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).

Taxing the Poor

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

  • Two days after saying I was aiming to get my PCN average down to zero a year I got a £65 fine for slipping into a box junction on Westminster Bridge Road.

 

London is so congested and polluted that something needs to be done. Last month I filled in a Transport for London on-line consultation regarding congestion charging – including the proposal to charge mini-cabs to drive in the Congestion Zone. Well, yes; but that’s only part of the story: in giving my opinions I also suggested they strip away the cycle superhighways as a start. I reminded TfL that there is less traffic than there was a few years ago; it has just been slowed down by ill-thought out road modelling schemes.

The consultation on road-pricing got me thinking how poorer motorists are most affected by congestion charging, as well as the fines that those of us forced to drive in London inevitably pick up by being forced to park where we’re not allowed to, or by touching the sacred yellow paint of a box junction.

In 2010 I returned to the trade after eleven years of doing other things in other towns. As I planned to tackle the Knowledge for the second time I assumed Central London would now be free of traffic! Well, they’d brought in an £8 Congestion Charge – who’s going to pay that?! I reasoned. Of course, the traffic was even worse than it was when I left London. Not only that, but there were more restrictions, and there were cameras watching your every move.

There was a TV programme on in July called Killed by Debt. It was a harrowing depiction of how things can spiral out of control when you fall foul of the powers that be. It concerned the true story of a young man starting his first job, as a motorcycle courier.

When his motorcycle lets him down, he replaces it with a new bike with the help of his mum’s boyfriend. The monthly payments seemed reasonable, but the poor chap doesn’t earn as much as he expects to, and his running costs are high. Being self-employed he is responsible for his own business, and when things go wrong it is up to him to sort out.

When he picks up two PCNs, he neglects to pay within fourteen days and the fines rise sharply. Before long he’s the subject of a computerised court case and his details are passed on by Camden Council to legalised gangsters – bailiffs. The debt builds to over £1000, but the chap is too proud to ask his family for help. He loses his bike – his only way of making a living. Unable to see a way out he takes his own life.

Whenever I get a PCN, I pay it immediately then forget about it; but what if £65 represents a whole week’s profit as in this young man’s case?

I eventually got my own PCN level down to one a year, and I’m aiming for zero this year. I need to rely on luck though, as on a few occasions I have been caught on the edge of box junctions. I also did two illegals within five minutes when I was shocked by a job down to South Wimbledon and wasn’t expecting any banned left turns. Well, what does any day man know about Wimbledon?

Well-off people don’t need to worry too much about the legalities of minor driving offences or parking infringements. A box junction infringement is an inconvenience: just get your PA to deal with it and move on. It’s the same with the Congestion Charge. This just keeps the poorer motorist out of Central London. It’s mostly commercial vehicles in Central London. Few people drive up and down Regent Street for fun. The people who are forced to drive in London are the ones that suffer.

TfL, and their allies, bring in damaging road-narrowing schemes that slow the traffic down. They allow multiple road closures to occur in the same area simultaneously; and they schedule as many road closures for special events as they possibly can. They then complain that people are being killed by pollution and claim they are doing something about it. They fail to see that it’s pollution engineered by themselves (Yes, I reminded TfL of this fact in my consultation response). Let’s not forget that cab drivers are among those most affected. We’d all support sensible proposals, and sensible proposals mean keeping the traffic moving.

If petrol and diesel-powered motor vehicles are so responsible for deadly pollution they should have been banned outright. The switch to electric vehicles should have started years’ ago. All those lumbering red monsters should be operating out of garages and should not be sat blocking West End streets. Bus stands should have been converted into ranks of electrical charging points. Instead of banning motor vehicles they levy a charge that only affects the poorer drivers. You can pump as much filth into the air as you like, so long as you can pay for it.

Anyway, the consultation runs until the end of September.

 

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Burka King

I’m not a great fan of Boris Johnson, but I feel he’s getting some unwarranted flak on the Burka-Gate scandal; not so much for what he said, but for who he is. He now faces a show trial. Just laugh it off, Boris; it’s just a Brexit diversion.

Let’s not forget that he spoke against a ban on the full veil. I also don’t favour a ban, but I don’t like full face coverings. Nobody’s face should be covered in public places where security is an issue, or where clear communication is needed. You wouldn’t be allowed to wear a balaclava in a bank, and the idea that someone can teach in a school wearing a veil is preposterous.

