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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London, GL7

Imagine you’re driving into London for the first time from, say, the West Country, along the M4. Let’s say – not because you’re from the West Country, but merely for the purpose of the exercise – that you’ve lived a sheltered life and your knowledge of the capital is fairly limited. After a few hours you’ll have passed the M25 and the Heathrow exits and perhaps started to feel like you’re nearly there. You’ll have left the motorway for the A4 in Chiswick, flown over Hammersmith to Talgarth Road, and continued heading East past the big unloved terraces that line the road through West Kensington. Talgarth Road becomes Cromwell Road, and you pass the imposing Victorian museums in South Kensington and really start to feel like you’re entering the Big City. You carry on East through Knightsbridge, past the world-famous Harrods department store, perhaps glittering with hundreds of yellow bulbs in the dusk.

Next you come to Hyde Park Corner and no doubt traverse it with some trepidation, wary first-time visitor that you are. The buildings are monumental now, and you’ve just swung by the triumphant Wellington Arch (you might in your naivety believe it to be the Marble Arch and snap a selfie – don’t be embarrassed by your mistake, it’s a very fine arch anyway and you’re quite right to admire it) and taken the third exit as your directions dictate.

Now you find yourself rolling gracefully down tree-lined Constitution Hill. That park on your left is the Green Park, Piccadilly’s beyond it, and before you know it Buckingham Palace appears to your right. Perhaps you have to wait a moment while a police motorcade escorts the Queen out on some regal appointment or other, it does happen.

Ahead of you briefly looms iconic Big Ben (we won’t quibble that it’s really Elizabeth Tower, Big Ben being the bell that rings within it, we’re not pedants) before you bear left and sweep majestically down the Mall, through the dazzling Admiralty Arch and into Trafalgar Square, where you’re faced with the National Gallery, the fountains, the Landseer Lions, a fifteen-foot ultramarine cockerel, Nelson’s Column and hundreds of tourists cooing and taking photographs.

Routemaster buses roll by transporting merry Londoners to and from their places of business and leisure. Jolly policemen in tall helmets offer directions and give the time of day. Cheerful cockney cabbies exchange friendly jokes with passing cyclists as the light goes down and the pavements take on a golden hue.

This is Charing Cross, the official centre of London to which all distances are measured, and I would hazard by now that you might think you had arrived. You might imagine it was impossible to get any further into London than this. You would no doubt be unsurprised to see Mary Poppins gliding in to land while Sherlock Holmes examines a red telephone box with his magnifying glass nearby.

This is London alright, in full colour, with all its ceremonial pomp and magnificence.

And yet, if you continue around to the north-eastern side of the square (perhaps you are naively looking for somewhere to park) you will be met by a sign directing you to “The City”.

the city

You could be forgiven for being a little confused. Your directions terminate here. How are you to know this is merely Westminster, the new part of London, this place full of famous sights that attracts a constant flow of millions, and that the place down the road is the City of London, the ancient heart of the capital that was there when all this was marsh, first walled by the Romans but settled long before that? If London isn’t here, you might think, where on Earth is it?

Like the end of a rainbow, the centre of a great city is something that is always just out of reach. London helpfully demonstrates this with a road sign bang in the middle of it that says London, over there, but it is true anywhere. It’s said that when Madonna arrived in New York from Michigan as a twenty year-old with a few dollars in her pocket, she hailed a cab and said to the driver, “take me to the centre of everything”. I’d like to know where he settled on. How do you put your finger on the pulse? How can you pick a crossroads or a roundabout and hoist a flag?

London has many centres. As well as the City and Charing Cross there’s the West End, Parliament Square, Piccadilly and Oxford Circuses, the Marble Arch and the London Eye, a fulcrum if ever there was one. There’s even the new financial centre where that other centre of the docks used to be, the City cloning itself, a mini Manhattan-on-Thames. And that’s without even mentioning the East End – surely no place in London has greater claim to be its core, its pulse, than that bursting centre of immigration and creativity, centuries old. You might say that’s where it all really springs from.

But talk of pulse and springs takes me to the river. The river was the inventor of London, and it rolls on through every day, wild and serene, ancient and wise, while the whole world whirls around it.

