Monthly Archives: April 2013

The cabbies’ capital

This piece is in the 2013 Time Out London Visitor’s Guide. 

Richard Cudlip isn’t one of a kind, he’s one of 22,000 kinds, and London couldn’t function without them. Cudlip is a black cab driver, a licensed taxi driver who spends his days inside one of the world’s most recognisable vehicles and carries in his head the navigational secrets of the city. ‘I put the light on as soon as I leave my road,’ he says. ‘This morning I picked up a job in Balham that took me to Charterhouse Street. That was a nice start to the day.’

By the time we meet for a mid-morning tea in Borough, Cudlip has been to King’s Cross, Soho, Pimlico and Vauxhall, criss-crossing the city in the service of London. ‘Unless you’ve heard through the grapevine about somewhere being busy, you always think about heading for the stations,’ he explains. ‘And now, with Twitter, you have a good idea of where the customers are.’

Twitter hadn’t been invented in 2003 when Cudlip began doing the Knowledge, the gruelling test that every cabbie has to pass before they can drive the black cab. ‘I was working for Ernst & Young and I hated it,’ he explains. ‘My wife suggested I do the Knowledge. I’d wanted to do it in my early 20s, but I wouldn’t have had had the discipline. It’s the last thing you want to do at that age, driving round London on a bike, revising.’

Doing the Knowledge means learning by heart 320 ‘runs’, or trips from one London destination to another, being able to name all the principle roads and landmarks on the way – which amounts to 250,000 streets and 20,000 places of interest. This can easily take four years and sometimes as many as six. ‘The first run is Manor House to Gibson Square, that’s the one you always remember,’ says Cudlip, whose wife is now doing the Knowledge herself.

‘I loved it,’ he says. ‘It was the right kind of challenge. I got to visit all these bits of London I’d never been to. Those 320 runs give you the framework. It covers every postcode in a six-mile radius and gives you a route, in broad terms, around London, from one side to another.’

Cudlip now takes to the streets five days a week. The sort of things that would annoy most people –sitting in London traffic for hours– do not bother him, which is probably why he became a cabbie in the first place. What he enjoys is the freedom and flexibility. If he works a couple of long days, he can take a day off. If things aren’t working out, or he hits his financial target earlier than expected, he can turn off the light and head home. The choice is his.

‘Different drivers work different ways,’ he explains. ‘Some don’t do stations, they’d rather drive around. Others stick to hotels. Some just do airports, which is a very different way of working. You can wait four hours in the feeder park (the holding area for cabs) without knowing what sort of job you will get. You have to pay £6 to work Heathrow, just to cover the cost of the feeder park.’

Cudlip’s perfect day is made up of ‘lots of short journeys. That’s the absolute ideal. If you get a fiver including tip for taking somebody round the corner, it’s perfect. When somebody gets in, I might not know the building they want, but I can work it out close enough so I can make an instant decision about how to get there without having to programme a satnav.’

And even with the Knowledge firmly imprinted in his brain he’s always learning. ‘I love going out every day and seeing a new bit of London,’ says Cudlip. ‘I spent most of my life in London and thought I knew it, but now I know I had no idea.’

Advertisements

Gilbert & George and David Bowie at the Marquee, 1968/9

Should you be fortunate enough to attend the superb David Bowie exhibition at the V&A this spring, one of the first thing you will see is a video of the artists Gilbert & George performing their ‘Singing Sculpture‘. The intention, I think, is to draw a connection between Bowie and conceptual art, but there is another facet of the relationship between David Bowie and Gilbert & George that goes unmentioned: they both played gigs at the Marquee.

I have an article in the current issue of Uncut about the Marquee club. It mainly focuses on The Who, and while asking around about people who may have seen Townshend and Co perform at the Marquee I received an intriguing email from the writer Jonathon Green, who recalled a show at the Marquee in 1968. ‘They were holding auditions and some pals of mine who had a band tried their luck. Unsuccessfully. Naturally we friends tipped up to cheer. But the weird moment of the evening was when this pair of blokes appeared and, saying nothing, sat for some minutes on either side of a table that they placed centre stage. The two blokes, it transpired, though I must admit I can longer recall when I made this discovery, were Gilbert and George.’

Astonishingly, it seems London artists Gilbert & George did play the Marquee at least once – as they mention here – and possibly even twice. Because as well as the evening Green recalls they also played a show there in early 1969, when they were supported by Audience (who later played on the soundtrack to cult suedehead film Bronco Bullfrog).

I asked two members of Audience about their show with Gilbert & George. Sadly, G&G themselves did not respond to repeated queries about their Marquee days.

Trevor Williams: ‘It was an audition night for us, but I’m not sure what they were doing there unless it was to audition an act they were planning to perform later at the Marquee. It was our first live gig but their act basically consisted of them sitting at a table on two chairs facing each other. They were in suits and their faces were painted gold or silver and one told the other stories while the other said nothing. These were very macabre little stories one of which involved a dwarf committing suicide in the bath and the water getting pinker and pinker but never got red because there’s not enough blood in a dwarf.

They were really nice, pleasant, social guys. I don’t remember how they were received but it was an era when anything went and people enjoyed anything off the wall. I’ve no idea how many people were there although somebody once told me that Germaine Greer was in the audience that night.’

Howard Werth: We first encountered Gilbert & George at the back of the Marquee when these two tweed besuited gentlemen with metallic gold heads and hands, in the style of shop window dummies of a gentlemen outfitters, poked their heads into our van politely asking where the entrance to the Marquee was. We were getting ready to audition as were they. Their act consisted of them both seated with one of them (Gilbert I believe) relating a rather strange tale involving dwarves whilst the other one (George) listened intently, chin on fist. I remember Germaine Greer backstage who was trying to get members of another audition band to retrieve some of their equipment they’d left at her flat in the Pheasantry in the Kings road. We shortly after did a gig at the Lyceum with Gilbert & George, I believe they were about to leave Central St Martins art school around that time.’

So there we have it. In an alternative universe perhaps Gilbert & George gave up art and continued their life in music, while David Bowie, fed up of playing bottom of the bill at the Marquee, jacked in the pop trade and threw himself wholeheartedly into the curious world of conceptual art.

Secret London: the Science Museum’s palace of pills

© Science Museum/SSPL

Time Out recently asked me to contribute to a piece on London’s 10 weirdest museum exhibits (something I’ve blogged about previously). My favourite previously overlooked discovery was the above ‘Palace Of Pills’ at the Science Museum.

This extraordinary sculpture, constructed from old pills, medicine bottles and syringes, was made for a campaign run by the East London Health Project between 1978 and 1980. The ELHP was a coalition of health worker unions and local Trades Councils who were campaigning against cuts to the NHS as well as highlighting other healthcare issues facing Londoners in the late-70s. This was the first time the NHS had really come under sustained attack from any political party since it was formed in the aftermath of the Second World War.

The Palace of Pills was created by artists Peter Dunn and Loraine Leeson, who built the sculpture in their studio using old pill bottles that they acquired from the ELHP’s partners working in the health service. They then photographed it for a poster that was displayed in waiting rooms and doctor surgeries.

‘We did eight posters,’ Leeson told me. ‘The Palace of Pills was made for a poster that talked about how the drug companies were dominating what was happening in health, and for reasons of profit not health.’ The model was too big for the studio and already starting to deteriorate when the Science Museum asked if they could have it. ‘They saw it as a curiosity but I’m delighted it still exists,’ she says. Leeson and Dunn took the experience into creating posters for further pioneering campaigns against the redevelopment of Docklands.