“Do you mind going to Balham?”
Two out of three drivers would pause, suck their teeth and – it being the 1980s – give a slight shake of the head before driving off. After hours, the West End offered up journeys far more promising than mine. Upstretched, hailing hands from the pavements would be clumped as thick as bullrushes. Darting back and forth to Kensington, Chelsea, Holland Park and all points St John’s Wood far outgunned ‘going south’. Those that did take me often explained how they were doing me a favour. No return fares, see, and they’d have to get back to, dunno, Victoria or the King’s Road, ‘fore there was anything doing, know wot I mean? I would babble at them in pathetic gratitude. There was a consistent pattern. In the chat, we’d work our way steadily towards whichever Canary or Balearic Island, or bit of the Costa Del Sol, they would be spending their entire January and, sometimes, February too.
Not any more. Uber, Covid and dramatic change have firebombed that pick-and-choose economy. Balham is now a good fare, whose citizens – in normal times – are ferried back and forth in all manner of Hackney Carriages, Addison Lee people carriers and streams of Priuses. When we finally moved from Wandsworth to West London, London’s SW postcodes had become shrines to German engineering. Mercedes, Audis and BMWs formed long kerbside pews, filled at the weekends by the worshipfully moneyed. They would set off to join glacially moving traffic jams around the Northcote Road (or Nappy Valley, as it was rechristened) with gleaming impotence.
It didn’t happen every day, but I lost count of the times I would stand, somewhere near Regent Street, with hesitantly windmilling arms, attempting to flag down a taxi for a quicker passage home than a bus or tube. Nights out with clients or ‘lates’ in the office for pitches and presentations, claimable after 9pm, made such luxuries possible. (Ah, expense accounts…) When finally successful, once past my grovelling gratitude and the Iberian second home chat, we’d riff disapprovingly about the beaten-up, death trap Toyotas that rattled around Hyde Park Corner. According to my chauffeuring correspondents, these unlicensed minicabs were ignored by the Met, who preferred to stop honest cabbies in their tracks, penalising the licensed trade for less than two mills of tread on their nearside rear tyres. I mean, squire, do me a favour… During daytime trips, Ken Livingstone’s mayoral assault on the traffic light system around Trafalgar Square replaced the minicab polemic. With a sufficient head of steam, we could be well past Vauxhall by the time the invective cooled. Staring balefully at me in the rearview mirror, the evening drivers would conjure up minicab drivers as a sort of mythic blend of exotic East Asian meets Eastern European in one, scheming hybrid, catastrophically lacking the necessary credentials of a licence, motor insurance or anything approaching The Knowledge. Shocking, I would agree from the back seat, in what I hoped was the correct, London cabbie twang. My socially accommodating accent was so clumsily fake, you could have driven a taxi fleet through its pretensions, with enough change left over for a Southend-and-back. It was (and, regrettably, sometimes still is) a terrible habit.
At weekends, when we minicabbed every and anywhere, all bets were off. It was a twin system and roles were reversed. I would bellyache enthusiastically about bully boy black cabs if the subject came up. Fickle wimp that I am.
Later, as my work life evolved to include commuter flights to Europe and further flung visits to DDB, Ogilvy and Unilever outposts, I grew to recognise my morning pick-up drivers by sight and, sometimes, name. At one point, based in Paddington for three years, I became a shared property together with a host of BBC presenters. My Heathrow and City airport flits were squeezed between their lifts to and from Broadcasting House. I was very much the second-class, second-dibs fare compared to the celebrity roster. For some reason, every other car was the one that Phil Jupitus had just left, carted from his Fenland home to a Beeb studio in the small hours. His cast-off newspapers were a bonus read.
