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London Taxi Driver Chat

I’ve been coming to London since I first went there in the Swinging Sixties.  London was then (somewhat) affordable for the non-affluent, but today, thanks to decades of globalization and neoliberalism, it is garish and almost entirely focused on catering to those with well-stuffed wallets and purses.

In the 1960s, you could find a gentleman’s hairdressing establishment on Oxford Street owned by two elderly Jewish barbers, the Ganz brothers– today that establishment has given way to a nondescript clothes shop owned by a multinational chain.  Such chain stores now have a complete monopoly on Oxford Street.

Iain Sinclair has for decades written about this trajectory taken by his beloved city in the London Review of Books, as well as several books.   Sinclair’s pyschogeographies of London are unparalleled for acute observations, an unerring instinct for what is effaced and diminished (such as the lives of its poorest citizens who were moved from parts of London so that stadia for the 2012 Olympics could be built where they lived), and a cold anger expressed in zigzaggingly chiselled narratives, as he sees more and more of London gated-off and wire-fenced into enclaves for the rich or flogged-off as “investment opportunities” for those with loot to spare.

Common spaces are ceasing to exist at a speed that probably makes Richard Branson purr with bliss.    Sinclair says he can now no longer bring himself to write about London.

Fortunately, now that Sinclair is no longer doing it, anyone who spurns Uber or Lyft like I do, to travel in London’s justifiably renowned black taxis, can acquire a wealth of “hidden” knowledge about the city by conversing with the driver.

This is because London cab drivers must pass a test called “the knowledge” before they can be licensed.  Here’s London-Taxi website’s description of this test:

All London taxi drivers are required to have a detailed knowledge of London within a 6 mile radius of Charing Cross.  In order to obtain this candidates have to pass through the world renowned “Knowledge of London”.

The Knowledge requires candidates to learn a total of 320 routes that criss-cross London and are specifically designed to leave no gaps. Taxi drivers have to also remember all places of interest or note en route: embassies, colleges, buildings, municipal offices and all other public buildings, hotels, theatres, stations, hospitals, museums, restaurants – and the list goes on.

There are over 60,000 streets or roads within the 6 mile radius – with all of their one-way and restricted turn intricacies – plus over 100,000 places of note that the potential London cab driver has to learn.

It takes a candidate between two to four years – depending whether they are doing the Knowledge part or full time – to get through.   It is done entirely at the candidates’ own expense and when they have completed the Knowledge for the 6 mile radius – which is tested orally on one-to-one appearances by PCO examiners – they are required to do a crash course (and be tested on) all of the main arterial routes in and out of London’s sprawling suburbs.                                                                           

Not only does this provide the cabbie with an unparalleled knowledge of London’s streets, but if you ask a driver about a particular building on your route there is a good chance they will be able to tell you something about it, or tell you where you can inform yourself about the building in question.

Contrast this with the typical New York taxi driver, who, in addition to driving a vehicle which (sometimes) looks as though it was patched-up after being used in a car-bomb attack in Baghdad or Kabul, will more likely than not require your assistance to get you to your destination.  If you are unable to help, the NY taxi driver will in all likelihood be on the phone to the dispatcher for instructions.

But it is for political observation of all kinds that I value the drivers of London’s black cabs.

It is easy to jump to the conclusion that people, such as the London cabbies, who (in the main) are self-employed entrepreneurs, will have no truck with socialist values, but this has rarely been rarely the case in my experience.

Some of the most bracing and side-splitting political commentary about the old witch in the Thatcherite ascendency came in my experience from London cabbies (once they ascertained which side you the passenger was on).

Before that cabbies I encountered used to pillory Thatcher’s predecessor, the stiff and joyless Edward Heath in the same merciless fashion.

Now that I live in the US, I come to London 2-3 times a year, and I have not heard a taxi driver ridicule Jeremy Corbyn, in the way that the UK commentariat has (though less so after Corbyn’s Labour deprived the Tories of their overall majority in parliament in the recent general election).

An element of ingratiation can’t be ruled-out in any customer-service job, but in the case of the London cabbies this possibility is greatly reduced by the fact that tipping is not really a consideration here since all the passenger does is round-up the fare to the nearest whole number.

Of course, there are Tory taxi drivers, but I’ve only encountered a handful in more than 50 years of using London taxis.

The least implausible explanation for this is social class.  I’ve never encountered a London cabbie who speaks with a posh accent (unless they are “taking the mick”).

Cabbies have backgrounds that are socially non-elite, and hence have to rely on the NHS, and are more likely than not to have someone in the family on the dole, or who is on housing or disability benefit, or who goes to a state school– all of which have been ruthlessly undermined by the Tories for decades.

In addition, some Tories are known to have close ties with Uber’s top management, and the neoliberal Uber represents the biggest threat to the livelihoods of the black cab industry.  Uber is regulated with a light touch, which is not the case with the London cabbies.

To a driver, London cabbies despise the Tory foreign secretary, the buffoonish Boris “BoJo” Johnson, who was mayor of London before that, and who displayed an all-too-obvious partiality towards Uber as London’s mayor.

Uber’s top brass have ample opportunities to schmooze with Tory big wigs, the taxi drivers none.

Social class always divides.  

More articles by:

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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