There is a field in Gloucestershire from which rises up a magic pond, the water is pristine and shallow, and from one side slips a trickle that is the Thames. From its birth it meanders with stateliness and grace as if it knows already what it must go on to do. That’s the real heart of London, its all-and-nothing and its centre of everything – it lies in a field in Gloucestershire.

Baby Thames

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In defence of the London cab

A couple of weeks ago several thousand London cabbies demonstrated in and around Whitehall against what we see as a failure of TfL to enforce its regulations and treat the licensed taxi trade fairly. On the day I wrote a piece for the Guardian about why we were there which received a lot of comments that were negative about the trade generally, and I have responded to some of the more frequently recurring ones here (with one exception, that we “don’t go South of the river”, which I will address separately in a future post).

We’re too expensive

A cab from Paddington to Heathrow might cost you around £65. A standard adult single on the Heathrow Express is £26. You only need three people in that cab for it to be cheaper than the train, and that’s without taking into account the added convenience or the fact that, unless you live in Praed Street, you need to add on tube and/or bus fares and lug your bags around each time you transfer.

I accept that we’re not cheap for long journeys if you’re travelling alone, but then when in history has it ever been cheap to hire a personal driver for long journeys? We’re a lot cheaper than retaining your own chauffeur, that’s for sure.

For the shorter shorter journeys around London that are our raison d’etre we are often cheaper than minicabs, too. My sister visited recently and got a minicab from her hotel in King’s Cross to the Houses of Parliament in the morning for £23. I picked her up in my cab in the afternoon rush to take her back to her hotel and when we got there the meter was showing £15.40. The minicab was 50% more expensive than me. If the cab had been full to capacity it would have been significantly cheaper than the tube, too.

This isn’t a one-off, either. In my former life as a non-car-owning pianist I often had to use a minicab to transport equipment from my front door in Islington to a gig in the West End. Getting a black cab back from the venue on the night rate was frequently cheaper.

We’re greedy and overpaid

Even if you do think we are too expensive, bear in mind that we don’t set the rate, our regulator (TfL) does – not that I think it is too high as it happens. Just because your night rate taxi ride took ten minutes and cost £10 doesn’t mean we’re taking £60 an hour. In unlucky hours I’ve taken £5. And that’s not profit either – we spend a large proportion of our takings on diesel and either renting or buying, insuring and maintaining our vehicles. They are not cheap.

I don’t know any rich cabbies. If any are, they must be working a hell of a lot of hours. If any are comfortable, why should that bother you? It seems right and proper to me that if you slog all your life at your job you should be able to buy a home and support your family.

We’re a closed shop

One of the most wonderful things about the Knowledge of London is that absolutely anyone can do it. There are no minimum educational requirements; all you need is a driving license and to pass criminal records and medical checks. I can think of no other profession that is so egalitarian. If you come from an underprivileged background, if you failed at school for whatever reason, providing you are prepared to work hard you can become a London taxi driver and earn a reasonable living.

We’re bad drivers

I believe that London cabbies are usually excellent drivers and that people who think otherwise fail to see beyond their own preconceptions. We are a highly visible presence on London’s streets so perhaps an onlooker could be forgiven for noticing bad taxi driving disproportionately, but I would be very surprised if the percentage of other drivers involved in accidents was not higher than that of cabbies. Think about it: we pass two driving tests, we have thousands of hours of practise, our livelihoods depend on our driving licenses, and we know the territory like the backs of our hands.

We cause congestion and pollution

Say I work an eight hour shift in which I do sixteen jobs. Say an eighth of London’s cabbies are working at the same time as me and taking the same number of passengers (these are both fairly conservative estimates I would have thought). That would be 40,000 journeys being done by 5,000 vehicles. Do you really think there would be less congestion and better local air quality if those journeys were being done by private citizens in their own cars?

We’re right-wing bigots

Well I’m gay, socially liberal and politically left-wing, and I’m proud to call myself a licensed London taxi driver. There are more than 20,000 black cabs on the streets of London and they are all driven by individuals. To say we are all the same sounds pretty prejudiced to me.

