Josna Rege

149. Get Me to the Church on Time*

In 1950s, Britain, Family, Stories on May 27, 2012 at 12:35 pm

My Uncle Bill drove a London cab. Not a mini-cab—those were his sworn enemies—but a real black cab. Uncle Bill was a Scotsman from Glasgow who served in the army during the War,  settled in London after marrying my mother’s beautiful eldest sister Bette, and retained a strong, almost undecipherable Glaswegian accent, even after having lived in England for forty years. He “did the Knowledge”—the challenging study of London’s streets and traffic patterns followed by an equally rigorous exam—drove a company-owned cab for a while, and eventually bought his own, which he kept in tip-top condition inside and out, and which became the pride of our entire extended family. Even its license plate number—YOY245G—is indelibly fixed in my memory. (When Nikhil was a baby, my Uncle Ted sent him a large Corgi model of a London cab, with that number glued to its bumper.)

Uncle Bill was the soul of generosity, giving the lie to the stereotype of the stingy Scotsman. In those days few of us owned cars, and not a single family occasion went by when he wasn’t on hand to transport us in style. Every time we returned to England from India or the States he was waiting for us at Heathrow Airport with his round beaming face and gleaming cab, enfolding us in love and warmth as he bundled us into the back, with Auntie Bette riding regally in the front beside him. When we visited them at home, he never allowed us to take public transportation back, and he offered his cab for every family wedding, arriving exactly at the appointed time, the cab glossy black and  bedecked with ribbons, to drive the bride to the church.

Before his cab-driving days, Uncle Bill worked for London Transport and drove a double-decker bus. On an auspicious July morning in 1953 my parents-to-be, dressed to the nines, were making their way to a London registry office, a journey which would have necessitated at least one change of buses. As the first bus pulled up, they were amazed to discover that its driver was none other than Uncle Bill. He was overjoyed to see them and welcomed them effusively on board. He wouldn’t hear of their getting down and changing buses, all togged up in their wedding finery, not while he was there. He simply took the bus right off its route, announcing to the other passengers that his sister-in-law was getting married that morning and he was going to see her and her groom to the steps of the Town Hall. Apparently the entire bus entered into the spirit of the occasion, and gave the happy couple a rousing send-off.

Uncle Bill isn’t here in person anymore to give us the VIP treatment in his cab, but I will remember his generous spirit as long as I live. The first time I arrived at Heathrow without him there to meet me I realized how much his unfailing presence had spelt Home to me. May returning travelers and couples starting out on their lives together always be blessed by the kindness of an Uncle Bill.

*Get Me to the Church on Time, sung by the one and only Stanley Holloway

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  1. What a loving tribute! Your Uncle Bill sounds like a sweetheart. I knew Glaswegians in Cleveland, as my Scottish dance teacher’s father was the pipe major of the Cleveland Pipe Band. After 40 years in this country, some of them were still barely intelligible, but I loved hearing them talk!

    The Stanley Holloway just caps it off. I wish I could put my hands on our recording of him telling the story of Albert and the Lion. Albert had “a stick with an ‘orse’s ‘ead ‘andle” and he “stoock it in Wallace’s ear” [Wallace = lion]). Wallace got mad, “swallowed the little lad, ‘ole” [whole], which upset Albert’s mother because she’d just had his shoes repaired. The other side of the record was about Sam going to Buckingham Palace for an award (“King’s got a medal for you” a series of guards tells him; and “I know he ‘as” says Sam, in an increasingly annoyed tone). You can listen to these on YouTube now. I played it for a friend a few months ago, but alas, he wasn’t as taken by it as I was.

    • Of course, Sarah, you’re steeped in Scottish culture and must have heard many different Scottish accents over the years. I love the sound of it, too. I’m attaching a link to John Hannah reciting W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” in his beautiful voice (feeling sad this evening at the news of Doc Watson’s death). Thank you for telling me about Stanley Holloway’s Albert and the Lion story. I’ve listened to it on youtube and it’s a delightful antidote. Funny, I’d only ever heard him doing cockney accents.

      P.S. Okay, that poem is way gloomy–sorry! I still think it’s beautiful, though. x J

  2. What a lovely story! I remember riding in one of those wonderful old huge black cabs in London many years ago and it was quite an experience! How lovely to have a real Scottish uncle as the driver! I love the image of your parents going to be married in the double decker bus with the same uncle driving them. It almost sounds like a movie or a dream!
    Thanks for sharing such a special one!

    • Yes, Marianne, riding in Uncle Bill’s cab, one always felt so special and secure. When he was courting my aunt he always made a fuss of my mum, her little sister. When she was evacuated to a foster home outside London during the war and was terribly lonely and homesick, he visited her. And when my little sister was in hospital in London when she was only nine, he visited her every day, bearing special treats.

  3. Your parents’ wedding story is priceless. I agree with Marianne: It does sound like a movie!

    • Yes, isn’t it? I wish I could ask my Mum for details, like the number of the bus and exactly where they were headed, but neither of us remembers, although she’s told me the story many times over the years. Maybe my Dad or my Uncle Ted will remember.

  4. […] 149.  Get Me to the Church on Time […]

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