Tuesday, 13 November 2007

It's good to be back

Happy New Year everyone.

Sorry to those of you who regularly visit hoping to see an update. What with being back out on the road and still having to find time to fit in all the usual domestic chores and a couple of gigs with the band it's been a bit of a struggle to put pen-to-paper (or fingers-to-keyboard or whatever the modern equivalent is).

I've now been in the job for just over a couple of months, and happily, I'm still enjoying it. It's nice to get a feel for which areas to work at which times of day, and much more fun if you can figure which parts of London are particularly crammed and avoid them. That said, some customers still insist on telling you the route they want to take, even if you inform them that the route they want will leave them sitting in traffic for at least 20 minutes while the good folk of the City set out barriers and seating for the Lord Mayor's show. I did warn you! Two bridges would have definitely been the route for that one, even on a day when several tons of metal were being placed in the kerbs of Bank Junction.

The day of the Lord Mayor's show was a complete nightmare traffic-wise. With the city closed to traffic from London Bridge to Waterloo, every vehicle was seemingly forced in the Cabbie badlands of "Sarf o' the River". I did manage to pick up a job from Strand to the City Inn Westminster that evening. Sometimes people don't chat, sometimes they do, but this couple chatted all the way through the traffic, explaining how they had taken part in the parade itself, the gentleman being one of the Aldermen of the City of London. I was encouraged by him to join the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers. I'm not entirely sure what benefits I'd get from the organisation, but the trip to DisneyLand Paris for sick and underprivileged children sounds like something I'd like to get involved in at some stage.

I've managed to work a couple of long Saturdays over the last month, and have found it to be much more enjoyable than weekday working. This is possibly because people are generally out for shopping, theatre, or days out, rather than the business people who seem to be a lot more stressed.

Theatre trips are generally quite short, but with the passenger in a good mood, makes for some great conversation. A nice ice-breaker for the conversation is to ask the passenger if they are going to see the show or if they are starring in it. Most people will have a laugh at this and explain that they couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, or comment that they'd only be used to empty the theatre at the end of the show. However, Cabbie Tourettes is a dangerous thing. One mother and daughter asked to go to the Victoria Apollo. "You watching or starring?" asks a chirpy cabbie, before realising that the show at the Apollo is "Wicked" the story of the witches of Oz. Too late, I've already started saying it and nothing's stopping me. Luckily they saw the funny and idiotic side of this particular cabbie and had a laugh.

Had a nasty incident a couple of weeks ago. 4 drunken girls wanting to go from a pub to a nightclub. As we're heading to the destination a guy stepped out from between two cars to flag a cab coming in the opposite direction. Luckily I managed to miss him with deft use of the emergency stop. Unluckily two of the passengers weren't wearing seat belts and ended up in a heap on the floor of the cab, one of them saying she'd hit her face on something. Fortunately she wasn't too badly hurt and we continued on to the destination.

It's surprising how many people don't wear seat belts in the back of a taxi (I would say 8 out of 10 don't), despite the law and a sticker in the back saying that they should make use of them. I don't know whether it's the comfort factor of being in a London Cab, but the incident above shows why you should. In a saloon car you've got a seat and a headrest in front of you to stop you flying forward. In a cab you would fly through 6 feet of clear air before hitting either the rear facing passenger, or the plastic partition.

I've now got into the habit of ensuring that any children are strapped in, so at least they will be a bit safer. The adults are then using their own judgement as to whether they then wear a belt.

I managed to get a few days off over the Christmas period, only working the weekends to cover the costs of the cab rental and fuel. The weekend between Christmas and New Year was quiet. (Over an hour in a 7 cab rank at Euston on the Friday night using up too much valuable rate 3 time - luckily got a job up to Muswell Hill to make it almost worthwhile. The cabbie on point at one stage was asked to go to the Ibis Euston, a job which he refused on the basis that 90 minutes on a rank for a job that is no more than 200 yards wouldn't have been the best for his bank balance or his patience.

New Years Day was fun, with everything at Rate 3 and £4 extra per journey. Quieter than normal but had a nice job to finish the day. Picked up at Harrods just after closing time. A nice Kuwaiti couple who needed to go to the Sheraton Park Tower Hotel, a journey of no more than a few hundred yards, but they wanted to go on a tour of the sights first. So a nice tour down to Parliament, along the Embankment to The Tower of London and Tower Bridge, back along through Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace, then Piccadilly Circus, through Soho to Oxford Street to see the lights, then back down Park Lane and on to their hotel. Managed to get in all the bits they wanted to see and throw in a few bits of useless information about the buildings and the streets in the process, all thanks to stuff I'd learned while on The Knowledge and from a couple of books I received as Christmas gifts. ("The London Compendium" by Ed Glinert and "London Street Names" by John Wittich) - another book well worth a look, and completely non-taxi or knowledge related is "The Bumper Book of Bunny Suicides" by Andy Riley.. twisted, sick and eye-wateringly funny.

