Taxi Noir: An Introduction
I offer a warm welcome to anyone about to read my first introductory piece – and of course a big Hello to my fellow contributors. My name is Chris Ackrill, and my main occupation is driving a London cab. My main ambition is to stop driving a cab. Until then, every fortnight I shall be adding my darkly humorous observation on my work, London, and a myriad of other issues (taxi noir: black cab, black humour – get it?).
By way of introduction, I gained my green enamel taxi badge in December 1988 when I was 26. I haven’t worked continuously as a cab driver in the intervening 31 years. In my chequered career I’ve driven around roundabouts until I’ve become dizzy. I’ve driven down one-way streets the wrong way; and I’ve taken more U-turns than my cab has. I’ve even got totally lost a few times. I had ten years out of the cab trade from the year 2000, disappearing into the wilderness “doing other things”. It’s complicated, but I don’t suppose many people’s careers follow a clear trajectory through university and onto a gilded ladder of meaningful and fulfilling jobs. I only know a few people who’ve had a career like that. Most of us go back and forwards, trying out different things and making mistakes – and hopefully learning from them. Or is it just me?
I did nothing in the proper order: university came in the middle of my working life rather than the start. My so-called professional “career” jobs were several years back. I was a Careers Adviser in Northampton for nine years. You might think that’s the ideal job for someone who doesn’t know what to do with his life, but the job sapped my energy and ambition. I stayed seven years longer than I should have, eventually deciding to go back on the cab to run my own show again.
Maybe I should have stuck with my original plan to stay at university as an academic, but I was a full of idealism. I reckoned I’d make a good secondary school teacher. I studied half a teaching qualification at the University of Birmingham, but I could see the way it was going. However stressful pushing a cab down Oxford Street is, it’s nothing like waiting for that school bell to go. If any of you are teachers you’ll know that your work day never really finishes. You think you can make a coffee and have a sit down and they find something else for you to do. I’m not used to taking my work home, and I need at least an hour for lunch. Once they found out I was a cab driver they’d probably have me driving the school bus. I left before they threw me out. Stick with me and I’ll be sure to talk about this further down the line…
Further back, in 1985, I was working for a London publishing company delivering packages on the company motorbike. Andy in the packing room suggested I became a cab driver. This seemed a ridiculous idea: for one thing I couldn’t drive a car. Back then, cab driving in London was considered a good job (whether it’s still a good job is a moot point). In the 70s and 80s it was seen as a licence to print money, though I was astute enough to know that it came with a lot of responsibility. Responsibility has never been a strong point. It would also involve studying the dreaded Knowledge of London.
I’ll definitely be saying more about this in later pieces, but briefly, the Knowledge entailed learning a book of 468 specified routes – known as “Runs”. Once you’ve internalised them all you apply to be tested by grumpy ex-police officers at the Public Carriage Office. It’s a horrible business. So horrible that many years later I succeeded in my ambition to become a Knowledge examiner myself.
In further articles I’ll say more about the London taxi trade, as well as London itself. Don’t worry; I won’t go on too much about river crossings and one-way systems. My aim is to observe things through a darkly humorous lens and report back on things that on the surface appear mundane, but which are quite interesting and entertaining when viewed in a different ways, like driving a cab or pretending to be a teacher.
Apart from these fortnightly ramblings I write other magazine articles, and other little bits and pieces. I recently published a book about my experiences in the London cab trade called From Manor House Station to Gibson Square – and back again. You can read about everything on my website: pubcat.co.
The photos accompanying this article show me outside my home in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire; with others taken in London from the windscreen of my cab.
Until next time…