Social Mobility A drive down memory lane can itself be memorable when its done in a Rolls-Royce Ghost, as Josh Spero and his father found on a voyage of rediscovery through North London.
A drive down memory lane can itself be memorable when it’s done in a Rolls-Royce Ghost, as Josh Spero and his father found on a voyage of rediscovery through North London.
TELL ME ABOUT your first car.
‘My first car was a Ford Prefect, registration number 3743MP.’
What colour was it?
‘It was a navy blue, four-door car and it had the most wonderful windscreen wipers, that the faster the engine went, the slower the wipers went. When you took your foot off the accelerator, they suddenly went “wsh-wsh-wsh-wsh” until you changed gear again.’
What was it like to drive?
‘It was a piece of crap!’ Dad laughs. ‘It was a very basic car, even by those standards of years gone by. It was like a Noddy car.’
How much did it cost you?
‘I bought it outright. It cost me the grand sum of £100 out of my life savings.’
Such precision my father has about almost all his cars. He can recall them in an instant: Ford Cortina Mark I, light blue in colour, FMK573B; Lotus Elan, metallic blue, PLN206L. He forgets that during the crash of 1989 he already had two children, but the number plates, those he has.
My father left JFS with one O-level in woodwork, which didn’t fit him for much, but his second job after school was as a trainee buyer at Selfridges — or in his words, ‘a glorified shop assistant with pretensions’.
Despite the prestige of the store and moving around departments to see how the business worked, Dad hated it: ‘The building is grand and the title is grand but to actually work there, no, you just felt like a slave. It was like a giant mausoleum to me.’ Promotion depended on waiting for someone to leave or lubricating your way up through the levels, and my father had neither the patience nor the oiliness for either route. It was after five years at Selfridges, in 1973, when a new course was suggested.
Graham with Angus the Westie in 1980/81
IN THE SEVENTIES, London’s 12,000 black cab drivers held a broad Jewish fraternity; my father estimates that as many as 70 per cent of cabbies were Jewish around that time. It was quasi-genetic, too: Dad’s cousins and his uncle were all cab drivers, and they stressed the financial advantage, the control of your own career.
The Knowledge, the training and the test to become a licensed London taxi driver, really does require the omniscience its name suggests: once the Public Carriage Office (as it was in 1973) had accepted you on to the pursuit, you had to learn your way through the city in a structured manner.
‘You have something called a Blue Book, though in those days it was actually pink. It has a list of runs — 468 runs that criss-cross you all over London.’ The first one is Manor House to Gibson Square — ‘everybody knows that’. My father got rid of his Volkswagen Beetle and bought a Honda C50 motorbike to get around town more nippily.
‘You had a very large-scale map of London pasted on to a piece of hardboard, and you had a piece of string, or in my case — I was quite modern — a length of Perspex, a ruler with nothing on it, and you had a line scored down the middle of that. You put one end of that line at the beginning of that run and the other end of that line at the end of that run and every road that fell beneath that centre line was the shortest route between A and B.’
You wrote down those roads then took yourself along them on your bike, but you had to look more broadly, too, learning those streets within a quarter-mile radius from A and B, just in case someone didn’t want Gibson Square but Moon Street or Richmond Avenue.
Fifty-six days after you were accepted by the Public Carriage Office, you had to return for your first appearance, at which you would be asked to parrot any of the routes from the first few lists in the Blue Book. Start here, turn left into here, cross over here, go right into here, right again into here, finish. Start here, right, left, left, ahead, across, over, left, left, finish.
You need an almost Pavlovian response. After a few 56-day appearances, the gap was decreased to 28 days, then 21, and once you were on fourteen, you knew you were close.
MY FATHER FOUND the memorisation hard at first. ‘It helped when I eventually found a partner who was at roughly the same stage as me. He was better than me at doing the Knowledge so I learnt from his methods how to do it. Every night, after you’d done the run, you would do what was called “calling over”: you’d look at the routes that you’d done and repeat them to the other person, without looking, to get them parrot-fashion.