And if you’re a left-winger who thinks we’re only for the rich (and a great many of my customers are rich, it’s true) then you ought to be pleased that we’re redistributing wealth. We take money from rich people, in many cases from rich foreign businessmen, and inject it into our local economies in and around London. That’s practically Communism, isn’t it?

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A Welcome Home (or, a Line of Frustration)

It’s my first day back after a couple of weeks away and I pick up a family at the bottom of Dean Street, Soho, in the pouring rain. They want to go to the Abercrombie & Fitch shop at the corner of Savile Row and Burlington Gardens. Dean Street is just up Shaftesbury Avenue from Piccadilly Circus; Abercrombie & Fitch is just off Piccadilly Circus on the other side. You could walk it in five minutes:

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But it’s raining, and they’re fed up, so their valiant cabbie starts driving – in the wrong direction, because I’m in a one-way street. The first chance I have to get out of it is Old Compton Street, which is also one-way in the wrong direction, but the alternative would be going all the way up to Oxford Street via Soho Square, which is even more the wrong direction, so I take Old Compton Street and do an immediate right into Frith Street, then right again into Shaftesbury Avenue, and about four minutes later we’re passing the bottom of Dean Street and we can see through the drizzle just a couple of metres away the place where I picked them up.

For a few moments at least we’re now going the right way. But Piccadilly Circus looms in front of me, and I have to go around it. It’s either all the way down Haymarket to Charles II Street and then back up lower Regent Street, or right into Great windmill Street to cut back through Soho again out into Regent Street above Piccadilly Circus. The problem is Abercrombie & Fitch is at the end of two further one-way systems that both run in the opposite direction to where we’re coming from, so either way I’ve got to go a long way past it and then come back.

Are you still with me?

Now if I go the Haymarket way I’m going to end up going all the way down to St James’s Street, which seems insane, and then go around the ridiculous one-ways on Albemarle and Old Bond streets – all the way up one, back down the other:

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So I plump for Great Windmill Street, which turns out to be a big mistake.

Because Lexington Street is closed, isn’t it? Lexington Street was my direct line to Beak Street, which would have taken me to Regent Street, from where I could have gone up to Conduit Street, from where I could have turned left into Savile Row, and then gone all the way down to the other end to Abercrombie & Fitch. You see? So now I have no choice but to turn right into Brewer Street and go back up in the direction we just came from, parallel to Shaftesbury Avenue. We turn left into Wardour Street, which we passed when we went down Shaftesbury Avenue about five minutes ago, and which is parallel to and a stone’s throw from where I picked them up in Dean Street about ten minutes ago.

Next I do a left into Broadwick Street thinking I’ll go back down into Beak Street from there, but then I think since I’m quite high already and I’m going to have to go back up to Conduit Street once I get into Regent Street anyway, I might as well just stay high, and go up Poland Street to Noel Street and get to Regent Street that way, as Conduit Street is only around the corner from there, isn’t it?

So Noel Street it is. But here of course I find that we’re sitting in stationary traffic for ten minutes while we wait for the pedestrian crossing outside Liberty and the lights at the junction beyond it. It’s at some point during the despairing stew in this jam that I remember you can’t turn right into Conduit Street from Regent Street at the moment anyway because of the streetscape improvement works.

So we go straight across Regent Street, passing where we would have turned into Savile Row a street down, and we pass Mill Street too, because that’s also one-way against us, and finally we do a left into St George Street. Then it’s left into Conduit Street, and back up it, parallel to the street we were just on but in the opposite direction, until we get back to Savile Row, which we can now turn into, and I put my foot down and get to the other end as quickly as I can, because I can hear them counting out their coins in the back, which is never a good sign. Finally I drop them off what feels like half an hour after I picked them up a five-minute walk away, with £12 on the meter.

I tell them to give me £8 because I’m embarrassed and appalled at what we’ve all just been through. Amazingly they give me £13.50 and go happily on their way, offering their condolences as I slope off into the rain like a mortally wounded wildebeest.

That’s London at her magnificent, bewildering best, that is.

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Rich Pickings

Just after dark on a chilly, wet night in April, I’m standing in the rain next to my cab outside a multi-million pound villa overlooking Hyde Park.

“Malwina!” the man next to me shouts, “Have you got 40p?”

