Category Archives: Radio Taxis

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.

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TV vs Internet

Today, from the office to Kings Cross

– So where are we off to today?
– Newcastle
– Never been there, what am I missing?

My driver is quite hard to understand; he talks quietly, with short sentances delivered in a gravely snarl. At first I think he’s being off with me, but it’s just how he talks – he’s friendly enough.

I outline my favourite things about Newcastle: the regeneration of the Quayside, including the wonderful, wonderful Baltic gallery; the access to a wild and dramatic coastline; the fact that my brother is there and my grandma’s not far away; and that I generally love geordies – they tend to make fabulous research subjects.

– So what are you researching?
– Kid’s TV shows
– What like Sesame Street?
– Err not exactly…

But he’s off. Listing the Sesame Street character’s: Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, The Cookie Monster, Oscar The Grouch.

– I loved that show. It was great. All those characters, I remember them all now. Must have been 20 years since my kids watched them, but they’ve stuck with me.
– People usually tell me it’s too American
– Yeah, it was American, but my kids loved it. Great for teaching them things. There was The Count too, Ah, ah, ah, ah, ahhh. That was the other one. The Count

We pause for a while, before he asks:

– So do you watch a lot of TV?
– Depends how busy I am, I tend to like good drama series best. How about you?
– Mostly sport. On Sky. Good coverage. The best. Don’t really watch much TV these days.
– Why’s that then? Nothing on, or have you got better things to do?
– It’s the computer. Spend a lot of time on that now. Didn’t use it ’til 6 months ago. Thought I could live without it…

My driver used to fake knowledge when email or the internet was discussed. Really he didn’t have a clue, could barely switch on the computer. He couldn’t be bothered with it, didn’t really see the point. His wife was the one that used the computer, if he needed anything he’d get her to do it.

But he got found out! He was copying down an email address and wrote ‘at’ instead of ‘@’ and his mate laughed at him. He decided it was time to get up to speed and asked his daughter (more patient than his wife) to teach him.

– it’s a bit frightening at first. All this stuff out there. Can’t get your head round it

Now he’s hooked. The internet, he’s found, is great for the stuff you’re interested in, like music and travel. He’s become a dab hand at using messenger and email, chatting to a daughter in Australia.

– it’s exciting too. Getting an email. It’s nice. It’s like getting a letter. Only you don’t get letters any more, do you?

from late to mate

From home to the office this morning.

My cab arrives 25 minutes late. Worried that I might be angry, my driver starts on the offensive.

“Sorry I’m late, but it’s done me no favours either. Since I’ve taken on this job, I’ve spent 30 minutes in traffic when I could have been making money, you see I can only put £4 on the clock for a call out. The traffic’s had me right over.”

I nod, try to sound reassuring and generally listen to him letting off steam, until he realises I’m pretty sanguine about it.

“I was getting ready you see, thinking you might come out going ‘where you been’ and what have you. I would’ve turned round and gone ‘sorry I’m not taking you anywhere’.

We talk a little about why he took on my job in the first place when he was so far away and the problems of knowing which jobs to say yes to, before going on to discus how come I live in South London but work in North London. He’s a born and bred North Londoner and doesn’t get on with South London at all. He knows exactly where our office is because it’s on his home turf, and goes on to tell me about the different places he’s lived in the area. After a pause he says “I had a giggle to myself when I saw the name Spinach [the name of my company] come up”. Which leads us to chatting about what it is that I do.

He’s now worried that I’m going to be in trouble for being late, but cheers up when I tell him I’ve a finite amount of work to get done before going on a skiing holiday tomorrow and it shouldn’t be a problem. The driver seems genuinely excited for me, exclaiming “Super!”, “Fantastic!” and “No wonder you’re so laidback about things”.

He tells me his son Harry is going skiing with the school at Easter. It’s costing them a fair bit, but he doesn’t mind ‘cos he know’s the lad will love it. He does worry that he might enjoy it a bit too much and “get caught up in an avalanche or something”. I do my best to sound reassuring.

During a pause, he’s clearly thinking about his lost earnings this morning as he brings it back up. We agree that January is rubbish financially, and he lists off some of the outgoings that are bothering him. He and his wife have are taking a couple of friends out for dinner at the weekend, which is going to cost them a pretty penny.

They’re going to the Wolseley, so I tell him about my friend’s pre-Christmas meal at the Wolseley surrounded by male celebrities (Jason Donovan, David Gest, Salmon Rushdie and Don Johnson were all dining). He laughs “Well there you go, I suppose come Saturday I’ll be the star turn there!”

As we get close to our destination, he starts pointing out places that have relevance to him. The pub that used to be a Lyon’s Tea House (not that he remembers it, his dad used to tell him”, the market stall he worked on when he was 14, the house where his parents used to live.

Once we’re at the office he says “there you go, my little spinach. Have a good day and a great holiday, mind how you go” leaving me with a grin on my face.

Banksie and his fire escape ladders

Cab taken on Thursday 7th December from home to Barnes.

We started off debating the likely journey length then quickly got onto the weather. The day had seen unusual and dramatic weather but my driver had missed the worst of it as he’d been in a meeting with his web designer. Curious, I asked what he needed a web designer for and was very glad I did. It turns out my driver was the inventor of a successful product and now found himself reluctantly having to take on the role of entrepreneur. These aren’t his words but this is his story:

Banksie had been in a merchant fireman in his youth and had personally been touched by the tragic consequences of fire. When his daughters were young he’d bought fire escape ladders to keep them safe. As an ex-fireman, he knew that without instinctive knowledge on how to use them, just owning the ladders wouldn’t be enough to save lives, so he set about drilling his daughters in how to use them. The drills were less successful than hoped and soon provoked tears of frustration, the ladders were too heavy and cumbersome for the young girls to manoeuver – making them worse than useless should fire break out.

Banksie quickly realised that the problem was the design and saw what was needed – a ladder in a box that could be wall-mounted with a straightforward mechanism for quick and easy release in an emergancy. He was certain someone must make such a thing and set about sourcing them. He contacted manufacturers directly but was repeatedly told that no such thing existed, the maufacturers kept trying to sell him the same kind of ladder as he already owned.

One day, he drove past an sign for a patent office asking for novel patent ideas and on a whim decided to see if a patent existed for wall-mounted fire escape ladders. A few days later the patent office called him in excitement to say no such patent existed and they felt he was onto a good idea. So Banksie took out the patent and set about developing his ladder.

It took 5 years, a lot of money (Banksie and his family moved into a smaller house to finance it) and masses of work. Luckily he was working as a courier, so had pleanty of driving time to puzzle over it. The biggest problem was making them light enough to go on the wall but strong enough to hold someone’s weight. There were lots of small victories and setbacks, but he got there in the end.

The ladders were both popular and profitable. Banksie wasn’t bothered about running a company himself, so he put the patent up for lease and let someone else manage it. Things had been going well, but just recently Banksie felt he had started to get a rough deal – the people looking after his business weren’t doing it justice. what irked him the most was the fact that they kept putting up the price; making the cost of the ladders out of reach for the low-earning household – the people Banksie had always imagined selling to. He had decided to take back control.