Over the Westway

I wrote an epic magic-realist power ballad about the A40, here it is.


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A Couple of Nights in the Life

Here are a couple of recent diary entries, only slightly altered in order to improve the prose and protect the anonymity of my passengers – the essential details remain the same and are all true.


Terry from Shropshire last night. Teenager in London for first time. Bundled into the cab in the West End by middle-aged relatives who want him taken to the Travelodge Hounslow West. They give me £110 cash up front to cover the fare and as surety against him vomiting, which they insist won’t happen. I take a look at the crumpled heap in the back. He’s completely out of it and pale and sweaty as an unplugged fridge. I’ve never seen a more likely vomiting candidate in my life and I can’t believe I’m agreeing to take him.

He comes round about twenty minutes into the journey, clutching his trousers and screaming, almost in agony, that he desperately needs a piss. I pull up outside the Hilton Kensington but he doesn’t make it as far as the foyer, he just stands on the street outside the entrance pissing, for about seven minutes.

I’d been going to take him inside and show him where the loo was but he was too quick for me. Now that he’s started I can hardly stop him. What can I do but sit there with my head in my hands secretly thinking, “My goodness this guy is hilarious”? The hotel kitchen staff who pass by on their way home seem to agree.

After this, continuing on down to Hounslow, Terry stays mainly upright and nearly seems sober, except he is almost completely incapable of speech or answering the very simplest of questions, to most of which he says, “What?” in an utterly baffled manner, as if the enquirer were an idiot, or foreign, or drunk. He does it an a rich West County accent that is at once gruff and totally innocent.

The hotel is entirely unfamiliar to him. He has no idea who the people were that I keep telling him put him in the taxi, to whom he needs to give the £45 change (they correctly predicted there would be no vomit) and receipt I’ve just handed him, but he seems to understand that it’s important and after I help him out of the cab he carefully stows it in his back pocket with an almost mystical look of great seriousness and responsibility, as if it was a message he must transport forthwith to King Arthur.

He asks for my name, shakes my hand and says thank you. He announces, “I’m going inside”, turns and marches bravely through the automatic doors and into the alien foyer of the Travelodge Hounslow West.

Terry from Shropshire, first time in London. One of my all-time favourite passengers.


Last night, around midnight, driving vaguely in the direction of home:

A happy, fun, eccentric Australian girl in a funky Russian-type hat says a friendly goodbye to a dapper gent in Portman Square and asks to go to Harbut Road, Clapham Junction. She settles in playing on her phone as they do and in five seconds she’s bawling her eyes out. Then the phone rings and she’s bawling her eyes out into that. I turn off the intercom to give her some privacy but when we arrive and the call’s over I ask if she’s OK and she tells me she just found out on Twitter that her grandmother died, in Australia, and she can’t go back.

She stumbles off still desperately sad and I drive in the direction of home feeling quite sad myself, but get hailed by three white, British, suited and lubricated EC Harris consultants going to a shit bar in Shoreditch. They sit in the back playing hip hop beats on a phone and making up raps about being EC Harris consultants in comedy black American accents. They are amongst the most loathsome turds I have ever carried.

As they get out, an actual black American, talking loudly on his phone, gets in. One of the consultants says to me, “It’ll be double for him eh mate” and asks for a blank receipt. I don’t give it to him.

I turn to the guy in the back, still on his phone, and ask him where he wants to go. He ignores me and carries on talking, doesn’t even wave a polite finger to ask me to bear with him. I give him a few seconds and then ask again. He ignores me again. I give him a few more seconds and then I say, “Tell you what mate, why don’t you just get out of my cab?”

He does. I turn the light out and drive home.

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On Riding with Pride


What a thing it is to drive a cab around London on a sunny Saturday afternoon and be showered with love and affection everywhere you go – believe me, being a taxi driver isn’t always like that.

