anyone drinking a cup of tea.

Today anyone researching life in the 17th century London would do worse than check out this famous (and infamous) diary. But here’s the extraordinary thing, Pepys’ six volumes of dense and secret scribblings had lain untouched for nearly two centuries.

What gave Macpherson the idea of checking out the work in the first place, how in its hundreds of pages did he stumble to the correct entry, let alone managing to crack the code.

Another lucky break was that the Reverend George Neville, Master of Magdalen, saw Macpherson’s passing reference to Pepys’ diaries and decided they needed further investigation, as they recorded some of the momentous times in England’s history.

He commissioned John Smith, a clever but poor student, to decipher the code and transcribe the entries.

It took Smith three years of research to bring us the most celebrated diary in the English language. From that single sentence about an unknown beverage, when everyone was drinking coffee in London’s coffee houses; had Macpherson not mentioned it in his dry account; the Master of Magdalen not taken a keen interest of the History of European Commerce; and had John Smith been less intelligent and not so tenacious, we wouldn’t have Pepys’ detailed account of the coronation of King Charles II, the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London and the minutiae in the life of a middle-class Englishman.

I don’t Adam and Eve It

The Oxford English Dictionary claims that the first use of the word cockney as a reference to native Londoners was in 1521 and since I did The Knowledge I’ve been telling anyone who cares to listen that I’m a cockney, blithely ignoring the fact that I was brought up in a leafy North London suburb.

For to be a cockney you have to have been born within the sound of Bow Bells, and contrary to the widely held belief the bells in question are not from Bow Church in East London, but St Mary-le-Bow on Cheapside in the City of London. Being born in Fitzrovia, I thought, erroneously, I easily came within its audible catchment area.

A church has existed on the site since Saxon times, and the subsequent Norman church was known as St Marie de Arcubus or Le Bow because of the bow arches of stone in its Norman crypt. The current building was built to the designs of Christopher Wren, 1671–1673, with the 223-foot steeple completed in 1680. It was considered the second most important church in the City of London after St Paul’s Cathedral and was one of the first churches to be rebuilt by Wren for this reason.

On 10 May 1941, a German bomb destroyed the Wren church including its bells made famous in the children’s nursery rhyme Oranges and Lemons.

The restoration was begun in 1956 and the bells only rang again in 1961 to produce a new generation of cockneys, a full 14 years after my birth.

Now according to research at Lancaster University a cockney accent will soon no longer be the hallmark of Londoners. The distinctive accent now known as Estuary Speak is more likely to be found in the Home Counties of Essex and Hertfordshire. The linguists claim that ever-increasing numbers of people in the capital are speaking Jafaican. The hybrid speech, created by successive waves of immigration is a mixture of cockney, combined with Bangladeshi, African and West Indian.

The London dialect could have disappeared within another generation and cockneys in their 40s will be the last generation to speak like stars from the BBC soap. Now the dwindling ranks of cockney speakers are being asked to record their voices for posterity.

Noise consultants 24 Acoustics, produced a sound map of London showing how far the sound of the bells reached in 2012 compared with 1851. Back then, the bells could be heard from the City of London, across Islington, Hackney, Tower Hamlets and into parts of Camden, Southwark, Newham and Waltham Forest. By 2012, on the other hand, the bells could only be heard in a small patch covering just the City and Shoreditch. They concluded that given that there are no maternity units in this area, the likelihood of any “true” cockneys being born is reduced significantly.

24 Acoustics used precision sound level measurements taken while the bells were tolling, taking into account Britain’s prevailing wind, which comes from the southwest. It is this wind that causes the sound from the bells to travel eastwards, they found that the reach of the bells is affected by the ambient noise levels, which was significantly lower 150 years ago.

Without roads or aircraft, ambient noise levels in London would have been similar to those in a rural location — between 20 and 25 “A-weighted decibels” in the evening. A-weighted decibels, or dBA, are an expression of the relative loudness of sounds in the air as perceived by the human ear. This means that the decibel values of sounds at low frequencies are reduced to account for the fact that the human ear is less sensitive at low audio frequencies below 1,000 Hz.

By 2012, ambient noise levels in London vary across the city, but were generally higher than 55dBA, thanks to busy roads, aeroplanes and noise from air conditioning units. Even with the recent lockdown, it’s unlikely that sound levels were at 1851 levels.

Bizarre requests made of London Cabbies

Cabbies in London get to see all walks of life. In fact, you never quite know who you’ll get in the back of your cab or how they’ll behave. Some passengers ask very little of you as a taxi driver, just to be taken from A to B safely and within good time. However, there are others that are just a little more demanding or at times, outright bizarre.

Leading taxi insurance broker, insureTAXI asked 220 London cabbies to reveal the strangest requests they’ve ever got from passengers and they came up with these fantastic tales. From transporting budgies to visiting the crematorium at midnight, these taxi drivers truly went beyond the call of duty.

Can I bring my budgie?

“Had a customer ask me if she could bring her budgie, told her that she could as long as she kept hold of it. Well, she didn’t and when I broke hard for a car that pulled out in front of me the cage went flying. The door flew open and the bird was flying around my car with her daughter screaming her head off!! The customer had to climb in the back to try and catch it.” Steve (St Albans, Hertfordshire)

Have I just bought a black cab?

