As a cabbie that blogs a variety of opportunities arises, one which was to provide a personal dimension to a French Guide to London. I was asked a series of questions by Amandine Greiner about London which for no particular reason other than vanity I have reproduced here including the completed book. The assignment also entailed a short photo session which I have already posted.
Hello. What’s your name and how old are you?
David Styles and I am 65.
Where are you from, how long have you been living in London and what brought you here?
I lived in north London in my younger years now I live in Havering at the extreme north-east of the city and so I have always lived in London.
When and why did you decide to become a taxi driver? Why in London?
I am a qualified typesetter; unfortunately my skills are not much in demand these days. So I had to learn a new profession and becoming a Licensed London Taxi Driver is something you can learn in your own time.
How difficult is it to become a taxi driver? Could you explain to me in a few sentences what the test of The Knowledge consists in?
After demonstrating that you understand the basic geography of London the Knowledge is a series of one-to-one oral examinations. You are asked two places which we call points (a point can be anything from a station to the stage door of the theatre). After demonstrating that you know where these points are you have to be able to recite the imagined route to be taken – road by road. To gain your licence can take between 2 and 5 years of studying 30 hours a week.
Having driven in and around London for the past (how many 17) years, what are some of the ways in which you have seen the city change?
In the 17 years the biggest changes are that many of the side roads used as short cuts that we learnt on the Knowledge are now closed to traffic. Parking and stopping is now enforced vigorously by fines from local councils as a source of revenue. And not to put too finer point on it councils are closing public toilets and some hotels forbid us to use their facilities.
What do you like most about your job?
Being a London Licensed Cab Driver gives me the ability to work whatever hours I so choose.
Tell me something I don’t know about your job (a surprising/funny/weird rule maybe?).
Cabbie etiquette demands that if a fellow driver allows you to join a road ahead of him you refuse the next job and give it to him. Another is that you are allowed, by law, to urinate on the nearside rear wheel of your cab as long as a policeman is there shielding you with his cape to protect your modesty.
How do you feel about driving on the wrong side of the road? (joke)
I had hoped that when we joined the EU the rest of Europe would fall in line and drive on the left, rather than worrying about where champagne is produced, and when the Franc was dropped and a European currency adopted, Sterling should have been the obvious currency of choice.
After driving a black cab for (17) years, you opted for a blue cab. What colour are you going to choose next?
I used to drive a black cab and that is my preferred colour, but as I now rent I do not have a choice of colour.
What’s your favourite place/area in London?
Outside Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre looking across the river to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
For you, London is . . .
Probably the most cosmopolitan productive city in Europe attracting people who are the best in their field to come here to work.
What’s your favourite thing about London? What makes London so special to you? What does it have than other cities don’t?
London has history from its Roman walls to the Shard nearing completion. Last year BBC Radio London tried to find out how many countries were represented by their cuisine in London. There are about 180 countries in the world (some of which are only very small islands) the poll found that you could eat at over 140 different restaurants specialising in their own national dishes.
What are the 3 places that would best describe YOUR London?
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre (the world’s best playwright); the Houses of Parliament (the Mother of Parliaments); Greenwich meridian line (the official date line adopted after much opposition by the French).
What’s your favourite street/road? Why?
Chiswick Mall, this little street in west London runs alongside the river Thames. Its houses have been owned by many people from the arts, so prone is it to flooding that residents have built high walls and temporary sluice gates that can be lowered to keep out the water at high tides. That kind of spirit seems to sum up the eccentricity of the British thinking that an Englishman’s home is his castle.
East, West, North or South London? Why?
This is a perennial question – why cabbies won’t go South of the River. North of the River was developed first and the south bank was only used for bear baiting and by women of ill repute. The Victorians had to spoil it by building houses in south London there so cabbies reluctantly have now to go South of the River at times.
You spend most of your time driving Londoners around. How would you best describe them?
Hard working, driven (no pun intended) and tolerant of others from other countries or with other religions, in fact London is mostly composed of people who have chosen to live there and haven’t been born in the capital.