Back in October 2013 I wrote my first blog post about picking up the Bishop of Salisbury, the Church of England’s first bishop to back same-sex marriage. I wrote about the stereotypical idea of the London cabbie as a man of socially illiberal views and fantasised about what a positive message about the trade it would send to drive around in a rainbow cab in solidarity with the LGBT rights movement.

This January I resolved to get more involved in the gay community and contacted Martyn Loukes, chair of TfL’s LGBT network OUTbound, with a view to making my rainbow cab dream a reality. My suggestion was that I drive my cab in TfL’s entry into the Pride parade in June, and that we covered it with a rainbow livery for the occasion. Martyn was instantly keen and we got cracking on making it happen.

TfL designed the livery along the same lines as that of the number 8 bus already in service, taxi advertising firm Ubiquitous sponsored the fitting, and my gracious gaffer Howard at Easyrentacab in Bethnal Green gave permission for his cab to be wrapped and driven in the parade. The transformation was carried out last week ready for International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia. It’s on the street now. Look out for it and give me a wave.

It is such a thrill to drive this cab. It has changed my job. I am constantly photographed as I go around town. People point, stare, smile; I hear them reading out loud as I go by, “Ride with Pride? Ride with Pride!” I get thumbs ups. People shout, “Love it!” as I pass. The positive response from pedestrians, passengers and other cabbies has been overwhelming.

It is very nice indeed that despite the current, many and much discussed elsewhere disagreements between TfL and the taxi trade, we have been able to work together to make this happen. I am absolutely delighted that for the first time, this year a hackney carriage will be parading with TfL in Pride alongside a Routemaster bus, right at the heart of the London transport family, which is exactly where we should be.

Waiting at the lights at the Britannia Junction, Camden, on Saturday night, a little old craggy-faced Irishman tapped at the window. “Excuse me mate”, he said, “Where are the gay bars around here?” Old men don’t normally ask me directions to gay bars at traffic lights, and it was with some sadness that I realised that, now the Black Cap has been taken from us I was unable to help him.

On Friday in Shad Thames I was delayed by some huge group cycle ride going past. There must have been two- or three-hundred of them. Many of them cheered me as they went by. I’m not sure if they thought Ride with Pride was a cycling thing or what, but it was lovely anyway. There I was, a London taxi driver, filled with joy and grinning my head off in the evening sun as hundreds of happy cyclists rode past, holding me up, cheering, smiling and waving as they went. The normal way of things is being turned on its head by my beautiful taxi.

And this is the thing – it’s not just about being gay. It’s about going around and spreading a message of love and positivity for everyone. You don’t have to be gay to be proud of who you are. I see the rainbow cab and the Ride with Pride slogan as a simple celebration of diversity and inclusivity. It’s Pride in who you are, it’s Pride in this venerable and brilliant taxi trade, and it’s Pride in this dazzling and all-welcoming city.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see more cabs going around this magnificent city in advertising liveries that don’t sell but instead give – a message of love emblazoned on an iconic London taxi truly is a fabulous thing. It presents the trade in a different, positive, open and welcoming light. It says “Yes.” It says, “London, we love you. All of you.” It says Yes to love, Yes to kindness, Yes to the city, Yes to the world, and Yes to open hearts and minds.

Ride with Pride everybody, Ride with Pride – because you’re bloody marvellous, every last one of you. As that great Londoner Jonny Blamey might say, let’s have a revolution of love.

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Coming Up for Air

Sometimes when I drive up to Yorkshire to visit my family and my home turf I set the meter running, just for fun. It gets to around £650, depending on the traffic and the rate. Wouldn’t it be nice to get a job all the way up there?

Imagine a street hail in clogged, smelly, noisy, pretentious Knightsbridge at rush hour on a Friday. A place where to travel by car is to crawl like a bloated, mechanical, stinking slug, hemmed in by pettiness and impatience. “Good afternoon, driver – Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, please”, says the punter – this is a fantasy so we’ll allow them some manners – and in they hop. An hour or so later we’ll be squeezing our way around Hyde Park Corner and up Park Lane, on our left that high-falutin’ imitation of the real thing we’re heading to. Green, yes, but manicured, fussily planted, unreal, haughty.