“On my way home but with my light still on and the early hours of the morning a guy waves me down and asks if I would take him to somewhere in deepest Kent (forget now exactly where) after 45 minutes he asks: could I in any way slow down the meter; or could I drive slower? I say to him that would make no difference to the metered fare. He was I think just happy to be getting home, after about 50 minutes or so his phone rings and it was his wife asking where he was: “Be home in about 20 minutes Luv” he says and, “Oh, by the way, take your car out of the garage, I think I’ve have just bought a black-cab”. By Colin (now in Thailand)

I need my charger . . . it’s in my car!

“Had a lad ask me to take him on a 40-mile round trip just to collect his phone charger from his car. This was a £50 fare from the bar he had been drinking at! When I explained the cost he insisted that it was important and that he didn’t mind. I’m sure he could have waited to make some other arrangement the next day” Ali (Central London)

Quick! I’m live on air in 9 minutes

“I once was asked to take an MP to a TV broadcast 9 minutes before he was live on air with Paxton on Newsnight! No pressure I thought. We made it with less than a few seconds to spare.” Anonymous (Central London)

I want a divorce!

“I once took a couple of arguing newlyweds home from their night do and the bride asked to be dropped off at her parents as she did not want to go home with her new husband and wanted a divorce.” Tahir (Croydon, East London)

Secret midnight cremation

“Back in the 80s, I was asked to take a male and a female, dressed in Gothic fashion to the local Crematorium late at Night. I said, hesitantly, “what actually inside the grounds?!”I mean I’m sorry to ask but why do want to go there this late at night?” “Yes!” she said. Nervously, I drove into the grounds of the Crematorium, shaking, fearing I was going to face some ritualistic ceremony…it was getting darker and darker until suddenly I saw the lights of a house and breathed a great sigh of relief. The female passenger explained they’d been in a timepiece having a laugh and been invited to a friends’ party whose house happened to be inside the grounds of the crematorium. The man, whose identity is still a complete mystery, paid the fare, and wrote “thank you for a great ride, love Alf” in my notebook.” Rasheed (Chelmsford, Essex)

This is a Guest Post by Tim Crighton director of taxi insurance specialists Taxi-Insure.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 14th March 2014

London’s crap years

Depressed? Worried about our new Political Masters? Before you decamp London for pastures new, consider this if you may, as CabbieBlog gives you the 10 years you really should be anywhere else but in our capital city:

1918Everybody has heard of the Great Fire of London in which only nine people lost their lives, but this one was much worse, leaving 3,000 dead according to medieval accounts. The conflagration led to new laws requiring the use of brick and tile for rebuilding instead of wood and thatch.

1918The wise would have left long before November when the Black Death struck the Capital. With crowded streets and bad sanitation making the contagion spread even faster. By the time it had run its course half the population of England would be dead. Afterwards wages increased due to the chronic shortage of labour.

1918With revolting peasants marching on London, the teenage king Richard II seeking refuge in the Tower of London. Prisoners released, palaces ransacked and burned and the Archbishop of Canterbury beheaded, scores of lawyers were also beheaded, so the year wasn’t all that bad.

1664Call it what you like; dropsy, griping of the guts, wind, worms or the French Pox (we always like to blame the Frenchies), the Great Plague killed 100,000 that year. Manufacturing collapsed as Newcastle colliers refused to deliver fuel to London, and with servants ransacking their master’s empty mansions.

1666

The Great fire destroyed 13,000 houses; 87 churches; 52 livery company halls; 4 prisons; 4 bridges; 3 City gates; Guildhall; the Royal Exchange and Customs House. The City was rebuilt within 6 years, so good news if you were a builder, not your day if you owned the bakery where it started.

1780It started as an anti-Catholic march on Parliament, but after a gin distillery was breached the Gordon Riots turned into an orgy of looting and burning. At the end some 850 people had died, including bankers from the Bank of England, which must have seemed a good idea at the time. Once order had been restored its 21 ringleaders were hanged.

1858It wasn’t until Parliament had to be evacuated because of the smell from sewers disgorging effluent into the Thames that an efficient sewage system was commissioned. After a long dry hot summer and a cholera epidemic caused by the insanitary conditions it was known as the Great Stink.

1918If the Great War wasn’t bad enough, returning soldiers brought back with them the flu virus. Killing more than the war, London was especially vulnerable with its densely packed population transmitting the contagion more effectively. By the time the virus had run its course 220,000 Britons had died.

1940On the night of 29th December Hitler sent hundreds of bombers to destroy London, the ensuring firestorm left 436 dead and ultimately damaging or destroying 3.5 million buildings by the time the Blitz was over. The blackout also caused the country’s highest ever traffic casualty figures.

1952In December sulphur dioxide combining with rainwater and oxygen to form deadly sulphuric acid suspended in a dense fog and lasting for seven days killed 4,000 residents, together with scores of livestock at Smithfield. The Clean Air Act stopped the problem and an excuse for children to bunk off school.

A version of this post was published by CabbieBlog on 21st May 2010