Monthly Archives: January 2014

Food Glorious Food

(Original edit of January CallOver piece)

It’s fair to say that food plays a central role in my life.  My working day is planned around food stops, and when I’m not working, I’m either eating or preparing to eat.

In a previous life as a Careers Adviser, a long lunch in Wetherspoon’s would be the order of the day.  That avenue of pleasure was emphatically closed off when I joined TfL as a Knowledge Examiner, as pubs were strictly off-limits.  Not that I got enough time anyway.

In order to refresh our Knowledge of the suburbs, Examiners were sent out in an official TfL vehicle.  Yes, running routes and looking up Points like many of you do now – not easy in the company Routemaster (only joking, it was a Prius).  Having some element of choice, my sectors were to include such ethnic food honey pots as Southall, and the Golden Mile of Kebabs on Green Lanes.  It was bleeding horrible doing those suburban runs:  what do I know about Bush Hill Park?  And I thought Gordon Hill played for Manchester United in the 70s?  I did discover that the charcoal grills extended right up Green Lanes to Winchmore Hill, so that was a plus.  I still don’t know many Points in Harringey, but I do know where to get a blinding yoghurtlu Adana. 

Back at Palestra I tried to interest the other Examiners in the delights of Capital Kebabs on The Cut, but they weren’t committed to the cause.  Personally I didn’t think they weren’t hard enough, though perhaps their arteries were.  One by one, my colleagues fell by the wayside, and switched to Sandwiches, or the food in Palestra’s cafeteria.  Personally, I found the food there far too bland and healthy.  They didn’t even have a deep fat fryer, I ask you.  When I left TfL and went back on the cab full-time I would often only accept radio jobs if they were going somewhere I could get a nice meal.  I realised I’d taken it a bit far when I felt homesick for Capital Kebabs and ran empty from Kentish Town to St John’s Wood in order to take a radio job to SE1

Anyway, when you are out on your bike Knowledge-ing do you ever wonder what goes on inside those building you’re noting down?  I can’t say I did much at the time.  It’s only in recent years that I became curious as to what goes on behind the curtains and tinted glass of London’s more upmarket restaurants, and started to visit a few as a paying customer.  I could never bring myself to spend £300 to stay the night at a top hotel, but for the price of a job to Heathrow, I could experience a nice upmarket restaurant or two*  Not Michelin-star places as neither the wife or I care for that poncy stuff:  just nice, comfortable places, with nice comfortable food.

*Dessert supplement waived for Terminal 5 job.

We like to visit our favourite London restaurant, Rules, every year or two.  It’s grand, and traditional; but extremely comfortable and friendly.  On special occasions we started to come into London more, and experiment with different places.  When I started the Knowledge in 1985 I vowed to have a meal at Langan’s to celebrate getting my badge.  In the end I didn’t celebrate at Langan’s, but at a bar in Brixton (not sure how I ended up in Brixton, as I never had a lot to do with South London back then, and I don’t much now).  I eventually made it to Langan’s, but twenty-five years after I said I would.  I’ve been twice now and love the place.   I love the Wolseley too, and the meat- feast of Barbecoa hits the spot too (meat, meat, and more meat:  a bit like Capital Kebabs). 

The last upmarket restaurant we went to was the Savoy Grill.   Just walking into the hotel lobby is intimidating.  You know you’re being watched, and you fear that at any moment you’re going to be challenged as not being a fit and proper person.  Personally, I’d feel self-conscious walking in with my badge and money bag looking for the loos.

Turn left and you’re into the restaurant.  It’s big and serious – the poshest place we’ve been to so far.  The fact that I use words like “posh” probably indicates that I was not born into this world of grandness, though it is one I could get used to!

Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with feeling intimidated in a restaurant as it adds to the feeling of occasion.  So long as it’s friendly, bring on the formality my man!  And it was friendly.  Our waiter had a Yorkshire accent, if you please.  Before my Sheffield-born missus could enter into a conversation about meat pies, black pudding, and other northern delicacies, our man had produced the menus.

Selecting the food isn’t too difficult, as anything heavy on greenery is rejected immediately.  Wine is a bit of a minefield though, as it’s here that you could be exposed as a philistine who doesn’t know the difference between a Claret and a Bordeaux.  Our waiter said he’d get the sommelier to talk to us.  Never mind the sommelier, mate, fetch me the wine waiter!   This sounded serious.  Would we be interviewed under caution?  Would we be outed as philistines and shown the door; our names circulated in the press and around all the top restaurants of London?  What if we wanted a bottle of Blue Nun – would blokes in checked trousers give us a kicking around the back by the bins?

