Author Archives: Pubcat London Taxi Tails

About Pubcat London Taxi Tails

I' m a former London Cab Driver, writer, currently a qualified Careers Adviser. I am also a former Knowledge of London Examiner (old customers need not call me Sir any more, we're all equals here, dude). I'll use this site to give my own idiosyncratic spin on the cab trade, and other social issues. There will be original edits of published magazine articles, plus shorter comments. So, why Pubcat? Simply because I like pubs and I like cats; and I support the social inclusion of all animals in pubs (Yes, that's my house tiger, Rocky, sat on a London map when I was studying the Knowledge the second time round).

Food Glorious Food

Latest article written for Taxi magazine:

To read similar, see my book: available from post or on-line from YPS Bookshop. Or Amazon if you must.

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Cab Women

My current article in Taxi magazine. Again, it borrows heavily from my own book From Manor House Station to Gibson Square – and Back Again.

Feel free to read more at…

Available from the YPS Bookshop, or Amazon.

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Celebs!

A brief survey of some of the celebs I’ve had in my cab…

To read more, see my book!

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Smoke, Stairway, Paranoid

Article published in Taxi magazine this week.

For more of the same, see my Book “From Manor House Station – and Back Again”. Available from YPS Bookshop, or from Amazon – if you must. There should be a link on this website, somewhere.

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Latest Article for Taxi magazine.

As I’m not driving a cab any more I’m relying on anecdotes…

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The Beer Hunter

My latest article for TAXI magazine:

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Football Crazy

Rejoice. Football‘s back – well, the teams are, if not the fans and atmosphere. And when the season’s over, it’ll start again almost straight away.

Following a team is a bit like being a member of the cab trade itself.  It’s in the Cab driver’s nature to view the glass as half empty. Most of us come at it from an angle of scepticism. If you support an inconsistent club you’ll make a fine cab driver. This is because your aims are realistic. Arsenal, Tottenham, or Modern-day Chelsea fans aren’t the best disposed towards a cab driving philosophy because they are accustomed to success. If you expect success in the cab trade you are setting yourself up for failure. You might enjoy a bit of a cup run, but you’ll never make the Champions League.                              

I was known to have enjoyed a bit of sport with supporters of Millwall Football Club in my book about the cab trade, but it was always done with affection. You see, inside very cab driver there’s a Millwall supporter trying to get out. OK, not an actual Millwall fan, but an individual harbouring a similar fatalistic philosophy. We hope for the best, but expect the worst. We want to earn good money, but we rarely do. We want to be liked. But if we are not liked or respected we are thick-skinned enough to be able to take it. “No-one likes us, we don’t care” is Millwall’s most famous song – brilliant! It perfectly encapsulates the inner-Millwall supporter inside us. We are everything that the young, ambitious, corporate wage-slave isn’t. We play poorly as a team. We constantly fail to meet targets. We set goals that we cannot reach. And if you’ve ever see a group of cab drivers converge on a café, it’s like a mob of Millwall fans turning up at your local. That’s your quiet Sunday lunch with the missus gone.                                                                                                       

Driving a cab I’d often be asked to drive people to Arsenal or Chelsea games as their stadiums are pretty central. Runs down to Millwall were quite frequent too, but usually with foreign visitors. Many tourists like to take in a football game while in London. Unfortunately it’s not easy to get hold of tickets for Premier League games, so they invariably end up in the badlands of South-East London. it’s not so bad around the New Den these days, but relations between West Ham and Millwall have never been warm. Driving down there with some Norwegians once I had to explain to them why I took my West Ham air freshener down before we arrived.

Should you be tempted to show any football allegiance, you are setting yourself up for all sorts of problems. Other cab drivers love commenting on your team’s humiliating defeat after the day’s results have come through. Clocking my West Ham sticker another driver would invariably draw alongside to deliver a cheery, “I see West Ham lost again at home, Heh Heh!” Even if they have won I don’t like being told the result. I rarely watch live football on TV or listen to it on the radio. In traditional fashion I wait until I get home on a Saturday to watch Match of the Day with the wife. Many passengers are up for a chat about football if they know you are a fan. I like football, but I don’t understand it. I’m happy to talk about the general aspects of being a supporter, but things can get technical. Once someone wants to discuss the nuances of England’s midfield engine room I change the subject to flower arranging or something.                                                                                                

I used to go to matches regularly, but I only make a couple of games a season now at most.  I always seem to get lost at the Olympic Stadium. In the half- dozen times I’ve been there I must have walked a different route from the stadium to Stratford Station on each occasion. One night I walked around the no-man’s land around Stratford and Hackney for ages. It was dark and I didn’t recognise any landmarks: though I guess a football stadium and one of the biggest shopping centres in Europe should be distinctive enough for most people.  I never even attempted to use Hackney Wick station instead of Stratford. In the cab I was always fearful of being asked to go to Stratford or Hackney Wick: the area has developed at an alarming rate, and I can never keep up with the road layout changing so rapidly.

