Category Archives: Book Excerpts

The Book They Tried to Ban (Excerpt)

Here’s another excerpt for your delectation: this one’s about celebrity passengers. From Manor House Station to Gibson Square- and Back Again is now being printed up. I expect it to be released early next month.

Celebrities

Most celebrities go about their business quietly without drawing attention to themselves. Some try to disguises themselves with hats, scarves and dark glasses. It’s always nice to pick up well-known actors, musicians or footballers. I always respect their privacy and would never try to engage them in conversation if I got the feeling they wanted to be left alone. I don’t like to be intrusive, and I don’t like to give anyone any reason to show any irritation.

They say you should never meet your heroes. With a celebrity you admire, you don’t want them to be anything other than the person you imagine them to be. You want them to remain someone to admire. On two occasions in around 1990, I picked up Manchester United and Northern Ireland footballing legend, George Best, in Curzon Street. He was a well-known figure to drivers working evenings in Mayfair. I found him a quiet, charming, man, happy to exchange a few words. I also picked up Chelsea player, Roberto DiMatteo. A star, for sure; though not quite in the league of George Best.

Also in Mayfair, I picked up veteran actor, Stewart Grainger. This guy had presence in spades, a real character. Bound for Fulham, he wouldn’t stop talking and referred to Fulham Broadway as a “shit hole” and wondered about the punch-ups that occur at Chelsea Football Club. Irish actor, Richard Harris was another big name from around the same time.

I was particularly excited to pick up a musical hero of mine at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington: Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. He was a really nice, laid-back, guy who wanted to talk about the previous night’s television programmes on the way home to Primrose Hill.

Saturday June 2nd 2012. It’s the day before the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and I accepted an account job picking up at a hairdresser’s in Knightsbridge. My passenger turned out to be the Duchess of Kent and she was going to Kensington Palace. She came over as posh and confident; but also polite. Rather than order me round to a nearby shop, she asks if I “wouldn’t mind”. When she returned with an umbrella she said it was “for tomorrow.” I’d never been into the grounds of Kensington Palace before so I needed her to direct me from Kensington High Street. There’s a turning with signs saying “authorised vehicles only”, then further up there’s a police checkpoint. The police looked in the back of the cab and waved us through (it’s harder getting out as they stop you and take down the cab’s details).

I’m not sure how one addresses the Queen’s cousin, so I kept it neutral and treated her like anyone else. She seemed a character, and I felt she might be up for a chat over a pint sometime. Incidentally, I’ve never picked the Queen up in my cab, but I’ve seen her driven around London from time to time. You hear the whistles from the police motorcyclists first; then the traffic parts to allow the royal limousine to glide through. She never gets caught in traffic jams and probably doesn’t realise London’s traffic has increased since the ‘50s. I often wonder what she makes of the traffic cones and ugly concrete blocks that have sat outside Buckingham Palace for about a year.

One Saturday in 2013, former boxer, and eccentric celebrity, Chris Eubank chased my cab down Baker Street (Patsy Kensitt also chased my cab down Baker Street once). He said he’d left his umbrella in Selfridge’s, so he got me to stop there, before going on to Mayfair to collect his car. He then asked me my opinion on the best way to get to Brighton. He seemed a nice guy. Unlike most celebrities, Chris doesn’t try to blend in to the background. The next time I saw him he was standing in the middle of the road in Berkerley Square ostentatiously trying to flag a cab down.

It was a busy Saturday, that one. My next job straight after Chris Eubank was an account pick-up at Scott’s Restaurant. Bound for Chelsea, I was startled to find we were being chased by the paparazzi on motorbikes. I learned later that my customers were Charles Saatchi and his new girlfriend. Saatchi had been all over the media recently following his messy divorce from celebrity chef, Nigella Lawson. The photo of the pair in my cab made the Sun on Sunday.

Songwriter Nicky Chinn knew the way from Sloane Square to St John’s Wood and directed the route to the letter. At the time I was playing bass in a rock covers band. I told him we were rehearsing “Blockbuster”, one of many hits he co-wrote for The Sweet. He was flattered. Another songwriter, Mike Batt, was on his way from Bayswater to Mayfair. His musical credits include writing the music for The Wombles, and for discovering Katie Melua. He was a polite and pleasant man.

Marc Almond stopped me on a quiet weekend morning at Holborn Circus. He was going to Camden Town. He proved to be a quiet and pleasant chap (for younger readers, Marc was the frontman for 80s techno-pop band, Soft Cell. Get on your smart phone and look it up).

One evening I had a cab ride with a dead man. I stopped on Shaftesbury Avenue in the dark and realized my next customer was to be Les Dennis. It was freaky because his character had died the previous night on Coronation Street. He was on the phone talking excitedly about a new play he was about to start. When we exchanged words at the end he proved to be a really nice guy. He told me the person he’d been talking to on the phone was Bobby Davro, a comedy contemporary.