No, it was fine.  The French sommelier talked through our options, and we made a good choice with his help.  The food was great too, and it was a wonderful experience.

Ideally, I’d like to give up work and concentrate on eating full time.  But before that time comes, I’ll be in the cab caffs eating bacon rolls – with just the occasional visit to the Hotel de Posh to look forward to.

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A Brief Career Autobiography

(Original of Educated Cabbies article for Taxi magazine, January 2013)

I read with interest that many professional people in Peru have turned to cab driving as a way of making a living. Workers formerly in high status, well-paid, jobs initially turned to cabbing to escape pay cuts and job insecurity in the face of an economic downturn, but settled into their new jobs with no way of returning. It’s reported that one in three drivers at many garages are college-educated professionals, and the educated cabbie has become a popular icon in Lima.

In London it’s not such a new phenomenon. Cab driving has provided a steady career choice to many with professional qualifications, or from high-powered, or glamorous, occupations. During my stint as a Knowledge Examiner I came into contact with several Knowledge candidates who worked in City finance, or were IT experts. There were actors, musicians, and even the odd ex-professional footballer. High-ranking former policemen sat on both sides of the examination desk. There were also plenty of people who ran their own businesses, but for whatever reason considered cab driving as a better option.

There aren’t many jobs with the potential to provide a professional-level income, requiring no previous qualifications or experience. So long as you complete your self-directed training and pass a series of exams you have a guaranteed job! Not even doctors or lawyers have such job prospects. Unless you do something stupid, you have a job for life.

During the recession of the early 1990s I decided to make the move the other way, out of the trade. I enrolled at a residential adult education college for a year, then went on to university. While renting a cab during vacations I was told that I was one of the few drivers at the garage who wasn’t a teacher. I didn’t realise that in a couple of years time I would be a student teacher myself.

I thought the grass would be greener on the other side, and in anticipation of my new professional life I foolishly let my badge expire. A costly mistake.

All idealism melted away as I realised teaching was largely about crowd control. I’d like to tell you how I had the menacing presence of Ray Winstone, combined with the delicate skills of a master storyteller; and how thirty teenage girls hung on every word of wisdom I imparted. I regret to say it wasn’t like that, and Birmingham’s finest daughters ran rings around me. I soon realised that waiting in the staffroom for the bell to go for the next lesson was more stressful than pushing a cab down Oxford Street. I walked out before I was pushed.
Leaving with my tail between my legs I signed up for more university, and eventually became a careers adviser. This wasn’t what I expected either. I’d improved my classroom management techniques, but t he more I immersed myself in the professional world the more I resented it. How did I ever let a woman fifteen years my junior, and with limited life experience, assess my monthly targets and tell me how to do my job? Looking around the cab cafes I now frequent I knew that none of the drivers around me would take to Appraisal, Supervision, Performance Indicators, or pointless meetings. It was all nonsense: the office politics, the political correctness, and the latest client-focussed trends – delivered in training sessions with coloured marker pens and second hand American jargon.

From time to time I would consider a return to the cab trade, but it took a handful of years to finally decide to do whatever it took to take my freedom back.

I’d moved out of London and I hadn’t driven a cab for eleven years. I became one of only a few people to do the Knowledge twice. Manor House to Gibson Square all over again. I reckoned it would take me at least two years, as I’d forgotten everything. After four months I was shocked to be called up to Palestra for a re-test. I was even more shocked to pass. I received my second green badge within an hour of the longest, toughest, Knowledge Appearance of my life. On the same day I was offered voluntary redundancy from my careers job. I used my pay-off as deposit on a second hand cab.

Little over a year later and I managed to land my dream job: Knowledge of London Examiner. I loved the job, but my body never got used to getting up at 4.30am to make the seventy mile journey from Northampton. I’d just bought a brand new cab, and the pressure of having to work weekends on the cab after a week of examining and gruelling travel took its toll. I left a month before my eight-month contract was up.

I was back on the cab full time, but I was content. There were more “Thank Yous” in the cab than there were in careers work. I had more of an identity. I was making my own decisions, and was in control of my work from start to finish.

I had returned to the trade with more appreciation. And with the knowledge that the game’s still not dead.
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, October 2013.

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