I am aQueen. I love the London taxi and the driver behind the wheel. I adore the lucky dip quality implicit in climbing aboard; will I find optimism or gloom within? Cynicism or hope? Soulful entertainment or emotional hara kiri?
Living in East London, one simply doesn’t need a car. A friend owns an elderly sche, which has lain idle for over a year. This pretty, curvy required the kiss of life from an AA man before it could attend its MOT. Parking, insurance, servicing: I could taxi-a-go-go every day for less than it costs to keep that beautiful old dame on the road.
Every taxi I take brings fresh Cabversation; snippets of wisdom, stories of life, vignettes of London revealed, even after a 30-year residency. I learned late last year of the Philpot Lane Mice near Monument, a sculpture of tiny vermin fighting over a piece of cheese, apparently added at the building’s completion to commemorate two workmen who fought over missing sandwiches upon the roof, from which one of them fell and died.
Homeward bound to one night, I heard how a residential shop-fronted house in my road used to be the local cobblers. My cab driver was one of four children in the family that lived on the first-floor of the very place I now call home. There was a pub, he told me, on every corner – and named a few along with some entertaining anecdotes about neighbourly sing-songs and bust-ups.
“It was a lot safer when the Krays were about,” quipped another, last week. “They kept things in check. Hackney Road and Bethnal Green Road were safer and happier places. We knew where we were.” A fine example of aforementioned optimism. Or beer goggles, but he seemed pretty sober.
Marriage, parenthood, divorce and death; these topics combine to form a rich seam of quite iridescent Cabversation. Tales of joy and woe abound; about a year ago, in tandem with the journey, my driver took me on a tour around the loss of his worldly goods to a first wife. He was luckier with wife number two, and the somewhat stormy narrative ended happily with a new love, a new life, an army of children, stepchildren, grandchildren and a holiday home near . Happy days indeed.
If, however, misery lies with you in the rear of the carriage, its worth knowing that you are in the next best thing to a full-blown confessional; the driver’s unfettered wisdom and capacity to share it is generous, and even the most mortal sins can be offered up for dissection and fatherly advice. The more salacious the sin, whether its about you or “someone else”, the more delighted the listener and the more earnest and sympathetic the offering. Well, maybe one shouldn’t but, being a collapsed Catholic, old habits die hard and as habits go, these cabs are the right hue.
Sometimes there’s an unexpected life-lesson on display and the notice stuck to the glass partition of a recent taxi, was one such and fiercely moving:
“Hello. My name is Valerie. If you think I look odd, I’m in the throes of a sex change. Its not something I’m doing for a laugh, so please don’t make fun of me. If you have any questions, I will be happy to answer them.”
Valerie isn’t a London fan and ten years ago she moved to deepest Kent, away from London’s curious nose and prying eyes. She is happier there and laughed that far from being uninteresting or uneventful, “the countryside has its own share of How’s Your Father going on. I wouldn’t exchange it for the world.”
Over the years I’ve traversed and conversed across the gamut of issues and torrid topics, learned about London, had offers of help for my business – even an offer of marriage. The London Cab Driver can be charming, opinionated, occasionally offensive – but never dull.
Long live the London Cabbie.
Long live Cabversation.
© Giovanna Forte