Author Archives: Pubcat London Taxi Tails

About Pubcat London Taxi Tails

I' m a London Cab Driver, writer, and 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).

The More Things Change…

(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.

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No Country for Old Men

(Original edit of latest article for Taxi magazine)

 

The Mayor of London wants to restrict the age of taxis to twelve years or fewer, and a new delicensing scheme has been brought in. Drivers can benefit from a modest windfall if they act quickly to scrap their cabs and go electric. In January, the car accident involving the Duke of Edinburgh started a conversation on ageing drivers. Does age matter, or is it time to bring in a scrappage scheme for drivers too?

Also in January there was the story of the taxi mechanic who was tragically killed when the cab he was driving collided head-on with a car driven by a seventy year-old woman coming down the A13 on the wrong side of the road. She also sadly died in the crash. Plenty of young people kill themselves on the road too though. The fact is that older drivers are safer than younger ones. Personally, I’d rather drive alongside the Duke’s Range Rover than a car driven by a millennial full of testosterone and a hat on back to front. I think most of us would. The thing is, there’s always the possibility that the boy racer might improve his driving, while the older driver’s skills are likely to deteriorate.

I’m in no position to comment upon ninety-seven year old Prince Phillip’s accident. He might well be referred to as the Duke of Hazard, and he might be known to be something of a speed demon, but this court will strike that from the record. He used to be known to drive inconspicuously around London in a Metrocab, but maybe he joined the opposition? I bet he’s slipped down the driver rankings at Uber now, mind.

Older drivers in the cab game know that we’re regularly tested by a doctor for licensing purposes. Although our eyes are tested we’re not assessed on our spacial awareness or reaction speed. Apparently, it’s easy to confuse the brake and accelerator in an automatic. Still, a person’s age is no more an indicator of competence any more than a vehicle’s age. Both can be looked after to run well into old age. Even a TX2.

Every man thinks he’s the best driver in the world (and it is always men who think like this. A driving instructor friend assures me that women are better drivers). My wife still reminds me of the shame she felt when I reversed off our driveway and demolished a Northampton Borough recycling crate. I don’t think I’ve ever remember confusing the brake and accelerator pedals, but I regularly confuse the heating switches. More than once I’ve thought I’ve switched the air-con on only to realise I’d heated the rear window instead. I suppose that’s where it starts? Forgetting hotels and street names too, come to think of it.

Should the government or TfL scrap drivers, this will cut new blood coming into the trade to a trickle. The taxi trade would literally die of old age. No, I’d start with more privileged groups first. As the debate has already been opened concerning the Duke, how about a scrappage scheme for the royal family? There’s plenty of new blood, so we can afford to put some of the older ones out to pasture. Once Brexit is out of the way, we could start a debate on scrapping the House of Lords. It’s little more than a museum for living dinosaurs, and some of them have undoubtedly had it too good for too long.

Looking around, you see few young people in driving jobs. They’re sensibly doing other things, usually sat in the warm. Driving in our cities has become more challenging and frustrating over the years; most notably in London, and particularly in the last few years thanks to crazy road re-modelling schemes. People see the traffic in London and it puts them off considering driving there professionally. It’s very expensive in fuel and parking; and even if you keep moving, most motorists are subject to ever-changing congestion and emission charges. Then again, for us; if driving in London was easy, and everyone could park where they liked at a fair price, our job would barely exist. I could have a quieter life applying for the Knowledge of Leighton Buzzard – assuming there is such a test in my own town – but I wouldn’t fancy sitting on the same rank for an hour or so between jobs, and I’d miss out on the sightseeing opportunities too. No, I’d rather take my chances on the roads of London.

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Advertising Feature: Brexit Ferry

So, Chris “Failing” Grayling pulled out of a deal for the supply of ferries by a company that owned no ships. Never mind, I am happy to offer to supply an emergency cross-channel ferry service in the event of a hard Brexit. I can offer the use of a newly-refurbished fleet of boats, with myself as captain. True, I’m duplicitous, unreliable, and with an eye for the ladies – but I’ve given up the sauce and I want to be good. Give me a call!