Boris has got people talking about a contentious and complex subject. His bank robber and letter box comments might have upset some people but we all know what he means. All he’s done is make a couple of fairly lame humorous comments about garments that some people chose to wear. If women aren’t wearing certain clothes by choice then that’s another discussion that is needed. I notice it’s only women who wear full face coverings. When I see a woman in these Medieval garments I see oppression. It demeans the wearer and disrespects others. You are stressing your difference. You’re saying “Don’t talk to me.” If you want to speak to me, I want to see your face.

Free speech is being eroded with each passing day. If a person faces a hearing for these comments, it’s a sad day for all of us who view serious issues through the prism of humour. Does this mean we can’t chuckle at hipsters’ Civil War beards or people wearing pyjamas to go to the shops?

As I say, I’m generally not a Boris fan. I feel I could have a laugh with him down the pub, though I wouldn’t trust him. The reverse is probably true with Jeremy Corbyn. Jez has been quiet on the burka issue. The Boris issue has taken some sting out of Jeremy’s Jew-baiting. I’d imagine Jez is keen on full-face coverings though, whether a Hezbollah scarf or an IRA hood.

Oh come on I’m only joking, Jeremy. Can’t we laugh about anything these days?

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Is it time for an anti-demo march?

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

So, another summer spent planning our work days around special events. In July we had the Gay Pride event, Donald Trump’s visit, and the ever-growing programme of running and cycling events that make life difficult for those of us forced to use London’s streets.

I find the Gay Pride event difficult to work around, so that was out. This year it coincided with an unlikely World Cup quarter final for England, so I was happy to have this day off (I got a normal day in on July 11th and caught the second half of the semi-final. I wish I hadn’t).

Next it was time for the visit of Team Trump. I’m not a supporter of Mr Trump, but I find him interesting and amusing, rather like Boris (What’s Donald Trump’s views on Uber, I wonder?). Initially, I was dismayed at Mayor Khan’s decision to allow the flying of a balloon depicting Donald as a baby. Trump had previously taken unfair digs at the Mayor over London’s record of terrorism and violent crime, but I felt it was Mr Khan’s duty to stay neutral. Was he showing his political colours by sanctioning the anti-Trump balloon? Would it make us look stupid? However, when I saw as picture of the balloon my standpoint shifted a bit and I could just about view the stunt as traditional British satire (should readers of my articles ever crowd-fund a satirical balloon of myself, I like to think I’d see the funny side).

I knew something was planned for Friday 13th, but there were no signs up warning of disruption. I therefore tried to work, bearing in mind that should there be problems on Saturday it would mean three expensive days off – Sunday 15th was already written off because of a running race. I just managed to avoid an evening of cycle misery in the City on Tuesday 17th by taking a Going Home job north from Goldman Sachs. Before the month was out there would be another two days of cycling to look forward to on the 28th & 29th

Anyway, on Friday 13th I managed to avoid the West End and complete two account jobs. I knew crucial roads in the West End were closed off, but I thought they’d hold their demos, and then everything would get back to normal. At lunchtime I heard that one of the two marches wasn’t even due to start until 2pm and would go on until 5pm. I drove home. The disruption went on well beyond 5pm anyway, so my decision to get out of town was vindicated.

The real disgrace here is allowing demonstrations to close a working city, particularly on a weekday. I often get caught in demos at the weekend, but the traffic is generally lighter and you have a fighting chance of navigating around closed off streets. On a weekday, gridlock brings large areas to a halt. It just shouldn’t be allowed. Don’t give me that “it’s everyone’s right to protest” nonsense. What about the rights of those who live and work in the affected areas? We all have rights.

It’ll be interesting to see if the Mayor will allow similar stunts when even more contentious world leaders make visits to London – real dictators and despots. There are far worse people than Donald Trump, yet the real tyrants only attract a fraction of outrage when they visit our shores.

Who are these people who can spare a day to protest against a president of a friendly country? Who are they trying to impress? Mr Trump wasn’t even in London at the time of the protests. I think many of these people have nothing better to do with their time than hang around in a pack with other like-minded people waving silly placards. Maybe they’re fed up with complaining to each other on social media about how terrible everything is? Maybe they self-diagnose the need to get out more? They’re preaching to the converted. They’re not teaching anybody anything, or changing people’s minds. Their messages are meaningless and confused. “Peace”, “Love”, “No to Racism”, &c., &c… OK, fine. We can all agree on that, now tell me something new? I don’t remember such Peace & Love messages when Chinese and Saudi leaders visited. At least Mr Trump’s own people can vote him out; his presidency is a matter for the American people.