We cross ludicrous, shallow, flash-in-the-pan Oxford Street and slog up boring Gloucester Place as if part of a flow of thick, heavy smoke up a chimney. On, up, we go. Filthy Finchley Road. Horrid Hendon Way. And Staples Corner, what a way to leave a choking city. A nightmare in asphalt, grey, monstrous, confusing, deadly.

Three hours and 150 miles of M1 later on the Penistone Road, just after passing the Fox House pub (not a point of interest I ever saw come up on the Knowledge, I admit) we bend around a corner to the left and suddenly on the right what seems like the whole West Riding is laid out below you. You’re on a tufty, windswept ridge, the sky above you enormous, clouds scudding quickly across it and subtly changing the colours in the fields below with their shadows. There’s gritty, proper Huddersfield and Castle Hill, and further over Emley Moor with its TV mast (by the way, never mind that London’s arrogant Shard, this dignified, rugged concrete needle is Britain’s tallest building). In between it’s dips and bumps, fields, trees, towns, villages, reservoirs, quaint little pubs, weavers’ cottages, Yorkshire folk carrying on their lives under a vast sky and on thick, solid, soggy land, for all the world as if there was no such place as London anywhere.

When I stand up there with all that vastness blowing around me, and think of the city I left behind, it’s not a place I see but rather a feeling I sense. It’s an abstraction of noise, electrically lit, cramped and narrow, roaring and by night.

A cabbie dives into that, day in, day out, night in, night out, and works it with an intensity that I was going to say is unlike anything else but which I just realised – strange as it may seem – is not dissimilar to that I experience as a musician, lost on stage in performance and creation. Everything falls away. A cabbie’s tunnel-visioned, enclosed, darting around with frustrated urgency, looking for the next job, looking to get this one over. Burrowing his way through a whirling concrete maze with his nose to the wheel.

Everybody needs to come up for air sometimes, to leave it all behind, look at it from afar, teeter at the top – and then dive back in for more.

Next stop, Soho

Next stop, Soho

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Midnight in Marylebone

Driving up to the top of Gloucester Place at night, towards the junction with Marylebone Road, the traffic ahead slows and moves around an obstruction on the approach to the lights. As the car in front of me swerves to the left a man is revealed, walking slowly up the middle of the lane. He has lank, scraggy hair down to his shoulders, and is wearing a long, dirty army surplus coat. Slowly he ambles up to the junction. He’s clearly nuts. The lights are red now and only about ten metres away so rather than go around him I slow to a lost plot loner’s pace and follow him up to the junction.

The pedestrian crossing turns to green and those waiting begin to cross. He’s just standing there, still with his back to me. He’s only a couple of feet in front of me, and I’m thinking, Jesus, this guy is sinister, he’s like something out of a David Lynch film. The handful of crossing pedestrians give him a wide berth. Some stare at him, others look away. A couple instinctively pull together protectively as they pass.

Then he turns around to face me. I look straight into his deranged, lonely eyes. There’s dirt on his face and he’s mumbling something to himself. We look straight into each other.

It’s then that I notice the gun in his hand.

My central nervous system moves faster than a bullet. It’s a physical feeling that explodes in my stomach and shoots up my body to my brain, where it bleeds into thought. Or rather, thoughts. A firework display of them. Time halts.

My first thought is to put my foot down and mow straight on through him. Straight over the crossing, letting nothing get in my way. The man has a gun in his hand and a deranged look in his eyes, and they’re staring straight into mine. This is not a time to worry about casualties. But I do. Next I think perhaps around there to his left, there’s a gap. I can swerve through there, I don’t have to hit anyone.

Then I wonder at the calmness of the other pedestrians on the crossing, passing this deranged lunatic with a gun. I saw them see him, move away, calmly but decisively carrying on with where they are going, not drawing attention to themselves, not losing their heads, evacuating as sensibly as office workers in a fire drill. The other drivers, too, are keeping their cool. Panic hasn’t broken loose.

