Taxi catches up with LTDA member and chair of Taxi Charity for Military Veterans, Ian Parsons...
Q. How long have you been a London Taxi driver, and did you enjoy doing the Knowledge?
A. I got my (green) badge in September 1989. The Knowledge was, of course, a huge undertaking, but having lived and worked in London for most of my life, it wasn’t quite as daunting as it was for some. What helped tremendously was going to Knowledge school early on. I spent about eighteen months of my life calling runs and running points inside a small room at Stewarts Garage, Farm Lane. Alan Chapel, who ran the school was a Knowledge genius, and a fantastic help. So yes, I did enjoy the challenge – and apart from a couple of hiccups, I got a buzz out of the appearances too.
Q. When did you first get involved with Taxi related charities?
A. In 1992. A group of cabbies at the Ealing Broadway rank needed volunteer drivers for a children’s day trip to Chessington World of Adventures. It went well, so we did it again the following year. Then in 1994, I heard that an organisation called the Fellowship of Hackney Carriage Drivers were looking for drivers to take sick children and their families on a three-day trip to Euro Disney, as it was then known. Many of the children were suffering life limiting illnesses. I wanted to help, so put my name forward.
Q. How did the early Disney trips go?
A. December at Disney, with the Christmas lights and decorations was naturally a huge attraction. The children loved it, but it was a very hard drive for everyone, especially the police motorcycle outriders. The first year they had to cope with freezing fog and the following December torrential downpours. So, the organising committee moved the date back to September. More daylight and the weather’s usually good. It made much more sense.
Over the years, we’ve encountered many obstacles; a blockade of Calais by fishermen, a fire in the channel tunnel, a blockade by lorry drivers and a fuel crisis. We overcame the latter by bringing along our own fuel tanker. Imagine that - a convoy of 100 cabs, along with ambulances, breakdown vehicles, French and British police cars, plus outriders… and a tanker! Certainly turned a few heads as we thundered past. So, we’ve always managed to get through, but sadly not this year. The COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
Q. Can you give us a snapshot of what happens on the trip?
A. Most children, and indeed parents, are overwhelmed to begin with - there’s so much going on. Friday 6:00am breakfast at Canary Wharf, military band, speeches, waved off by Lord Mayor and hundreds of well-wishers. Our police outriders on blues and twos whizzing past our 100-plus convoy throughout the 11-hour journey. But Saturday’s the big day. I try to get the children and family I’m with on as many rides in the park as possible (we’re given priority passes, so go to front of queues). After a full day in the park, it’s back to the hotel for a couple of hours rest, then dress up for the gala dinner. It’s a fabulous evening, everyone together in a huge ballroom festooned with balloons. After dinner, various Disney characters join our party for photos and autographs and are mobbed by the children.
Q. Sounds like an extraordinary trip. Any downsides?
A. Oh yes. Room sharing. You often have no idea who you’re in with. I always seem to get the bloke that sleeps like a baby but has a serious snoring problem. For years the card keys were hopelessly unreliable. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood outside the room with my luggage unable to unlock the door. So back you go to reception to get your card key re-programmed. But they never explain you need to get two done, because once the code’s been changed your roommates’ card won’t work anymore. I know that, but most new drivers don’t. So, after dinner and a few well-earned drinks, and when you’re ready to hit the hay, you find yourself locked out again!
A few years ago, a driver who thought he had his own room came back and found me asleep in the double bed. He wasn’t too pleased about having to drag the drawer bed out either. And if I remember correctly, and I do, he got up three times in the night for the loo. So, it wasn’t the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had.
Q. I understand you were also asked to drive for the Taxi Charity
A. That was in May 2014. The charity had organised a trip to the Netherlands for World War Two and other veterans to attend Dutch Liberation celebrations which are held every year in the town of Wageningen. When a driver pulled out at the last moment, my name was put forward. It was a busy time in my life, so I didn’t say yes immediately. I phoned my wife, Anne, who said without hesitation I should do it. And I’m so glad I did. It was an incredible experience.
Q. Tell us more?
A. Well oddly, I hadn’t been allocated a particular veteran. I was just told to go to the Royal Hospital. About ten cabs turned up, and Chelsea Pensioners started getting in - Bert and Trevor in my case. Talk about chalk and cheese. Trevor was quiet and introspective and Bert… wasn’t. A lady from the Hospital was helping him with his final check. “Passport, suitcase, overnight bag, medication. All there. Have a great trip.” As she walked away, 88-year old Bert opened the door and shouted, “Hold on, you’ve forgotten to pack my Viagra!
Where’s my Viagra?” Bert was what you would call a ‘character’ and when I arrived at Harwich, I encountered another hundred of them.
Q. What was the reception like when you arrived in the Netherlands?
A. The love and respect the Dutch people have for the veterans is unmatched. They lined the streets to wave and cheer as our convoy passed by. They brought their children to meet the veterans. Often there were three generations from the same family waiting to meet and thank them. Amazing experience. A revelation, and very moving.
Q. How did you end up joining the committee?
A. Visiting the Poppy display at the Tower of London (November 2014), prompted me to get in touch with the charity, only to discover there was a vacancy on the committee. I was invited to their January committee meeting. I vividly recall the heated debate as everyone tried coming up with suggestions for a new name to replace the long-winded London Taxi Benevolent Association for War Disabled. Imagine sixteen cab drivers round a table trying to agree on something! The following month we did – the Taxi Charity for Military Veterans.