Ps. Female 2nd mate required. Oilskins provided. Send photo with CV.

Peter, Coronation Street.

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What Has The Mayor Ever Done For Us?

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

London Mayor, Siddiq Khan, has not been making himself popular. At the end of 2018 he was called up to explain the delay over Crossrail. This project is currently running at least a year late. Desperate for money to prop up Transport for London he also spent much of the £42 million that was ring-fenced to help the transition to electric taxis. Like Boris before him, the new London Mayor is losing the goodwill of cab-driving voters.

The decision to subject minicabs to the congestion charge was welcome, but was used as Christmas wrapping to hide plans to reduce the age limit on taxis and take many cabs off the roads before their time. This would have a detrimental effect on second-hand taxi values, and simultaneously slow the move to electric taxis. Middle-aged cabs will be kept on longer. Not many of us want to drive a twelve or fifteen year-old cab, but times are hard and most of us can’t afford to buy a new taxi at £57,000 (before finance costs). If a cab can get through an MOT and a rigorous inspection, that should be enough. Look at the age of some of our buses – and they’re not all going to be zero emission until 2037!

The Mayor spent a reported three million pounds on the New Year firework display – which is now only accessible to those who buy a ticket. I watched the fireworks on television this year. Very nice too; though part of me kept thinking of all that money gone up in smoke. Is it a smokescreen to take our minds off the real issues? The Mayor’s real priorities should be housing, transport and crime-prevention; not a pay-per-view firework display.

Back on the roads, the Mayor is trying to change people’s on-line shopping habits, as vans delivering goods to Central London offices are causing congestion. The number of delivery vans has increased two per cent each year.  An increasing number of deliveries, coupled with the rampant licensing of minicabs, has made London more congested than ever. Serious congestion reminds everyone that the Mayor’s cycle superhighways are partly to blame.

The Mayor’s big idea is to establish parcel collection points in suburban tube stations, supermarkets and corner shops. I’ve picked up several Amazon packages at my local Morrison’s, but only certain, smaller packages, can be sent to supermarkets. Besides, waiting around for Amazon packages has become a great tradition, particularly around Christmas. You know when a parcel has been despatched, but you don’t know when it’ll arrive. You can pay extra for same day delivery, but where’s the fun in that? The excitement comes from wondering whether to risk nipping out for five minutes knowing that a van driven by an under-paid, time-pressured, driver on a zero-hour contract could arrive the moment you close the front door behind you. Sometimes you even weigh up whether to go to work if you’re expecting something important.

I have a radical idea. Instead of home-delivery, or parcel collection hubs; units could be set up containing goods for sale. Shoppers would have no need to read through an on-line catalogue to find items, or to enter the sometimes difficult world of filling in payment and delivery details: all the goods would be on full view and available for immediate purchase – with cash if desired. These units could each contain goods of a certain type. I propose we call these units “Shops.”  Larger shops could offer a range of disparate items, each arranged in their own sections. This type of unit could perhaps be called a “Department Store”.  Department stores and run-of-the-mill shops could be sited in areas of high density footfall, perhaps on high streets. Joining shops could be pubs, cafes, restaurants, and banks. This could create a hive of commercial and social activity in our neglected town centres. Once all these businesses are grouped together in one area I really think the high street could take off. What could possibly go wrong?

Apart from engineering crazy road systems and arranging firework displays, what else does a Mayor do? In order to research this I went back to my 1960s childhood and downloaded an episode of Trumpton. I must admit I didn’t come up with much. The Trumpton Mayor wears a tricorn hat and a gold chain of office, but his activities are vague. All I can really say is that he presides over a town with little traffic, no visible parking restrictions, and a slow pace of life. The fire station is fully-manned with an efficient and motivated workforce, and the Mayor runs the show with a quiet dignity – handing out free drinks and ice cream to the townsfolk on his birthday. The town doesn’t look like a place that would be able to cope with driverless cars in the future, and there are no kamikaze cyclists tearing around. And no EU interference, some might say.

