London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

'It's A Funny Old Game'

29/05/2000, By Sean Farrell

Reader Rating: 2.9 from 16676 votes

It’s a funny old business driving a cab in London, no two days are the same, but it is the same job that was being done over three hundred years ago; a person gets in a cab, the driver takes them to their destination, passenger disembarks and pays off driver. There is not much more to it than that.

Take today for instance. I live outside London and have to drive in everyday. 99 times out of 100 I will not pick up my first fare until I am into the centre of town. Today is different. Here I am on the outskirts of London and a hand has shot up in the air. The direction of the body, attached to the hand, is walking in, is city bound and now I know that I am in for a good day, a terrific start.

As I pull over, my initial euphoria rapidly dissipates. It may be a bright sunny day but the fact that the punter is not wearing any trousers gives rise to some apprehension.

Normally I go by the rule of thumb that you do not pick up passengers who are barefoot (Sandi Shaw excepted), but this geezer not only has no shoes, but no socks, trousers or underwear. He reaches out for the door handle and I put my foot down so hard I red shift to blue and break the sound barrier to boot.

The next fare is in a desperate hurry to attend a meeting. She has to get across town in ten minutes. She has not got a chance in hell but since there might be a good tip in it for me I give it a try.

She won’t mind if I break the speed limit or jump red lights, as long as the police do not stop me whilst she is in the back, but if she thinks I am going to risk my license just to get her to a meeting she can think again.

Experience has shown me that I can kill two birds with one stone; I drive within the parameters of the law but pull up sharply at traffic lights – which has the effect of propelling them forward and smashing into the partition that separates us “Should put your seatbelt on luv, it’s what it’s there for!” or, take corners very fast and watch them in the rear mirror, as they slide across the whole width of the cab on the recently polished seat.

I get her to the destination by eleven minutes, Concorde could not have got her there sooner. At one point I get cut up by a security van. A sign on the back states “No Hand Signals” I ignore this advice and give with one hand a signal to the driver that I think he is the type of person that likes solitary sex.

It also looks good if the punter thinks that you are willing to get into a fight to get them there on time. She legals me off (gives me the correct fare and no tip). So much for trying to help her out, she’s probably excusing her lateness on the terrible cab driver she had and how he got lost.

Round the corner and I get hailed almost immediately. Two blokes, but they are drinking something out of cups, I drive a cab, not a mobile café, and tell them that, if they want to get in, they will have to ditch the drinks, reluctantly they do so.

They get in, “Oxford” they say. Now a taxi from London to Oxford goes more than £100 and is about as rare as finding Elvis Presley in the Millennium Dome (he has to be somewhere that’s quiet). They are American and as such they are too lazy to finish off the street name, its definitely not Oxford the city but could be Oxford Street, Road, Square, Gardens or Place.

I figure that they want to go shopping in Oxford Street. “Whereabouts in Oxford?” I ask them, purposely avoiding the specific article, but then I know what they are going to say. “Where the shops are.” There they said it.

Whenever a tourist wants Oxford Street they always want to be near the shops, the whole street is wall-to-wall shops. Drop them somewhere between Peter Jones and Selfridges and they think they are in the centre of the shopping universe.

They want to know why petrol is so expensive here when we have North Sea Oil and that back home in Texas they can get a litre for far less than a dollar. I could go into one and explain that since Tony Blair had to convince the electorate that he was not going to raise taxes and keep to the Tory spending levels, he had to get money from somewhere and hiking up the price of petrol was the simplest way of doing it.

I could have said that, but I didn’t. Instead I asked them “What is North Sea Oil, surely if there was oil in the North Sea Britain would be benefiting from it and Saddam Hussein would be our biggest arms sale customer?” (he probably is anyway).

When I drop them off at the centre of the shopping universe, one of them pays me off and says “Even though you made us trash our drinks, f*** you,” and gives me a £1 tip.

Normally I am not very quick with the response, “Yeah, and remember the Alamo.” If he had come back to me I would have said the right side won.

Tips are a funny thing. You never know if you are going to get one or not. Ironically the passengers who tell you you’ve gone around the long way will give you a tip but the punter who wants a running commentary on the sights of London will legal you off.

The taxman believes that for every fare we do we will receive a 10% gratuity – but I’ve never knowingly picked up a taxman (they wear a hat to cover the horns). Not every fare tips, but when they do the usual rate is about 10%, however if a fare comes to £4.80, I can never see the point of losing all my change for a tip and would be happy with the passenger rounding it off to £5.

Some cab drivers, a small minority, expect a tip every job and will refuse to give a receipt. Personally if I take somebody from A to B on a straightforward job with no aggro, then why should I expect a tip for doing my job.

On the other hand, if they mess me around, want to get there as quickly as possible or want a guided tour then yes, I think I might well deserve extra on the meter.

The idea of tipping cab drivers goes back to the coronation of William and Mary in 1689 (that was before Texas was even invented). Because large crowds were expected in London, the cab drivers, or coachmen as they were then called, refused to work unless that could charge more than the stated fare.

There were no meters in them days so cab fares were measured from certain points (usually cab stands) around London. With the large crowds expected it would take time for the drivers to get about and thus they would lose money. So the first cab strike was organised.