In your opinion, what’s the most interesting landmark in London and why?
The sign on a wall that says “do not steal this wall”. http://www.cabbieblog.com/hidden-london/the-mad/
A tourist who’s never been to London asks you to show him/her around. What itinerary would you suggest for the day and what places would you stop at?
It’s going to be a long day, so first we go to Smithfield Market, here the meat porters work through the night and so early in the morning you can get a full English breakfast, it is also one of the few places in London where you can have a drink first thing. A walk through the City of London before all the office workers turn up for work takes you to the Monument. Built to commemorate the Great Fire of London it still has one of the best views of London, well after you have climbed it 311 steps, and much cheaper than the new Shard which costs £100 on the door, and you don’t get a certificate for ascending as you do with the Monument. We now cross London Bridge and walk along the south bank of the Thames from here are some of the best views across the river. Crossing back at Westminster Bridge we see one of the most iconic buildings in London – the Houses of Parliament. A gentle stroll across St. James’ Park the prettiest park in London until we reach St. James’ Palace here most days you can stand beside a guardsman in full ceremonial dress the same guardsmen often seen outside Buckingham Palace. Lunch at nearby Red Lion in Crown Passage, described as London’s last village pub which stands in an authentic Georgian shopping street. Next a short walk to the river bus via Trafalgar Square and a trip to Greenwich. Here you can climb up the hill to the Royal Observatory and stand by General Wolfe’s statute, he beat the French at Quebec, but don’t hold that against him for this is probably the finest panoramic views in London. Have dinner at one of the numerous restaurants in Greenwich village after that tiring day take a black cab home, you deserve it.
If someone jumps in your cab and tells you they want to see something a bit different or off the beaten track, where would you drive them to?
Goodwin’s Court off St. Martin’s Lane it is a perfectly preserved Georgian street which retains its shop windows.
What’s the best or most memorable ride/fare you ever had in London? Who was it with and why was it special?
I once picked up a group of Irish architects who only gave me a picture of the obscure building they were looking for, I realised from the picture that it could only be on one street, a so it proved.
What is the oddest destination that someone asked for?
I took two men to Bristol as they had missed their train. I have also had Americans who have been to so many destinations they don’t know what city they are in, let alone their hotel. We usually have a question and answer, such as what can you see as you leave the hotel, to try to find which hotel they are staying in.
Have you driven any famous people in your cab? Who would be your favourite and why?
I once had Grayson Perry a Turner Prize winning transvestite potter, dressed like Alice in Wonderland. I have also had Prime Minister Tony Blair’s head in the back in the shape of a bronze bust.
If you ever feel like you’re getting tired of London, what place/sight/area will always convince you otherwise?
St. Paul’s at night
Apart from driving, what are the things you enjoy doing most in London? What would be the perfect way to spend a day off in London?
My perfect day would be a morning with my grandson at the London Zoo, both my father and grandfather were head keepers there, a quick change of clothes to partake of tea at London’s finest hotel – Claridge’s. Then an evening spent in the theatre, London has so many theatres you could go to a different performance every night and never seen the same production.
Is there anything that never ceases to surprise you about London?
Having spent 50 years working in London I find the way it manages to reinvent itself astounding. After the war it was a bomb site, by the 1970s it had probably the worst restaurants in Europe. In the 1980s it changed the way that stocks and shares were traded turning it into the global centre for banking. By the 1990s it had become the fashion capital of the world. By then London was now the place for the finest restaurants in the world. Now we have hosted the 2012 Olympic Games to great success who knows what this decade will bring?
Do you have any other tips/advice for people visiting London?
Don’t, I repeat don’t get into a vehicle driven by a man who has accosted you in the street claiming he drives a cab. Always take a licensed black cab. Also think very carefully before getting into pedicabs, how much do you value life?
According to you, the best way to discover London is . . .
I hate to say it, but most of the London sights that tourists want to see are within walking distance. London is very pedestrian friendly.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Remember Dr. Johnson’s saying “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life”.