Q. What are the funny stories associated with doing this role which never get told or printed?
A. We returned to the Netherlands in May 2015, and everyone assembled at a working men’s club in Harwich, where food and drink had been laid on, as had passport control to help speed up embarkation on to the ferry. One veteran had forgotten his passport, so they requested a copy of something with his photo ID - in this case his bus pass. The manager had a photocopier in his office, but as he led the way I could see there was a problem. He was walking with difficulty and incoherent. He pointed to the copier then slumped into his chair behind his desk and began crying. It’s not unusual for people to become emotional when they meet these great men. It was their actions and bravery that helped liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny. But the manager wasn’t overcome by the presence of the veterans. Two hours earlier his favourite football team had won promotion, and he was completely drunk. With bus pass copy in hand, I left him in his chair to reflect on his team’s big day. A few minutes later, I was told another two veterans had also left their passports at home.
With many veterans in the nineties, it’s always a worry something serious could happen. So, we were very concerned when one Royal Navy veteran collapsed in the hotel lobby near the bar area. An ambulance rushed him to the local hospital where he spent the night. The following morning, we received the prognosis. Too many rums.
Q. When did you become chairman?
A. On 14th May last year, just under three weeks before we travelled to Normandy to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. That was a huge responsibility for me. As chairman, I was required to make several speeches in front of local politicians and other dignitaries and, of course, our veterans. So, I absolutely had to find the right words. I re-wrote each speech several times before I was happy. Anne proof-reads everything I write and gave my words her usual polish. I was pleased, and very relieved the speeches went well. I must say, I couldn’t have done what I have without the amazing support I’ve received from Anne. She does an incredible amount of work behind the scenes for the Taxi Charity. She’s even done a fundraising tandem parachute jump with the Red Devils. From a height of 13,000 feet, freefalling for 7,000 feet at 120mph – now that’s what I call commitment!
Q. What has been the most poignant moment?
A. Laying a wreath with WWII veteran Bill Gladden at Ranville Cemetery on 6th June 2019 - the 75th anniversary of D-Day, almost to the hour where 75 years earlier Bill and his 6th Airborne comrades’ Hamilcar glider landed in a nearby field. Bill has never flown since.
Q. What do you see as being the major needs for the next generation of veterans coming through? How will your approach change? (Homelessness, PTSD, Mental Health, Substance Use etc…)
A. For decades our charity has primarily supported World War Two veterans. Sadly, as that generation leaves us, we need to think about how to attract and be of support to younger veterans. For example, over the last two years we have joined forces with Waterloo Uncovered, a charity helping British veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from PTSD and other battle-related injuries. They organise an annual archaeological dig at the battlefield site of the 1815 Battle of Waterloo. A number of those veterans who participated in the excavations carried on with archaeology or have been inspired back into education, helping support their recovery and return to civilian life.
We neither have the qualifications or know-how to help veterans with many of the problems you’ve highlighted in your question, but perhaps we can work alongside those charities that do.
Q. What’s the dream or long-term plan for the charity? What do you need to happen to get it there?
A. It’s very difficult to plan too far ahead, especially under the current circumstances. The average age of our committee members is 63, which by coincidence is my age. As our older members retire, it’s important we recruit younger cabbies with new ideas and energy. They are the future.
Q. What’s been your favourite moment?
A. Difficult to choose one, there have been many. It’s like picking your twenty favourite songs. The list keeps changing. Winning the Lottery Award for Best Voluntary Project in 2016 takes some beating. The £3,000 was helpful, however, the associated publicity raised the Taxi Charity’s profile to new heights, and we haven’t looked back since. They threw a no expenses spared party at Southbank TV studios after the show which was great fun.
Q. What is your favourite subject?
A. Muhammad Ali. Incredible man, compelling figure. I wrote several articles about Ali for Boxing News and was delighted to have been a contributor for the magazine’s centenary bookazine. When Ali passed away in 2016, Boxing News & USA Today published a special tribute issue, and several of my articles were included. I was proud to have been part of something that celebrated his extraordinary life. I was captivated by Ali from the age of seven (1963), and followed his boxing career with a mixture of awe and fascination. In the 1970s, I would stay up all night to watch his fights live on closedcircuit television. They were beamed into cinemas in London and across the country. “The Rumble in the Jungle” and the “Thrilla in Manila.” Unforgettable nights. The modern age of sport began with Muhammad Ali. He was the first global superstar of the television age. They say never meet your heroes, but I simply had to meet Muhammad Ali. I knew he wouldn’t disappoint, and he didn’t. Over time we got to know each other. He didn’t always remember my name, but always recognised me and invited me to join him at various events when he was in London. I’ve visited his old log cabin training camp in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania and travelled to his Louisville hometown twice – in 2006 and 2017 – the latter to visit, among other places, his childhood home and the Ali Center. I also wanted to pay my respects at his resting place in Cave Hill Cemetery. The Greatest? No question about it.
Q. How might other Cabbies that might be interested in giving a bit of their time get in touch? What sort of roles are available and how much time do people need to give?
A. Click on the VOLUNTEERS tab at the top of the home page of our website, then follow the instructions and we’ll get back to you. I can’t give you a specific answer regarding time. To a large extend it depends on how much time you are able to give. Currently there are no committee roles available.
Q. If people couldn’t offer their time is there some other way of Cabbies making/ giftaiding really small donations via some kind of subscription?
A. There are several different ways you can donate to the Taxi Charity. Please visit our website for further details – www.taxicharity.org.
View full 19 May 2020 issue of TAXI, the newspaper of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association (LTDA).