Monthly Archives: October 2018

Today Luton, Tomorrow the World

(Original edit – and title – of article written for Taxi magazine).

However much we London cab drivers complain about those in power making our job more difficult, things in the provinces things are even tougher. For instance, cab drivers outside London have to pay thousands of pounds each year for permission to rank at train stations. London drivers don’t pay to rank at stations, but it’s useful to keep an eye on what’s happening outside the M25 as who knows what might happen in the future.

I take particular interest in the goings on at Luton Airport because it’s only up the road from my home in Leighton Buzzard, and it’s an airport I use every now and again for my holidays. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to take customers to Luton Airport you’ll also know that you have to pay £3 for the privilege of dropping off. You may have also heard that the airport authorities sold off taxi provision to private hire a couple of years ago.

In September we were flying out to Kefalonia from Luton, so we had the chance to see how things were working. For the outward journey, my wife arranged a fixed price fare in a Central Bedfordshire taxi. No problems there. Mo often takes a taxi to work, and her usual driver gave her a good price. He offered to pick us up when we return, but we declined. You can’t trust flights arriving on time and we didn’t want anyone waiting around for hours. There was no reason not to expect things to run just as smoothly for the return journey. I knew Luton taxis were a bit more expensive, and I knew things had changed at Luton Airport; but I still assumed it would be a simple matter of getting a cab off the rank.

I found what was happening at our local airport both depressing and confusing. The night we arrived back we followed the “Taxi” signs. We couldn’t walk straight on to the rank as there’s an Addison Lee booking office in the way. We tried to walk around it to find another way to the rank when a bloke stepped out of the shadows offering his services. He took an ID out of his pocket. It was a TfL private hire driver’s licence. I explained we were looking for a proper taxi, not private hire. He said there are no taxis at Luton Airport any more (only later did I wonder what a TfL-licenced minicab driver was doing in Bedfordshire. I neglected to inspect the licence plates, but I assume all the licenced cars at the airport would be licenced by Luton. I expect his minicab was in the car park while he touted in the darkness next to the official booking office).

What he told me was almost true though. When I spotted a solitary TX4 mixed in with the Addison Lee minicabs I found a way on to the rank and spoke to the driver. He told me that everyone working the airport is signed up with Addison Lee and we had to go through the booking system.

Knowing there was at least one taxi working the airport I approached staff in the booking hut. I requested a taxi. They said all their vehicles were taxis. I held my lip. After much deliberation between my wife and I, we decided to go with Addison Lee and see what happened. We gave our address to the woman and within seconds we had a slip of paper from a machine. The fare would be £45.25 and we’d pay cash on arrival. It was considerably more than we paid to get to Luton. Fair enough, it was nearly 10pm, but this is the price for a minicab!

On the rank, the solitary TX4 taxi was now number two. I asked the marshal if we could take this vehicle. He was reasonable enough to allow this.

I exchanged a few words with the driver on arrival. My driver was driving back to the airport. He confirmed that Luton Airport have sold off taxi provision to Addison Lee and that the only way taxis can access the airport is signing up with Addison Lee. I’m not sure if drivers have to pay AL a cut, or just subscribe to their circuit. He told me that times are hard for the local taxi drivers (I didn’t want to depress him further by asking if Uber operate in Luton). I guess the only other option is to work Luton town centre and risk the drunks and weirdos.

It’s scandalous that any taxi or private hire driver should be charged for ranking up to serve airport or station customers. As for arriving customers: they follow the Taxi sign, but it’s darn near impossible to actually find a taxi. I only managed it by having some idea of how things work. Too many people use the “Taxi” name in vain. If a “Taxi” is indicated, customers should at least be able to request one. Customers are being directed to a private hire booking hut by misleading signage. People aren’t getting what they think they are getting.

With all the talk about Uber maybe we’ve neglected the threat of our old foe Addison Lee now that the battle has moved thirty miles up the M1? We need to keep our eyes on other transport hubs as I feel this could be the thin end of the wedge.

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The Book They Tried to Ban (Excerpt)

Here’s another excerpt for your delectation: this one’s about celebrity passengers. From Manor House Station to Gibson Square- and Back Again is now being printed up. I expect it to be released early next month.

Celebrities

Most celebrities go about their business quietly without drawing attention to themselves. Some try to disguises themselves with hats, scarves and dark glasses. It’s always nice to pick up well-known actors, musicians or footballers. I always respect their privacy and would never try to engage them in conversation if I got the feeling they wanted to be left alone. I don’t like to be intrusive, and I don’t like to give anyone any reason to show any irritation.

