There are around twenty thousand black cabs on the streets of London and every day in the past fortnight that we’ve both been working, I’ve bumped into my friend James. (Not literally – there wouldn’t be anything lucky about that.) I leave the house, drive down to King’s Cross, and there he is sitting in the rank in front of me. I round the corner from Strand into Aldwych thinking I’ll put on the nice little rank outside the No. 1 Aldwych Hotel, and find I can’t because James is already in my spot. It’s become an ongoing joke between us, and it’s getting a bit weird. Some days I’ve seen him twice.
“Be lucky” is the famous cabbie’s farewell, and in our trade luck is everything. On a quiet day you could spend half an hour sitting at St Pancras and get a £4 job to the Imperial Hotel just off Russell Square. The driver behind you might get Heathrow. I gave up and came home in despair one Sunday having had about four jobs in as many hours. I texted my pal Andrew and he replied in amazement saying he’d been non-stop all afternoon, in-out, out-in, bam bam bam. That same Andrew had Nicholas Parsons in the back of his cab once. A week later I got his wife.
It’s a peculiar thing when you stop and think about it. People often ask me which areas I work in, but every job in this game is dependent on the last and in reality I work where I’m taken. I once disappointedly took a lady from Marylebone Station to Gloucester Place, a tiny little round the corner job that the rather surly driver in front had refused. The moment I dropped her off I was hailed by someone else who wanted to go to Putney. That other driver was probably still sitting on the rank waiting for something good to come along.
The whole day is a sequence of seemingly unrelated events that are nonetheless delicately connected, which is quite beautiful really. It’s a fragile chain of drop-offs and pick-ups. Just missing a traffic light change could mean the difference between Streatham and Stratford, or between five pounds and (if you’re really lucky) fifty – not that you would ever know it, of course. And not that any of it really makes any difference to anything, in the long run. Which means that the day is equally a continual procession of entirely inconsequential what-ifs, of roads not taken, sights unseen. For all the places I go, there are countless others I don’t. Stephen Fry’s walked past me three times, though he’s not yet got in.
I told Tanni Grey-Thompson to say hello to Seb Coe, who she was meeting later that day. I met him at my mum’s cousin’s funeral, he’s a distant family friend and I knew he would remember my surname. She told me he once told her about a cabbie who’d moaned and sworn at him all the way about the impending Olympic traffic arrangements. After the event, she got into what turned out to be the same cab and the driver asked her to apologise to Seb for his negativity and tell him that once it was underway he’d really got into the whole spirit of the games and had a great time (well that’s what she said, anyway). She’s always being given messages for Seb Coe by London taxi drivers, that Tanni Grey-Thompson.
I once picked up an American family in Finchley Road and took them down to Camden High Street. On the way there the mum was on the phone telling a friend about their disastrous arrival in London. They were supposed to be staying at an apartment in the West End but when they’d arrived the agent had kept them waiting in the street for hours, and when they’d finally been allowed in at nearly midnight the place had been a pigsty, so at the last minute they went online and sorted out an alternative, which was the Holiday Inn Express where I picked them up. As we approached Camden she asked the person on the other end of the line to text her a mutual friend’s number.
The next evening, three quarters through a long and frustrating shift, I decided to call it a night and go and meet my mate Sloan for a drink. She’d just been for dinner with a friend who was visiting. I asked the friend where she was staying and she said, “Oh, it’s been a nightmare. We were supposed to be staying at an apartment in the West End…” Well she would be my passenger from the previous day, wouldn’t she? And the number her friend was texting her? Why, that was Sloan’s – funny to think the cabbie could have given it to her. London taxi drivers, hell of a service we provide.