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.
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.
A brief survey of some of the celebs I’ve had in my cab…
To read more, see my book!
As I’m not driving a cab any more I’m relying on anecdotes…
My latest article for TAXI magazine:
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.
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.
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?
(Article written for on-line magazine, B-C-ing-U), published today:
As I sit at my PC typing this, the wind is howling outside. We’re advised not to venture out unless our journeys are essential. The port of Dover is closed. Flights are cancelled and there’s a 50 miles per hour speed limit on the train network. Some trains aren’t running at all. Some areas are flooding. Power cuts are imminent. At home, the cat won’t go out into the garden, and the rabbit is grounded on safety grounds.
This country rarely experiences extreme weather, and we’re never fully-prepared for it. When the first snowflake drops, the roads and rails grind to a halt, and all the schools close; just in case they face legal action for forcing children out into the cold. The authorities don’t like us moving around as it causes accidents and incidents that they’ll have to deal with. Transport providers don’t like us clogging up the roads, trains and buses; or causing a jam at Sunglasses Hut at the airport.
As much as I like to pretend I’m driving my rig across Alaska like on TVs Ice Road Truckers, anything more than a dusting of the white stuff and I’m on my way home. Conversely, when the first rays of sun hit our shores, the great British public head to a pub garden to order a pint of lager with a wasp in it. Others strip off and lie around drunk in our parks. Or try to get into cabs in Soho. We need to be wary. Driving in hot weather is very debilitating, even in a cab with air-conditioning.
Normally I’d be working Sunday on the cab. I’m not scared to drive into London. I’m only at home because I’m booked in for a family meal in a Hertfordshire pub. I decided to have a rare Sunday off because of today’s Winter Run and the widespread road closures the event requires. To my surprise the Winter Run was called off on Friday, two days before the event. By then I’d committed to my family lunch and I was already in holiday mode. Storm Ciara they called it. As if giving it a name makes it more serious and official. The follow-up storm a week late was named Storm Dennis – not such a glamorous-sounding name. Who thinks up these names? Well, my twelve-mile drive to Harpenden was essential, as is any visit to a pub. It passed off uneventfully, though people in many places did have serious problems.
So the Winter Run was cancelled because of a bit of wind? Surely scheduling a run in February comes with the risk of, er, winter-type weather. That’s why it’s called a Winter Run. A winter run could be expected to feature ice, snow or wind; and I’d have thought that a proper runner should be able to cope with those conditions. They’re not landing a passenger jet on an icy runway.
In some countries they drive on snow and ice. I guess they’re used to it. Everything shuts down here. Remember the “Beast from the East” two years ago? At the end of February and the beginning of March 2018, I lost four days’ work because of snow. Little over a month later we had three boiling hot days. April 19th was the hottest April day since 1949. Typical British inconsistency. Of course, under Brexit we are now free to import more extreme weather from non-European Union countries, so maybe we need to get used to strange weather.
I had a friend at university, Finnish Erik. He thought this global warming thing was great and looked forward to seeing palm trees in Helsinki. That was over twenty years ago. Since then we’ve been made aware that the hottest places in the world will become inhabitable in the future, and that folk are starting to move from hot places to more temperate ones. I wonder if there are property investment opportunities in Greenland?
Anyway, I expect that when you come to read this all the extreme weather will be over and we’ll be looking forward to a bright warm spring…
(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine – out this week):
Last summer there was an epidemic of people whizzing around London on motorised kids’ scooters. They were getting in everyone’s way and causing accidents. When it was pointed out that it was illegal to ride scooters on both public roads and pavements, the police went to work. It was widely reported that they’d stopped hundreds of people. A few were arrested, but most were let off with a lecture on the law. It appeared that time was up for these adults that had never grown up, but I hear that the powers that be are thinking of legalising scooters for road use.
This is the modern day response to illegal practices that the authorities can’t be bothered to stop. If a law is too much trouble to enforce, they just legalise it – especially if the mode of transport in question has two wheels. One of the first rules I would have learned on my Cycling Proficiency Test in 1971 would have been to never overtake on the inside. Doing so would have been considered near-suicidal. In fact, cycling in a big city would have been strictly for headcases. But here they come, zooming up the inside of cars, cabs and lorries all over London. Never mind if you’re indicating a left turn, they’ll carry straight on oblivious to the danger. They assume you’re going to look before you turn, and they assume you’ll let them undertake you. Usually, but not always, the cyclist gets lucky. Undertaking was officially sanctioned when they set up cycle lanes on the inside. Not all roads have this facility, but cyclists take it that they can undertake on all roads, whether marked out or not.
