Archive | June, 2012

Our Meters Are Ticking

3 Jun

I had a text from my fellow London taxi driver friend Carlos the other night. We’d all been expecting it but, nevertheless, it chilled me. Another driver, Big Del had finally passed to the other side after a brave two-year fight against cancer. When I say brave, that’s an understatement. I’ll be honest, I’d only known him for eight years and we certainly didn’t see eye to eye over anything in life apart from those values that the majority subscribes to, but in Voltaire fashion, I’d have defended to the death his right to differ from me.

Born in Southwark right behind London Bridge station with all the consequences that upbringing places upon proper Londoners, Bid Del fell into one of the traditional London trades still spared of the tyranny of modernisation and compromise, the London taxi driver. Common to most of us still, he was a character, an auteur who used the freedom of our job to pursue interests reserved for the few. Some of us are boring sub-aqua divers, DJs and even commercial pilots when spare time permits. Big Del was a Hell’s Angel. Oh yeah, and born of Afro-Caribbean parents. It’s not difficult to spot the contradictions and hurdles he must have cleared to pursue his goals. Especially having also been in the Parachute Regiment and served in Ireland during the war over there.

Being as tall as me and twice as muscular with a large earing and goatee beard, his entrance into the restaurant on a sporadic Friday evening never lacked drama, impact or expectation. Down he’d sit, declining the offer of a lemon tea being put on anybody else’s bill, and we’d await his cut on the world, never short on opinion or the possibility to be challenged.

Yet nobody rose to the challenge, I think because there was a universal recognition that we were in the presence of a character, that increasingly rare variety of our species in a modern world hell-bent on homogenisation and flattening out of the human spirit.

Contrary to the wrongly perceived stereotype of the London taxi driver as a hang ’em, flog ’em, road-owning cannon fodder reactionary, we are as diverse as the human race itself. But looking out of the television screen that is my windscreen at the outside world in general and the taxi trade in particular, I fear that the character’s minute hand  is up at five to midnight on the Doomsday clock.

There aren’t enough gigs of memory in the net and on our Pads and smart phones to record the characters that the London taxi trade, let alone London itself, has been braced with. In thirty-seven years in this game, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Harry The Red, Immaculate Stan, Aggressive Tony, Thin Arms, Thick Arms, Paul The Poof, The Gargoyle, The Haddock, all candidates for inclusion if Damon Runyan had ever relocated to this fabulous town.

There was a time when one stopped at traffic lights, looked across to the neighbouring taxi and be greeted by White Gloves who’d always throw you a sweet through your window, listen to the geezer with the ginger beard who practised on his clarinet or be updated on the forward  march of the proletariat by Cuban Tony in his taxi liveried to advertise that lonely island in a sea of, well, the dollar-dominated archipelago that is the Caribbean from which Big Del’s family migrated.

I look out at other drivers at the lights these days, and my friendly nod is met with an indifferant look usually reserved for mad people. I fear our diversity is being beaten out on the anvil of globalisation, it’s all about making money, paying off the cab and having enough readies for the weekly family outing to Asda in our Eurocar and back in time for Britain’s Still Got No Talent Thanks To Midgets Who Own the Media. Try saying that with a mouthful of reward cards.

And so I give thanks that Big Del sat next to me at the table, challenged my every belief, brightened my week and left memories long after we recall his beautiful frame withered by the poison that is cancer. It’s up to us others who occasionally mutter under our breaths je refuse to stand up out of Del’s shadow and strike out against the suffocation smothering us all in the name of globalisation, social networks and mid-Atlantic culture. Memo to Mamon: you’ll never beat the true Londoner.

Sleep well, Big Del.

It Was 45 Years Ago Today

2 Jun

Or was it 20? Oh no, that’s when Sergant Pepper told the band to play. There are certain albums released through time that change the whole scene. Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue, Carole King’s Tapestry, The Stone Roses’ eponymous first album all come to mind. But slam dunking in the middle of that triumvirate has to be The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released June 1st, 1967. I’d only been buying mostly Mod, black American music and ska till then and so Sergant’s purchase was a departure and I don’t think anybody saw me coming out of the shop with it in any case. I needn’t have worried about such reputations, as I was instantly grabbed by its mix of realism and surrealism, ground breaking production techniques and certain there was little of note to possibly precede it.

I’m no music journo, so I won’t eulogise in that style, all I remember is its impact on a working-class kid in Pimlico, London, a paid-up Mod rather than a hippy or dandy, the kind of which we only saw either down the nearby King’s Road, Chelsea or in San Francisco via TV. This was the Summer of Love, agreed, but there were two kinds of Sixties going on at the same time. It’s said that this famous decade in London was about a handful of people–the boys, Jagger, Marianne Faithful etc, that if you remember the 60s, you weren’t there, the inference being you were off your head on the gear. I only ever took one solitary but mind-bending pill and yet six pints of draught Double Diamond in The Locarno, Streatham had no less effect on my sense of what was happening all around than had herbal substances and psychedelic images projected on to blank walls at Chelsea parties we used to bunk in to on Saturday nights. Bands like The Smallfaces were our standard bearers, of the working class and living around the corner from us in Pimlico in post-war Regency shabbiness as shown below.

Free Love? Maybe in the grand Georgian houses or bedsits of surrounding areas, but in our estates the stigma of having to get married if pregnant with your girl/boyfriend was the greatest contraceptive going. In any case, you didn’t buy condoms in barbers because you’d be too embarrassed to ask for them. Certain surgical shops advertised them in their windows alongside trusses and other physique-defying garments, but you needed a nylon mack to go into them.

In Space terms, we were only up to Apollo 3, two years away from Apollo 11 landing on the moon in a sitting room near you or even a bar in Manhattan where all crime briefly stopped. Yet later that year, I was briefly and naively convinced that humankind had reached its limits when the world was joined together as 400 million people watched the BBC’s One World broadcast of The Beatles’ live recording All You Need Is Love in the Abbey Road studios, carpeted by a worshipful of Who’s Who of the In Crowd. My sister and her husband had come to our flat from their nearby bedsit (Old Man Steptoe was their neighbour) to sit on our floor hippy-style to watch this epic-making broadcast.

And forty-five years on, there is little evidence of the world changing for us then, other than perhaps the ever-renewing graffitied devotions to the boys on the white walls outside the Abbey Road studios and columns of tourists walking across the famous zebra crossing.” Oy mate, you’re supposed to take your shoes off”, I heard a taxi driver shout to one of them once. Carnaby Street is no more than a theme park, only us of a certain age remember where the great shops and the dodgy clubs were. But who cares anyway? Perhaps I’ll start carrying the Sgt Pepper album under my arm again.