Monthly Archives: October 2016

Stop the Clock

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

I hear London Underground have been monitoring their valued staff members’ loo breaks with a stopwatch. The unions are understandably unhappy. Hearing about these sorts of things reminds me of the freedoms that I enjoy in my job. Employers weren’t always so zealous about timekeeping, were they? Maybe I was lucky in my first job. In 1978, I was a naïve sixteen year old training it in to Central London from Upminster. There was a hard-drinking culture on the tele-sales floor, which manifested itself in lively banter and boozy lunch hours. As the office junior I was taken under the wing of the older staff and educated in the ways of London lunchtime culture. It wasn’t just our lot; all the pubs in Covent Garden were full of local workers at high noon, and there didn’t appear to be any rush to leave when your hour was up. Subsequent jobs I did weren’t so alcohol-fuelled – not at my level anyway – though it was still normal to spend a full hour in the pub. The bosses sometimes came and everyone mixed in. There was no-one waiting back at the office with a stopwatch. As long as the work got done, the bosses were happy. As a motorcycle courier in the mid-1980s I enjoyed the freedom of self-employment, and this was coupled with the double-edged sword of plenty of downtime. For those of us on the road, drinking was strictly restricted to occasional social gatherings at the weekend, or after work. Ordinary workers could afford to live in inner London in those days. When I passed the Knowledge in 1988 and went on the cab, drinking was totally out of the window. I no longer had workmates but I’d see my old Knowledge colleagues on the road or in the cafes. In 2001, I moved to Northampton for my first office-based job in sixteen years. I could see the culture had changed. There were occasional gatherings for leavers and birthday celebrations, but those of us who enjoyed a beer and a burger at lunchtime were looked upon as subversive. Ten years’ on and I started to feel guilty for ordering beer at a lunchtime gathering for someone’s birthday. I don’t think it was against the rules, but by the end of the decade only a hard-core few would do it. At least I still had flexibility of time, and a select few of us would spend lunchtimes in the pub away from the others. I firmly believed it was everyone’s right to take part in Wetherspoon’s Beer & Burger deal, and I still do. Zero-hours contracts were unheard of – though they undoubtedly existed in some form. Conversely, I spent ten years thinking how I could extricate myself from the contract I was on. I’d sold my freedom and I didn’t believe in the job I was doing. In moments of weakness I’d think wistfully about my old career as a cab driver, and when redundancy looked on the cards in 2010, I took the plunge and went back on the Knowledge. Driving in from Northampton by car at the weekend I reckoned it would take me two years. After four months I was surprised to be offered a re-test, and even more surprised myself by passing first time and walking out of Palestra with my second green badge. Less than a year on and I’m working as a Knowledge Examiner. My dream job, but one not without its frustrations. At the TfL induction on my first day, a fellow examiner articulated the question we were all wanting to ask, but were afraid to: “Are we allowed to drink at lunchtime?” We were told in no uncertain terms that we weren’t. We then found out we only got forty-five minutes for lunch anyway. I later realised that staff in other companies were in a similar boat, and the traditional British lunch hour had gone (maybe it’ll be re-instated when we leave the EU, but I somehow doubt it). It seemed people were afraid they’d be replaced should they even take the breaks they’re entitled to. The culture was now to sit at your desk and eat something green from a plastic box. Interestingly, cigarette breaks always seem to have been enshrined as some kind of human right, though those of us who didn’t take them were never allowed to have time off in lieu. When I left TfL I considered asking for all those ten minute breaks I was entitled to, to be backdated and paid as cash. But as we all know, you get little joy arguing with TfL. The culture used to be that you’d socialise with your work colleagues; within the workplace and at lunchtime. I came from a world where you’d chat in the kitchen, and go and sit on someone’s desk to drink your coffee. This wasn’t encouraged at TfL. Employees even had to arrange their own Christmas get-together. Evenings at the pub were rare because everyone lived in the outer suburbs. I had to accept that it was the end of an era. The culture of employee socialisation had declined and everything had become more pressured. Now back on the cab full time, I have to pay for my own breaks. I don’t need a stopwatch: I’m stricter on myself than any boss ever was. I award myself a strict hour for lunch and a half-hour coffee break. I appreciate my breaks and I appreciate my freedom, but I don’t half miss the pubs of Covent Garden.

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This Week in London: Too Much Monkey Business

Boris urges us to demonstrate outside the Russian Embassy as a protest against their bombing of Syria. Putin’s really going to listen, isn’t he?  He’ll be quaking in his boots When footage is beamed back to Moscow of bus routes being disrupted on Bayswater Road.

The cost of Bovril goes up, and it’s all because of selfish folk like me voting to leave the EU.  Shame on me.