The strike looked like being a complete success as the government were adamant that they would not allow the coachmen to charge extra and the coachmen were as equally determined that they were not going to work on coronation day.

Somebody then came up with the compromise of the drivers charging the stated fare but the passenger, who would no doubt be relieved at getting a cab, should add a few pence to the fare as a show of their gratitude – it worked and tips have been with us ever since.

Lunchtime, and I meet up with fellow cab drivers in a place that if it sold food to the general public would be condemned, but we are cab drivers and know no better. The talk over lunch is usually about football – which I do not know too much about since I support Arsenal. If it is not about football then we are talking shop.

If a conversation begins with, “How would you go from…?” This means that the said driver went one way and the passenger said he should have gone another. Now there are eight cab drivers all giving the right route to go – and all eight are different. Put two cab drivers in the same room and you will get three different opinions!

There is one thing I do notice about places where cab drivers eat – they are so noisy. Most of us do not talk to the punter so we have to make up for it when we get the chance. The effect is a cacophony of swear words, cockney rhyming slang and dropped aitches.

After lunch I am down Victoria way. An old girl sticks her hand up and I pull over. I jump out and help her in. “I am not going far, just to the Post Office around the corner”.

As I get back in the cab I smile to myself. There is a saying that London is such a big place you forget how small it really is, and I can remember picking up this old girl some months previously. In fact I can remember her telling me that her purse had just got stolen, so out of sympathy I swallowed the fare (let her go for free).

She must have been a very unlucky woman. As I pulled up outside the Post Office she begins telling me how her purse has been stolen, “What, again?” I ask incredulously, but she ignores me. I help her out and tell her to forget about the fare. She must be somewhere in her nineties and still able to pull scams, I love it.

The day draws on and I am thinking of heading home. I pick up a couple, who want the Strand Theatre. This always throws me as the Strand Theatre is not in the Strand but in the Aldwych. Not necessarily a problem but at the end of the day when you are tired confusion tends to compound things. Fortunately I get them there with no problems.

Down Fleet Street and another pair of hands go up in the air. “Lyceum, please”. It’s back the way I came and right behind the Strand Theatre, well that’s what I thought first of all but in my tired state I convince myself it is elsewhere. I go down Fleet Street, past the Aldwych, where I should turn and into the Strand.

I am panicking now, I’ve lost the Lyceum, it’s one of the few theatres I have been in, but I cannot think of it now. As I drive along, I get my books out trying to find out where it is, but it isn’t listed. The hairs on the back of my neck are standing up and my ears are going red. The punters have not said anything but surely they must have noticed.

In the end I ignore two years of hard work on the Knowledge and of driving a cab for 12 years and confess that I cannot think where it is. They look at their tickets, “Catherine Street”. I screamed. I now know where it is and also the problems I am going to have getting them there before the curtain rises.

As luck would have it I do manage to get them there with time to spare. I am so relieved that I was not responsible for them missing the first act that I tell them to forget the fare and that they can have the tour of London for nothing.

He insists on paying me and, despite my protestations, he chucks a five pound note in through the window and walks off laughing.

I should do that more often, the original fare would only have been £2!

Straight away another fare, at least it cannot be another theatre job as I am right in the middle of theatre land and the curtain is about to rise in all of them. “The Palladium please” I do not believe it. After the last fare I am so confused that I actually double check the address of the Palladium en route, not only is it where I thought it was but it is where it has always been.

Somehow I managed to get her there with seconds to spare. “This is not it” she cries. I could have cried, I have really done it this time. “This is not the Palladium” she reinforces her statement with a large amount of panic.

I was just about to throw myself under a bus when the large red neon sign lit up in front of my face “PALLADIUM” it said. I am in the right for once. All cocky now, I say to her, “You asked for the Palladium and here it is”. She pulls out her ticket, “Oh, sorry, its not the Palladium, it’s the Phoenix Theatre” We both scream.

I have now got to get the cab across Soho, through the one-way system and into Charing Cross Road. I am so cocksure of myself now I do not need to look it up. I get her there pretty quickly but whether or not she made it before the curtain rose I know not.

Further up the road four people see me and run across six lanes of traffic to get to me. Even I can see that they are in a hurry, but the good thing is it cannot be another theatre job as its too late. “Royal Shakespeare Theatre, as quickly as you can please mate”. I groan inwardly, another bloody theatre.

I turn the cab the cab around and start heading for the Royal Shakespeare. “Excuse me mate,” I say through the window, “No such theatre, you want either the Shakespeare’s Globe or the Barbican”.

“We are going to see Phantom of the Opera”. Neither the Globe or Barbican but Her Majesty’s. I drop them in Haymarket and tell them they are better off running up to it rather than me going round the one-way system. They do not stand a chance in hell.

As for me I am going home for a much deserved alcoholic beverage. It’s a funny old game.

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Re: 'It's A Funny Old Game'

By Richard Wyland 24/03/2003, (Rating: 2.9 from 15621 votes)

Visit to an old site...
London cabbies are such fun...they all seem to have been to the States and are great talkers...

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