Eventually by doing that over a period of time you’d learn every route in London in your head. It took me a long time but eventually something clicked and then it became easy. At the end of it, all 468 runs I could call over in less than half an hour, which is actually quite a feat.’
The tests become freeform: ‘They ask you from anywhere to anywhere because they figure that by the time you’ve done the Blue Book you’ve got a map in your head so you’ll be able to calculate a route from anywhere to anywhere, as in real life. You don’t get a passenger who gets in at Manor House and says, “Take me to Gibson Square.”’
Once you’ve done the Knowledge, you need to learn how to get to the outer edges of the Metropolitan Police District: ‘When you do the suburbs, you do something called “the wangles”, which is where you go to a cab garage and they’ll lend you a cab, they might charge you or they’ll want you to work for them for a certain period after you get your licence, and you’ll drive the suburbs, you’ll drive from the middle of London to somewhere in Surrey or in Hertfordshire and get experience of driving a cab. I actually learnt to drive the cab before owning a cab.’
Eighteen months after he began (most drivers today take three to four years) and after Dad had passed a strict driving test, a medical and a police check, he got his licence — and some justified pride. ‘It was greatest achievement of my life at that time. I didn’t do particularly well at school, so achieving that was in brain power like a first-class honours degree.’ And then he was loose on London.
London and Hertfordshire, 1975-2012
‘YOU ALWAYS REMEMBER your first job. The one thing I didn’t do as tradition states was to take my first ever passenger free. I’m no mug, so I didn’t and charged them!’
When my father first started driving, he did nights: young, with no family of his own, no prior commitments, he found the darkness profitable. Renting his cab on the half-flat (for twelve hours a day), he’d pick it up at five or six in the afternoon and have it back by the same in the morning, having carted the boisterous and the busy around the centre of town.
It was profitable but not pleasurable: ‘Although I did earn a lot more money than a day driver, I had no social life, because you’d get up at eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock in the afternoon, have a few hours to yourself during the day, then go to work. You missed the social life. I was working when other people were playing.
‘When I came home and had an hour or two — you had to physically unwind — and there was no 24-hour TV in those days so I’d listen to the radio or read the paper or read a book before I felt calm enough to go to bed, because it’s a job where your adrenalin is going quite a lot and you have to lose that rush so you have to slow down. By the time I slowed down and went to bed it could be early morning and when you’re going to bed everyone else is getting up to start their day.’
Nor was my father one of life’s revellers: as a rare drinker, he found the intoxicated unbearable, which was a problem when you got stuck on a pub run, pinballing from one to the next all night.
The passengers were more unsavoury, of course. ‘The worst trouble I had was that time getting a broken nose for a 50p fare. Three yobbos got into my cab at Liverpool Street, wanted to go to Hoxton, and when they got out, I looked at the meter and it was 50p — obviously fares were a lot lower in those days — I looked around to get payment, all I saw was a fist, and stars. They smacked me in the face, broke my nose and ran off without paying.’ That was the end of nights.
When he did head out in the daytime, my father had returned to a VW Beetle, which he adorned with a TC badge he had nicked off a Rover, so people would think the car had twin carburettors.
The change between solo trader and provider came when Graham met Natalie Green at an Anglo-Israeli youth club in West Hampstead. He had gone out to buy peanut butter but, finding the shop closed, decided to go out for the evening to a dance. He bought Natalie an orange juice and 35 years later they are still together. It did mean that the freedom he celebrated as a taxi driver — hours his own, money his own — came to a pleasing halt.
Natalie Spero in front of their red Renault 5 in 1978
At this time — summer 1977 — Graham was driving a heavy Volvo 144GL, but soon after he met Natalie, and quite possibly desiring to impress her, he bought a Lotus Elan, the only car of any glamour he has owned, James Bond’s Aston Martin proving out of reach.