A couple of years ago we were warned that motorists were going to start getting fined for encroaching on the cyclists’ advance stop line. The advance stop line was soon accompanied by cyclists’ traffic lights that turned green before the main motorists’ light. This was another neat remedy for something that the authorities didn’t want to take responsibility for. Cyclists always accelerated through the lights before anyone else, and legalising it absolved everyone from stopping it. Anyway, the advanced stop area is now full of motorcycles. No-one appears to have been ticketed, so perhaps it’s only a matter of time before this practice is legalised. Motorcyclists also think they’re being clever by undertaking on the cyclists’ lane. I can’t imagine this being made legal, but I doubt anyone’s going to do anything about it anyway.
Nobody’s going to do anything about adults acting like kids, riding plastic scooters down Oxford Street. They can’t be bothered to keep unauthorised motor vehicles off that road; a road that is essentially a bus lane. I can see what they’re doing. TfL failed in their plan to close Oxford Street to motor vehicles entirely, so they’re just waiting for the situation gets worse before trying again. Inadequate signage gives the impression that nobody really cares. The lack of enforcement backs this up. The attitude is, if no-one cares and there are no sanctions, it’s pretty much legalised. Like cycling up the inside, or riding scooters, skateboards, and segways on the road. When congestion and pollution increases, and more accidents happen involving minicabs and vans, they’ll try again to push through a total vehicle ban. With half of Oxford Street westbound currently closed, we can see how the future might look like.
There is widespread apathy from those controlling the streets. They’ll close streets off in order to make the motorists’ life harder, but allow others to create hazards. As far as I remember, cycle rickshaws started appearing about thirty years ago. They were a nuisance back them, and they’re still here. Unlicensed and unstable, these carriages of carnage are being ridden by dubious characters charging those with more money than sense £40 for a ride along Oxford Street. Neither TfL, nor a succession of London Mayors have done anything about the menace. Could we say the same about Uber? That matter is in the balance. TfL have deemed them to be unfit to provide minicabs in London, but they are still operating.
Finally, are all these vans emblazoned with advertising authorised to drive around Buckingham Palace? I thought commercial vehicles were banned. It’s not as if there are no police officers around. No, if I was running London all those vans and rickshaws would be gone, and if I saw Prince Harry riding down The Mall on a skateboard I’d nick him too.
(Original edit of article for TAXI magazine this week).
One of the big scandals of 2019 was the fake English language tests for private hire drivers. English proficiency was rightly being tested by Transport for London at designated centres. Test certificates could also be obtained through equivalent qualifications gained at private colleges. Journalists investigating this weak spot found they could simply pay a sum of money and be awarded a certificate without sitting a test. A BBC journalist paid £500 to buy a qualification. When the resulting television expose was aired TfL had questions to answer. They thanked the journos for all their good work and promised to look into the matter. Would there be a Christmas knock on the door for minicab drivers who had bought certificates from a Mickey Mouse college?
TfL appeared to act decisively, but the matter should have been looked into from the outset. Transport for London is the gatekeeper of taxi & private hire legislation. They have the responsibility to those working within the trade, and to passengers, to ensure everything is above board. It shouldn’t be left to the media to investigate suspicious practices. TfL said they were “deeply concerned” and “will support the relevant authorities with any wider investigations into these organisations.” I thought TfL were the relevant authority: they are the authority who issue taxi and private hire licences, and they involve themselves in everything imaginable that happens on London’s streets; including closing roads at will, and telling us how to conduct our business. If TfL are the police, who are policing the police? I’m not sure where the mayor is either. This is happening on his watch, in his city. Where is the geezer?
TfL refused Uber a new licence towards the end of the year. I don’t know whether the ban will hold this time, but TfL are evidently aware of suspicious goings-on in the murky world of private hire. Since private hire licensing rocketed with the coming of Uber there have been insurance scandals, serious customer data breaches, and a huge crime rate amongst drivers that Uber have tried to cover up. There are many people driving minicabs who aren’t who they say they are. Those in the know in private hire circles can put you in touch with a tame doctor who can provide a guaranteed trouble-free medical without having access to your medical records. When I renewed my taxi licence I had to make an appointment with an optician, but I understand that even this isn’t necessary in the weird and frightening world of private hire. Private colleges should have been scrutinised along with all the other possible loopholes in minicab licensing.
Has the insurance matter been resolved? Are Uber drivers telling their insurance companies that they are working in areas they are not licensed for? Wolverhampton and Brighton come up a lot in discussions on cross border hiring: would a Wolverhampton-licensed driver working in Brighton be adequately insured? Don’t ask TfL, they’ll let someone else work that out. Cross-border hiring will surely continue to be a talking point this year, but our licensing authority will wring their hands and hope it all blows over.
Taxi complaints are handled directly by TfL. Complaints are taken seriously, though not as seriously as they were under the Public Carriage Office when the Police were running the show. Private hire complaints are handled in-house by individual operators. We only get to hear of incidents if they are serious enough to interest the media. Uber never took complaints seriously and that’s part of the reason why they were denied a new London licence, and why they’re sure to go through another very long and expensive court appeal.
