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London Cab Drivers Know Their City and History

October 25, 1987|JULIA VAN DUYN | Van Duyn is a Loomis, Calif., free-lance writer.

LONDON — "Afternoon, ma'am. Been visiting a friend?"

He was a typical, polite, London cab driver who, seeing a bone-tired woman trying to hail a taxi, coasted to a stop and, with his free hand, opened the rear door.

I was standing in front of London's hoary General Hospital on Whitechapel Road in the middle of the seedy Cockney section, where few middle-class English persons and even fewer tourists venture unless they are in a group. And I knew that getting a taxi in the unsavory part of any large city was usually next to impossible.

"No," I replied. With a sigh of relief I stepped into the taxi, "I just left a guided tour." The group had gone on while I had decided to return to my hotel in Kensington.

"That would be Adam Joseph's 'Cockney Walk.' He's one of the best," the cabbie said.

Not having tried London's 16 other guided walk companies, I wasn't in a position to agree or disagree. One thing I knew, however--Joseph, a part-time teacher and historian, made an indelible impression on me with his dramatic presentations about the famous and infamous people who contributed to the rich fabric of London's East End.

As if he had read my thoughts, the driver said: "You know, ma'am, that poor bloke, 'The Elephant Man,' was only 27 years old when he died in the attic of General Hospital, where I picked you up. But I'm sure Adam Joseph told you all about how Dr. Dreves, a surgeon, rescued John Merrick from a sideshow where he was exhibited as a freak."

Knowledgeable Tour Guide

I was impressed. "I take it that you know not only the names of all walking tour guides but the history of this huge city's nooks and crannies."

"I don't know all the guides," the cab driver replied modestly, "but it's part of my job to keep up with what London offers, and, of course, its history."

"Like the flat above the junk store back a ways where the female victims of Jack the Ripper were taken?" I asked.

"Right," the cabbie brightened. "Or the venerable Music Hall right here on Whitechapel Road, where Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Laurel served their apprenticeship."

He warmed to his subject. "Before we leave the Cockney section, ma'am, would you like to see the place where Ol' Winnie left his mark? That is, if you haven't been there already."

"Winston Churchill here?" I said, my curiosity aroused. "Is it far?"

"No. It's only two blocks up."

He stopped the cab on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Sydney Street.

"You see that red house halfway down the street?" He pointed to an unsightly four-story brick building. "Well, in 1911 the greatest farcical 'siege' of the century was staged there by young Winston Churchill. He brought 3,000 armed men with him because somebody told him that two notorious jewel thieves, the 'Weasel' and Peter the 'Painter' were in a flat in that house."

"Three thousand men to catch two thieves? Isn't that rather gross?" I said, incredulous.

Building a Reputation

The cab driver grinned. "I couldn't agree with you more, ma'am. But Churchill, who at that time was a naval officer or something, wanted to make a name for himself by catching these two blokes.

"Anyway, at a command from Churchill, the men sent a hail of bullets into the house, setting it afire. Then, with smoke billowing out of the windows, the men rushed the place. But they found the building empty.

"Churchill, so the story goes, exploded. He smashed his walking stick against the nearest wall, screaming that those two criminals must be in there somewhere. But of course, he could shriek as much as he wanted to--the 'Weasel' and the 'Painter' were nowhere in the building."

The cabbie chuckled. "The joke was on Ol' Winnie. The thieves and the other tenants were gone long before the 3,000 men assembled on the corner. It seems they got the information about the whole thing almost as soon as the plan was made to declare war on those two blokes."

He started up the car again and before I could decide whether his vivid tale was fact or a delicious morsel of historical gossip, mirroring the endemic sense of humor of Londoners, we were in front of my hotel.

"I really enjoyed your anecdote," I said, tipping him generously. "I'll never forget Whitechapel Road or Sydney Street."

He grinned appreciatively. "It was my pleasure, ma'am. And thank you."

All through my stay in London my first impression of the taxicab drivers being courteous, city-knowledgeable and honest, all attributes appreciated especially by a woman traveling solo, was strengthened.

Taxi Training

There's a good reason why it's a pleasure to take a cab in London. The London cab driver doesn't buy his license; he is required to go full-time for two years to the Royal British Legion Taxi Drivers' Training School.

There, students learn through theory and empirical experience the well-known and obscure streets and alleys of London, the city's history, the art of communication and the rudiments of professional ethics.

Because only one student in five lasts through the tough course, the graduates are proud of their license, which is equivalent to a college diploma.

The beneficiaries of this taxi driver training, however, are the passengers.

For example, the London cabbies don't switch on their radios to ear-shattering rock music without asking for your permission, as the Amsterdam drivers do. They do not take you the long, roundabout way to your destination, as some New York or Los Angeles cabbies do, and they do not have the surly disposition of cab drivers in Paris or Budapest.

Clearly, there's no contest. London cabbies are the best in Europe, if not in the world. Just ask any traveler.

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