London Taxis were the capillaries of advertising in the 1980s. In Charlotte Street, Soho, Mayfair and Knightsbridge, serried ranks of black cabs outside agency buildings suggested wait times made the taxi companies more money than actual journeys. At one ad agency, a strident, draconian email went out, bewailing the profligacy of the company taxi account and just how much was being wasted on ridiculous delays. An inquest was announced. Dire penalties were threatened. It all went suddenly quiet when the worst culprit turned out to be the wife of one of the agency’s founders. She’d had drivers parked up for days outside the capital’s more exclusive boutiques.
Elsewhere, legendary cab stories grew in the telling. One of the greatest art directors ever, Alan Waldie (Benson & Hedges’ regulation-sidestepping, surreal posters and Heineken’s ‘Water in Majorca’) once ordered a cab to pick him up from Collett Dickinson Pearce to go home from the Euston Road at 7.30pm. He paused for some refreshment in The Rocket next door, before asking the driver to take him on to the Zanzibar in Covent Garden at 11pm. He reappeared at 3am and instructed the driver to kindly continue on to Guilford. Either his enunciation or other forces scrambled the message, as some time later the driver woke him up to declare they’d reached Station Road, Ilford. Nonplussed, Waldie redirected proceedings in a Guilford direction – the diametrically opposite side of the capital and two hours away – where he showered, changed and travelled back in the same cab to CDP, arriving in time for a 9am start.
A more shadowy, perhaps mythologised legend tells of a young, accident-prone account man named Arthur McCarton from Boase Massimi Pollitt. He was once charged with delivering the logo artwork mechanical for the Courage brewery fleet from Paddington to Tooley Street. The new design was on rigid, polyboard, with delicate type, colour and foil placed with microscopic precision by the studio over painstaking hours, overlayed with a protective sheet of tracing-paper-like film and a layer of black cartridge paper. The new red, blue and gold logo was to be signed off by the Courage marketing director, Frank Cokayne. Timing was of the essence. Taking a fleet of delivery lorries off the road for a respray was a logistical and expensive headache. Arthur stepped from the cab in SE1 in the rain and promptly dropped the artwork in a puddle by the kerb. Guilelessly, he went on to present it in the Courage office’s reception. Dripping, dirty and damaged, Cokayne was appalled by what he saw. Furious, he phoned Arthur’s boss, group account director Geoff Mears back in Paddington, to berate him for all things BMP. Mears jumped in another cab, appearing at the London Bridge headquarters soon after. He ordered Arthur back to Paddington, commanding him to get the art director Dave Christensen to redo the logo immediately and hoicked the simmering Cokayne off for a soothing, restorative lunch. Returning some time later, the pair encountered the hapless McCarton sitting back at reception, an uncertain smile across his face and the black paper-covered board across his knees. Lifting the sheet, they were met with a Frankenstein of a job, a jumble of wonky type and smeared colours, the muddy stains still evident and some rather obvious hand-drawn biro squiggles that had attempted to tidy the edges. If anything, it was worse than before. So terrified was Arthur of returning to BMP and asking Christensen to change the board, he had instead gone to Rymans, bought Letraset and colouring pens and done it himself. Rather badly. Courage stayed with BMP. Arthur didn’t.
The last time I took a black cab, puttering along the Westway above Portobello Road, my fabulous, elderly Jamaican driver, with neatly greying dreads, observed tradition when he cackled good naturedly and with heavily accented irony, “That’s the trouble with them East Europeans. Coming over here, taking our jobs,” as yet another Uber purred past us.