School holidays are nearly over and it'll soon be time to get back out in the cab for my first kipper season. If it really does get as quiet as people say it will then I may well find myself putting in a few more hours to try to cover my costs. Oh well, weekends are more fun than weekdays.

btw, my New Year's resolution is to try to update this blog a bit more often. :)

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Cabman's holiday

At last, half term is over and I'm back out working.

While it's nice to have some time without having to suffer the rolling road-block that is also known as the Blackwall Tunnel Southern Approach each morning, I've really been looking forward to having the travelling public donate towards whatever it is I decide to buy when I've got enough money in my wallet.

I didn't have a holiday in the summer this year, figuring total concentration on getting through the knowledge would be a better option while Mrs and Miss Headlong went away. It obviously did the trick since both Brian (my callover partner) and I managed to get through our final appearances, and get our cab licences within a couple of weeks of each other.

With half term looming I had hoped that the family would be able to get away for some well earned rest and relaxation. A few days in Spain, or the Canaries, just to get some late sunshine before the autumn darkness settled in. Unfortunately a couple of gigs for the band meant that we wouldn't be able to get a package deal and get our daughter back in time for the start of Term 2.

Instead we just had a few days out with me doing all the driving... Thorpe Park one day, Calais (sadly more Cite Europe via the tunnel than Calais) the next, Southend another day. With the weekend sorted with various odd-jobs and domestic chores, even the A2 in rush hour was very tempting.

Most of the week's jobs so far have been more of the basic sort of stuff that The Knowledge automatically prepares you for. Unfortunately several road closures, including those for the King of Saudi Arabia and his entourage, the preparations for the State Opening of Parliament (can they not just use a key like everyone else?) and sadly for an accident involving a white van and a now ex-) motorcyclist in Baker Street today have seen a lot of the capital come to almost complete standstill.

This is OK if you've got someone on board but a nightmare if you've got the light on. Nobody is going to climb into your cab with the clock ticking when they can walk to the front of the traffic jam quicker than you can drive it. It's also a bit embarrassing for the driver, since the passenger generally needs to get somewhere within a certain time. I've been asked to "get me out of this jam" on several occasions. It makes the route longer, but can sometimes get you to the destination quicker.

At the moment though, all it seems to do is get you out of the frying pan, and into another bigger, even hotter frying pan. Still, when the water board have finished replacing all the Victorian water mains in ten years time the roads will all be clear again... YEAH RIGHT!

We've got Crossrail coming, whatever roadworks will be involved with routes to and from the Olympic site in Stratford, and who knows what else.. probably the installation of rubberised pavements so that local councils can avoid compensation claims from people who have worn their shoe leather out.

Best and worst job of the day was taking a lady from Liverpool Street station to Paddington Station for the Heathrow Express train. She was travelling eventually to New Zealand on business from her home in Essex and had decided to avoid the jams on the M25 by taking the train into town and getting across to Heathrow that way. While it was nice to have the fare from her (paid for by her company expenses) it's not good when such a relatively short part of her journey takes over 40 minutes sitting in unavoidable traffic jams. Still, she was happy to eventually arrive at Paddington so that she could start the onward part of her journey.

I'm planning to go in a bit later in the day tomorrow and work into the evening, just to see if there's any difference in the traffic and the amount of work that comes up. Knowing my luck though I'll get a job back to Dartford or somewhere just as the evening rush hour starts.

Perhaps the curse put on my cab by the windscreen washing beggar at Park Crescent involved lots of slow motion traffic.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

A short week.

With it being half term week, it's a little difficult to get out working, so despite still having the cab at home it's not earning me any money this week (unless I manage to get out at the weekend). I did manage to work on Monday after my daughter took a trip into London with one of her friends, but only after I'd taken my mum out for a little drive.

That did give me a chance to practice putting the wheelchair ramp and step into place, the first time I've done it since having to take the DSA Hackney Carriage driving test. All London cabs have to be wheelchair accessible and a driver needs to demonstrate how to do this (and secure it in the cab). The ramp itself is a fold out flap built into the floor of the TXII, unlike some older models where two ramps are stored in the boot.