It was a loud and sexy car and impressed and irritated in equal measure. Natalie enjoyed it, but Graham’s neighbours in Edmonton, also in North London, where he had moved with his parents, despaired of its midnight roar after he had dropped Natalie off home in Edgware; lights, he says, used to come on in series as he growled down the road.
The car wasn’t perfect by any means. ‘In the winter the heater didn’t work so your mother used to complain that it was cold. I’d say, “Don’t be silly, it’s not cold,” even while her teeth were chattering.’
Just as a girlfriend had been influential in the Elan’s purchase, a fiancée was essential in its dismissal. To pay for the wedding after their extended engagement, prolonged by my mother’s mother’s snobbish refusal to countenance her daughter marrying a taxi driver, the car had to go, not without reluctance but as a sign of impending adulthood.
Graham’s parents were relieved at least: his father, a tall man with bad knees, found the parcel-shelf rear passenger seats impossible. His mother probably felt the same, but didn’t say anything, as was her way. It was a red Renault 5, then a gold Renault 5 with five forward gears, inertia seatbelts and reversing lights by the time I came along, but the memory of the Elan still burns bright.
CABS HAVE NEVER been well-made motors; indeed, in October 2012, 400 black cabs made by Manganese Bronze had to be pulled off the road for a steering-box fault, prompting a crisis which sent the company into administration. But even up in Bushey in Hertfordshire, where my parents lived after their marriage in 1980, there was enough evidence of the troubles of cabs, and also of early marital devotion.
‘In the wintertime,’ my dad says, ‘we used to have thick snow up in Bushey. It was hard to start, so there was a spray called EasyStart which was like pure ether, and you would spray that into the air intake while the engine was turning over. Since I couldn’t be in two places at once, I would ask your mother to come out early morning so she’d come out in her Wellington boots and her dressing gown, sit in the cab and turn it over while I sprayed the air intake and that got the cab started and I could go to work.’
This cab found going up icy hillsides hard work, too, and my father claims he was tooted to get out of the way by that sturdiest breed of vehicle, the milk-float.
My father didn’t always help himself, coming close to losing his licence when he was given three points for undertaking a police van. He fought it in court and won — ‘beat two coppers, I was really pleased with myself’ — and saw out the nine points he did have.
In the Eighties, cab-driving was good. There was a fellowship now compromised by tighter demand and looser supply, camaraderie in the shelters, green roadside hut-cafés outside which a line of taxis cooled their engines. Big Bang made London boom, oil triumphs (or crises, to the counterparties) sent Arabs here who tipped like sheikhs.
Instead of nocturnal pissheads, my father dropped children at school and their parents at the office, or ferried a lady-who-lunched from one shop to another. One American, standing outside Harrods, asked to be taken to ‘Harrods of Knightsbridge’, so my father did a turn around the block and charged him.
In contrast to the gregarious cabbie stereotype, my dad prefers to leave his passengers — famous or otherwise — to themselves unless they engage him, and he has next to no knowledge of celebrities, once failing to recognise Jerry Hall’s legs until she got out on the King’s Road and someone asked for an autograph.
‘One of my philosophies is that I don’t bother people. They get into a cab to get somewhere quickly and efficiently, but also for privacy, and they don’t really want to be bothered by some gabby cabby trying to talk to them the whole time.’ Even when they’re in uniform my father can still be oblivious, apologising to the Bishop of London, clerically garbed, after walking straight past him on his way to collect him from his office, with the words, ‘I didn’t recognise you because I’m just a Jewish boy.’
A London black cab in 1985-87
THE THING DROPPED like a stone in 1989 after the crash. You noticed it immediately. ‘There was a huge drop-off in work very quickly. Life was then somewhat of a struggle. There was I with a bigger house, a bigger mortgage, children on the way…’ At this point my mother incredulously interrupts, as do I. Given that I was born in 1983 and my brother in 1987, it is not entirely clear whose life my father is remembering. I can understand, however, that the crash of 1989, which initiated several very hard years, might have felt that lonely, even if he did have children.