Perhaps this is the best policy, I think. I take my lead from those around me. If he isn’t turning his fire on them, why should he turn it on me? Nothing has happened yet and perhaps nothing will. He’s just standing there with his gun. Keep still. Play dead. Wait, and be ready to duck, or drive.

This all goes on for the tiniest fraction of a second, but I am acutely aware of the thought processes as if I were meditating over them for hours. The clarity with which my mind moves is astonishing. I’ve never felt so alive. I can feel the blood pumping; I can hear it; I can smell it. The clock has stopped. The whole universe is hinged on this moment, and I feel the weight of it on my bones. It’s an animal, coursing fear the like of which I have never known. Feeling your balance go at the edge of a precipice and knowing there is nothing you can do but fall. Staring a deranged gunman in the eyes at midnight in the Marylebone Road.

A strange little old lady shuffles up the pavement on the right. She walks with a stick and carries a Sainsbury’s shopping bag. She is in make up and her hair is coiffed. She moves so slowly, and with such effort. Where is she going? Where has she been? Where does she live? She seems so far from home. Everywhere seems so far from here. Surely she isn’t safe, she shouldn’t be out on these cold, dark, dangerous streets alone. This is no place for the fragile, the delicate, the vulnerable.

He walks slowly towards me and lifts his hand.

It’s then that I notice it isn’t a gun. It’s a squeegee. He’s washing car windscreens. A squeegee. The thoughts are like mud. I shake my head. Slowly. Firmly. He’s washing windscreens. I mouth “no”. I feel my lips making the circle in slow motion. My heart is still pounding. Apart from my head, I am motionless, but every part of my being, every cell, the hairs on my arms, every capillary, is communicating with him. No. Go away from me. I hate you. I have never hated more.

He idles past on my right side, between me and the car to my right, sleepily waving his squeegee. Helpless drivers try to manoeuvre away from him, trapped in their tiny spaces. Nobody wants that thing anywhere near them.

The lights change. I drive on. I’ve never felt so alive.

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Nairn’s London

nairns london cover

Criminally out of print for decades and republished in paperback by Penguin last month, Nairn’s London is the work of the unique and passionate architecture critic Ian Nairn, who more or less drank himself to death in 1983 at the age of 52. If you watch his strangely beautiful and intense 1972 TV programmes on BBC iPlayer you feel as if you are already seeing a man tearing himself apart with his love for the built environment and his rage at the mistakes he sees made all around him. Nairn was a wonderful character – witty, opinionated, democratic, obstinate, unpredictable and obsessed with pubs. I’m not an expert on architectural guides but I doubt there are many that, like Nairn’s London, contain a postscript on which beers you should drink while you’re looking around.

Here he is on old Billingsgate Market in the City of London:

For a few streets east of the Monument, the City of London becomes a real direct working city instead of a vast warren of office workers sitting on their fannies. Fish is what does it, and you can guarantee the townscape and the back chat by the sharp clean smell, as good as a seaside holiday… Men with wonderful, diverse faces are cutting up fish or fishy things (blocks of ice, for example), there’s a spare eel or two in the street and lots of used fish-boxes. People being different, and the place as a whole having the same direct connexion with life (“See, I work in London and I do this”) as the old parts of Genoa or Naples… Market caffs which are a good place for fish and chips… If ladies want to know whether they have genuine sex appeal instead of one of fashion’s counterfeits, this is a good place to find out.

To read this book as one who loves London is to ache with frustration at what we have lost. Nairn’s London was first published in 1966, when the docks and river were still active and shops largely remained independent, offering a real experience to the visitor. Nairn’s descriptions of the working river are, with hindsight, heartbreaking. The Gun pub in Coldharbour (now a popular gastropub) is described as having “a verandah, reached through the Saloon, which is the quintessence of Thames-side London. It juts out into a muddy river between muddy buildings. Barges crowd up to it, the even skyline and sombre palette seep in until it has as strong a hold as the silhouette of Manhattan… Long may it remain truly boaty and unsophisticated, not one more place for the unspeakable to come and see how the other half lives.” Phrases like these get you to understanding why an architecture critic might turn heavily to booze in the 1980s.