This week’s most exciting story was that gorilla escaping from London Zoo. I heard the story unfold on LBC as I made the long drive back from City Airport on a loss-leading fixed-priced ComCab job.  It sounded serious: Police marksmen, helicopters…  It transpired that the said monkey was apprehended still within the confines of the zoo.

For those of you who don’t know, the Zoo is in Regent’s Park; a huge green space surrounded by rich areas.  The gorilla could easily have made it to St John’s Wood High Street, and could’ve caused all kinds of mayhem should it have got to Lord’s Cricket Ground.  The MCC would severely disapprove, perhaps ban him for life.

I like to imagine him mingling with the revellers on Camden High Street.  Would anyone notice until he found the food stalls at Camden Lock?

Have a banana!

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Lost Property & Technology

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

Lost Property & Technology

The most common form of lost property is the mobile phone. When mobile phones didn’t exist, instances of passengers leaving items in the cab were relatively rare. The situation is different now. Almost everyone carries a phone, and they’re not easy to spot at night on the back seat of a poorly-lit taxi.
It’s important we remain vigilant to lost property as it can save a lot of hassle. The Lost Property Office is only open 8.30 to 4pm Monday to Friday, and even if you’re clever enough to know where your nearest working police station is, you’ll probably find it closed, or converted into a block of flats.
I have a good record of re-uniting folk with their phones, and two unusual examples come to mind. On my way home one night I looked around and saw a small black rectangle on the back seat. On closer inspection I identified the item as a mobile phone. The following morning I managed to work out how to answer it when the inevitable call came, and I promised to drop the man’s phone off in Grays Inn Road when I next found myself in the area.
Five years’ ago I wasn’t familiar with the concept of smart phones, Blackberries, what have you. I was therefore a bit taken back by the man’s obvious relief when I handed over his phone. I realised these mobile telephone receivers were worth a bit of money when he tried to offer me a ridiculously large cash reward. I said he would have got his phone back eventually through Lost Property, but he said that would have taken too long (I suspect he was a regular visitor to 200 Baker Street). There followed a surreal exchange where he was offering me large amounts of money and I was haggling him down. We settled on £25, which I felt was more than enough compensation for my time and effort.
Three years’ ago I repatriated two items of lost property in one afternoon. A Tory peer left his wallet in the cab after a visit to the House of Lords. After a bit of effort I tracked his office down, and earned a modest fee for my troubles.
All day I’d been hearing a ringing coming from somewhere inside the cab. Amazingly, when I looked under the driver’s seat I discovered a phone. I’d recently come back from holiday and quickly assumed that the phone was left there by someone who moved my cab at the car park at Gatwick. Not so. I eventually managed to answer the phone and discovered it was left in my cab by a car washer a few days’ previously. I declined a cup of tea as compensation and saved myself a trip to Gatwick.
Our customers’ lax attitude to security sometimes astounds me. They’ll get you stop at a cashpoint and leave the door open with phones and bags proudly displayed on the back seat. Certain Middle Eastern gentlemen enjoy the showmanship of peeling off a fifty pound note from a huge roll as they pay you off at Harrods. Women never show off their money like that, they wear it. In my experience, it’s only men who leave mobile phones in taxis. Women only lose them in their bags, so they’re not really lost at all.
As card payment increases, it presents new concerns. Security flaws have been identified in some chip and PIN terminals, which has allowed thieves to download customer’s’ personal card details. I don’t know how common this is, or how it’s easily done; but I understand thousands of terminals, commonly found in shops and restaurants, have had to re-programmed to avoid problems. Card terminals obtained from a reputable source should be fine, but it’s an issue worth watching.
There’s always the nagging fear that there will be a problem with your credit card reader, or with your customer’s credit card. Your eyes might light up with pound signs when someone gets in and asked you to take them to Twattinghamshire on a credit card, but what do you do if their card is declined at the end of the journey and they have no cash?
And what do you do if someone tries to rip you off on purpose? Current guidance warns against locking your doors and delivering your criminal to a police station, as the crim can counter-charge you with holding them prisoner, kidnap, extortion, or something. Maybe phoning the police directly, or going through a radio circuit you might subscribe to, might be a better idea. The police are known to sometimes claim that a refusal to pay is a civil matter, but if a person enters the vehicle without money in his possession, and fails to inform the driver until the journey is complete, they commit an offence under Section 11 Fraud Act 2006 – Obtaining Services Dishonestly. If shops can prosecute, I’m sure we can too. Stay firm and insist something is done. Going by instances reported in Taxi, once the Polizia are involved, the miscreant often finds he had some cash in his pocket after all.
Time will tell what problems an increase in technology will throw up, but we need to be ready to deal with any issues. The card reader might be worth something if data can be downloaded by criminals, but there’s nothing much we can do about devices fixed to the cab. As for lost property, all we can do is try not to let it happen. We drivers need to take care of our own possessions too. We certainly shouldn’t leave things on display. Make sure phones, bags, and that nice leather jacket you bought in Majorca, are with you when you go for a coffee.

