King’s Cross. Quarter to midnight on a quiet Tuesday. A lady gets in. “I’d like to go to Wimbledon Park please, is that okay?” she says. “Of course” I say, “no problem”. And off we go into the deserted London streets. Now I’m delighted with this for two reasons: it’s my first serious job after a day of little bitty disappointments, and it’s going to rescue the shift from being very poor and push it up to not too bad after all. But the main reason I’m pleased is that I know I’m going to get to do a beautiful line.
Driving a taxi isn’t just about taking passengers from one place to another – in fact, that’s secondary. No, driving a taxi is about drawing lines on a map. It’s art, and it can be beautiful at times. Much of our several years in training we spend sitting in twos at laminated maps of the city. One of us calls the route, the other draws it on, and then you evaluate it together, tweaking it here and there, discussing its flaws and its successes, and how to perfect it. Every now and then, and as you get better, you get the chance to call something long and perfect and straight and your partner concurs, “now that is a beautiful line”.
Then you get your badge and you go out into the city and you draw enormous, invisible lines all over London itself. That’s what driving a taxi is really about. Much of the day the lines are tiny – from Oxford Street to Mayfair, say – or obvious – from Paddington to Pentonville Road. But every now and then somebody gets in and sets you a challenge as if they were an examiner on the Knowledge. And then you get to use those years of study, and draw them a beautiful line for real.
I see this one instantly, it’s one of my favourites and one of my strongest angles through town. We turn right into Euston Road but get out of that mess pretty quick, cutting momentarily into Gower Street before doing a right into Grafton Way and then left-right-left-righting beautifully all the way down through Fitzrovia, Soho and Mayfair. We skulk around the base of the BT Tower without it even knowing we are there. Glide past the queue for whatever fashionable club it is that’s in Wells Street now, an irrelevance. We’re on a line. We zoom past Liberty – no backed up traffic for the pedestrian crossing at this time of night – skip over Regent Street, twist and turn around Berkeley Square, Fitzmaurice Place, Curzon Street, before bursting out of Bolton Street into Piccadilly as if sailing suddenly out of a jungle tributary into the Amazon.
Then we navigate the rapids at Hyde Park Corner before diving back into the cover of Chapel Street and Belgravia. We sneak through the ghostly midnight streets around Belgrave Square, right into the broad run of Eaton Square, drawing us into our next pivot at Sloane Square. From there we’re heading for Albert Bridge, cutting through genteel Sloane Court East to beat the lights into Royal Hospital Road.
The only imperfect thing about this perfect drive is that when we reach the Embankment it’s six minutes past midnight, so we’ve just missed the illuminations on Albert Bridge, which must surely be one of the most beautiful sights in all West London and one of the great highlights of this run.
But never mind, this is a beautiful line.
We carry on down Albert Bridge Road, hang a right, and a left, and then slip quietly off the main road again up lovely unassuming Amies Street and Dorothy Road – loved by Knowledgeboys, taxi drivers and passengers all – to get up onto Lavender Hill. We dip into the little valley past Debenhams and the Party Shop and back up St John’s Hill on the other side. Left Strath Terrace, forward Bolingbroke Grove, and now we’re on Battersea Rise, working our way South-West in perfect tiny steps. Next it’s a left into Spencer Park and finally we’re on a dead straight line to our destination. It’s just forward, forward, forward – through Windmill Road, Earlsfield Road, Penwith Road, like an endless suburban runway, and we’re coming in to land; over Trinity Road and Heathfield Road and Garratt Lane, and suddenly we’re in Wimbledon Park. It’s is if we dived into a dark bright tunnel at King’s Cross and shot out of it moments later in Durnsford Road.
Neither of us have spoken a word since that “no problem”, but it’s late enough in the shift for me to have entered a sublime reverie of relaxation and satisfaction at the beauty of the thing that I’m doing, and I can sense the lady in the back is silent-content, not silent-fuming. And anyway I know there’s no way in the world we could be doing this faster or cheaper, and she gets a work of art for free.
She gets out, she pays, she tips. She says “thank you, goodnight, take care”, and she walks up to her door and goes in. That’s it. That’s enough.
Beautiful. That’s what being a taxi driver is about.