The rest of the driving test is pretty much the same as a normal driving test. Around 45 minutes of driving an examiner around, performing the same sort of manoeuvres that you'd do in any other driving test; reversing round corners, parallel parking, emergency stops etc. My favourite "taxi assessment" has to be the U-turn. With a 25' kerb-to-kerb turning circle it's really easy to make the cab face the opposite direction, something that's already been useful several times while out working.

Of course, U-turns don't exist on The Knowledge, and we need to learn which roads will get us facing the opposite direction, known as "turnarounds". Some of these are still useful when picking up in one way streets or streets with barriers or no U-turn signs, but are nowhere near as much fun as giving it full lock and spinning the cab round on something smaller than a sixpence.

Most of Monday's jobs were straightforward enough, and again, the stuff I'd learned on The Knowledge just kicked into place, apart from one side street in Fulham which I'd never heard of, and one hotel which I knew but couldn't find once I'd got into the right street. In the first case, the passenger gave me the main road I needed and then told me where to turn off. The second one was a hotel near Paddington which doesn't even have the name on the outside, and is in a road that is made up of three separate parallel roads. I drove past it three times before getting onto the phone to my old callover partner Brian to see if he could give me a fix on it. As usual with these things, as soon as I'd got through, I found the hotel. The passenger was very understanding about the situation once he saw how badly lit and badly signed the hotel was, even having a joke about "how good the knowledge is". I offered to knock a couple of quid off the fare because of the stuttering end to the run, but he declined and gave me a nice tip on top, saying with a smile that he'd just tell the people he was meeting that "the bloody cabbie didn't know where he was going".

On the subject of my callover partner, he's finally got his badge and done his first couple of nights work. It seems he's enjoying it as well, so we're planning to meet up some time next week for lunch... that's if we can tear ourselves away from the travelling public who insist on giving us money.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Another day, another several dollars

And so, to the weekend and my first Saturday working in the cab.

A bit of a slow start to the day. Managed to get up to town by about 9am, with no hands going out on the way in at all. Don't you just know that the one I'd get on the way in will take me back out again.

Of course, the A2 is much better on a Saturday morning without the levels of traffic and fewer accidents to hold things up. Headed for the Iron Lung just to shake off the cup of tea that comprised my breakfast, and to get a another cup in the cafe opposite. It should have been coffee to help me wake up after a long night out with the band on Friday.

Playing classic rock covers in pubs is OK, but when you look at the hours it takes to earn the small amount that you get paid as a band member, and the time that you get home, you sometimes wonder if it's worth it. It must be, I'm back out at Earl's in Maidstone tonight with the band. At least it's an early finish tonight.

After chatting a while with a knowledge boy I switched the light on and moved off in search of a first fare for the day. It was nearly an hour before I got my first job. Having driven up and down Oxford Street for a while I eventually got flagged by the concierge of The Kingsway Hall Hotel in Great Queen Street for a job to County Hall. No problems with the job except turning into a one way street (the wrong way). Luckily nothing was coming the other way, and I realised my mistake before making use of the cab's 25' turning circle and carrying on with my journey. Here's hoping it's not a junction monitored by CCTV, otherwise I can kiss goodbye to a chunk of my earnings and possible add 3 points to my (so far) clean driving licence. I guess that mistake proves how distracting it can be to be chatting while driving, even if it's to someone in the cab and not on the other end of a mobile.

After that first job, there was very little time without anyone in the cab, apart from when stuck in jams. Nobody is going to get into a cab in traffic when they could walk to the front of the queue quicker than they can do it in a vehicle.

Most of the work was arounf the West End, with a few short trips between Oxford Street and Covent Garden, out to Harrods, then a trip back to the Langham Hilton for a couple of New Zealand tourists. Of course the conversation turned to the Rugby World Cup final. The couple had been planning to go to Paris for the game, but gave up their tickets once New Zealand had been knocked out of the competition (It was brave of them to even consider buying a ticket if they were hoping to eee the Kiwis in the final).

More work out of Oxford Street, including a job to Crouch Hill, my first job taking me outside of the comfort of the centre of town. The passenger was a young lady who told me she had to be back by 4:30 because she was being picked up by a car to take her to some studios for a show. Since she said she'd be missing the rugby (a regular topic of conversation throughout the day) because she'd be working, I guess she'd be taking part in the show. I have no idea who she was, or what she'd be doing, but it was to be a chat show of some description. Suppose I'll never find out. Still, someone's only a celebrity to me if I recognise them. (I did recognise Chris Eubank's truck parked in a side street in Brompton. Someone told me it had been there for 2 days and had a ticket on it. Guess it's hard to get a wheel clamp that big.)

At least the traffic was moving nicely and the job didn't take too long. I even managed to get out of the area and back into town before the crowds started pouring out of Arsenal's Emirates Stadium on Hornsey Road.

