(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.