Cycling and running racing events have reached saturation point. These events are run for commercial gain. The organisers get advertising and the participants enjoy themselves, but the majority are put out. The authorities seriously need to re-think demos and marches. London’s clearly not open for business on these days of action. The city can’t be closed off whenever someone doesn’t like something someone says and goes on Twitter to arrange a day of disruption – or however these events are arranged (I don’t know, I’ve never been invited to one).

Anyway, here’s my message: we’ve had enough of people blocking up our work space, so bagger orf.

If nothing is done to stop the marches, maybe it’s time for an anti-demo demo?

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The Book They Tried To Ban (Excerpt)

Hey Teacher!

This short excerpt  from my forthcoming book concerns my ill-fated period as a student teacher. What follows if from the most personal and autobiographical chapter: “My Personal Revolution.” I’ve chosen this section for the delectation of teachers, failed teachers, and others who knew me in 1997/1998. I shall post more excerpts in the coming weeks.

I took to being a student straight away. Loved it. The work wasn’t too challenging. The living was easy. I was privileged to be one of the last cohorts to get a full tuition and maintenance grant. I feel sorry for today’s students who have to take on part-time jobs to survive, and then leave with a huge bill that’ll take years to pay off.

In my final year at Bradford I took part in a student tutoring programme, spending time in a girls’ secondary school helping out in the classroom. I enjoyed my afternoons at school and thought I might like to be a teacher. I’d been thinking about becoming a university lecturer but was put off when I realised how competitive it was. I was now confident I could be a good teacher and applied for courses. I was delighted to be offered a place on a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) course at the University of Birmingham. I was to train to teach Secondary English.

Before I went up to Birmingham to start my teaching course I had to spend a week or two observing at a primary school. I enjoyed myself at a school in Blackheath and was still convinced this teaching lark was for me. Oh the idealism of it.

My placement ended at the end of the school term. I joined the teachers in a local pub and curry house on the last day. These female primary school teachers were the biggest bunch of boozers I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. After a while one teacher asked me how many beers I’d had. When I replied I’d had three pints she told me I’d have to do better. I’d have to up my game by way of drinking, but I was excited about my fledgling teaching career.

At the University of Birmingham I enjoyed the university-based study, but wasn’t prepared for the practical placement. I was allocated a girls’ school in workaday East Birmingham. On placement you are for all intents and purposes a proper teacher, albeit with a reduced workload. I had to plan lessons and schemes of work, deliver lessons, and take books away to be marked (usually undertaken at the New Inn, Harborne). My brief experience as a student tutor in Bradford had lulled me into a false sense of security. School discipline was poor, and staff morale was low. The pupil intake was 80% Muslim and the school felt as if it was run by the Taliban. It was oppressive. A member of senior management told me the school was known as a “Paki school”, and it played this up in fine style. Eid was a big occasion, but I was told the school didn’t celebrate Christmas or Easter. I couldn’t imagine this place being much fun for the Christian minority.

Girls would disappear for months, but their absence wasn’t treated as anything unusual. I believe they were being sent to Pakistan to get married. I found the whole set-up abhorrent, but what could I do? I was just a student teacher, struggling to make sense of it all and keep out of trouble. Even back then I knew not to question cultural practices.

I’d like to blame my failure to see the course out on the oppressive Christmas tree-less environment of the school, but I can’t. I’d like to tell you that I had the no-nonsense hard man demeanour of one of Ray Winstone’s film characters, but I can’t. I had no stage presence. My nervousness probably showed, and the absurdity of my situation played on me. Well, I would have laughed if someone told me in the 1970s that I’d be a teacher.

However stressful it is pushing a cab down Oxford Street, it’s nothing like waiting for that school bell to go. When thirty teenaged girls run riot they are a match for anybody, and I found it difficult to assert my authority without being heavy-handed and threatening whole-class detentions. Things could be unruly at my Hornchurch comprehensive in the 70s, but at least there was some discipline. The principal sanction here was a black stamp in the girls’ exercise book.

I also thought it would be an eight-to-four job, with a bit of marking in the evenings. I’m quite a disciplined person. In the cab I have exactly an hour for lunch and exactly thirty minutes for coffee. In teaching, you’re working to bells, but your work duties are flexible and are frequently changed at a moment’s notice. If you have any free time they’ll find you something to do. And if you have no free time, they’ll still find you something extra to do. Your lunch break could be taken up with playground duty, and you could be running any number of little projects before and after school hours. Once they found out I was a cab driver they’d surely have me driving the school bus. I could see the way it was going and I couldn’t live my life like that.

