Thwarted – the tale of a would-be London taxi driver

Travel Talk

‘Thwart’ isn’t a word that occurs in my everyday vocabulary. 

I’m not of a nautical nature, so the maritime version is unlikely to pass my lips. And when it comes to the more common use – as in to foil someone’s plans or actions – I don’t go in for that sort of thing, preferring to live and let live, and leave it to chaps like Sherlock Holmes to thwart the dastardly Professor Moriarty, or Flash Gordon to thwart the galactic ambitions of Ming the Merciless.

No, I’m not a thwarter. However, I have become a thwartee, in that a plan of my own has come to grief. It annoys me, and has slightly complicated my life. But at least it has provided me with something to tell you about in this ‘Now and Then’ slot.

I had intended to write about a recent visit to Harrogate, where we stayed in the aptly-named Majestic Hotel, one of those grand establishments that dominate many of our town and city skylines, like ocean liners, washed up by some unrecorded Victorian tsunami.

However, the Majestic is undergoing extensive refurbishment, so it would be unfair to consider our recent experience as typical. Or, indeed, to write about it. Let’s just say that its staff are doing their best under difficult circumstances and that I’m sure its original opulence will be restored when all is done.

So, Harrogate will have to wait until another day. As will nearby Knaresborough and the ravens in its castle ruins. And the lady who looks after them.   

No, right now I want to tell you how I have been thwarted in my ambition to drive a London taxi. Not a 100% genuine London taxi, but one which has been retired from the fleet and can be used as a private vehicle.

My son set me off on this venture, having bought one himself (for a ridiculously low price) and waxing lyrical about its reliability, its low fuel consumption, and all sorts of other advantages.  

Having disposed of my own car (circa 1994) I was, as my grandson put it: “in the market for a new set of wheels”. That those wheels might be supporting the iconic frame of a London cab rather tickled my fancy.

Nubar Gulbenkian I’m not alone in this. The Duke of Edinburgh drove one for several years (a dark green job, if memory serves) and Nubar Gulbenkian also had one.

Nubar is worth a few minutes of your time. An Armenian, he was embroiled in a family row and inherited only a tiny portion of the vast fortune built up by his father, Calouste, who was a go-between, agent, ‘fixer’ and the chap you went to when you wanted to do a deal in what was then the emerging oil industry. His nickname was ‘Mr. Ten Percent’.   

The number plate on Nubar’s taxi was NG5 – “because I am only half the man my father was”.   It was very distinctive, having wickerwork on its flanks and a couple of carriage lamps for decoration. When asked why, when his wealth could have bought him the most luxurious of vehicles, he had chosen a taxi, he replied: “Because it is manoeuvrable. My driver tells me it can turn on a sixpence. Whatever that is.”

I can vouch for that story, because I was the journalist who asked the question.  (Though unlikely to have been the only one.) We were in his suite at the Dorchester Hotel, and the fact that he never actually carried cash came up pretty early in the conversation. People like Nubar had no need of cash, as their routine was unvaried and brought them into contact only with those who knew that bills would be settled at the end of the month by ‘his people’.   

One such was the lady who ran the flower shop in the Dorchester lobby. Every morning Nubar would pause on his way out so she could place a fresh orchid in his buttonhole.  

How much did those orchids cost? I asked him, but he had no idea.

When was the last time he had actually handled money? It turned out to be when he was at Harrow. At morning break, boys could purchase a plain bun for a penny or one with icing (and a cherry?) for twopence. 

I asked him how much value he put on the pair of silver-backed hairbrushes that were on his dressing table. He thought for a moment, then said: “Perhaps £5”.

They were, of course, worth considerably more. “Will you sell them to me for £5?” I asked.

He shook his head.   

“Why not?”

“Because I do not need £5, but I do need the hairbrushes.”

Sorry, I have strayed too far from my own taxi tale. My justification is that Nubar Gulbenkian was, in the words of the old Reader’s Digest feature, “One of the most interesting characters I have ever met”.

Anyway, I set to work and, in a relatively short time, tracked down and purchased a cab which, a few weeks previously, had been playing for hire in London. The deal was done in Croydon, though that particular piece of information is not of great importance.

Then came what I have called ‘The Moment of Thwart’. The fact that I could not obtain insurance cover.

1962 Austin FX4 by MunBill via Wikimedia Commons under licence CC BY-SA 3.0 Taxis – whether working or decommissioned – are not covered by the run-of-the-mill insurance companies. Mention that you wish to insure a former taxicab, and they hang up the phone. Enter the number plate into a comparison website, and it refuses to acknowledge the existence of any such vehicle. And the few special companies who do insure taxis seem to have a bias against chaps of my age (and ladies, too, for that matter). 

So, I am perfectly at liberty to buy the fastest and most powerful car I can afford with the intention of speeding recklessly up and down the country to my heart’s content, and the regular insurance companies will cover me – at a price, of course. But the idea of an old codger using a sedate London cab to get him to and from the local shops and for an occasional run out to the Kent countryside is not to be tolerated.

So life got complicated. At the time of writing, my taxi is off the road, and unlikely to get back on it with me behind the wheel. My son may take it off my hands, as it is a later model than the one he owns. Or we might simply sell it on. Either way, it is a hiccup, a blip, an irritating speed bump in my normally smooth progress along the highway of life.

What makes it all the sadder, is that I intended to get into character by buying a flat cap, calling everybody ‘guv’nor’ and positioning my politics slightly to the right of Genghis Khan. 

Or, on the other hand, wearing an orchid in my lapel.

Alas, it is not to be. My plan has been thwarted.

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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