(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 …”