A comedian taught me a new route from St Pancras to Barnes in leafy south-west London. The impressionist, Alistair MacGowan, wanted me to use the Westway to Shepherd’s Bush, then drop down through Hammersmith and over the bridge into Barnes. It’s a longer route than any Knowledge Boy would take, but it was quick. My passenger was as posh and as serious as I expected him to be (I never expect comedians to tell jokes and be funny).

One celebrity customer I admired was the actor, Michael Gambon. He was a very polite fellow. I’d just been watching him on TV after buying the DVD boxed set of The Singing Detective, a Dennis Potter work from the 1990s. More recently, he’d also starred in a Harry Potter film. That didn’t mean much to me. I should have told him I recognised him as The Singing Detective, but I let the moment go. I thought afterwards how I could have said I was “more Dennis Potter than Harry Potter”, but my chance had gone. I regretted not speaking to him properly and told myself to seize my chance the next time a celebrity I admired got in my cab.

Turning a corner one afternoon in May 2017, I was aware of a man hailing me. He was out of my line of sight, but on stopping I immediately recognised him as Monty Python star, Michael Palin. This one made me nervous. Palin is widely regarded as the world’s nicest guy. Would he criticise my route? Would he be furious if I dared speak to him? Would he abuse me in a torrent of four-letter words if I mentioned the Pythons? This man was a comedy genius and no mistake – a pioneer of modern British surreal comedy. I needed him to remain a hero and I wasn’t going to do anything to let him spoil my image of him.

Remembering how I’d let the moment pass with Michael Gambon a couple of years’ earlier I knew that in matters of celebrity encounter, regret weighs more than fear. At the end of the journey I overcame my nerves and we exchanged a few words. Michael was exactly how I imagined: like an old-style university professor, and as approachable and self-effacing as he is on his TV travel programmes. I’m glad to say that my image of Michael remained intact.

Many Lords and Ladies have ridden in my cab. I was intrigued about the Conservative Party Chief Whip I picked up. Imagine going to a party and saying you are the Chief Whip! I bet he’s popular with the ladies. Well, a certain kind of lady anyway.

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The Truth about Dogs & Cats

(From “the book they tried to ban”. My book, From Manor House Station to Gibson Square – and Back Again, will be published in a few weeks time. Here is a short excerpt from my Passengers chapter). 

Not all our passengers are human, of course. We are obliged to accommodate assistance dogs, and we sometimes get asked to transport pampered pets, and take dogs to and from the park with their owners. Our mini-cab friends are always in trouble for refusing to carry assistance dogs. Refusing blind people’s dogs has been against the law for several years, and the guidelines have been well publicised – there’s even a poster up at the testing centre where taxi and mini-cab drivers take their vehicles for its annual licensing inspection. Never mind the legislation, I go the extra mile to promote equal opportunities for animals. I’m suspicious of such people who don’t like animals. I’ve never had a problem with animals in the cab, but I’ve had plenty of problems with people.

I welcome our furry friends in all areas of life. For me, a comfortable pub is one where you have to step over a sleeping dog to get to the bar, and where the irritable pub cat dares you to try to sit on his chair. I like the way that in France you can take your pet out to dinner as part of the family. I’ve yet to see a cat or rabbit sat at the dinner table, but I love to see a dog’s head emerge from a lady’s handbag. Those Frenchies are way ahead.

I always stop to pick up people with dogs, and they’re usually grateful as they obviously get refusals. A dog invariably settles straight down to enjoy the ride in quiet contemplation – as our human customers should do. I’ve never carried a dog that was loud and obnoxious through drink, has changed its mind where it wants to go, has criticised my route, has picked the rubber off the armrest, or has left pistachio shells all over the carpet.

I never had kids because I felt I was never earning enough money. I’m not especially keen on children anyway, and I certainly wouldn’t want any in the house. I prefer pets. Dogs are fine, but I prefer cats. Dogs are too conformist. Cats are free-thinking individuals, and I can relate to that. Tell a dog what to do, and it’ll do it without thinking. A cat shows a healthy disrespect for authority and will ignore you if it doesn’t like what’s being suggested, or stare you down in a challenging way. Badly behaved pets are the most entertaining. I like a pet I can have a fight with.  It’s not all violence though: most cats have an affectionate side. They’re just discerning and cautious. They need to get to know you first.

Many people believe dogs are more intelligent than cats, but that’s only because cats are uncooperative. They’re difficult to test because they get bored and walk off. The cat is the only domestic pet that has total freedom to come and go as it pleases. Other pets must resent that. If you don’t feed him right, your faithful house-tiger will simply move next door. Fur Q. You know you are a good person if your pet doesn’t run away. The cat thinks of itself as the master and you as the pet. That’s fine: let them think they’re the boss and they’re happy. I have a cat and I have a rabbit. Rabbits are pretty mad too.

