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.