Monthly Archives: December 2013

Great Train Robbery

It’s my sad duty to have to discuss another celebrity death this week – well you’d think Ronnie Biggs had the esteem Nelson Mandela had, judging by the courage the media were giving him.

Fair enough, the Great Train Robbery case of 1963 was interesting, given the audacious robbery, the huge amount of cash blagged, and Biggs’s prison escape; but Biggs was no hero (by all accounts he played a cameo role anyway).  Neither were any of the robbers, including Buster Edwards – another lovable rogue-type – who ran a flower stall outside Waterloo Station before killing himself.  As a new cab driver I used to see him every day, and I’d be struck by the irony of a train robber being given a pitch outside a major train station.

Another thieving gangster was in the news this week; Lord Hanningfield, who spent nine months in chokey for fiddling his accounts.  He’s now been rumbled for clocking into the House of Lords for 20 – 40 minutes on several occasions and claiming his £300 per day attendance fee.  Nice work if you can get it, m’lord!

What get’s me is how can someone with a conviction for fiddling accounts remain in work?  If I were ever caught swindling folk in my cab, TF Hell would run me out of London on a rail.  I wouldn’t be a Fit & Proper Person and I’d have my licence revoked immediately.  I’d wouldn’t be let near a cab again!

Who votes for these people?

 

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Christmas Cheer

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine)               

As we move further into December we know we are coming into the most stressful time of year: the unpredictable Christmas period – followed by the even more unpredictable and depressing Kipper Season.

Twenty-five years ago I gained my licence just in time for the Christmas run-up.  I was as green as a Christmas tree and had a lot to learn.  Many Christmasses later, I’ve learnt a lot, but still find December to be the most fraught period of the year.  Work levels are unpredictable, and the traffic and the customers tend to be more demanding. 

I like Christmas, I really do – but it lasts for ever!  And November ain’t Christmas!  The Regent Street lights switch-on was held on November 9th, and Harrods had their Christmas parade obscenely early, on November 2nd – three days before Bonfire Night!   The West End Christmas started ridiculously early twenty-five years ago, but I’m sure it didn’t start in early November until recently.  This year’s big Christmas switch-on was happening while there were still green leaves on the trees!

Putting the absurdity of an extended two-month Christmas to one side, we still have to put up with the resulting road closures and disruption.  As traffic is drawn into Central London, the build-up causes untold misery to the professional driver affected by the hysteria of the season.  The West End is put under strain, which in turn puts our paying customers under strain.  We are then put under strain as we are pressured into thinking up short cuts that don’t exist.  Are savile Row and Vigo Street open today?  You won’t find out until it’s too late and you’ve committed yourself.   As for Harrods; how can a shop be allowed to disrupt the public thoroughfares around Knightsbridge?

Regent Street seems to close for the day every couple of weeks, and New Bond Street has effectively been one-lane for the best part of a year; the two outside lanes resembling a cross between a van park and a scaffolders’ convention.  You rarely see traffic wardens in these streets as they are busy stalking vehicles in side streets where they aren’t obstructing anyone.   

The Christmas period traditionally attracts extra people on to the streets of London.  Some come from other towns or abroad; and some who work here, but who are partying away from their usual area of operation.  Most are hell-bent on having a good time, usually involving a few drinks too many.  These customers are as unpredictable as the period itself.  The Christmas party carouser has spent twelve months waiting for the one time in the year when they can let their hair down and go wild.  Nothing wrong with that, unless they are going wild in the hallowed space of your taxi.

Problems easily arise when things don’t run to their drink-addled schedules; such as getting caught in traffic, or forgetting where they live.  They’ll discuss between themselves their destination, eventually delivering their vague directions to you while a bus waits patiently behind you waiting for the all-clear.  After a few minutes they’ll invariably get you to stop on zig zags while they replenish their funds at a cashpoint. 

The wooly-backed out-of-towner making a weekend of it can be an irritation.  Regular cab users know the score; how the meter runs on a combination of time and distance, and that we know where we are going, even if they don’t.  These once-a-year customers will sit there anxiously counting twenty pence pieces into their hands as the meter ticks over, suspicious that this Cockney wide boy is going the wrong way on purpose.

Everyone – friends and family included – imagine we are raking it in over Christmas.  A couple of runs down the M4 to Berkshire taking  fat cat bankers home from their Christmas parties, then the morning off to take a wheelbarrow full of cash to the bank.  In reality, work levels are no higher than in the preceding autumn months.  The odd £15 job will become £20 due to the traffic, but it’s not worth the extra stress.  The rest of the time we are putting up with noisy groups of office workers who have only a vague idea of where they are going, and don’t know how to behave in a taxi.  

Sometimes I work Christmas Eve, sometimes I don’t.  I don’t feel any guilt over taking Christmas Day and Boxing Day off, though most self-employed folk are anxious over taking time off whatever the reason. 

Some people still ask if we charge double fare on these days.  We have to patiently point out that provincial taxis might do, and that mini-cabs certainly do; but with us it’s only four pounds extra. 

“Oh, it’s hardly worth it, is it?”

“No, not really …”

Merry Christmas!  