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Frack Off

I’m still not sure about fracking. I’m not too worried about safety concerns: fire coming out of kitchen taps in Texas is probably something imagined by excitable freaks and stoners. No, I’m more uncomfortable that the whole thing is run by the private sector. Will it result in cheaper gas? I doubt it: any profits will surely go to the fat cat shareholders. No way are foreign-owned energy companies going to sell us cheap gas. Energy supply should be nationalised.

Even if we accept fracking is safe, all this drilling is surely going to be a blight on the landscape. As a gesture of good faith, I’d like to see Theresa May fracking her back garden with her Black & Decker.

Four-thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, indeed. That’s two-hundred miles away from most Tory voters, so that’s all right…

I’m not sure what Mr Corbyn thinks about fracking, and it’s probably not a good time to ask the UK Altercation Party…

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Ubermarket Sweep

(Article written for Taxi magazine. The editor suggested I needed to lie down, though I think it’s quite jolly in places).

Ubermarket Sweep

You’ve probably noticed people riding around on Uber delivery bikes. Our favourite app-based technology company have opened a new front in the transport war and are taking on courier companies like Deliveroo. That’s all we need: more mirror-worrying scooters with huge boxes scraping down the cycle lane. A perfect complement to their cars holding you up by picking up passengers in the middle of the road and doing a three-point turn.
UberEats collect food from restaurants that don’t provide a delivery service and deliver it to your home or office. Cyclists and motorcyclists are drawn in with a £100 sign-on payment, and are apparently paid an equivalent of £10 per hour. Of course, Uber’s mini-cab drivers were similarly tempted in by golden hellos, but the gold turned to rust when their earnings plummeted. Ah well, it’s their choice.
Uber also experimented with a grocery service in Washington DC. They would deliver household essentials to your door at a competitive price and with no delivery charge. Amazon started a same-day “fresh produce and groceries” delivery service in California and Seattle, and have recently launched the service in England, supplying meat, fish, dairy products, and many other items. Sadly, when I tapped my Bedfordshire postcode in I learned that I’d have to go without my brace of pheasant today, as delivery is currently only available in certain postcodes in North and East London (Hipsters in other words. Yes, craft beer is also available).
This is in addition to the existing supermarket deliveries. We’re now living in a world where people expect everything to be delivered, and delivered promptly. I get to see many towns and cities on my travels, and I’ve watched our High Streets decline as the computer and smart phone has replaced the shopping experience. Big, established, names from my childhood, have gone: Woolworths and C&A closed years’ ago; to be recently been joined by BHS – a shop sold for £1, then valued at nothing.
People like Boris said people needed choice, and to object to Uber was to object to progress – never mind that private hire and taxi trades are distinct services, and ours is much more stringently regulated. You were anti-competition if you spoke up against an unfair playing field on which Uber played. When Uber, Amazon, and the rest, take over our High Streets and our few remaining greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers close; can we then say it’s because they were anti-progress and resistant to change?
Thankfully, the debate over cab drivers taking credit cards is now virtually redundant. Those drivers who resisted were labelled luddites Luddite if you were resistant to accepting cards. They were dinosaurs sleepwalking into their own extinction. I’d always countered that you’d only use cards to pay for certain items, and that you wouldn’t use one to pay for a pound of apples or a newspaper. I’m now thinking that maybe people do. People are certainly encouraged to pay for their coffee by card at certain places.
Presumably I’m a dinosaur if I want to conserve the physical shopping experience of walking down to the shops, to browse, touch and physically compare items – and to check the sell by dates on fresh produce.
The whole delivery thing has a sinister side. The independent businesses that I support would be hounded by the HMRC should they get their tax returns wrong, yet companies delivering stuff may well be brokering deals to discount their tax bills, or be paying their tax abroad. Are you against competition and progress if you don’t try to make deals to pay less tax?
Do the self-employed “partners” working on behalf of these delivery companies actually earn enough, or are they encouraged to claim tax credits? Are their scooters insured for business use?
Maybe Uber have gone as far as they can go with taxis in London, and that’s why they’ve started on couriers. The businesses that don’t take part in any of these delivery schemes will risk being eaten away. I would fully expect Uber and other companies to set up their own retail businesses, if they haven’t already – these things usually start off in the USA. They’ve waged war on taxi drivers, traditional private hire, couriers; and now butchers, fish mongers and greengrocers are at risk. They’re trying to take over the world! The Government, TfL, businesses, and those people who can’t be bothered to do their own shopping, are all letting it happen. They say it’s in the name of progress. Maybe it is. What do I know? I’m just a dinosaur.

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