A fun game is turning to a favourite building to see where Nairn stands on it. Like me he admires the “overwhelming honesty” of King’s Cross Station, arguing that it should be “as impossible for the station to go [as was apparently scheduled for the 1970s] as it would be for the Church of England to demolish St Paul’s”. French Ordinary Court (“neither French nor ordinary”) “is in effect a big and very dark wedge-shaped room carved out under the railway tracks, full of mysterious and seductive smells (spices? scent?) from bonded warehouses. A fine and private place; but, as the sign says, ‘Commit no nuisance’.” I love weird wonderful French Ordinary Court too, a bizarre cave in the middle of the City. The smells of scent and spice have gone today though, and last time I passed it was a building site, so it’s probably disappeared altogether by now.

French Ordinary Court in 2012

French Ordinary Court in 2012

The book is wonderfully, gloriously subjective. The Tower of London is “a full-blown farce”, “London’s one big hostage to the unreality of organized sight-seeing” (again, one feels the author might need a pint if he saw how the touristification of our great buildings went on today). On the other hand, the “real excitement” of the Hammersmith Flyover “is underneath… segmental spans between a single line of columns… grooved and finny, never overbearing.” Nairn suggests it could house an open-air market. Alas, Hammersmith hasn’t learned to love its flyover with quite the same vigour and it looks certain to be consigned to the list of things poor old Nairn wasn’t heeded on over the next few years.

Nairn’s London is a joy to dip into or to binge on great swathes of in a sitting. Even better is to take it out onto the streets and try to recognise the remaining fragments from its pages in the London of today. As many have said before me, it teaches the reader to look at the city in a new way, to notice detail to a level that is almost obsessive, and to value purpose and humanity over architectural pomposity and either progress or heritage.

It’s utterly tantalising to wonder what Nairn might have made of the Shard, say, or the “Walkie-Talkie” (probably he’d have loved them, he’s so pigheadedly contrary). But you feel fairly certain he’d have despaired at the loss of real people from the heart of the metropolis, at the gentrification of the East End and Soho, and at the endless building of bland luxury apartments for the “unspeakable” to invest in.

We’ll never really know, of course, but Nairn’s London is an exhilarating window into a past city that was more connected with real life, that still bustled and stank and brimmed with uninhibited working people getting their hands dirty; but also into a brilliant, compassionate and flawed human being – despite only having lived here for ten years by the time the book was first published, Nairn’s a Londoner through and through.

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En France

Clapham High Street on a Saturday night

Clapham High Street on a Saturday night

I read somewhere once that that France was cabbie slang for South London. Although I’ve never actually heard a cabbie say it, it tickled me and I often think of it when I take a sojourn across the water to that foreign country with its strange customs and quaint, picturesque villages like Norwood, Penge, or le Gué de la Chat.

It’s an adventure, going to South London. It’s different down there. It always seems to be night time. Souped-up boy racers cut you up and leave you behind in a cloud of exhaust fumes, with a burst of beats and revs. Streets seem wider, straighter, flatter, faster. Bleaker, darker, windier, wilder. Scents of cannabis and fried chicken waft past nail salons, nasty pubs and evangelical churches in abandoned office buildings. Sirens screw the air.

Brixton pulsates with energy, always. Dulwich is always half asleep. Clapham High Street on a Saturday night could be any provincial town centre. I hate picking up there. They’re all over the road; screaming, wailing, puking, crying. Despite the encroachment of the city sometime in the Victorian era Clapham fiercely clings to its roots as an unsophisticated village along the old Portsmouth road, which I suppose is something to be proud of.

