Monday, 26 January 2009

Paved paradise

Home after working late this evening, and still a bit adrenaline-jittery from having been rude to a black cab driver. Sort of. I'm never rude to London cabbies. Generally speaking, I quite like 'em: the stereotypical right wing ones are rarer than one might think and when I do encounter them, they seem almost quaint; clichéd bit players in a panto Life On Mars. Comedy bigots. If the drive through Vauxhall is lightly drizzled with homophobic banter, I ponder whether to out myself as one of those before the end of the journey, watch the backtracking. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't.

Anyway, I decided to indulge myself and catch a cab home. Very much against le craquement de crédit but I felt I'd earned it. Like in Fame but I'd paid in paperwork rather than sweat.

January's not a good time for taxi drivers anyway, and I approach a rank full of cabs but empty of punters. At the head is a burgundy-coloured vehicle with a nondescript Leo Sayer-haired chap up front. I've cabbed it home many times in the past, just south of the river. I confidently tell the driver my destination. He looks at me suspiciously.


I tell him the street name and he shrugs dismissively. I tell him the nearest arterial route. I know from previous cab rides that it's a central element of The Knowledge; all cabbies have heard of it. He makes a "whatevs" gesture. Slightly irked that he's leaving me standing in the wind while he reluctantly considers my fare potential, I glance at the long line of cars behind Burgundy Boy. Any one of them would happily take me, I'm sure. Burgundy Boy purses his lips.

"I'll take you but I'm not going through any estates."

(The same tone one might employ for saying, "I'm not doing scat". And the same expression.)

"Uh, okay. No estates." I said, bemused. And get in.

He pulls away from the taxi rank, starting to explain himself in a manner verging on accusatory:

BB: Thirty years I've been driving and I've been mugged twice. Guess where.

Me: I don't know.

BB: Guess!

Me: Um, South London?

BB: South East London. I'd be happy never to cross a bridge again. I work up here, I never have to go there. It's a loss leader; you can't get a fare back...

He continues to mutter and tut, radiating resentment. He seems to want me to feel ashamed of where I want to travel to, where I live. I start to regret not having made a break for the second taxi in the rank. Or the third. Ruefully, I conclude that we're already far enough away that I'd have to stand around and wait to hail another one if I got out. And there'd be confrontation, a scene; I'm not good at that.

I marvel that a cabbie reportedly of thirty years' standing seems completely unaware of one of the main routes through South London - and wholly unconcerned at his own ignorance. Proud of it, even.

We proceed in silence for a bit, save for the occasional sigh from the front seat. I text. I'm not great with silence and, after a while, I break it.

"Um... did you get mugged recently?"

Wrong question.

"Three years ago, the last time. Shithole. Animals."

Okayy, I think, that's my shithole. Let's try some empathy, though. I make the right noises. Then, recalling the time I was rather ineffectually mugged (once in eight years; not yet sure whether that gives me a better or worse batting average than Burgundy Boy), having made the somewhat unwise decision after a drunken Christmas night out, to take a short cut home across an unlit stretch of parkland in darkest Kennington, I begin telling him about it. BB cuts straight across my anecdote:

"That's what you get for choosing to live there."

Rrright. Another quick mental calculation of how long it'd take me to get home from here, on foot or waiting to hail another cab. I know TSB has dinner cooking. I stay in the cab, quietly hating the back of BB's head. He seems to be warming to his theme.

"We've had a run of attacks on cabs. They wait at the lights, jump on the bonnet, try to smash through the windscreen. It's not worth my while going south of the river, I'm not paid enough. It's one big shithole. Walworth Road used to be okay in the '70s but not now. Not now."

He seems palpably pissed off now. I wonder why he even took the fare. Feeling faintly disgusted with myself for succumbing to such a classist tack, I try to reassure him that he won't have to stop in any "estates" to get to my Victorian terrace.

"If it's a nice Victorian street, that probably attracts them."

This is all really weird to me. I remember when I first came to London, I'd worried about choosing to live south of the river. Would taxis go there? I've probably discussed this with a dozen or so cabbies over the years and, before BB, they'd all laughed at me. Apparently the no-fares-south thing was true in the moderately distant past but hasn't been for well over a decade. It's passed into the realms of mythology. BB doesn't seem to have got the memo and, as we cross Vauxhall Bridge, he continues to grouse and grump. Over the bridge, he gets into the wrong lane and comes to rest at the traffic lights straddling left and centre. When the lights change, he'll have to nudge left into the traffic stream.

"I'm going to drive very defensively," he informs me, "in case I need to get out in a hurry."

He gestures toward another black cab on his left, next to the pavement.

"I'd be shitting myself if I was him."

Fucking hell, I think, we're at the lights opposite the sodding Hoist. Faintly threatening (in a camp way), possibly, but downtown Gaza it ain't. A third black cab moves across to the right, and BB takes this as validation of his paranoia ("he's got the same idea as me, getting out of here"), a paranoia that's now making me very angry indeed. Okay, I'm sorry he got mugged but, frankly, he's been a rude, sullen arsehole, rolling out sweepingly negative generalisations throughout this journey, making me feel he's doing a colossal favour rather than, y'know, his job. My sympathy is eclipsed by mounting irritation. And I'm almost home.

"I tell you, the Association will soon stop us crossing the river. No point going somewhere you know you're not going to be safe. I don't get paid enough to risk my neck coming here..."

As he finally reaches the end of my (utterly unremarkable) street, I tell him to stop. He does so, peering around fearfully. He keeps the cab door locked until I hand him the money. I'm usually a good tipper but I make an exception for BB. In the course of my journey, he's made me feel shitty, almost apologetic about where I live, a bit of London I love. I hate that he's been able to engender this shittiness. I'm trembling with cold rage.

I pause, before closing the door. As is customary, I thank him, impulsively adding, "and grow a fucking spine."

And speed-walk smartly down my street toward my front door, repeating don'tcomeaftermedon'tcomeafterme. He doesn't come after me.

Big yellow wanker. Tube next time, certainement.


Gareth said...


Him not you, he's have needed new underwear if he'd had to go to Stockwell.

The Rognon said...

There wasn't a little camera, was there? I'm thinking it might be more cunning invisible theatre from T-Mobile: "Life's for Sharing".

Owen said...

I always used to have problems getting a taxi from the West End to south of the river until around the mid-90s - don't know if they changed The Knowledge around then...

Pogonophile said...

Apparently the most recent mugging took place on the mean streets of, er, Clapham, so yes, the irradiated badlands of Stockwell would undoubtedly have resulted in Burgundy Boy fining himself for cab seat soiling.

I did wonder about hidden cameras: I'd never before encountered a bona fide don't-go-sarf-of-the-river taxi driver and had thought them largely extinct. He took the stereotype to such a bold new level, it was almost theatrical.