Travels abroad have added richly to my cab life. Martin and I once jumped in a Yellow Cab on 44th Street, and shortly afterwards turned up Fifth, to be faced with a tsunami of traffic snarling towards us. Our driver did a tyre-screeching, handbrake U-turn on the one-way Avenue, explaining that he’d arrived from Vladivostok two days before and “was just getting to know the city”. On the same trip, summoning all the street presence of a Wettex, I waved vaguely at another Yellow Cab outside the Algonquin, as we departed from our first ever trip to New York. The window dropped and blasts of driver hostility were directed towards me. “Ah, hello,” I said, querulously. “I wonder, if it’s not too far out of your way, please could you take us to JFK?” The pitying look as he jerked his head for us to get in might just as well have said, “Schmuck”. On another, extraordinary trip, we landed at the southernmost tip of Eleuthera in the Bahamas, a long, thin, 110-mile strip of an Island, to be met by our 80-year-old cab driver in a splendid peaked cap. He drove us in his ancient, bouncing Pontiac, on curtseying shock absorbers, the length of Eleuthera that evening until we reached Harbour Island. (What happened there will one day be a story in itself.) As we parted, having enjoyed his company immensely, we asked him what was the secret of his longevity. After a moment’s deep thought, leaning against the maroon door of his car, he responded with with a grave, one-word answer. “Chicken.”
Away from work, using taxis has gifted us Younis. Twenty years ago, Clare first booked him from the local cab office to take her to studios and the occasional location shoot. From Afghanistan, via Acton, he picked us up with increasing frequency, talking with intense, percussive passion about football management and team structure. He coached youth sides on Sunday mornings. Gradually, he became a fixture, our default, go-to driver. A few years ago, it was he who would pick up my mother-in-law when her Parkinson’s was galloping, and gently lead, or even carry, her back into her house in Gerrard’s Cross, making her safe and comfortable. A little more recently, he would scoop up Alice, aged 15, from the milling concert-goers at the Ministry of Sound and other venues, patiently seeking her out among the throngs of ‘yoof’. Eventually, he moved from his home on the Hangar Lane gyratory to a place further west. After years of working silly hours each week, inflicting terrible damage to his back, he now travels all over the world for breaks. We talk to each other on Facebook, across huge distances. In lockdown, his photographs of the green spaces in London’s sprawling, spokey Western approaches have been a revelation. At New Year, he never fails to bless us all via some medium or other. He grows roses with tender diligence and carefully recorded results. Younis has been – and is – an amazing force for good.
Back in the advertising world, this ends with not so much a cab, as a car story.
In the late 1970s, Charles Saatchi was the proud owner of a brown Rolls Royce. Sleek, urbane and always suited, he radiated a justifiable confidence, given his talent and successes. It happened that he was giving a lift to a commercials director, Sid Roberson, and they were heading out of London at the Marylebone flyover. Martin and I were lucky enough to work with Sid, a roughly hewn diamond of a bloke and an extraordinary, profane force of nature. A body-builder who kept his physique almost to the end, he had been the third member of an East End gym, the first two clients being brothers, christened ‘Ronald’ and ‘Reginald’ by their mother, a Mrs Kray. As Charles Saatchi drove up onto the flyover, the traffic snarled and became stationary. Cars jockeyed forward, stopping and starting. Sitting in the passenger seat, Sid watched as a beaten up wreck of a saloon car tried to cut in front of them and escape down the Paddington slip. Saatchi was having none of it. As the saloon veered across, he surged forwards too. There was a bang. They had collided. The traffic around them stopped completely. As Sid told it, in the silence, two huge men got out of the car in front, one holding a monkey wrench and advanced menacingly towards the Saatchi Rolls. Sid was an imposing, real-life Popeye of a man, but he said he was really scared. Next to him, with a steely, unblinking look, Charles Saatchi lowered the driver’s electric window (a rarity back then) a scant inch or two, and spoke quietly, in a way that carried his voice through the gap like a scalpel.
“Go away. Or I’ll have you killed.”
The two men turned, blank faced, and meekly got back into their car, disappearing towards Paddington as the traffic started to move.
Like anybody else, I have loved taking cabs. There have been countless rides and hours of absorbing conversation. On London streets, I miss those opening exchanges, hatted with an orange light, occasioned by a wave and followed by a shrewd appraisal of just how much of a pain-on-board prospect I presented to the man or woman behind the wheel. They always started the same and wonderful way.
Where to, Guv?