And will I go south of the river? At this time of night? Why, of course. I’ll go anywhere you ask me to. More cabbie slang: brooming. That’s what we call the act of refusing to take a job. For the record, it’s illegal. If the job is within twelve miles (twenty from Heathrow) and/or one hour’s drive, your trusty London cabbie is bound to accept it unless he has reasonable grounds to suspect you’re going to be trouble – you’ve got sick all over your face, say, and you can’t walk in a straight line or remember your address (to be fair this does rule out many of the potential punters in Clapham on a Saturday night).

As a punter, it’s happened to me too (and I only live up the road from King’s Cross) so I know how frustrating it is. As a punter who is also a cabbie it drives me mad, since it plays right into the hands of our competitors, who take the work we refuse, and it’s difficult to argue our competitors should play by the rules if we’re not going to do so ourselves. When it happens to me I follow the advice of my Knowledge teacher (Dean Warrington of WizAnn, one of the great modern day cabbie-geniuses) and take the driver’s badge number, telling them I’m going to report them to the carriage office. Being a cabbie, I can never actually bring myself to do it, but at least I know I’ve spoiled their night. If a cabbie wants to go home he should turn his bleeding light off and go.

As for the actual cliché, “I don’t go south of the river at this time of night”, I’ve never lived en France so I’ve never heard it said to me. I have read that it originated during a period in the 1980s when there’d been a spate of cabbies lured into sprawling South London estates and robbed.

Not long after I got my badge, I had a weird experience south of the river. I picked up this guy in Charing Cross at about 1am and he wanted to go to an obscure street in Peckham, amidst one-ways and dead ends and tower blocks. I felt uncomfortable with him immediately, he was definitely drunk, and seemed high too, and he had a mean look in his eye. He’d been with a sinister-looking friend when he hailed me, who didn’t get in, but walked away making a phone call. I tried to engage my passenger in conversation but he was monosyllabic and unforthcoming. I was trying to bring him out to put my mind at rest, but that mean look in his eyes and his unwillingness to engage only made me feel more uncomfortable.

I started to get paranoid. The sinister friend had been calling up their mates to meet us at the other end and rob me down a Peckham dead end. Like a beef farmer who doesn’t give names to his cattle, the guy in the back didn’t want to make friends because he knew he was going to have to do something unpleasant to me later. I started to freak out. I had a conversation with myself in my head and I decided that if I felt this weird about the situation it would be crazy to carry on to the sinister conclusion out of politeness or pride. I needed to get the guy out of the cab.

I watched Walworth Police Station glide by and thought “dammit, I should have turfed him out there”. Then heading towards Camberwell I saw a minicab office and thought, it’s now or never, so I pulled up and told him to get out, I wasn’t taking him any further, he was freaking me out and I didn’t like it. He could get out here and get a minicab and I wouldn’t charge him anything.

Well, now he started talking! His accent was that cute, high-pitched London one, like David Beckham’s. Totally unthreatening. He was, quite naturally, completely bewildered, he just wanted to go home, yes he was drunk and he’d had a bit of coke, but please, he begged, just take me home, I’m a nice guy, I’ve got money. He got out his wallet, which was stuffed with twenties, and shoved two of them through the hatch into the front. I started to feel ridiculous. It was all in my mind. And yet still I felt nervous about those one-way streets and the sinister friend on the phone. I said I’d drop him at Goose Green and gave him back one of the twenties. He said Goose Green was absolutely fine. We carried on into the South London night.

“Okay, let’s start again”, he said. My name’s so-and-so, what’s yours? I told him it was Ian and we began to chat. He was okay. He wasn’t dangerous. My panic passed and I started to relax. I apologised for my behaviour which from where he was sitting must have seemed insane. I told him I’d only been doing the job a few weeks and he said, “You’re going to need to man up a bit if you want to be a taxi driver mate!”

I dropped him off at Goose Green, turned my light off, drove home humiliated and put it down to experience. If you’re going to let someone in the cab in the first place, you need to follow through and complete the job. People, on the whole, are alright. If you’re going to be a taxi driver, you need to man up a little bit. And France is nothing to be frightened of.

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