OK, I might need to go back to the drawing board on my visions of the high street, but at least I’ve had a go. Until next time…

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Exit Through Gift Shop

(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).

As we journey deep into the land of kippers we wonder what this year will bring. We might also wonder what is going on in other people’s professions. I was particularly interested in the mad things that were going on in the police service towards the end of 2018. For a fair while, under-reaction had been the order of the day, with “lesser” crimes not being adequately investigated. Then there was a controversial counter reaction against moped mugging gangs. There was also a comical move into branded merchandising by the Met.

As most people in the London taxi trade are aware, there had been a spate of robberies of drivers in and around the Lisson Grove area. I’ve spoken to drivers who fell victim years ago, but activity intensified in the autumn of 2018. Drivers reported attacks to the police but the crimes weren’t followed up. On bonfire night, gangs barricaded Rossmore Road and attacked passing taxis by throwing traffic cones. The polizia showed up but withdrew when they came under fire from bricks and stones.  That was pretty much the end of the police’s involvement, though attacks on taxis continued and spread to new areas. In most cases, the police refused to investigate, despite having at their disposal eyewitness accounts, photographs and CCTV footage.

On Saturday November 17th I came home from work early because I couldn’t get around. Protestors calling themselves “Extinction Rebellion” (whose aims were vague) blockaded five Central London bridges. The police shut more streets off and let them get on with it. The demonstrations continued into the following week and London’s roads were in chaos. There were 84 arrests on the Saturday, but none on the following Wednesday when the demo had been stepped up to ruin many people’s midweek routine. The police often talk about a lack of resources. This is undoubtedly hampering the police to some extent, but they still had the resources to put cones out and direct traffic around the affected areas. Call me reactionary, but I would like to have seen Boris’s obsolete water cannon tested on Extinction Rebellion – or phantom drones – before he sold it (at a huge loss).

The police are only as good as their funding, and they have undoubtedly suffered from a lack of money. They should be responding to reports of robbery though, particularly when evidence is handed to them on a plate. I’d urge anyone who’s been victim of a crime to report it. And to the police; reporting things on Twitter doesn’t count!

A little later in November, a shift in attitude was reported concerning the epidemic of robberies by teenagers riding mopeds. It was reported that the police were reversing their earlier strategy of giving up the chase, and would now ram the machines with their cars.

The Metropolitan Police suggested that the days of passive resistance were over. The police talked about a walk on by culture after an attack on a police officer was filmed and shown on social media. This was in contrast to the Lisson Grove crime epidemic, where they wouldn’t respond adequately when presented with evidence, and just walked off when the perpetrators turned on them.

They used to tell us not to get involved. You might get hurt, or become subject to prosecution should you take the law into your own hands; even if you’re defending your own property or protecting yourself and others. Taxi drivers who came under attack after the bonfire night incident were reluctant to report attacks as they’d lost confidence in the police. Were the police still fobbing victims of crime off with excuses, or were they now working against the walk on by culture? Which version of the police service would we be dealing with as we went into 2019?

The Met had other distractions anyway. They’d recently launched a range of branded clothing, toys and souvenirs. Actually I’d quite fancy one of those checked baseball caps that the cops with guns wear. I could buy a toy gun and spend many happy hours running around the house shouting “Stop! Armed Police!” at the wife and cat.

Maybe all those police stations that have closed in the past few years will re-open in order to handle the retail side? Existing stations could extend their hours – perhaps have a late shopping day on Thursdays?  We could hand it lost property again, like we used to. The term “Cop Shop” will carry more meaning. We can report crimes in the traditional way, then browse the merchandise as we exit through the gift shop.

As for the ramming of moped gangs, I’m not sure I believe the hype. It could just be an opportunity to stop motorcyclists in a desperate attempt to sell them an “I’ve Met the Met” baseball cap.

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Today in Brexit-Land…

Mr Corbyn still refuses to talk to Mrs May. He’s too busy talking to The IRA, Hamas, Hezbollah, and President Assad.

The EU are going to commission Mr Trump to build his wall in Ireland.

Er, that’s it…

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New Year Reflections

(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.

 

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