Malwina is the maid who was standing on the kerb as we pulled up, waiting to unload the cab full of luggage that we brought back from Paddington – so much of it that this man, his wife and daughter could barely fit in with it, and that was after filling the compartment in the front too. They’d been in Geneva for a week. It was twenty-two degrees there. “Anywhere would be better than here, wouldn’t it?”

Malwina pats her pockets, shakes her head, and rushes off into the house. Unfortunately, the fare on the meter is showing at £10.40, and he’s only got a ten pound note.

When they walked down the gangway at Paddington there was no queue, just two tourists asking the marshal for directions, but this chap still began shouting from several metres away, “Hey, mate, what’s the hold up, can we get in a cab or what?” Bizarrely, for the first time in years I thought of Chris Theodopolopodous, Sharon’s obnoxious and chauvinistic crook husband from Birds of a Feather. It was him, with designer suitcases.

I got out of the cab and loaded the three biggest cases into the front and helped fit the rest into the back with the passengers. Then I went back to the driver’s seat, put the meter running and set off for the given address. At the other end I pulled up, stopped the meter, and dragged the cases from the cab, through the garden gate and right up to the steps so as to get them out of the rain and dirt on the pavement. From there, Malwina took over.

We stand together for a few moments. I’m debating with myself how much the principle is worth. In the end I say, “Tell you what mate, forget it, I’m not hanging around in the rain for 40p”. It’s the first time he says thank you. Which is nice, though I’m disappointed he didn’t pick up on the contempt I’d tried to inflect it with.

Now don’t think I’m not grateful for the work, and don’t think I mind helping people with their cases, but if I’d set the meter running when I started loading and stopped it when I finished unloading it probably would have reached at least £12. It’s just, you know, it would have been nice if he’d been able to pay me. And I had a nasty feeling that 40p would have been coming from Malwina’s own purse, too.

Transport that job to the Old Kent Road, say it’s a little old lady and I’m taking her to a low rise council flat. I’d have happily rounded the fare down for her, but you can bet she wouldn’t have let me. She’d have insisted on giving me extra and then thanked me profusely for my help. “Bermondsey pays better than Belgravia”, the old saying goes.

Belgravia’s the only place I’ve ever been bilked. This one was a little old lady. I picked her up at a private club in Mayfair, took her and two members of staff to her four storey townhouse, waited while they took her in, and then took the staff back to the club. Alas, she hadn’t given them enough cash to cover the fare.

It’s not that I think the rich are mean, necessarily. It’s more that actual cash money is one of the many things that other people deal with for them, and when they come to pay for something for themselves I’ve noticed they often seem to find they don’t quite know how to go about it.

I dropped a quintessential three-piece pin-striped City fat cat outside a massive townhouse, also in Belgravia, with the meter at £28.80. He gave me £30 and asked for 50p back. It was a good job, and if he hadn’t tipped at all I would have forgotten all about it. But how am I supposed to respond to peculiar a tip like that? Oh, thank you sir, thank you ever so much sir, I’m most ‘umbled? As I drove away I wondered if maybe he needed a coin for the electricity meter, so he could put on the lights when he got in.

Mind you, 70p’s not to be sniffed at. It’s significantly better than the little job I did recently to a private clinic in Marylebone. That fare was £6.20. The gentleman gave me a crisp fifty pound note, and then helpfully put down an extra pound coin, so that I could just give him £45 back. I left the pound coin in the tray and gave him £43.80. I wasn’t letting that principle go.

But at least he spoke to me. I picked up two ladies outside Selfridges and took them to an expensive Westminster hotel. They paid the fare (in full), and the porter came and opened the cab door for them. They simply got out – without a word or even so much as looking at the man – and walked into the hotel, leaving their bags of shopping in the back of the cab. Between the two of us, raised eyebrows turned in a flash to big grins. “Amazing, isn’t it?” the porter said. “They’re just so used to having servants”.

He put the shopping on a trolley and began wheeling it into the hotel. I put my light back on and drove out into the streets. Come to think of it, maybe that shopping was supposed to be my tip, damn.

(Some names and locations have been changed in this piece.)

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A Line of Beauty

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.

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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.

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Being Lucky: coincidences in cabbing

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.

Be lucky.

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