I expect to see out the season sat at home, so I’ll catch a few games on TV. I was alarmed at the introduction of artificial crowd noise. I feel the same about that as I do canned laughter on TV comedy programmes. I was surprised to learn that players are being encouraged to avoid contact. West Ham’s defenders have been avoiding contact all season, so no change there.  Everything is getting back to normal.

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Painter Man

Many of us have enjoyed a forced holiday recently, and this has presented the opportunity to catch up on tasks that we’ve put off for months, or even years. I made a fair stab at painting walls and a ceiling, and did a just-about acceptable job on the front door with sticky black gloss paint. Thankfully the cat’s half-black anyway.

I’m painfully aware of my lack of practical skills though, particularly after experimenting with different work. I hate working in the run-up to Christmas so I left my cab at home and signed on at a local temp agency. A stint in an office or warehouse would excuse me from working the cab in December and hopefully take me through the cab trade’s flat-as-a-kipper season after New Year.

After just a few days I was offered the position of Assistant Caretaker at a local secondary school. On arrival I was given a map of the school site. It was a big school. The caretaker said he’s known people take five years to learn it. It was like learning the Knowledge of London.

I thought a caretaker would sit in a shed all day drinking tea before changing a couple of light bulbs and perhaps move a TV set in a cabinet into a classroom. Taking down the Christmas tree would provide a bit of extra work in January, but I was prepared for that. The poor chap was rushed off his feet, and this is where I came in as an extra pair of hands (he told me changing light bulbs takes a full two days). When he left me on my own I just hoped the boiler lights didn’t turn red, or there was an outbreak of Legionnaires disease (such eventualities have to be prepared for).

I was surprised to learn how involved a caretaker’s job is. I’ve always been in awe of people who can do stuff, and not just write about it. Even unlocking the school gates looked complicated. I can’t even dress for practical work. The caretaker had to lend me his waterproof coat. I only have clothes suitable for beach holidays, sitting in a cab with the heater on, or going out on the town. It was a humbling experience.

In the end I only worked 8 days at school, either side of Christmas. It was intense physical work and I wouldn’t want to do it again. It was a good experience though. As I was sweeping leaves, digging up moss, stacking chairs, and carting bit of wood and metal on a trolley to a skip, I knew I was doing useful – nay, essential – work – but it wasn’t really me.

I realised that I didn’t know how practical things work. I’m not from that world. It’s alien to me. I’m more comfortable with a pen than a drill. I’m more into ideas than practices. Hard work to me is agonising over sentence structure. I don’t know how to use a drill properly, or how to arrange the collection of a skip load of metal. I did a lot of soul-searching while at school. Is it just me who doesn’t know how to put a shelf up?

One interesting thing I learned was that no-one notices the cooks, cleaners and caretakers. For 8 days I was part of the invisible workforce. I came away knowing more about myself, but with a respect for the invisible people. Back on the Goldman Sachs rank I’d watch someone sweeping the street and I wonder what story he had to tell.

I’m sure many of us have thought about doing different work recently. You might find you were happier where you were, but it’s a valuable exercise in self-awareness.

The Good Life

Since the Covid-19 lockdown, I’ve vowed to support local businesses wherever possible. In the area around Leighton Buzzard I can buy milk direct from the dairy and beer direct from the brewery. Self-sufficiency is the logical next step…

I’m not going to start keeping chickens in my garden like the Good family from the 1970’s comedy series, The Good Life, but I have retrieved my old home-brewing equipment from the loft. I wasn’t expecting much from my first brew in several years, as I’m still practising my skills. My brew is based on a kit from ‘Wilco’s.’ The kit method is easy – it’s just sterilising the equipment that’s a bit of a chore. Everything needs to be scrupulously clean. Bacteria that can taint beer needs to be eradicated.

Three Brewing Methods (& Fermenting Taxis)

There are three main beer-brewing methods: kit, extract, or full mash. With a kit, the malt comes mixed with hops and pre-boiled. You basically just bung a can of malty gunge into a bucket with water, sugar and yeast. You keep it somewhere warm for a few weeks to ferment, then put it somewhere cooler to allow the beer to clear. If you have a taxi that you’re not using for a couple of weeks, park it somewhere warm and it’ll make an excellent site for your fermenting bucket.