A fair few students on my course had already left. I never thought I’d do the same, but soon after New Year in 1998 I left before I was pushed. I returned to London with my tail between my legs and to my mum in Blackheath.

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Strength through Knowledge

(original edit of article published in Taxi magazine this week).

With fewer people starting the Knowledge, our reaction could be “good, more work for us.” It’s a short-sighted view though, as fewer drivers means less collective power. And collective power is something we are currently in need of right now. We need strength in numbers to fight the long-running licensing of Uber, and to curtail TfL’s damaging road “re-modelling” projects and road closures.

The private hire contingent outnumbers us considerably – around 113,000 mini-cab drivers against fewer than 24,000 taxi drivers. Of course, there are nowhere near 113,000 drivers on active service. Not many PH drivers stay around for long, but they keep their licences as they double as a Congestion Charge season ticket. Private hire drivers are less of a coherent group. We have the advantage as if we put our different political viewpoints aside and pull together, we can effect some change.  It’s more than ever important to attach ourselves to trade organisations.

It might be a good time to start the Knowledge as you’re likely to get through the system quicker. When I became a Knowledge examiner in 2011 I was part of a cohort of six who were recruited to replace others who had recently left. Waiting times between Knowledge Appearances were running at double what they should have been: ie. A 56-day appointment could run to 112 days. This would have been incredibly frustrating for those affected.

I completed the Knowledge 30 years’ ago this coming December. It was tough in the eighties, but not as tough as some people make out. Sure, some people had bad experiences with examiners who made life difficult for them or acted inappropriately. Comparatively recently I’ve heard anecdotes from former Knowledge Boys who had things thrown at them – or had their appointment card damaged by the examiner scraping it against a wall during the last days of the Raj at Penton Street. No examiners were ever rude or unreasonable with me, though, and the Knowledge was easier to learn. No examiners asked me for silly Points of Interest. I just plodded along, safe in the knowledge that as long as I didn’t give up, I’d get there in the end.

The Knowledge is harder now. For a start, some districts of London barely existed in the 80s. There were a few pubs in Wapping, but past News International on Pennington Street, Points of Interest were thin on the ground. There wasn’t much in Rotherhithe, and Canary Wharf didn’t exist. There wasn’t even a lot going on in the square mile of the City, where livery Halls were the bread and butter Points. Knowledge Boys neglect livery halls at their peril to this day, but they also need to keep up with the hotels and bars. The City pretty much closed at 5pm. Restaurants and bars barely existed. The City is now chock full of lovely Points that need to be learnt.

It’s hard work remembering Points, and they change so frequently it’s hard to keep up with them. My Knowledge is nothing special. I have the memory span of a guppy. As an examiner, I only used to ask all those Premier Inns, Travelodges, Double Trees, &c. in the vain hope that I’d remember them myself. I remember few livery halls.

Compared with the old PCO at Penton Street, things aren’t quite so austere up The Towers; but the marking system puts undue stress on the candidate. Unless you’ve experienced the Knowledge in the last 17 years you won’t be aware of the Red-Lining system. You were rarely told how well you were doing, and you didn’t know how you were scored (many years later I learned the examiners used a marking system consisting of smiley faces). You understood that once the examiners felt you knew enough, they’d put you up a stage. These days you can go down. You can be relegated.

In the spirit of customer-focussed transparency, everyone leaves with a feedback sheet containing their scores – and possibly a few scribbled comments on their performance.  If you don’t gain enough marks in order to gain a C pass in four Appearances you are Red-Lined and sent back to start that stage from the beginning. It could result in months of hard work down the drain. I think once you’ve amassed a certain amount of points you should be put up to the next stage. I don’t think anyone should be put back. The Knowledge shouldn’t be made easier, nor should it become medieval torture.

At least today’s Knowledge candidates are clear on what questions they can be asked. During my tenure, TfL finally worked out how to put a circle on a map.  One amusing event was when we tried to manually draw the six-mile exclusion zone on the wall maps with marker pen. I was the one with the degree so they thought I should draw the first one. I made a right mess of it.

Anyway, for those starting the Knowledge now, they have more realistic expectations of the job. It’s been a tough few years, but I believe we’ve hit the bottom and we’re bouncing up again. I believe their investment in the trade can only go up.

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Lost Property & Missing Policemen

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

I hadn’t found any lost property in the cab for a long time. I was keen to get home to start a three-day weekend when my vigilance deserted me and I let a man leave his phone in my cab.

