(original edit of article for CallOver magazine).
Whether you are on the Knowledge, or out in the cab, it doesn’t take much to knock your confidence. A bad Appearance up at the Towers can make you doubt yourself, as can one or two runs in the cab that draw criticisms from your passengers.
Last month I had a job from Hermitage Lane to Victoria Street. In my experience, Fitzjohn’s Avenue always runs better than Finchley Road, so I used West Heath Road up to Whitestone Pond, then aimed for Fitzjohn’s Avenue using Heath Street. “Why come this way? It’s always bad,” came the voice from the back. “You should’ve used the bus lane in Finchley Road.” I didn’t know what to think. There’s no bus lane in operation at 11am and I know we would’ve been swerving around parked vans all the way to Swiss Cottage. Then again, I don’t often find myself in Heath Street at 11am and had to admit the traffic was bad. Self-doubt crept in as I struggled to work out who was right. Maybe Heath Street is always like this at this time of day? Maybe everybody knows that?
Fitzjohn’s Avenue was predictably clear, but once we cleared St John’s Wood we continued on a long and tortuous journey, encountering more hold-ups on the way. Thankfully, she said no more, as I was wound up ready to retaliate. She wasn’t nasty about it, but the damage had been done, my professionalism had been questioned. I’d lost confidence in myself.
Some days later I had a job from Golders Green to Abbey Road. I now faced a dilemma; Finchley Road or Fitzjohn’s Avenue. In the end I chose to risk the horror of before and chose the latter. It was at about the same time of day as before and I wanted to see if Heath Street was always bad. I wanted to know one way or the other who was right. I was delighted to say that Heath Street was clear and we flew down Fitzjohn’s Avenue. The lady even said I was the only person who knew the right way to go! I was vindicated. I’d gained my confidence back. For a while…
Which Knowledge Boy wants to run Stratford Place to Riverside House at the top of Southwark Bridge Road? As I saw it I could fight my way around Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square and use the Embankment, or turn left on to Oxford Street and keep going. I didn’t relish the thought of the Piccadilly area, so stuck with Oxford Street all the way. Just past Oxford Circus the traffic came to a standstill. My man wasn’t happy. I cut through Covent Garden and joined the Embankment at Temple Place. At the conclusion to a fraught journey he leaned in to my window to say I shouldn’t have used Oxford Street. All I could say that it’s not usually so bad at 2.30 pm.
My confidence had been knocked again, but later in the day I did draw a compliment from two blokes who said mine was the cleanest cab they’d ever been in. Straight afterwards I did a job from the Strand to Euston. As we crawled up Charing Cross Road I waited for the woman to comment on the traffic, and hold me responsible for it. Instead, she gave me £20 for a £14 fare.
I like black and white. I don’t like dilemmas and having to choose. With lots of alternatives, there’s anxiety in making the right calls. If you hit heavy traffic you cost your passenger money, and they’re not always happy about it. I try not to beat myself up about a bad choice if it was the route considered the best at the time. Once I’ve committed myself – as I did in Oxford Street – I usually stay with it if I’ve gone too far to turn back. Getting caught in traffic is a nasty business, but sometimes there’s nothing you can do about it. You can’t get it right every time. You just have to make choices to the best of your ability. It’s unreasonable to expect more.
The Knowledge provides a sound basis to build your decisions on, but choosing the most successful route suited to the prevailing conditions only comes with experience. And while experience can help your decision, only a clairvoyant can predict if certain roads are going to be busy or not, at whatever time of day.
People take cabs because it’s too difficult or too expensive to drive themselves. Our job only exists for this reason. If you return home having done your best, you can take satisfaction from that. If a certain route hasn’t worked and it’s cost a passenger an extra few quid, you still deserve a good night’s sleep. I try to keep this thought in my mind at all times.