(New Year article written for Taxi magazine).
The New Year is a time for reflection. We look over the past year: what went well, what went badly; and what our hopes are for the coming year. Work-wise, if you’ve been in the same job for a while you tend to compare and contrast with previous years.
December 2018 marked thirty years since I gained my first green badge. Yes, I’m on my second. Those who are familiar with my story know I left the cab trade in the 1990s to do other things, and foolishly neglected to renew my cab licence. During the 90s I attended various colleges and universities and eventually became a Careers Adviser. I didn’t think I’d drive a cab again and I didn’t keep up to date with what was happening in the trade (the Blur v Oasis Britpop feud was a big event for students of the mid-90s: I had other distractions). I left London for good in 1999, but was disillusioned when I entered the so-called professional world. I soon wanted my freedom back. I started the Knowledge again in 2010, and gained my second licence four months later through a Knowledge re-test with the legendary Mr Wilkin.
When I think back to December 1988 and beyond, things are very hazy. I remember my decision to go on the Knowledge – a surprising one considering I couldn’t even drive – and I remember riding runs on my Vespa and attending Knowledge Point School. I even remember the memory tricks the school taught me. Knowledge Point students of my generation may recall the phrase “Skin Percy’s Liver” used in order to remember the running order of Skinner Street, Percival Street and Lever Street; or the “Place Your Primrose Over Cyril’s Parked Connaught” phrase used to remember the mansion blocks on Prince of Wales Drive (answers on a postcard, please…). I sometimes wonder how I got through the Knowledge, as I have the memory span of a goldfish. Some drivers of my time can remember what questions they were asked on Appearances. I don’t even remember which examiner gave me my Req.
I remember my first job though: it was a young lady going from Theobalds Road to Victoria. I remember how my new job was making me tired, and how I’d go home after a few hours in my first week. The traffic flowed easier in the late-80s, but perhaps not as freely as we like to remember. Cash from Cameras was in its infancy, but the clamping units were feared by everyone.
I remember the constant breakdowns, and how the cab would fail to start in the winter and over-heat in the summer. I remember how the cabs I drove were woefully underpowered and wouldn’t go up steep hills. The cabs are better now, but the taxi trade barely reached the twentieth century until the arrival of the Fairway. Drivers still have an understandable affection for this model.
Until the recession in around 1990 I’d circulate around St James’s and Mayfair. I rarely used ranks because I didn’t need to. Picking up the occasional celebrity added a bit of excitement. I can still see George Best in his leather jacket. He was a well-known figure to drivers in Mayfair and I picked him up twice on Curzon Street. He was nothing like the media portrayal of the Manchester United legend as a hell-raiser. I found him quiet and friendly. The actor Stewart Grainger, who I also picked up in Curzon Street could well have been a real hell-raiser. He didn’t stop talking. As we arrived at his destination on Fulham Broadway he gave his opinion that the place was a “sh*thole”. Another legend was Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin: a laid-back guy who wanted to talk about the TV programme he’d watched the previous night. Many film and TV starts rode in my cab in the early days: Richard Harris, Rita Tushingham, Susan Hampshire, the two ladies from Birds of a Feather; and a particular favourite, Spider from Coronation Street.
There were around 40,000 minicabs in London. They didn’t noticeably infringe on my livelihood as a day man, but night drivers had problems with blokes in cars touting illegally for work. Minicabs weren’t licensed back then, but they were allowed to operate so long as they were booked through an operator and didn’t stop for people on the street. There aren’t many more taxi drivers now than there were in 1990, but there now around 114,000 minicabs, and many of these are exploiting a weak licensing body in order to respond to immediate hiring through technology.
OK, let’s not get too upset about that as we say goodbye to 2018. I’m confident things will swing back our way a bit in the New Year. We need to go into the New Year with a bit of pride and with the determination to do our bit to promote our trade. In 2019 I’ll be spending time filling in on-line consultations over changes to road systems. Most questionnaires don’t take long to complete and it’s essential we give those making our work more difficult our views – and patiently and without rudeness. TfL listen to no-one unless forced to, but the Oxford Street and Swiss Cottage plans were sent back for revision in 2018. We need more unity to keep the trade strong: class action such as the Mischon de Reya Cabbie Group Action could well be the way forward. Our mantra for 2019 could be “Assertive, but not Aggressive.” We have to be very careful to keep our house in order and keep the public on our side.