My strangest cab job involving an animal happened in 2014 after responding to an account call in Soho. I waited a fair time until a woman got in with a dog. She sent me to Barking Bettys in Battersea (“Grooming for the Urban Dog”). The lady asked me to wait 20 minutes, then take them back to Soho. Parking wasn’t a problem in Battersea, so I was happy to do so. She took the woofer to Betty’s, then returned to say it would take an hour. The woman sat in the cab while doggie was pampered, and the clock ticked over 20p every few seconds.

The pampering took even longer than anticipated and the lady decided she needed the loo. She found a café to use, though I thought afterwards that she could have used a litter tray at Barking Betty’s.

In the end I waited 2 ¾ hours, but we got back to Soho quickly and everyone was happy. God knows who the account holder was, but it cost them £164 (plus automatic tip). The dog looked clean and happy, clearly oblivious to the expense involved. I’m not sure who was the most barking that day.

 

 

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The Book They Tried To Ban (Excerpt)

Hey Teacher!

This short excerpt  from my forthcoming book concerns my ill-fated period as a student teacher. What follows if from the most personal and autobiographical chapter: “My Personal Revolution.” I’ve chosen this section for the delectation of teachers, failed teachers, and others who knew me in 1997/1998. I shall post more excerpts in the coming weeks.

I took to being a student straight away. Loved it. The work wasn’t too challenging. The living was easy. I was privileged to be one of the last cohorts to get a full tuition and maintenance grant. I feel sorry for today’s students who have to take on part-time jobs to survive, and then leave with a huge bill that’ll take years to pay off.

In my final year at Bradford I took part in a student tutoring programme, spending time in a girls’ secondary school helping out in the classroom. I enjoyed my afternoons at school and thought I might like to be a teacher. I’d been thinking about becoming a university lecturer but was put off when I realised how competitive it was. I was now confident I could be a good teacher and applied for courses. I was delighted to be offered a place on a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) course at the University of Birmingham. I was to train to teach Secondary English.

Before I went up to Birmingham to start my teaching course I had to spend a week or two observing at a primary school. I enjoyed myself at a school in Blackheath and was still convinced this teaching lark was for me. Oh the idealism of it.

My placement ended at the end of the school term. I joined the teachers in a local pub and curry house on the last day. These female primary school teachers were the biggest bunch of boozers I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. After a while one teacher asked me how many beers I’d had. When I replied I’d had three pints she told me I’d have to do better. I’d have to up my game by way of drinking, but I was excited about my fledgling teaching career.

At the University of Birmingham I enjoyed the university-based study, but wasn’t prepared for the practical placement. I was allocated a girls’ school in workaday East Birmingham. On placement you are for all intents and purposes a proper teacher, albeit with a reduced workload. I had to plan lessons and schemes of work, deliver lessons, and take books away to be marked (usually undertaken at the New Inn, Harborne). My brief experience as a student tutor in Bradford had lulled me into a false sense of security. School discipline was poor, and staff morale was low. The pupil intake was 80% Muslim and the school felt as if it was run by the Taliban. It was oppressive. A member of senior management told me the school was known as a “Paki school”, and it played this up in fine style. Eid was a big occasion, but I was told the school didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter. I couldn’t imagine this place being much fun for the Christian minority.

Girls would disappear for months, but their absence wasn’t treated as anything unusual. I believe they were being sent to Pakistan to get married. I found the whole set-up abhorrent, but what could I do? I was just a student teacher, struggling to make sense of it all and keep out of trouble. Even back then I knew not to question cultural practices.

I’d like to blame my failure to see the course out on the oppressive Christmas tree-less environment of the school, but I can’t. I’d like to tell you that I had the no-nonsense hard man demeanour of one of Ray Winstone’s film characters, but I can’t. I had no stage presence. My nervousness probably showed, and the absurdity of my situation played on me. Well, I would have laughed if someone told me in the 1970s that I’d be a teacher.

However stressful it is pushing a cab down Oxford Street, it’s nothing like waiting for that school bell to go. When thirty teenaged girls run riot they are a match for anybody, and I found it difficult to assert my authority without being heavy-handed and threatening whole-class detentions. Things could be unruly at my Hornchurch comprehensive in the 70s, but at least there was some discipline. The principal sanction here was a black stamp in the girls’ exercise book.

I also thought it would be an eight-to-four job, with a bit of marking in the evenings. I’m quite a disciplined person. In the cab I have exactly an hour for lunch and exactly thirty minutes for coffee. In teaching, you’re working to bells, but your work duties are flexible and are frequently changed at a moment’s notice. If you have any free time they’ll find you something to do. And if you have no free time, they’ll still find you something extra to do. Your lunch break could be taken up with playground duty, and you could be running any number of little projects before and after school hours. Once they found out I was a cab driver they’d surely have me driving the school bus. I could see the way it was going and I couldn’t live my life like that.

A fair few students on my course had already left. I never thought I’d do the same, but soon after New Year in 1998 I left before I was pushed. I returned to London with my tail between my legs and to my mum in Blackheath.

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