â€śMuswell Hill Road, please.â€ť
The boy kisses me goodbye and I slip into the seat.
We drive. â€śThat your boyfriend?â€ť â€śYes,â€ť I say, looking back at his coat moving away, the big collar lit up by the lights overhead. Heâ€™s not my boyfriend. I want him to be. He will be, and then he wonâ€™t be. Itâ€™ll work out just fine. Looking back now, I remember every moment of the journey.
â€śGood part of town for it,â€ť says the cabbie. â€śMet my wife up here. Long time back. Used to go for a drink round the corner.â€ť I smile to myself. Heâ€™s guessed, straightaway, that this thingâ€™s early days. Does he still live round here? â€śNo, Enfield now. Nice up there. Quieter. Better for the blood when you get older.â€ť He laughs; his chest rattles. Itâ€™s a big, comforting sound. I feel warm, and laugh too. The red numbers by the rear view mirror change with a click.
I feel snug in the back, so I ask him his name. â€śReg. Pleased to meet you. And you?â€ť I tell him and we talk about that song by the Beatles. We share details for a while, give each other pocket-sized versions of our life stories: his family in Wales, how long Iâ€™ve been in the city. Weâ€™re as chatty as each other. Then I ask him how long heâ€™s been out here. How long heâ€™s had the badge. How long itâ€™s been since he had his blue book.
We stop at the lights just outside Tottenham, and Reg lays an arm across the steering wheel. He turns and smiles through some big, gappy teeth. Another rattle, loud and lovely. â€śYou mean The Knowledge, do you?â€ť he smiles. â€śWell, love, itâ€™s been a while since Iâ€™ve thought about that.â€ť
Men â€“ itâ€™s almost always men â€“ school round the Public Carriage Office like fishes. Some in yellow coats, fresh off their bikes. Others with shirts tucked in tight, thrust into smart trousers, hidden under shiny belt buckles. There is fidgeting, walking back and forth. Cigarettes stuck in their mouths. You guess that this is the quietest some of them have ever been. The tests take place here. Every morning, the end of Penton Street is thick with nerves.
Every morning, I see them. They stand in front of the Office, a bulky, white, modern hangar, one of those buildings the government made too quickly in the â€™60s. This is where they come to learn their trade. Over the three or four years it takes to master The Knowledge, theyâ€™ll all have other jobs. After work and on weekends, they take a scooter, moped or motorbike, map fixed to the handlebars, and head out into the city to work their way through their runs. There are 320. Each run goes from Point A to point B, with pick-up points along the way. All the roads, streets, squares, hotels, pubs, clubs, courts, government buildings, police stations, railway stations, cemeteries, parks, open spaces: all the places someone could throw at you, like fishes at a seal, waiting to be committed to memory. Every detail of London, in a six mile radius from Charing Cross, must get into your mind, and sink deeply in, to earn the Green Badge. Thereâ€™s a written test first, and then thereâ€™s the â€śappearancesâ€ť, one-to-one oral exams in the Carriage Officeâ€™s â€ścorridor of fearâ€ť. Youâ€™re graded according to how well you do. If youâ€™re good, less appearances in future; if youâ€™re not so good, more. This while living your life. And, after that, thereâ€™s the suburbs.
â€śIf youâ€™re in doubt, thereâ€™s the oranges and lemons.â€ť Daveâ€™s cab crawls slowly across Blackfriars Bridge. Iâ€™ve had one of those days. Iâ€™m ill, full of cold, and have to be in Hackney by eight. I canâ€™t really afford it. â€śYou get stuck, see. We all do. So you go for the main roads. Look at an A-to-Z. The main roads â€“ orange and lemon. So we go round by that. Not often, mind,â€ť he adds, pretty stiffly. â€śYou tell me somewhere and most times and Iâ€™ll tell you where it is.â€ť
I wriggle out of my cold for a minute. This sounds like a challenge. I try a moderate one. â€śThe Lucky Seven Diner.â€ť â€śWestbourne Park Road, by the Westway. The Paddington lineâ€™s opposite. You takeâ€¦â€ť The roads rattle out of his mouth. In a minute, Iâ€™m told how to get there by shortcuts. I try the name of a play. â€śNew Ambassadors, love, you turn leftâ€¦â€ť Heâ€™s away. Then I try one Iâ€™ve seen online, on a Knowledge quiz website. A tricky one that might fox him. â€śThe PC Blakelock memorial.â€ť â€śThe one killed over at Broadwater Farm?â€ť â€śYes,â€ť I say, thinking about the estate out in Tottenham, how Iâ€™ve got old Dave flummoxed. â€śMuswell Hill Broadway, on the roundabout, between Boots and Pizza Express.â€ť I give up. Heâ€™s too good. â€śYouâ€™ve beaten me, Dave.â€ť I laugh, just like he does. He looks at me in the rear-view mirror, sticks his tongue out and raises an eyebrow.
â€śLooking for a COP in or around BOW or East London area. On 9 points on 56s at the momentâ€ť, it says on the website, like a personal ad in a curious tongue. Another site asks cabbies for stories about people theyâ€™ve â€™ad in the back of their cab. You read the questions in Cockney. â€śDid they give you a good tip? And were they a pleasure to take to their destination â€“ or did they give you the raving â€™ump?â€ť Another features various anagrams (â€śA London Black Taxi Driver: lax, erratic, blind on vodkaâ€ť). Itâ€™s a language that belongs completely to cabbies. They have a special camaraderie, a kinship that works between people who spend most of their days sitting out on their own, in the company of those they meet only for a moment, often once and once only.
