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Hey Teacher! Leave those kids alone! A Careers Adviser Writes

One of my celebrity cab customers over the last few years was Nicky Morgan MP, whom I found a pleasant and polite lady.  As a qualified careers adviser I followed her move to Minister for Education with interest.

Recently, she’s been lamenting the downfall of quality impartial careers advice in school (we have the Labour party to thank for the de-professionalisation of the careers service about ten years’ ago).  Interestingly, she criticised the promotion of academic learning at the expense of vocational learning, such as apprenticeships.  Good luck in getting impartial careers advice back into schools, but schools will resist any move towards impartial advice, or the promotion of anything that takes bums off seats in their precious sixth forms. How I remember trying to do such a thing as a probationary careers adviser at Mereway School in Northampton.  The headmaster called me into his office.  He told me bluntly that he was trying to build his sixth form up and that Northampton College (of further education) could do their own publicity.  He didn’t want to see me handing out college prospectuses (prospecti?).  It was a traumatic event.  He damn near gave me the cane – something I experienced back at my Essex Comprehensive. I wish I could remember the c***s name, but I can’t.  I didn’t work in his school much more after that, and my disillusionment with what was left of the careers service, and the so-called professional world, in general, started to take hold.

Sadly, even when schools aren’t trying to shape people’s lives with their twisted agendas, society tells youngsters that apprenticeships aren’t as good as academic courses.  Middle class kids are brainwashed into thinking they have to go to university to succeed – and make their parents proud (the bigger factor here).  Someone going into plumbing or hairdressing can strive to start their own businesses and not end up like those boring drones who I drive around from meeting to meeting in the City. Or drive home with a stop off for a meal-for-one).

Had I done an apprenticeship I might be able to do something useful.  My several years of academic wankery were great fun, but you wouldn’t ask me to put shelves up, or put up a light fitting without electrocuting myself.  I wouldn’t be able to hang wallpaper – though in fairness I could write a passable short story about it.  Considering the largest part of my portfolio career is driving a cab it’s a bit shameful that what goes on under the bonnet still remains a mystery.  My two degrees are useless when my cab starts making funny noises and I’m at the mercy of blokes at the garage who know how things work in a practical way.

Anyway, this is about the only time I’ve written about careers since leaving Connexions Northamptonshire six years’ ago.  It was quite a nice company called Career Path, before the government fucked it up.  I left before I was pushed, took voluntary redundancy, and went back on the cab.  I’ve always had problems with authority and driving and writing suits me better.

(It’s late at night, I’ve just done a day in London, and I’m tired.  Please excuse any bad spelling, grammar, or any other issues that I could have ironed out with more judicious editing).

 

 

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Boris?

I’ve just noticed the similarity between our house bunny, Tufty, and Mayor of London, Boris Johnson…

Boris?

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Another Picture of the Joe Strummer Subway (see earlier blog)

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A Knowledge Examiner Writes…

I am delighted to have recently returned to TfL as a Knowledge of London Examiner.  This is a temporary assignment for six weeks (possibly to be extended).  The sad thing is that the powers that be have made it clear that my media activities must cease while I am in their employ.  This means I can not publish any more magazine articles; whether they are about taxis, the Knowledge, or anything else, however unrelated.  I can not be drawn into any discussion of TfL.

To all my loyal followers – all 34 of you – please understand if I don’t respond to comments about cabs, the Knowledge, or TfL. I read all comments from cab drivers and Knowledge Boys.  Please don’t think I’m ignoring you.

I have a piece coming out in CallOver Knowledge magazine, that I submitted before I joined TfL.  After that, it’ll just be little pieces on this blog.  Not that I have much time for writing after getting up at 5am, and getting home at 8.30 – with some weekend work on top.

I’d like it recorded that I am being well treated by the regime, and that our Glorious Leader, Boris, is a top man.

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Modern Life is Rubbish Part 2: Coffee Shop

(excerpt of article written for CallOver magazine).

An interesting job in the cab taking an elderly American couple from Bloomsbury to the All England Tennis Club in Wimbledon, where they were intending to take a guided tour. They were over from Salt Lake City and asked a lot of questions, as Americans often do, ie. “what’s this little town called?” (Battersea). Anyway it was a nice job, with £46 on a credit card.
Time for lunch. I’m always anxious when it’s gone noon I’m a long way from the cab caffs at Southwark, Paddington or Pancras. I could have gone to MacDonald’s at Wandsworth, but I only went to Maccy Ds a few days’ ago, and one burger a week is enough for me. It was Sunday and I found I could park easily enough in Southfields. It’s an upmarket area and I couldn’t find anywhere suitable to eat within my price range. I don’t usually go into pubs on work days as I’d get too comfortable, and seeing people relaxing and enjoying themselves would depress me. There was no Spoons anyway, and an entry-level meal in another pub was about £11. A bit out of my comfort zone for a workday lunch, so I popped over to an over-priced American coffee shop to use the lav while I considered my next move.
Coming out of the loo I was tempted by a tuna baguette thing. The European girl serving took the sandwich from me and put it under a toasting contraption. I wasn’t sure whether I had to wait for it, or whether someone would bring it over. I indicated I’d return for it. I got my large cappuccino and sat down. Tension mounted as I didn’t know how long my sandwich would take to cook: two minutes? Ten?? I still find it strange that you select a sandwich from the display, and it needs to be cooked.
After a few minutes later I went back to the counter. The lady – a “barista” – I believe they are called – was now dealing with a seemingly never ending queue of people. Had she forgotten about my sandwich? Should I butt in and risk upsetting the queuing punters? Instead, I waited patiently until she noticed me. She didn’t notice me. In the end I had to ask her about my sandwich after everyone had been served. She then said she’d need to make a new one as it had burned!
A toasted sandwich and a coffee cost me £7. Seven quid for a large mug of stress and humiliation!

