Thwarted – the tale of a would-be London taxi driver
‘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
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.
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
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
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
“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
Then came what I
have called ‘The Moment of Thwart’. The fact that I could not obtain insurance
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
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.