Bang bang

Tokyo: September

As we get on our way, my driver asks “Do you mind if I talk to you? and I smile to myself thinking how I was hoping to have a conversation with a cab driver during my 3 night trip to Tokyo.

He asks where I’m from and then tells me that he once visited London just for one day while en-route to Munich. As far as I can gather he didn’t get much further than Heathrow. I ask what he was doing in Munich and it turns out he used to import luxury European cars into Japan – every year there was a big conference and trade fair in Munich, so it was his job to come over. He doesn’t speak any German though, only English which he practices whenever he can.

His next question flumoxes me “what do you think of Japan’s economy and politics?”. I don’t feel even remotely qualified to answer, so instead I tell him how excited I am to be in Tokyo – that it’s a city that I think of as being deeply cool, and how I’ve found it much less of a culture shock than I was expecting. He asks what I think of Japanese food and I’m on much more comfortable ground, enthusing about sushi, miso, yaki soba and don. After each food I mention he nods in encouragement and repeats the food back to me and this assurges my sense of guilt over being economically and politically ignorant.

The conversation turns to the approaching typhoon – which finally hit on my last night in Tokyo, and was the main topic of conversation with everyone I met – he tells me the latest reports and that in his view it shouldn’t cause a problem with my flight home.

Somehow we jump from this to his hobbies and interests. He’s a city dweller with a love of the grea outdoors he likes to sail, camp and do clay pigeon shooting in his spare time. I can’t help but giggle, it seems so incongruous sat in the back of a cab in the middle of Tokyo. I ask whether he’s a good shot and he turns rather coy, instead of answering he demonstrates his technique “bang, bang!”

Rings – Olympic and other

Thursday 9.15am: Watford Junction station to Rickmansworth

I can’t stop looking at my driver’s hands. He has big, chunky silver rings each adorned by huge colourful stones. The y look amazing against his tan hands and I wonder how heavy they are collectively.

Our conversation however, starts with the ever-changing traffic layout around the station. He believes that the powers-that-be are trialling different configurations ahead of 2012, when the station will link with the Eurostar. He’s worried that that nobody seems to know what they are doing and I know already where this conversation will lead…

As we start talking about the preparations for the Olympics in 2012, it becomes clear that we’re on different sides of the fence. He’s got a pretty pessimistic outlook on it all, referring to the Millennium and the new Wembley Stadium delays as examples of how we don’t pull these things off. He’s worried about the delays – why haven’t they started building the stadium yet? – and of course, the cost. I am much more hopeful and keep offering alternative views. Perhaps they’re investing time into the planning of it all; in my experience actual buildings can get knocked up pretty quickly once the work starts.

It was inevitable that the conversation would turn to the logo. He sees the public derision and the inadvertent triggering of epileptic seizures from the brand film as signs of impending doom for the whole project. I explain that I’m feeling pretty gleeful at how much conversation it has provoked, that personally I quite like it and think we’ll all look at it differently when it’s dancing all over London in 5 years time.

Although we disagree, the discussion is goodnatured. After a pause he tells me that he watched a programme about preparations for the Beijing Olympics and how everyone is getting involved and different groups are being brought together. It feels like a good note on which to end the Olympic discussion, so we slip into silence.

But then, I can’t resist, I compliment him on his jewellery which kicks off a different conversation.

He tells me that his ring collection started with two rings he bought himself in Syria. His wife was going crazy indulging in gold jewellery, and as he stood around waiting for her gave into temptation himself. He bought silver as the Koran says men shouldn’t wear gold. He has always believed this himself, and tells me that a German scientist has proved that gold can have the effect of speeding up a man’s heartbeat. Since then, friends and family have bought him rings (mostly from the Middle East), so that now he has a fine collection.

He doesn’t know what all the stones stand for, but once picked up a young female fare who had studied gem stones and precious metals. He tested her on her knowledge of the men and gold issue and determining she was a credible source of information listened while she told him of the properties of each one.

He doesn’t remember them all now, but does remember that one of his original rings is meant to be good for protection. The stone is supposed to have calming properties and he feels this is a good thing for a cab driver to wear. So this ring he wears everyday while changing the others. It was his favourite anyway – it has an inscription from the Koran

A couple of cab related things

Still not having many cab driver conversations at the moment – too much travelling with companions so chatting to them instead. Here’s a couple of cab-related things to keep the posts going here.

The mischievious Charles Frith pointed out this YouTube short film – a lovely little love story masterminded by a cab driver.

And then’s Alf Townsend’s new book London Cabbie: A Life’s Knowledge. After 40 years in the business Alf has pleanty of stories to tell!

There’s football and football

I’ve not been doing much sitting in the back of cabs lately, and even less chatting to drivers. I’m sure I’ll find myself being driven around again soon – but to tide us over here’s a cab conversation a colleague recounted yesterday…

My colleague was in th US on business, Atlanta to be precise, and got chatting to his Zimbabwean driver about football (of the soccer variety). His driver was delighted to have a Brit in the back of the cab as soccer was his one-true passion. His view on the game was global but he was most interested in great African players and wanted to talk about how those currently playing in the UK premiership were doing.

It was clearly an unusual treat to be able to talk about soccer with a passenger. This being America, interest in and knowledge about soccer was a rare commodity amongst his usual fares who, if they wanted to talk about sport at all, would favour American Football. For a long time, the Zimbabwean had resisted getting familiar in what he considered to be an inferior sport – but after eventually had decided it was in his best interests to follow the American game.