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The Cabs We Drive

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine 14/10/14)

Hailo recently confirmed the introduction of a ”high-end car option” at the request of business users. Hailo have had a lot of flak recently and I’m not about to make criticisms here. I’m just wondering why certain people demand “high end” cars rather than taxis. Is there something wrong with the good old London taxi?
The high-end cars considered the epitome of prestige tend to be BMWs and Mercedes. These cars are quiet and comfortable, but they lack the space and character of a traditional taxi. I’m sure they are wonderful cars to drive, but for the passenger, are they anything special?
On the occasion that I need to hire and car and driver it’s unthinkable that I’d go for anything other than a taxi. For one thing, the purpose-built taxi has space and accessibility. I don’t like to bend down too far to get into a saloon as it sets my arthritis off, and once inside I welcome the space in which to spread my legs. It’s the character that I really go for though – even though I might get a silly little van living up here in the Midlands.
Unfortunately, we are currently restricted to two models of new taxi. Private hire operators have a wide choice of vehicle at their disposal, and unless individual drivers sign up to a company supplying a uniform vehicle, they can make their own choice based on personal taste and economy. We don’t have the luxury of choice, and what we can offer doesn’t seem to satisfy the tastes of certain business users. We’re not allowed to drive a BMW, and we can only drive a Mercedes if it’s a van. We can’t advertise our vehicles as “green.” Until things change our vehicles will always be associated with noise and air pollution, and black smoke (check your cab after your MOT and you’ll notice that you’re still pumping out horrible black smoke).
New taxi models are coming though, including the exciting prospect of electric vehicles. There must be other models in production that can be adapted to satisfy London’s turning circle requirement, with the comfort, if not the character, of a taxi. The forthcoming Nissan NV200 taxi has been tweaked to give it some uniqueness. Time will tell if drivers and passengers take to it. Initially offered with a petrol engine, an electric version is likely to be added later. The biggest concern over electric vehicles is over charging. Although Boris wants us to go electric in a few years, the new electric Nissan is being launched in Barcelona as there are no rapid charging points in London! I doubt there are any where I live in Northampton either, and I wouldn’t like to run out of fuel before I get to Milton Keynes every day. If electronic vehicles ever take off here, you can be sure the cost of charging will soar. The government make a lot of money out of fuel duty; they aren’t going to let you “fill up” for a couple of quid a day once people have made the switch.
Despite the sleek lines and fancy badges of the BMWs and Mercedes, these cars are still private hire vehicles. The users and suppliers of these “executive” vehicles might try to dissociate themselves from regular private hire, but their vehicles are still mini-cabs, driven by mini-cab drivers.
Surely the fussy business user isn’t objecting to the driver of the taxi? The so-called executive car driver looks resplendent in a suit as back and shiny as his car; but it’s all about appearance, style over substance. When his satnav packs up we’ll see who the real professionals are.
I suppose some of our drivers could smarten themselves up a bit, but many of us went into the cab trade because we don’t like rules, or being told what to wear. We guard our freedom fiercely. For me, only shorts will do in the hot summer months (do you remember the summer?). I’ll leave the shiny suit and tie for special occasions. Let’s get things into perspective: all we’re doing is driving people around, we’re not trying to get them to invest in our hedge fund.
Customers on ComCab sometimes stipulate “No Vito” or “Vito Only.” It shouldn’t really matter, but as a cab customer arriving at Northampton train station, I admit I hold back a bit at the taxi rank to ensure I don’t get a van. The game is then to try to secure the prize of a fairway, the living dinosaur of sherbert dabbery. it’s not just business users who show a seemingly irrational preference.
On the surface, HailoExec customers seem to be exercising a strange kind of snobbery by sacrificing the expertise of a taxi driver, for an anonymous black car driven by a bloke in a black suit. Then again, we all know how fussy some people are. Me included.

Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2014.