They say you should never meet your heroes. With a celebrity you admire, you don’t want them to be anything other than the person you imagine them to be. You want them to remain someone to admire. On two occasions in around 1990, I picked up Manchester United and Northern Ireland footballing legend, George Best, in Curzon Street. He was a well-known figure to drivers working evenings in Mayfair. I found him a quiet, charming, man, happy to exchange a few words. I also picked up Chelsea player, Roberto DiMatteo. A star, for sure; though not quite in the league of George Best.

Also in Mayfair, I picked up veteran actor, Stewart Grainger. This guy had presence in spades, a real character. Bound for Fulham, he wouldn’t stop talking and referred to Fulham Broadway as a “shit hole” and wondered about the punch-ups that occur at Chelsea Football Club. Irish actor, Richard Harris was another big name from around the same time.

I was particularly excited to pick up a musical hero of mine at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington: Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. He was a really nice, laid-back, guy who wanted to talk about the previous night’s television programmes on the way home to Primrose Hill.

Saturday June 2nd 2012. It’s the day before the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations and I accepted an account job picking up at a hairdresser’s in Knightsbridge. My passenger turned out to be the Duchess of Kent and she was going to Kensington Palace. She came over as posh and confident; but also polite. Rather than order me round to a nearby shop, she asks if I “wouldn’t mind”. When she returned with an umbrella she said it was “for tomorrow.” I’d never been into the grounds of Kensington Palace before so I needed her to direct me from Kensington High Street. There’s a turning with signs saying “authorised vehicles only”, then further up there’s a police checkpoint. The police looked in the back of the cab and waved us through (it’s harder getting out as they stop you and take down the cab’s details).

I’m not sure how one addresses the Queen’s cousin, so I kept it neutral and treated her like anyone else. She seemed a character, and I felt she might be up for a chat over a pint sometime. Incidentally, I’ve never picked the Queen up in my cab, but I’ve seen her driven around London from time to time. You hear the whistles from the police motorcyclists first; then the traffic parts to allow the royal limousine to glide through. She never gets caught in traffic jams and probably doesn’t realise London’s traffic has increased since the ‘50s. I often wonder what she makes of the traffic cones and ugly concrete blocks that have sat outside Buckingham Palace for about a year.

One Saturday in 2013, former boxer, and eccentric celebrity, Chris Eubank chased my cab down Baker Street (Patsy Kensitt also chased my cab down Baker Street once). He said he’d left his umbrella in Selfridge’s, so he got me to stop there, before going on to Mayfair to collect his car. He then asked me my opinion on the best way to get to Brighton. He seemed a nice guy. Unlike most celebrities, Chris doesn’t try to blend in to the background. The next time I saw him he was standing in the middle of the road in Berkerley Square ostentatiously trying to flag a cab down.

It was a busy Saturday, that one. My next job straight after Chris Eubank was an account pick-up at Scott’s Restaurant. Bound for Chelsea, I was startled to find we were being chased by the paparazzi on motorbikes. I learned later that my customers were Charles Saatchi and his new girlfriend. Saatchi had been all over the media recently following his messy divorce from celebrity chef, Nigella Lawson. The photo of the pair in my cab made the Sun on Sunday.

Songwriter Nicky Chinn knew the way from Sloane Square to St John’s Wood and directed the route to the letter. At the time I was playing bass in a rock covers band. I told him we were rehearsing “Blockbuster”, one of many hits he co-wrote for The Sweet. He was flattered. Another songwriter, Mike Batt, was on his way from Bayswater to Mayfair. His musical credits include writing the music for The Wombles, and for discovering Katie Melua. He was a polite and pleasant man.

Marc Almond stopped me on a quiet weekend morning at Holborn Circus. He was going to Camden Town. He proved to be a quiet and pleasant chap (for younger readers, Marc was the frontman for 80s techno-pop band, Soft Cell. Get on your smart phone and look it up).

One evening I had a cab ride with a dead man. I stopped on Shaftesbury Avenue in the dark and realized my next customer was to be Les Dennis. It was freaky because his character had died the previous night on Coronation Street. He was on the phone talking excitedly about a new play he was about to start. When we exchanged words at the end he proved to be a really nice guy. He told me the person he’d been talking to on the phone was Bobby Davro, a comedy contemporary.