As my colleague recounted this story, my immediate assumption was that the driver had decided that talking about any sport was better than none – so had taken a “if you can’t beat them, join them” stance to give himself something to talk about with his fares. But, apparantly this was not the primary reason. In fact, the driver had felt that he needed to start taking American Football seriously in order to offer a better service. So many of his passengers wanted to talk about the sport, he felt it was his duty to oblige them.

The only problem now was that the Atlanta driver felt his soccer knowledge was diminishing – something that made him sad. The modern dilema of limited attention…

Wife for protection?

Tuesday night in Sheffield

I’m finishing work late at a venue in Sheffield and my driver, Eric comes up to help me with my bags. He also introduces me to his wife who has come along for the ride. This is a first for me.

I get in the car and Eric goes back into the venue waiting until the hostess has locked up and seeing her to the car. I realise, that this is a regular job for Eric.

- Eric: we have to watch them off you see if nobody’s there, it’s a student area and there’s been 3 or 4 rapes.
- Me: oh gosh
- Eric: yes, there’s a path there and it’s very, very…
- MrsEric: students are warned not to walk..
- Eric: yes and they still walk down there at night
- MrsEric: there’s a church yard down there and they walk through there as well

They chat amongst themselves for a while

- Eric: they say it’s going to be a lovely weekend but there’s a long way to go from tonight, 6 degrees
- Me: it was nice yesterday though
- Eric: it was wasn’t it. They’re saying don’t go abroad stay in England, and that’s the Daily Express as well. Not the Sun or The Mirror or aything like that. It’s going to be 66 degrees they say. London’s going to be the warmest. I suppose that’s where you live.
- Me: yes, how nice!

Another pause

- Eric: where are you tomorrow?
- Me: In Sheffield, but working somewhere else
- Eric: Quite a nice studio that isn’tit?
- Me: Yes, why do you know others here?
- Eric: There’s one on Salter Lane, we take people there

I’m amused by this, the studio was ok, nothing special. I wonder what Eric is comparing it to or whether he’s just heard other researchers say it’s nice or what his point of comparison is. In the meantime Eic and his wife are discussing directions, then Eric starts pointing out hotels to me.

– Me: do you always come out with your husband?
- MrsEric: sometimes
- Eric: sometimes. Tonight we’d been out and the chappie that was meant to be doing it rang me and asked if I could see Jackie off. So we was out already you see…
- MrsEric: he drags me all over
- Eric: sometimes you come to the airport with me, don’t you
- MrsEric: we don’t charge anymore!

- Eric: it’s a nice olde worlde hotel this one. It used to be the Old Vic and owned by the railway station. It’s been a hotel for many, many years. As long as I can remember.

They start discussing something in the sky and prick my curiosity…

- Me: what is it?
- Eric: that light in the sky. There’s something going off at the Don Valley stadium, probably a concert or something like that.

We reach my hotel and settle up. Eric borrows change off his wife…

- Eric: I don’t carry much with me now you see because one of the lads the other day got mugged on The Snake
- Me: on the what?
- Eric: on The Snake
- MrsEric: the winding road to the airport
- Me: Oh, I see. yikes!
- Eric: yes, it’s a dangerous job this one
- MrsEric: yes, that’s why I’m here!

A chat about vices

Kingston to home last Wednesday

I’m running late and I’ve kept my driver waiting. As I get in the cab, I catch him finishing a sneaky smoke. This puts him flustered and apologetic, he knows he shouldn’t be smoking in the cab, but it’s a time-killing habit he finds hard to break. It’s a hard-wired association, if he’s hanging around he automatically lights up.

He used to be in the building trade, in the days when you could smoke on site. So for him any kind of DIY or manual labour is also associated with smoking. At the weekend he was doing some painting at home and although he didn’t smoke, it felt wrong not to have a fag in his mouth.

He asks me what I’ve been working on and I tell him confectionery – sweets, chocolate that kind of thing. He says “Ahh, now if you’re talking about addictions, that’s just another one. My wife is completely addicted to chocolate. I think most women are”. He can take or leave the sweet stuff but his wife is a fiend for it.

“Chewing gum’s a different matter. I can go through packets of it in the cab. I have gum after a cigarette, or instead of a cigarette. It’s probably a nervous thing, or a concentration thing”

He tells me about the time he tried to give up smoking. He went on the patches and lasted about 4 weeks. The problem was he found himself getting angry and irritable and that’s not a good thing when you’re a cab driver. You need to be able to keep your cool, no matter what. As a night driver, it’s not the traffic that’s an issue, it’s the people in the back of a cab. Particularly those that have had a few.

He goes on to regale me with some of his worst drunken-passenger experiences. From there we start musing over the different effects of booze. He feels that some people just have a nasty streak in them that is brought out by alcohol. We chat about people we know who are lovely when sober but dreadful drunk. He tells me that that he finds the floppy drunks the scariest because it’s horrible to see people so out of it.

The worst type of cab-driver conversation

In Manchester from Irlam to my hotel

Among the worst things that can happen to me during a cab conversation is when a driver starts spouting bigoted, racist or intolerant views. It’s not in my nature to argue or put them straight, but I hate feeling complicit. I usually try to subtly show disproval whilst deftly steering the conversation into safer territory. I didn’t have much luck with this one:

- so you come from London do you? Do you live right in the centre like?
- yes, South of the river, but pretty central
- how do you find it living with all those foreigners? Last time I was in London I couldn’t believe it when I was the only English-speaking white face on the tube
- errr, I quite like that it’s so multicultural
- do you? I wouldn’t, dunno if I would feel safe. Full of arabs it was…

He goes on, I won’t dignify it by typing up the rest. In the end I gave up, opened my book and pointedly ignored him for the rest of the journey.