We did see less of Dad. I remember him going out to work at seven in the morning and not getting back until ten at night for several years, which he unhappily acknowledges. ‘Yes, that’s what I had to do. I needed money and I was the only one to earn money then, as your mother stayed at home to look after the kids. It was one wage. I had to work long hours, practically double shift, to survive.’ They came close to losing their house. It strikes me that if he had carried on at Selfridges, he might have been better off, but he says he hated it to impossibility.
Things did not get better. Not quickly, anyway: ‘Not for many years, because a certain party decided he could go to a private school and that cost us an arm and a leg. That’s why your mother went back to work, in order to pay for your education. So it was still very hard for many, many years — it’s not been easy.’ Well that’s shut me up. ‘Sorry — you asked, I told.’
‘I remember sitting you for the exams at UCS and we got a letter saying, “Yes, we’re pleased to accept Joshua at our school. Please send £400 deposit.” I never had £400! I had to somehow scrape the money together.’ He went straight out to work on that Saturday. ‘I’ve never stopped working ever since.’ Nor has my mother, who worked to pay for my schooling while my father supported our family.
My father’s routine has changed now, and while he enjoys it more, it might seem far less attractive to others. He gets up at 3am and after a shave and breakfast heads out, back by 3pm. Is that really more congenial? ‘It is, because I spend much more time with your mother now, get more things done and it’s nicer. Much nicer.’
But my schooling did mean no nice holidays or nice cars — a progression from Fiat Tipo (with electronic dashboard) to tedious Ford Mondeo to Honda Civic. Then, in spring 2012, Rolls-Royce’s PR agency called.
Josh Spero and his dad, Graham, in front of the Rolls-Royce Ghost
Approaching Tottenham, 12 August 2012
EARLIER THAT MORNING, I had pulled up in the Rolls-Royce in front of my parents’ new house. After nearly a quarter-century in their house in Edgware, with one son no longer at home, they had downsized and upmarketed by moving to a private estate in Stanmore, like Edgware at the northern end of a Tube line but far more genteel.
What was your first impression of the car? ‘“Stone me.” That’s how I felt because it was really something. Our house is a medium-sized house in a small street and there’s this big imposing car that took up half the street — it was quite something to see it. It was like a spaceship had landed. It was very imposing and intimidating.’ (A photo of my parents beside the car in front of their house is now their desktop picture.)
Dad had not taken my initial suggestion seriously. ‘I thought at first you might have been joking, but knowing your recent pedigree of all these freebies, I thought, “No, he’s actually serious and that sounds like an interesting thing.” But at the same time the reality of it hit me and I thought, “I drive a cab around town, which is a workhorse, and I drive a modest car — driving something like this Rolls-Royce might be a bit out of my league,” and I actually felt a bit nervous about the whole thing.’
My own anxiety — already high — was doubled by having to trust someone else with it, even my own father, a cautious and experienced driver. I knew there was an excess on the insurance policy, but I didn’t ask how much for fear I’d cry or refuse to drive it.
We had decided to make a day of it: lunch in the countryside and then the long-postponed Fathers’ Day present, a trip to the Barbican’s James Bond Style exhibition, one of my father’s enduring loves. Taking the first leg, I eased the car along the narrow close, through the woods in which my parents now live and down the hill which leads into Stanmore proper.
The car was beyond light, which was entirely contrary to my expectations. I had thought it would be a tank to shift, hefty at 2.4 tonnes, but it was a cloud. Tight insulation kept the thundering engine from our ears, while our noses were occupied with a rounded fresh leather smell and my eyes with the heads-up display, which projects your speed and your route on the windscreen.
Despite fiddling, I could make the seat go in every direction but down, which meant I had to dip to see the display properly. (A crouch is not the ideal driving posture.)