A comedian taught me a new route from St Pancras to Barnes in leafy south-west London. The impressionist, Alistair MacGowan, wanted me to use the Westway to Shepherd’s Bush, then drop down through Hammersmith and over the bridge into Barnes. It’s a longer route than any Knowledge Boy would take, but it was quick. My passenger was as posh and as serious as I expected him to be (I never expect comedians to tell jokes and be funny).

One celebrity customer I admired was the actor, Michael Gambon. He was a very polite fellow. I’d just been watching him on TV after buying the DVD boxed set of The Singing Detective, a Dennis Potter work from the 1990s. More recently, he’d also starred in a Harry Potter film. That didn’t mean much to me. I should have told him I recognised him as The Singing Detective, but I let the moment go. I thought afterwards how I could have said I was “more Dennis Potter than Harry Potter”, but my chance had gone. I regretted not speaking to him properly and told myself to seize my chance the next time a celebrity I admired got in my cab.

Turning a corner one afternoon in May 2017, I was aware of a man hailing me. He was out of my line of sight, but on stopping I immediately recognised him as Monty Python star, Michael Palin. This one made me nervous. Palin is widely regarded as the world’s nicest guy. Would he criticise my route? Would he be furious if I dared speak to him? Would he abuse me in a torrent of four-letter words if I mentioned the Pythons? This man was a comedy genius and no mistake – a pioneer of modern British surreal comedy. I needed him to remain a hero and I wasn’t going to do anything to let him spoil my image of him.

Remembering how I’d let the moment pass with Michael Gambon a couple of years’ earlier I knew that in matters of celebrity encounter, regret weighs more than fear. At the end of the journey I overcame my nerves and we exchanged a few words. Michael was exactly how I imagined: like an old-style university professor, and as approachable and self-effacing as he is on his TV travel programmes. I’m glad to say that my image of Michael remained intact.

Many Lords and Ladies have ridden in my cab. I was intrigued about the Conservative Party Chief Whip I picked up. Imagine going to a party and saying you are the Chief Whip! I bet he’s popular with the ladies. Well, a certain kind of lady anyway.

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The Truth about Dogs & Cats

(From “the book they tried to ban”. My book, From Manor House Station to Gibson Square – and Back Again, will be published in a few weeks time. Here is a short excerpt from my Passengers chapter). 

Not all our passengers are human, of course. We are obliged to accommodate assistance dogs, and we sometimes get asked to transport pampered pets, and take dogs to and from the park with their owners. Our mini-cab friends are always in trouble for refusing to carry assistance dogs. Refusing blind people’s dogs has been against the law for several years, and the guidelines have been well publicised – there’s even a poster up at the testing centre where taxi and mini-cab drivers take their vehicles for its annual licensing inspection. Never mind the legislation, I go the extra mile to promote equal opportunities for animals. I’m suspicious of such people who don’t like animals. I’ve never had a problem with animals in the cab, but I’ve had plenty of problems with people.

I welcome our furry friends in all areas of life. For me, a comfortable pub is one where you have to step over a sleeping dog to get to the bar, and where the irritable pub cat dares you to try to sit on his chair. I like the way that in France you can take your pet out to dinner as part of the family. I’ve yet to see a cat or rabbit sat at the dinner table, but I love to see a dog’s head emerge from a lady’s handbag. Those Frenchies are way ahead.

I always stop to pick up people with dogs, and they’re usually grateful as they obviously get refusals. A dog invariably settles straight down to enjoy the ride in quiet contemplation – as our human customers should do. I’ve never carried a dog that was loud and obnoxious through drink, has changed its mind where it wants to go, has criticised my route, has picked the rubber off the armrest, or has left pistachio shells all over the carpet.

I never had kids because I felt I was never earning enough money. I’m not especially keen on children anyway, and I certainly wouldn’t want any in the house. I prefer pets. Dogs are fine, but I prefer cats. Dogs are too conformist. Cats are free-thinking individuals, and I can relate to that. Tell a dog what to do, and it’ll do it without thinking. A cat shows a healthy disrespect for authority and will ignore you if it doesn’t like what’s being suggested, or stare you down in a challenging way. Badly behaved pets are the most entertaining. I like a pet I can have a fight with.  It’s not all violence though: most cats have an affectionate side. They’re just discerning and cautious. They need to get to know you first.

