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.