These things always seem to happen at the end of the day before a day off.  I have an excellent record for re-uniting folk with their mobile phones though. What usually happens is they call the lost phone, I answer it; then arrange to deliver it make to the owner. No call came this time, so I took the official lost property route. It was frustrating though because I remember where I picked my man up and where I dropped him; I just didn’t know the door number.

It was 6.30pm, so the TfL Lost Property Office at Baker Street was closed. Not to worry, I knew West End Central Police Station would be open so I headed to Mayfair. The problem with police stations is that there’s no parking. They hardly encourage you to report a crime, do they?  I parked on the rank in New Burlington Street and made the sixty second walk to Savile Row. I wasn’t there long. Just long enough to read the notice saying they were closed.

It was Thursday and I was in Going Home mode on ComCab. I wouldn’t be back in London until Monday. Bearing in mind the twenty-four hour rule I thought where else could I hand in the phone? I then remembered a bilking incident from 2016. A PC at West Hampstead helped me recover some money after a penniless student fled from his own house leaving an unpaid £41 taxi fare. His parents weren’t in to lend him the cab fare from Shaftesbury Avenue to Hampstead and he panicked and fled the scene.  Anyway, I remember the police officer saying that he worked nights, so I was confident West Hampstead Police Station would be open, and it was on my route home.

The last time I handed something in at a police station was about twenty-five years’ ago. As a young butter boy I foolishly accepted a £50 note that two youths gave me as payment for a fare. When I went to pay for my meal at the Royal Oak caff we could all see the note was a fake.

Later that evening I heard a radio report about a gang of counterfeiters who had been apprehended. I figured my moody £50 note was probably one of their creations. When I handed it in at Tottenham Court Road, I half expected a reward;, but all they did was put my fifty into a plastic bag and send me on my way. Don’t forget I’d also given the two scroats about £40 change.

Tottenham Court Road Police Station is long gone, but I was pleased to find that West Hampstead was open. Great. I had my apology prepared as the male and female greeted me behind the glass: “It’s a boring one… Lost property.” The lady was even more apologetic than I was when she told me they no longer accept lost property. She also pointed out how lucky I was to find them open. She could clearly hardly believe it herself as she exclaimed that they only open three HOURS per week!

She had the air of a provincial librarian. In fact the whole place felt like a small town library. It wasn’t like the police stations I’d come to expect from watching TV. There was no harassed bloke in white shirtsleeves trying to tap stuff into a computer while folk drunkenly fell all over the counter mumbling nonsense. There were no streetwalkers sat sullenly on a bench awaiting processing, or hoping to be let off with a warning and a lecture on keeping yourself safe. It was just two middle aged people manning the station; and, I noted, a pet dog lying under a desk.

I know little about mobile phones, so I asked their help in trying to open the device to identify the owner. The man couldn’t open the phone either. They said I could go to Kentish Town Police Station as an alternative. I explained I was heading towards the M1 and home. He said I’d done my bit by trying two stations, so I agreed I’d have my three days’ off and take it to Baker Street on Monday.

We try our best to do the right thing and re-unite people with their lost property, but cuts to the Police Service have resulted in the situation where we’re put in a difficult position: TfL Lost Property Office works office hours; most police stations closed; and there’s nowhere to park if you are lucky to find one open.

They say the police are never around when you want them. Several days later I passed a rank of police vans parked up on Bridge Street prior to the anti-Brexit demo. There was a policeman in a yellow vest stopping people drive into Parliament Square. I wondered what station all these coppers came from, and whether if I tapped on the door of the van they’d take down some particulars and put any lost property into a plastic bag for me?

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My World Cup Shame

I’d like to say I remember something about the 1966 World Cup – ANYTHING – but I can’t. True, I was only 4 1/2, but you’d think I’d remember something; at least the atmosphere around the event: perhaps my dad holding me aloft like the gleaming Jules Rimet trophy as our little black & white TV showed us beat off the West Germans? No, nothing.

During the 1970 World Cup I was living in rural Staffordshire. Like all my friends we collected the free Esso World Cup coins from fuel stations (not silly stickers in those days). They were swapped amongst us, and put on to a commemorative board (shown). Again, I remember nothing about the actual football event.
I don’t think my complete coin collection made it into 1971. In fact, I think I can remember destroying it, once it became irrelevant to my eight year old head. I expect they would’ve been swept away in a spirit of punk rock revisionism six years’ later anyway.
I’m not even going to research how much that collection might be worth now…
essoEsso 2

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