Many people believe dogs are more intelligent than cats, but that’s only because cats are uncooperative. They’re difficult to test because they get bored and walk off. The cat is the only domestic pet that has total freedom to come and go as it pleases. Other pets must resent that. If you don’t feed him right, your faithful house-tiger will simply move next door. Fur Q. You know you are a good person if your pet doesn’t run away. The cat thinks of itself as the master and you as the pet. That’s fine: let them think they’re the boss and they’re happy. I have a cat and I have a rabbit. Rabbits are pretty mad too.

My strangest cab job involving an animal happened in 2014 after responding to an account call in Soho. I waited a fair time until a woman got in with a dog. She sent me to Barking Bettys in Battersea (“Grooming for the Urban Dog”). The lady asked me to wait 20 minutes, then take them back to Soho. Parking wasn’t a problem in Battersea, so I was happy to do so. She took the woofer to Betty’s, then returned to say it would take an hour. The woman sat in the cab while doggie was pampered, and the clock ticked over 20p every few seconds.

The pampering took even longer than anticipated and the lady decided she needed the loo. She found a café to use, though I thought afterwards that she could have used a litter tray at Barking Betty’s.

In the end I waited 2 ¾ hours, but we got back to Soho quickly and everyone was happy. God knows who the account holder was, but it cost them £164 (plus automatic tip). The dog looked clean and happy, clearly oblivious to the expense involved. I’m not sure who was the most barking that day.

 

 

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Toilets & Cycles

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

 

I always read Transport for London’s OnRoute magazine. It might be a bit dry and self-congratulatory at times, but there are always some interesting articles relevant to our work. A couple of pieces particularly interested me in the last edition.

There was a useful piece entitled At your Convenience. This tackled the thorny subject of where those of us who drive around London all day can find toilets. Unsurprisingly there are apps available to help; such as Toilet Finder, Flush Toilet Finder and City Toilet Finder. There’s also a Great British Toilet Map available to toilet aficionados nationwide. Accompanying the listings, the apps no doubt list consumer reviews and star ratings too. None of this sounds as exciting as Trip Advisor, but probably useful to those about to be caught short while driving, but with just enough time to spend on the internet in an endeavour to locate facilities.

London train and tube stations are listed in the TfL magazine. A surprising number of stations have toilet facilities. While this is good to know, the most useful thing missing from the article is information on parking. It’s nice to know there are loos at Old Street, Piccadilly Circus, and – Lord help us – Bank; but where are the parking facilities? There’s also a toilet at Regency Place, of course, but many drivers have found out that they also train parking cameras in the immediate vicinity. Has anyone ever nipped into the terminals at Heathrow or City Airports? I often consider it when I’ve dropped off at Heathrow, but I’ve never chanced it. I can just imagine the authorities itching to destroy an unattended taxi in a controlled explosion for the fun of it.

Another useful OnRoute article gives advice to motorists on keeping cyclists safe. There’s nothing wrong with the advice given: giving room, and checking for “cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists who may weave through stationary traffic.” It’s one-sided though, as it gives no advice to cyclists: ie. To obey traffic systems and one-way workings; to use lights at night; not to ride on pavements; not to undertake; and no using the cobbled central strip on The Strand as a cycle superhighway. It would be useful to advise caution to cyclists – and pedestrians – when weaving through stationary traffic, rather than put the onus on the motorist to avoid them. How much space are cyclists advised to leave for us when they’re sprinting through roadworks?

I didn’t know there’s a £100 fine, and three points on a licence, for motorists who enter the advanced stop line box at a red light. Sometimes you accidently get caught in the box when the lights change and you don’t want to risk a collision by braking sharply with that over-laden Spanish artic behind you. Enforcement seems to be zero. I’ve never seen anyone been pulled up for sitting in this box. Cars, vans – and yes, even cabs do it; but the box is usually full of motorbikes. It intimidates and endangers cyclists, so maybe they should train traffic enforcement cameras on these boxes as well as – or instead of – box junctions? Some box junctions have their uses – the Euston Road/Upper Woburn Place one for example; but many others are used to generate money.

Too many vehicles sit in cycle lanes too. There are usually about twenty vans in the contra flow cycle lane in Chancery Lane. I know maintaining cameras costs money, but they’d pay for themselves. We generally don’t like cameras, but I’d rather they catch people here than people who’ve accidently been caught on the yellow grid of a box junction.

While on the subject of box junctions, here’s a postscript to an article I wrote about PCNs a couple of months ago. You might remember how I trumpeted the announcement that I was aiming to get my PCN average down to zero this year? Well, two days after emailing the piece off I received a PCN for being in a box junction on Westminster Bridge Road. I fear this subject might run and run…

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