Bottling it…

When the beer has cleared it can be served from a pressurised keg or a collapsible polypin. The beer goes off quickly, so unless you’re a hard user you might want to bottle some of it. This takes a bit of work and it can be messy, especially if you lose control of the syphon and flood the kitchen floor with sticky beer. Thankfully the wife was asleep when I disinfected twelve swing-top bottles in the bath and went to work with my syphon in the kitchen.

Fish Batter & Remaining Upbeat

I bottled twelve litres and added a teaspoon of sugar to each in order to help secondary fermentation. I sampled it after the recommended time.

The resulting brew wasn’t quite the apex.  It was drinkable, but not something I’d like to be served in a pub. I’m not drinking it neat but mixed with lemonade it makes a decent shandy. My cheap beer will also be used to make fish batter. As to the stuff left in the barrel/fermenter, it’s little better than vinegar. I’m not sure if this is recommended by gardening experts but I treated my sunflower sprouts to a gallon of beer, and they seem to be thriving.

It was a useful experiment and I remain upbeat. My next step will be to buy a boiler and brew up malt extract and fresh hops to my own specification, but I need to get rid of several litres of dodgy ale first to free up the bottles.

Man Cave on Tour

How’s this for a blokey activity? The Home Brew Shop in Farnborough are offering an All Grain Mashing Course. £36 buys you five hours practical tuition on mashing grain, wort chilling and sparging techniques. You are encouraged to discuss hops, grain and yeast with other like-minded folk. A buffet lunch is included, and tea and coffee are available all day. For added excitement, you are invited to bring samples of your own home-brewed beer. Perhaps bring the missus for a romantic day out – you might need someone to drive you home. Or maybe take a taxi?

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REMEMBERING THE KNOWLEDGE

(Article written for Taxi magazine).

Since applying for my cab licence in 1985, I’ve seen the Knowledge from all angles: from Knowledge Boy to driver; plus, two short spells as a Knowledge examiner. I only wish I could remember it all!

As a Knowledge of London Examiner, I’d often reflect on when I sat on the other side of the table. Some of my colleagues could remember the details of their appearances at Penton Street or Palestra, but some of us older ones couldn’t remember things so clearly. Dave Hall remembers his time on the Knowledge, of course. The “Smiling Assassin” remembers everything. He passed out at about the same time as me and has a detailed memory of many of his appearances. I don’t remember any questions I was asked. I don’t even remember which examiner gave me my Req (wreck). I remember a few of the examiners though. I know my first appearance was with Mr Fryer, but I don’t remember the details. I remember Mr Miller. I didn’t meet the dreaded Mr Orme until we both attended an examiner drink-up session at Dogget’s many years later. “The Gentleman”, Mr Lippitt, was my role model when I first became an examiner, and Steve Thomas took on that mantle later on, once I’d settled into my position at Palestra.

Austere and Formal

I’d be terrified if I had to have an appearance now. I joined TfL at the same time as Mark Gunning and Kathy Gerrard. I wouldn’t have liked to have been on the other side of the table from those two! Maybe I had less fear in my twenties, or perhaps the Knowledge was a little easier in the 1980’s? Although, the examiners were more austere and it was a bit more formal than it is now, London was smaller and less complex. For example, Canary Wharf didn’t exist, and hotels didn’t change their names every week. The examiners might have made things difficult for you, for their own cruel amusement – but they usually stuck to Points that might be asked by a real live cab passenger.

With Points changing so frequently we were all guilty of asking for places that no longer existed – Ghost Points. Well, the Mirabelle restaurant still looked open to me, and how did I know that St John’s Wood police Station had closed months ago?

Where the buildings still physically existed, ghost points were seen as legitimate. Illegal turns weren’t, and we’d have to be sure of ourselves for allowing or penalising manoeuvres we weren’t certain about. I penalised someone for turning right from Prince of Wales Road into Kentish Town Road. It’s completely legal; in fact I completed that turn myself driving in to London that very morning! I had to make a humiliating phone call to apologise. One chap turned right into Cosway Street from Marylebone Road. It sounded wrong, but I wasn’t 100% sure. My computer wasn’t switched on so I couldn’t check it out quickly. I’m sure he went on a Knowledge web forum afterwards to boast how he turned over an examiner. Fair play to him.

Examiners didn’t always agree with each other in interpretation. Coming from the east and setting down at Marylebone station was a bone of contention. Opinion was divided: all the other examiners said you couldn’t do it, I said you could. Mark Gunning was adamant that you had to make an illegal U-turn, whereas I maintained that you turn right into Harewood Avenue, then turn again into Melcolme Place. The matter still comes up on Knowledge web forums.

Nerves

Some people are let down by nerves. I ran some mock appearances at a Knowledge school when I finished at TfL. Candidates would invariably perform well, but up at The Towers they’d lose it.