â€śTell me again where you mean,â€ť Alan calls through the partition. We wait behind a night bus thatâ€™s full to capacity, flashing its indicator, but stuck to the spot.
â€śOn the 134 into town. Weâ€™d always get caught around Camden.â€ť The bus finally moves, and Alan follows as I yammer on, drunkenly. â€śOne morning, passing Mornington Crescent, behind the billboards opposite, I saw a big car park FULL of taxis.â€ť I slouch a bit in my seat. â€śAnd this cafĂ©, or something.â€ť â€śThe Granby Grill, that is,â€ť offers Alan, broadly, as the bus turns to the right. â€śBut whyâ€™s it hidden?â€ť â€śItâ€™s not hidden,â€ť he corrects me, then pauses a moment. â€śBut itâ€™s only for us â€“ you have to have your badge to get in. Itâ€™s closed at the moment, but itâ€™s only for us lot.â€ť
I pass there sober one day, and walk round the corner. Itâ€™s open again. Thereâ€™s a purr in the engines, a jokey swing to the voices. I feel bad for coming near. Iâ€™m not one of them, Iâ€™m one of us. I leave them be. We all need our free time.
A few days later, by chance, I walk past an old dark green shelter in Russell Square. I hear laughter inside. Cabbies come here for a break â€“ for a warm drink, a joke, and maybe something to eat. There are other shelters dotted across town, tiny little things, like marooned beach huts. A cabbie wanders outside, and I smile at him. He raises an Arsenal mug, calls â€śAfternoon!â€ť and salutes as I go.
â€śTook me three years,â€ť says John. â€śOnly three or four years ago. Before that I worked for my dad.â€ť We approach Shepherdâ€™s Bush, go round the roundabout with the white and blue water tower. â€śI couldnâ€™t get decent work. The payâ€™s not great doing this, but the freedomâ€™s all right.â€ť I say the hours must be good; you can work when you want to. â€śBut I never see my wife. Iâ€™m always out in the nights, â€™cos the fares are much better. The days, I prefer. Better when you get a long fare.â€ť Iâ€™m going to Heathrow from town, and Iâ€™m getting expenses, my favourite kind of journey. â€śItâ€™s easier at night. Less bloody idiots.â€ť A minute later, two schoolgirls run blind across the road, shrieking with laughter. â€śApart from them, mind,â€ť he shouts, shoving his hand on the horn. â€śWatch yourselves, ladies!â€ť And he shrugs. â€śBut what can you say? Weâ€™re all young once.â€ť
Once a year, the Public Carriage Office has an Open Day. I go with a friend. â€śWould you like a balloon?â€ť says a man as we enter, and I nearly shout â€śYES!â€ť and run round the corridors like a child at a tea party. Thereâ€™s the corridor of fear, the booking-in and booking-out booths, the big area where the cars are inspected. Today itâ€™s full of stuff for aspiring drivers, and stands for cabbie charities that help underprivileged children. At the front of the yard is a stage with a projector screen, where a Knowledge quiz is underway. Itâ€™s in the style of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Bill Askwith is asked how we know when the Queen is at Buckingham Palace. One of the answers is â€śwhen the lights are onâ€ť. Mark Cooper talks about when he picked up Frank Carson. Another cabbie mentions picking up Joan Collins, and the crowd goes â€śWhooooo!â€ť She was, he says proudly, â€śa very nice lady.â€ť
We walk outside and sit in the backs of old cabs. Iâ€™m told off for leaving a door open. I pick up an application pack and flick through some runs. A single page turns my brain to jelly. I say this to the woman manning the stand. â€śThatâ€™s what itâ€™s like!â€ť she laughs, quite politely. I smile and thank her and wander downstairs; I look at some video screens describing other â€ścabbie charactersâ€ť (â€śhe had Sting as a fare â€“ a very good tipperâ€ť). I go back outside. I look over to where I work. I want to wave to show that Iâ€™ve emerged, safe and unharmed, from the place that makes all those big men so terrified.
Whatâ€™s your favourite thing about London?
â€śWaterloo Bridge,â€ť says Dave, with a sparkle. â€śYou see everything â€“ Westminster at night, all the City, Canary Wharf at the north side.â€ť
â€śAlbert Bridge,â€ť says Alan. â€śLit up like a fairy. And itâ€™s on the way home.â€ť
â€śIt changes by the week,â€ť says John. â€śIt used to be Whitehall, down there. I like Smithfields right now. Not much fare up there, though. Youâ€™ve got to keep that in mind.â€ť
Reg turns into Muswell Hill Road, and the rain starts to dance down the windows. â€śIt letting me go home at the end of the night!â€ť He laughs broadly again and pulls over. â€śAnd thereâ€™s the passengers who chat to you like youâ€™re a proper human being.â€ť He smiles. â€śThank you for that, love. You get in that house safe. And you best ring that boyfriend to tell him youâ€™re home.â€ť
[This piece originally appeared in Smoke 6.]