My little Suzuki has got a load of chunks taken out of it. It looks like crap. The previous owner drove it as a minicab. His reasoning for giving it up was that the air conditioning doesn’t work. Which is true. It doesn’t. But it’s also full of holes. Plus it smells of fish. You can’t really take paying passengers in a fishy car. I’ve filled it with magic trees, a little bit like spraying febreeze on vomit. It sort of works. “It smells like laundry in here,” people say. ‘Laundered mackerel,’ I think, but “Yep. Clean sheets,” I say, gagging on the smell and my own mendacity.
I took my test a few times in The Isle of Man and failed. Then I stumped up for driving lessons in London. I learnt to drive properly in this town. I’ve been driving here for decades now. But with this car at this time, I’ve noticed that something has changed.
There are documents that place the idea of a “Hackney Carriage” in London from before the Norman Conquest. In the 17th century they were very much a part of how the city ran. That has been the case ever since. The drivers have to pass one of the most stringent tests imaginable about London routes and times. It requires years of work and a highly developed memory. They need to be able to adapt to the needs of the passenger in real time. To know the right street without having to be told, and to be able to predict traffic based on time of day. They spend years building towards “The Knowledge”, on scooters, down every road in town, with a big map between the handlebars on a customised board. Ten years ago you’d see them all the time, working – learning. It took years. Now you rarely see them. Because Waze will give more accurate traffic info, and get you where you need to go most of the time without a problem. And all that effortless hard won knowledge, so joyfully presented in their heyday – “No need to explain, madam. I’ve done the Knowledge. I know it well.” – has been supplanted by technology. Fuck. Fuckety fuck.
Suddenly anyone with a phone can get you home. That work has become redundant. The knowledge is still a wonderful thing to have but it doesn’t make you more efficient. So where does that leave the black cab?
Adapt or die. That’s the Darwinian rule. Software seems to be the way forward for now. Possibly the black cabs will be saved by a reasonable software platform to get fares, if they are willing to adopt something new, after all the work they did. But they haven’t yet, or if they have it hasn’t become apparent, and it’s not competitive with uber. I swore off them years ago. The amount they charge is beyond extortionate. Last time I got in one was drunkenly after the Notting Hill Carnival. We regretted it hugely very quickly, and got out at a tube station. They’re priced at luxury point, but they’re everywhere. Possibly they will find another way. Possibly they will die out. I hope they won’t die out, but uber made cabs worth it in London. Now I want them to have competition, as they are creeping up in price themselves.
But the black cabs are angry. The streets of London are currently flooded with bored men in their 50s and 60s driving great big expensive cars around all day without fares. They did a load of memory work back in the day, now nobody is hailing them. So they just drive. Round and round their old routes. Getting angrier and angrier. Surrounded by other angry cabbies. Honk honk honk. Shout shout shout. Moan moan moan.
In the month or so I’ve been back on the road I’ve noticed a disproportionate number of Hackney Carriages behaving as though it’s their job to police everyone else’s driving. And to shout at people. Apoplectic grey haired white men howling at cyclists or people at crossings or cars that are slow or “wrong”. Faded boozy Knights of the Road, slinging their corpulent bodies at perceived injustice. They hate bicycles. “Why are there so many? There weren’t so many in my day.” They hate minicabs for a multiplicity of reasons, many of which are connected to “my day”. This is their city, and anyone who isn’t them should be inarticulately raged at.
My old workmate Joe took The Knowledge when we were working on the boats. He’s a beautiful human. I wish him well. But recently, his fellows have been devolving. I hope he gets work out of it and a living considering he did it so recently. He was thrilled to have converted to a cab from skippering boats for Mammon.
When you think about the individuals you always wish them well. It’s why roadrage is so nonsensical. I wish Joe well, but I’m fed up of seeing these impatient devolved thugs shouting at people while presenting themselves as the gentlemen of the cab industry.