Candidates have been known to declare themselves ill when they’ve seen Dave Hall come out to call them in. People have collapsed in the waiting area. At least one person couldn’t wait to use the toilet before being called, and went inside the examination room.

Occasionally, someone would put in for an appearance before they were ready, and would fail to answer a single run, but generally if you’ve got as far as having appearances you know you can do it. The Knowledge is very democratic: it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your background is. Aziz from Afghanistan was better at the Knowledge than I ever was, as were a few others. We always looked forward to the arrival of Vera. She was extremely good at the Knowledge and she had a delivery as calming as the shipping forecast.

Anyone who has completed the Knowledge can show a high level of determination (remember that around 70% of those who start the Knowledge give it up). You have proven study skills and you can retain information. The permutations of possible driving routes in London are complex. If you can handle the Knowledge you can show analytical skills, as your brain is constantly computing road patterns. After the Knowledge I felt I could do anything – even become an examiner.

 

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Remembering the Knowledge

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine – currently available on-line).

 

Since applying for my cab licence in 1985 I’ve seen the Knowledge from all angles: from Knowledge Boy to driver; plus two short spells as a Knowledge examiner. I only wish I could remember it all!

As a Knowledge of London Examiner I’d often reflect on when I sat on the other side of the table. Some of my colleagues could remember the details of their appearances at Penton Street or Palestra, but some of us older ones couldn’t remember things so clearly. Dave Hall remembers his time on the Knowledge, of course. The “Smiling Assassin” remembers everything. He passed out at about the same time as me and has a detailed memory of many of his appearances. I don’t remember any questions I was asked. I don’t even remember which examiner gave me my Req (wreck). I remember a few of the examiners: I know my first appearance was with Mr Fryer but I don’t remember the details. I remember Mr Miller. I didn’t meet the dreaded Mr Orme until we both attended an examiners’ drink-up at Dogget’s many years later. “The Gentleman” Mr Lippitt, was my role model when I first became an examiner, and Steve Thomas became my role model later on once I’d settled into my position at Palestra.

I’d be terrified if I had to have an appearance now. I joined TfL at the same time as Mark Gunning and Kathy Gerrard. I wouldn’t have liked to have been on the other side of the table from those two! Maybe I had less fear in my 20s, or maybe the Knowledge was a little easier than in the 1980s? Although the examiners were more austere and it was a bit more formal than it is now, London was smaller and less complex: Canary Wharf didn’t exist, for example; and hotels didn’t change their names every week. The examiners might have made things difficult for you for their cruel amusement, but they usually stuck to Points that might be asked by a real live cab passenger.

I’ve dived in and out of the trade, but I’ve always returned. I had ten years out of the trade doing other things. After much study – and a failed attempt to become a teacher – I eventually became a careers adviser. I left school without qualifications so it was an uphill struggle to get to university. I knew I could do it because I’d passed the Knowledge. Anyone who has completed the Knowledge can show a high level of determination (remember that around 70% of those who start the Knowledge give it up). You have proven study skills and you can retain information. The permutations of possible driving routes in London are complex. If you can handle the Knowledge you can show analytical skills, as your brain is constantly computing road patterns. After the Knowledge I felt I could do anything. The grass wasn’t greener on the other side though. I soon became disillusioned with the so-called professional world, and I returned to the trade in 2010. The following year I became a Knowledge Examiner; the best job I ever had.

As I write, TfLs Knowledge of London department is closed. Prospective taxi drivers are unable to sit their exams and their examiners are temporarily unemployed. Those currently on the Knowledge have plenty of time in which to strengthen their skills until their next appearance. No-one need lose ground. Those who were intending to apply to start the Knowledge can start learning runs now, before officially signing up. The Knowledge take-up was falling. Now could be a good time to start. There have been periods in the past where short staffing resulted in long waiting times between appearances. There’s no longer that problem. The current examiners were enjoying a lighter caseload, so sign up and now and give them something to do!

It’s true that those on the Knowledge will be wondering what their chosen trade has in store for them, but cab drivers are all refugees from somewhere else. They join our trade because their jobs aren’t what they used to be: there could be more restrictions, less autonomy, less job security; and a reduction in real pay.

Older drivers are justifiably more negative, and newer entrants are justifiably more positive. It depends on your expectations. My expectations on income were higher thirty years ago, and the expectations of drivers who came before me in the 1970s were higher still. I accept that income levels are unlikely to ever return to those of 1988 when I gained my badge, and nobody in the trade now expects that level of trade to return. Those who’ve only been in the trade a few years have realistic expectations. They just want to see a return to recent levels, then to improve modestly. I’m sure things will recover. Everything in the taxi and private hire world has been shaken up. It’ll be interesting to see how people move around when the dust settles, and how the work is shared out in the new order.

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