If little raises the blood pressure, or spikes stress levels, quite like driving in traffic can, then pity the fate of the poor taxi driver for whom traffic is a part of daily life, negotiating endless gridlock an inescapable necessity.
“It’s not a bad job, really,” says David Styles, an Essex native who has been driving a cab in London for 27 years.
“I had Tony Blair’s head in my cab once. No, it wasn’t attached to the rest of his body. I was going down Whitehall, a policeman hailed me, and asked me to drive into Downing Street. They checked the cab first for bombs, and then a woman – a sculptress – came out of Number 10 with a bust of Blair’s head. She’d just taken it to him for his approval. Then I drove her – and the head – back to her studio in Hampstead.”
Another key part of the job is interaction with real humans and this can be difficult.
“Sometimes, I’d clock off early if I had a really nasty customer. If they worked me up, I’d just cut the day short and go home. You don’t want to take your temper out on the next customer, do you?
“Not everyone is horrible, of course, but they do like to complain: You’re going the wrong way; you’ve taken the long way around. You’re a crook. Or: I’m drunk, and I’m going to throw up on the seat. It just goes on and on. They always say that the easy part of being a cabbie is taking The Knowledge; the hard part is dealing with customers. You have to know how to defuse a difficult situation, and that isn’t always easy.
“I remember a couple once, taking them to a particular hotel. I dropped them off at the entrance, but it wasn’t good enough for them, so I took them to another. Didn’t like that one, either. They got angry, decided they didn’t want to pay me, and ordered me to take them back to where I’d picked them up from. I refused. They ended up throwing money at me, raging.”
It helps, then, if the cabbie can adopt a certain Zen calm, and rise above. This is something that London cab driver Grant Davis has perfected over his 34 years on the job.
“I was definitely less patient when I was a young fella,” says the 58-year-old. “But that changed as I got older. If someone cuts me up, then his life is clearly stressed, right? In my job, I could have a row every day, but I don’t. I choose not to. John Coltrane helps, a bit of Miles; I do like my jazz. And if anyone still wants to argue with me – a passenger, I mean – I simply tell them to get out, don’t worry about the fare, go. That disarms them.”
Things are changing in the world of taxis. Even black cabs are green now, most of them electric, and where the vast majority of minicabs cannot cater for wheelchair access, the black cabs do. Both are clear improvements, but the arrival of Uber has shifted the public’s emphasis elsewhere, specifically towards ease of booking and, crucially, a cheaper fare.
David Styles: “Uber hasn’t done much good for the cab trade, as you’d imagine. They’ve run roughshod over the regulations that everyone else has to follow. And you hear the most terrible things about them: there are no background checks on the driver; passengers often have to share. They don’t always know where they’re going. And they’re not always cheaper, either. They have surge pricing, don’t they? And you won’t know about that till they charge you.
“No, it’s far safer with black cabs. There’s been a single instant – a much-reported one – of a black cab driver assaulting women in, what, 50, 60 years, but dozens and dozens of private hire driver incidents. At the end of the day you want safety, right? A courteous driver, too.”
And, he stresses, black cab drivers are courteous. It’s a point of pride.
“They say we all hate cyclists, but we don’t. I don’t have any problem with them myself, but there are the occasional Lycra louts who do make things difficult from time to time. I remember one in particular, he used to cycle around with his legs showing, both calves tattooed. The left said F***, the right said CABS. Difficult to forget him, really.”