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South Africans and Dr Who: Social Amnesia

South Africans dry your crocodile tears.  In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death we can see a degree of social amnesia operating.  Everyone’s coming out of the woodwork saying what a great man Mandela was, but you kept him in prison for twenty-seven years!  It was Coventry’s The Specials who had the hit single Free Nelson Mandela, and Nelson’s 70th birthday concert was another British initiative, held at Wembley in 1988 (cue Land of Hope & Glory in background).  It’s said that this event hastened his release from prison. 

The Apartheid system was operating up until 1994 and was obviously supported by someone.   Many of its supporters are still alive today, so where are they now?   Is it not a bit like no Germans admitting being in the Hitler Youth, or Americans going along with their own Apartheid of the southern states?

Social amnesia and its flip side, distorted memory, plays a part in many people’s lives.  I may think I remember hiding behind the sofa in the 1960s when Dr Who came on, but in reality I probably didn’t.  I’ve heard others say they used to hid behind the sofa when the programme came on, and thanks to television documentaries perpetuating the myth, the phenomenon has passed into popular culture and become an accepted fact. That said, Jon Pertwee was a scary character, either pursued by cybermen or not.  Just as every Mancunian in a band claim to have attended the first Sex Pistols gig at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall in 1976, half the population of Liverpool get misty-eyed saying they used to be held up on their dad’s shoulders on Anfield’s Cop when they were small.  None of us are immune from it: growing up in Greater London, I was, of course, in the Blind Beggar the day Ronnie Kray shot George Cornell.  Even though I was only nine.  My dad had read that George had called Ronnie a “fat pouf” on Twitter and that it was going to go off that day.  Then again, I might be mistaken…  

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Caught by the Paps: Two Celebrity Encounters

Saturday November 30th.   I’m driving empty down Baker Street and hear a whistle.  I didn’t see who was whistling, but then I don’t often respond to whistles anyway – it’s not the British way to hail a cab. 

I stop at a red light and think nothing of it.  But the whistler has clearly legged it down the road desperate for a cab.  I look round, and it’s ex-boxer and personality, Chris Eubanks – resplendent in designer jeans and pinstripe jacket.

(the only other person who chased after me in the middle lane of Baker Street was Patsy Kensit:   she was going to Scott’s, which features in my next celeb encounter). 

Chris is known to be a bit eccentric.  Chasing cabs in Baker Street is fairly eccentric, I suppose; he was certainly indecisive. First he wanted Selfridges, then he wanted me to drive further into Mayfair.  He finally asked me to cut across three lanes and stop at the cab rank at M & S in Orchard Street He gave me £4.50 deposit and said he’d be back in a few minutes.  I didn’t intend to give him long, but he was as good as his word and asked me to take him to the car park at Audley Square.

On the way there he asked me the best way to drive to Brighton:  the M25 or through Brixton?  After all that I couldn’t think straight and wasn’t much help.  I offered to lend him a map, but he seemed in a hurry.  Seemed a nice bloke, and better looking than he is on the telly.

Just after that encounter I accepted a radio account job from celebrity fish restaurant, Scott’s.  The doorman came over and confirmed my passenger would be out soon.  I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but he wore an amused, knowing, expression. 

I didn’t recognise the couple when they came out.  He seemed pleasant and polite and directed me to Chelsea.  Just before Sloane Square, a motorbike came from behind me at speed and swerved across the traffic.   It stopped in Cliveden Place, and its rider hurriedly went to retrieve something from his top box.  Unusual to see a courier on a Saturday, I thought, but I suppose that’s the 24-hour, seven-days- a-week society we’re now living in.  I thought no more of it.  

A few yards into Sloane Square and the traffic’s slowing.  There are flashes of white light all around me.  I see blokes in motorcycle gear and cameras either side of my cab snapping away at the couple within.  She tries to hide herself away, but that’s the only reaction from my passengers.

The same happens further down King’s Road when the traffic stops.  As we pull into his road, the man whispers me to stop.  They get out and the blokes are snapping away furiously.  Neighbours stop to watch the spectacle.  The man acknowledges the photographers and pauses to allow them to briefly take more.

I realised later that the man was Charles Saatchi.  He’d just divorced his celebrity chef wife, Nigella Lawson.  Their marriage was put under scrutiny after he was beastly to her on another occasion at his favourite restaurant, Scott’s.   I must say, today he showed admirable calm and dignity.

I was delighted to see my cab in the Sunday Sun the next day!

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Smoking for Britain

So the government are considering forcing cigarette companies to wrap their products in plain white packaging so as to make them less attractive to teenagers.  This will make an excellent graffiti wall for their tags.  Kids will love drawing on the plain white canvas of a pack of Marlboro Lights (or whatever the under-age brand of choice is these days). 

This is just the government trying to make us think they are doing something about smoking, while in reality they want folk to continue.  They make a lot of money from tobacco tax, and if they don’t get it from smokers they will get it elsewhere – probably from drivers.  I already spend £1000 per month on diesel, so I’m naturally a bit worried.  

They want smokers’ tax, and they want your kids to take up the habit too.  Yes, you are smoking for Britain!  But don’t hang around to long, as they don’t want to have to pay your pension into old age.  

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