TfL drag their feet looking at complaints, but move like greased lightning to bank the licence money from around 113,000 minicab drivers (outnumbering by at least five times the number of taxi licences). When I worked as a Knowledge Examiner a couple of my colleagues would photograph suspicious activity by out of town minicab drivers and report it. The camera footage would be sent upstairs, but we’d rarely hear back. They were undoubtedly too busy selling licences to act on evidence of illegal activity that was handed to them on a plate. The fact is that handling complaints doesn’t bring in any money. Issuing licences does. I’ll be hoping for a lot more from our licensing authority this year.
(My Christmas article for B-C-ing-U, as it appeared in the on-line mag. A similar article was edited for Taxi magazine this week, but I like this one better)
I hate working this time of year. I love Christmas, but I hate driving around London in my cab. I dread that moment in November when I’m stuck in a traffic queue, and I have to make that painful admission: Christmas has started. It gets earlier each year. This year it started at about the time they switched on the Christmas lights on Regent Street, almost obscenely in the middle of November.
This is the start of the madness. Black Friday hasn’t even appeared yet. Those traffic queues will get worse, and they’ll spread. Buses won’t be moving, delivery vans will be parked on double yellows blocking everyone’s progress. Tempers will be frayed. Out of towners will be circling the West End looking for parking that doesn’t exist, while craning their necks up at the Christmas lights. All the year’s road closures and madcap re-modelling projects will come into sharp focus as we sit and stew behind the buses. The meter is moving, but our wheels aren’t. All we can do is apologise to our customers for the delays and the inflated fares.
December is fair game for Christmas festivities, but November isn’t. I don’t even allow myself to look up at the Christmas lights until December. It’s just not right. I drive up to Piccadilly Circus eyes straight ahead, as if to gaze upon the Christmas lights in November is to bring down a curse of bad luck for the coming year.
I don’t want to see any Christmas TV adverts before December, or hear Christmas songs or carols. I don’t want to hear Noddy Holder screaming “It’s Christmas!” until December. I don’t want to see Christmas trees on sale too early either. The purchase of Christmas trees in November should be outlawed. I’m disappointed this didn’t feature in any of the General Election manifestos. I thought the Greens would be keen to stop the premature felling of trees at least.
My plastic Woolworths Christmas tree goes up on the first weekend after December 1st. It’s seen sixteen Christmasses. It’s been brought down by the cats and chewed by the rabbits, but it lives to see another year. I’d write to Woolworths to congratulate them on the quality of their replica tree, but the shop has long gone. Last year I bought a miniature pine from Morrison’s. It’s a tiny tree, just big enough to decorate a table top. But at least I can say I have a real tree. Surprisingly, the tree survived all year in a pot outdoors, and I’m expecting continued growth in 2020. If Morrison’s survives Brexit I’ll write to them next year.
A few days before the Big Day, the roads become quieter and trade drops off. We feel we’ve earned our Christmas break. I sometimes work Christmas Eve. It’s quiet, but there’s a jolly atmosphere. If I lived in London I might have tried Christmas Day just to satisfy my curiosity. Same with New Year’s Eve. I often work it, at least until the bridge closures are put in for the fireworks display. I worked a few New Year’s Days, but the road closures are so extensive now that I’ve given up on that. It can pay well though.
The New Year is a time for reflection. We look over the past year and reflect on what went well and what went badly. Hopefully we didn’t pick up many drunks. It’s difficult because many of them look respectable, and they don’t just operate in the hours of darkness either. I usually pick up at least one party of boozed-up office workers off to annoy Arab families at the Winter Wonderland, but as a paranoid cove, I manage to avoid most of the unpleasantness. It’ll be another interesting year for sure. The LEVC semi-electric cab has sold well since its launch almost two years ago, and there’s a fully-electric cab on its way. Uber are still hanging on, like a manky Christmas tree chocolate melted by the lights.
Will trade be better this year? We ask ourselves that same question every year, more in hope than expectation. There’s now the Kipper Season to endure. No-one’s sure why this time of the year is called the kipper season: some say it’s because kippers were all Victorian cabmen could afford to eat in January. Or it could just mean that the trade is as flat as a kipper. Either way, we can look forward to one, two, or even three months of poor trade. Eventually we’ll come out of that dark tunnel and the days will bring a bit more light. We can look forward to some spring warmth, and hopefully a bit more business.
Will we get to enjoy the romance of a white Christmas? Great! – If it starts late on Christmas Eve and has thawed by the time I decide to go back to work. I don’t really remember the last white Christmas – probably in the 70s. I remember some warm ones. Global warming? Perhaps Extinction Rebellion are on to something after all?
I’ve included one of my own photos taken in late February 2018; just after I called my work day off as I couldn’t get the cab off my driveway.
Have a good one!