Soon we were speeding out of town to the Fox and Hounds in Hunsdon, Hertfordshire. My family does not go to pubs en masse, nor do we have Sunday lunch, Friday night dinner more culturally ours. Reversing the car into a narrow spot was greatly eased by the car’s cameras, although unless you are comfortable with the dimensions and proportions of the car, it can in fact be more confusing.
(I have to say, I’m rather proud of my parking, having paralleled the Rolls-Royce into a narrow spot in one go on the Saturday. This ease could, of course, just be the extra sprinkling of luck a Rolls-Royce gives you.)
My father, it turns out, had not been impressed by my driving. No change there, then. ‘You were driving along dual carriageways and you were undertaking cars. It might be acceptable if you’re a boy racer in a souped-up little Mini, but not in a Rolls-Royce. A Rolls-Royce has standing, it has style and it’s supposed to be driven smoothly, not undertaking people to get past them. You don’t do that. Your braking — you left it too late to brake and you accelerated a little too hard, so all in all you’re not suited to a Rolls-Royce.’ This is all true, of course.
After lunch it was my father’s turn. Even though in his taxi, he will take calculated risks — a surprising lane-slip or quick overtaking — he is generally a cautious driver, and the Rolls-Royce only made him more so: he couldn’t have handled it any more delicately had it been a donated heart waiting for a transplant.
His caution — and his inability to observe the satnav fully — led him to second-guess his route. Only this can explain why we ended up at one point in the car park of a Toys ‘R’ Us, attracting the sort of looks a caravan of Bedouins might have had they turned up in Hertfordshire.
The technology outfoxed my father, as it largely did me. (My father types by swirling his index finger around the keyboard until he lights on the right letter — for every letter.) While my mother and brother were quite happy to watch Sky Sports on one of the headrests, I fiddled with the bluetooth MP3 player and twirled the Knob of Power in the central console, which seemed to control the sound, the map, the sun and the moon.
On Saturday I had made it work, so we could listen to Amy Winehouse from my pocket, but it was reluctant on Sunday. My father also had to shift in his seat to see the heads-up display.
He was nervous, he says — extremely nervous. ‘Here we have a car worth a quarter of a million pounds and there I was in charge of it, and I had to get it into the City of London. I was very nervous about it and a lot of the controls were foreign to me because it was so technically advanced I didn’t know a lot of things.’
Caution mingled with delight: ‘Once I got under way it was a pleasure, but I really couldn’t exploit the car to its full potential because I didn’t want to risk having an accident. It had a very precise handling and with precision handling and a very powerful engine, if I went too fast and turned the steering wheel a little too far I could have ended up on the roof. I had to drive it very sedately, which is how it should be driven anyway.’
He’s not ambivalent about the pleasure he would have had from driving the car if he had had a few more days to get used to it, but he speaks of a definite conflict between driving and being driven: ‘I think it’s meant for the owner of the car to sit in the back and be driven by somebody else.’ Wouldn’t that miss the pleasures of piloting a hi-tech machine? ‘It would, but then again you have the pleasure of owning a Rolls-Royce and being able to employ somebody else to do the work for you, so there’s a certain pleasure that comes with that.’
To get to the Barbican, we took the A10, which runs fairly straight from Waltham Cross on the edge of Hertfordshire, named for its Eleanor Cross from 1290, to Monument in the City. It is nondescript most of the way — well, nondescript to me, too much in my head ever to attend to my surroundings — but the grimy houses build up as you come in, cheap takeaways and furniture warehouses line the sides, the grey unrelieved.
My mother and I were in the back, chatting about nothing and trying to mediate over an acceptable radio station, when we passed through Edmonton and something began to stir in my father’s mind, now half on driving, half on history. Tottenham is next along the A10, just before Stamford Hill, Stoke Newington and Dalston, my home. ‘Boys,’ he starts. ‘Do you want to see where I grew up?’ The Rolls-Royce turns left.
Read more from Josh Spero