(Original edit of article published in Taxi magazine this week).
Although I have my own book to promote, I always read the books others have written about the cab trade. One of my favourite writers is Maurice Levinson. Maurice was editor of Taxi when he published The Taxi Game in 1973.
My writer friend, Robert Lordan, recently lent me a copy of Maurice’s earlier book, Taxi! This yellowing hardback hails from 1963 (priced at fifteen shillings). Robert has a book about the Knowledge of London out, so we were both eager to read about things were in the cab trade in earlier times. We weren’t sure a fifty-six year old book would have any relevance to the cab drivers of today, but I was pleasantly surprised. The author’s sense of humour is in full flow, and the whole thing reads as easily and naturally as any modern book. What struck me most is how many of the issues the trade faced in the sixties still apply now.
The back cover blurb gives an indication where Mr Levinson is coming from: “His present occupation, and his pet hatred, is driving a taxi; his ambition is to stop driving a taxi.” At least you know you’re going to get the truth, and the truth according to Levinson is highly informative, and often very funny.
Some things have changed over the years, others haven’t. I was struck how things have changed for Knowledge applicants. Our own Alf Townsend can tell us how things were for Knowledge Boys in the old days. Every time I read Alf books I’m shouting out “How can they treat people like that?” I believe the questions asked on the Knowledge were easier in earlier times, but the way people were treated is a disgrace.
Knowledge examiners were all recruited from the Metropolitan Police. Maurice paints a dark picture of how things were in the past: before Levinson’s time, Knowledge Appearances were conducted by a man in full police inspector’s uniform. And yes, they were all men; employing female examiners is a surprisingly recent innovation. Before taxi licensing came under the umbrella of TfL, the examiners were a law unto themselves. You couldn’t question anything and there was zero transparency. Today’s Knowledge candidates are examined in a pleasant, respectful, environment. The person asking the questions is a (fairly) normal man or woman. They’ve been through the process themselves and they all hold a cab driving licence. They even write down your scores on a feedback sheet for you, perhaps even with a few words of encouragement.
Once in the job, many drivers drove a cab belonging to a garage (around 40% of drivers owned their own cabs in 1963). The cab was returned to the garage at the end of a shift, where another driver would be waiting to start his day, or night. The driver would be paid a commission based on the takings the meter had recorded for that shift.
To a cab owner, the annual inspection was a major trauma. The owner would drive his cab while the inspector sat in the back, pulling at all the switches and latches, and listening out for any untoward noises (I don’t think I’ve ever driven a cab that didn’t have strange noises!). Even the slightest of defects, or a pin-point of rust, would result in the cab being sent away to be put right.
Apparently, traffic congestion was a problem in the 1960s too. Maurice devotes a whole chapter to it, though he’d be spinning in the grave if could see the cycle superhighways and other traffic systems which have come in recently. I can’t comment of the traffic in 1963 as I was only one.
In my own book I suggested that drivers of the 60s enjoyed a good standard of income, but I’m less sure now. Levinson says he was reliant on the goodwill of his customers, and expected 25% of his income to come from tips!
Levinson asks a question that I still ask fifty-six years on: why do we rent the meter and not buy one and have it installed ourselves? I have no answer, I’m just saying.
The subject of de-licensing remains a hot potato to this day. A taxi would only be licensed for ten years in the 1960s, “even if its owner has looked after it as he would a Rolls Royce.” Levinson goes on to say that “Owning a taxi is the only kind of business that starts off at its best and finishes up a dead loss.”
Naturally, the author has a lot to say about minicabs. They weren’t officially licensed back then, but they were becoming a menace. Maurice mentions a cab trade protest against private hire and how it demanded from the police a definition of “plying for hire”. This neatly brings us up to the present day if nothing else does! The more things change, the more they stay the same?
Maurice Levinson books are long out of print, but they can be found for a few quid on Amazon or eBay.