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Buses, Taxis, and the Cashless Society

You can no longer pay by cash on a London bus. You can only pay by cash in most London taxis. As a London cab driver I’m asking myself if it’s time to embrace the cashless society, or is it everyone’s right to insist on payment in cash?
Those of us who rarely use buses would like to think that if we unexpectedly needed to make a bus journey, cash would be accepted. I occasionally use buses where I live in Northampton, and I’m a few years away from a free bus pass. I pay cash, and even get change if necessary. My dusty, rarely-used, Oyster Card is no use outside London, and I wouldn’t know what to do if all areas went cashless and I found myself in unfamiliar territory looking for a bus.
What’s the thinking behind the decision to go cashless? Are Transport for London (TfL) just trying to be young and trendy? It could be about saving time, but paying a bus driver cash needn’t take any more time than swiping an Oyster Card. In Birmingham, you put your cash into a machine and are instantly issued with a ticket. It’s very quick (though you have to make sure you have the right money as they don’t give change). It’s a radical idea, but if they really wanted to save time why not have someone walking through the bus with a mobile ticket machine? To combat technical malfunction the machine could be manually-operated by turning a handle. Perhaps they could give the ticket seller role a fancy name: “Bus Conductor” or “Clippie”, something like that.
I’d feel a bit aggrieved if I couldn’t pay cash for something if I chose to. Businesses can refuse to accept cheques and credit cards, but coins of the realm should be sacrosanct. Cash provides something tangible, a physical certainty. You know for sure you’ve paid, and you know someone has paid you. Notes and coins carry the Queen’s head: surely she’s good for the money?
On the day that buses stopped accepting cash I was hailed by the doorman at a West End hotel. He’d been reduced to stopping cabs several hundred yards away in a busier part of the street, asking drivers if they took credit cards. He’d unsuccessfully stopped six cabs before I came by with my card machine. Although please to see me, I was rather forced on the defensive when he told me my trade was full of dinosaurs and would die at the hands of Uber, and other virtual private hire companies who welcome credit cards. In a futile endeavour to defend my less progressive colleagues I muttered something about things happening slowly in the cab trade. Not that I’m particularly progressive; my main phone is plugged into the wall at home, and my “App” is the Yellow Pages.
Until recently, nothing much had happened in the cab trade for around three hundred years. We switched from horse-drawn to motorised vehicles a hundred years’ ago, and apart from competition from private hire from the 1960s onwards, little else has changed. Suddenly, technology is making us ask questions of how we go about our business. The hotel linkman was right: short-sightedness will get us nowhere. Customers can now order a taxi or private hire vehicle from any number of mobile phone Apps at the press of a button. It’s true that only a minority of customers ask to pay by credit card. Some foreign customers expect to be able to pay by card, but most British customers assume they can’t, so don’t bother asking. Since having my card reader installed three years ago I’d been averaging one a day. Recently, I’ve seen an increase. I would definitely lose out if I refused to take credit cards. A few Sundays ago I was crawling past the cab rank at Camden Town Station. I’d expect a nice little run to the West End from there. I saw a young female tourist ask the two cabs waiting if they took credit cards. Neither did, so they both lost a job. Had the second driver been able to accept cards he could have legitimately jumped the queue for an unexpected result. This isn’t an uncommon event. I’ve had hotel doormen load me up for Heathrow while cabs sat stewing on the rank. Most drivers like a “Flyer” because the job pays well in relation to the time it takes to complete. I’ve also been to Reading and Oxford on credit cards from station ranks (a distance job is known as a “Roader”. If the meter’s on £100 as you turn off the M4, you’re on a Roader).
I have some sympathy for the “Cash Only” wallahs though. Taking cards is a bit of a pain. It’s not nice fiddling with a swipe machine on Shaftesbury Avenue with buses swerving around you, and worrying about someone at TfL with an itchy camera-hand, waiting for you to exceed the two minutes allowed for loading. You need a working printer too, which isn’t compulsory. Then there’s the moral dilemma of having to charge someone an extra 10% for the privilege. That 10% doesn’t go to the driver, it goes to supplier of the card reader. With my system, I’m also debited £1 for every transaction. I don’t encourage paying by card, but I view it as a necessity.
Cashless payment is also socially contactless, particularly on the buses. No pleasantries are exchanged as you swipe your card on boarding. Driver and passenger barely acknowledge each other. As for taxis, I am on a computerised radio circuit and carry passengers on account. On account jobs the whole transition is completed by me pressing a button at the end of the journey. The passenger then walks off, often in silence, as on the buses. In the cashless society, human interaction is discouraged more and more. Even when tube station ticket offices are open, staffing levels can leave the message that walk-up customers with cash aren’t especially welcome. Banks virtually dare us to speak to their staff in person, as they steer us towards the cash machine. Cab drivers renew their licences remotely as we are not welcome at TfL’s offices. We queue at the Post Office instead. We used to queue at the Post Office to renew our tax disc, but most of us do that online now. We might gain a little convenience, but as a society we also lose something.
There can’t be many businesses left where cash is still king. Not everyone likes us being paid cash, particularly those who don’t make any money from us. I’m suspicious that the calls to make card acceptance mandatory in London cabs are prompted by The Man who wants to cream 10% from our earnings. I wouldn’t like to see card acceptance made mandatory, as I believe people have every right to insist on paying cash, or being paid in cash, if they feel strongly about it. The fact is, it’s becoming essential if you’re a full time cab driver. It’s a shame about the buses, but until the cab trade catches up I’m happy to jump the queue for Roaders.

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