Taxi Noir: A Drive Down Memory Lane
A business start-up in the cab trade is easy: on the day you’re licensed you arrange to rent a taxi, learn how to stop and start the meter, and away you go. Here’s what I remember of my early days on the road.
Armed with a rented seven-year old automatic cab, I gradually eased my way into my new career just before Christmas in 1988. The Knowledge was the most challenging learning task I’d ever completed, and it remains so today. London’s cab trade is unique in that you are expected to know much of it before you start. You don’t learn it as you go along as in other cities around the world. The Knowledge forms a good basis on which to build, but you still need to work at it and keep it topped up. London is vast. You learn something new every day, but you will never know it all. There is truth in the saying that your Knowledge is never as good as it is when you’ve just qualified. A new cab driver may have a better grasp of the suburbs than a more experienced driver, as there are some parts of London that cab drivers are rarely asked to go to, particularly in the day time. I’ve heard experienced drivers complaining about being asked to go to Hackney Wick Station. It was if they’d been asked to find the source of the Nile. I can understand that. I was asked to go there in 2018 and I was well out of my comfort zone, as I hadn’t been there since doing the Knowledge thirty years’ previously.
All cab drivers join the trade as part of a career change. They aren’t school-leavers; they’re hairy-armed blokes, who have been doing proper man’s jobs for years. Cab driving is not something you think of doing while at school, and you can’t take a course in Cab Studies at your local further education college. The cab trade is rather like the French Foreign Legion, in that it provides a sanctuary for misfits and freaks from around the world: people not suited to conventional employment. You join to forget your past. It doesn’t involve teamwork, though, and there’s no boss telling you what to do. The trade best suits those who are happy working alone and are left to do their own thing their own way. The only authorities we need to worry about are the police and the Carriage Office if we step out of line; and the parking wallahs when we nip into a café for a coffee.
One of the first things I did early on in my new career was to have a coffee in a cab shelter. It’s something of a tradition for veteran cab drivers to tell newcomers and Knowledge Boys that “the game’s dead.” On my first visit to the Aldwych shelter, another cab driver asked me how long it took me to complete the Knowledge. On replying that it took me three and a half years, the driver helpfully told me it would take me “longer than that to get out of it”. As it happened, he wasn’t far wrong, but at the time I was keen to work and I didn’t pay attention to some silly old man and his negative “the game’s dead” attitude.
Veteran cab drivers like to remind newcomers of their seniority. I had one driver pretend to polish his badge to remind me that mine was still green and shiny. Actually, they remain green and shiny if you leave them be. The old boys with something to prove make them look old on purpose. They probably spend hours rubbing away the enamel to give it that distressed look. Drivers now have to display an identifier in the back window of their cab with their badge number on it. Drivers who lose their badges get a new licence number and identifier when TfL replace their badge. In order not to be mistaken for a newbie, some write their original licence number underneath the new one (sigh).
I found customers nicer than I imagined they’d be. Most people are relaxed when they are going home, and some customers are very generous of spirit. In my early days working late, one or two people invited me into their homes for a Christmas drink – which I declined. One person gave me a bottle of champagne as a Christmas tip.
Gangsters, prostitutes, Essex girls who’ve had too much to drink: who’s most likely to give trouble? You got it; it’s the drinker every time. Certain groups of people have a particular presence about them. You can tell actors, gangsters and prostitutes by a bearing unique to their profession. Some people just look familiar from TV. Sex workers are of course actors of sorts. They are always friendly. Members of these three groups tend to be polite and respectful, charming even. They are respectful of others doing unconventional work at unconventional hours and don’t give trouble. They’re not squeamish about money and have a pragmatic approach to business. Early in my career a prostitute asked me matter-of-factly to take her to the “red light beat” of Stamford Hill. Another cheerful lady who I was driving to City Airport told me how she was being flown out to Paris to meet a client. All our customers have a story to tell.
How long does it take to establish yourself in your new trade? I’d say until you’ve experienced the different phases of the first yearly cycle: the depressingly slow New Year period; the pleasant spring and summer seasons; the busy autumn months; and the fraught and frenetic Christmas period. It’s depressing driving on dark winter evenings, but moods lift when things get lighter and warmer.
I’m no longer driving a cab. 2020 has been a challenging year for the trade, and I fear the remainder of the year has pretty much been written off. All I hope for is that things improve for everybody when the green shoots of spring show themselves.