After a few more jobs in the West End I was asked to take a couple to Canary Wharf. Since it was getting towards 6 o clock I decided to head home for an evening in front of the box after that job to see England's glorious defeat at the hands of South Africa and a doubtful decision by and Australian television referee.

All it'll take now will be for Lewis Hamilton to spin off on the final lap of the Brazilian Grand Prix to make it a week of English sportsmen getting so close but yet so far. (Not that I'll be able to watch the race since I'll be getting ready for the gig tonight.

I wonder if I can afford to employ a roadie to set up my gear for me. A few more weeks in the cab will see if that's the case.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

It's been a while...

yeah yeah, I know, these blog things are supposed to be a running record of what's going on.

Well, since I last posted, quite a lot has happened.

I was calling over the suburb runs leading up to my final appearance last time I wrote. Well, that is now all well behind me. I managed to get up to the PCO in plenty of time for my traditional pre-appearance cuppa and bacon sandwich. Funny how superstitious you become about these things and I kept the same routine that I had done throughout my time on the knowledge. (Lucky pants, lucky tie, left sock on before the right one.. you know, the usual Cup run stuff that football fans go through.)

Well, it must have worked... that and a lot of calling over all the runs til I was sick of them. Was called in by one of the senior examiners and rattled off four runs before being given the congratulatory handshake. That was it. After nearly 3 and a half years I had finally completed The Knowledge of London and could call myself a London cabbie. Well, after parting with my license fee and returning to the PCO later that morning for the presentation of my badge and cab license.

A nice talk from the senior examiner about what to expect once we get out onto the streets, and then off to Bethnal Green to pick up the rented cab.

By the time I'd sorted all that out I was hoping to be able to get on with my first job, but time was pressing and I had to get back towards home to pick up my daughter from school.... IN THE CAB of course! So the first job had to wait until the following day.

That also gave me the chance to get used to driving a cab as well, since I hadn't done that since passing my driving test a couple of months previously.

And so, to Friday morning, and a still-wet-behind-the-ears butterboy was dragging his rented silver TXII towards London, still worrying about what would happen when his first fare came along. (well , that and worrying about getting the cab changed since the first one had no headlights, a heater that wouldn't switch off and an intercom that crackled louder than a pan of bacon with a loudhaler. (eh?)

Cab changed and off I headed towards the city. I tentatively pressed the button on the meter that switched the light on, and almost prayed that nobody would stick their hand out. (What if I don't know the destination? What if I take the wrong route? What if the customer tries to do a runner?)

And then, the moment came. Outside the Hoxton Hotel, and hand goes out and I'm the only cab around with a light on. Guess that's me then. Over I go and in climbs passenger number 1. "Paddington Station please". Yes! I know the destination and I know the route.

Off we go and after a little while we strike up a conversation. Turns out the guy is heading back to Ireland after some business in London, but he lives in Scotland. He's a musician. Not just any musician though, he's the bass player from Snow Patrol, so he's been Chasing Cars before (geddit?). I apologise for not having bought any of his discs and for not recognising him. He's sort of pleased about that anyway, it means that they can get on with a normal life, but still have all the fun of playing in a successful band.

The traffic's bad and the fare soon clicks into double figures, but I tell him of the tradition among new drivers where the first ever fare is given away. He's shocked and seems quite happy that he's somebody's first ever fare, but tells me he will still pay me. I tell him again about the tradition and he offers to pay the value of the fare (and some) to Save the Children.

We eventually get to Paddington and with a handshake and good luck wishes all round my first job is over! Not only my first job, but also my first "guess-who-I-had-in-the-back-of-my-cab" story. A really nice, down to earth guy (he must be, he's a bass player) and a pleasure to chat with.

I rejoined the Paddington rank and picked up an Australian couple who were heading to Waterloo to catch the Eurostar train to Paris. By the time we get to Waterloo International (via a long stop outside Buckingham Palace while a military band marched past) it's sweltering in the cab. Clearly I've got a problem with this vehicle as well so it's back to Bethnal Green to change it over again.

Finally I end up with a cab that doesn't seem to have too many problems and hit the road again to finish off my first short day. All the jobs were fairly short and well within my capabilities so a nice easy day to start my new career.

I've now been a cabbie for one week and I must say that I'm loving it. Apart from all the roadworks that seem to have sprung up in the six weeks since I stopped my bike work. Traffic in town has been awful all this week and the passengers have all been understanding, if a little pissed off the the meter keeps ticking over even though we're going nowhere. I know I would be as well, and must admit to a few pangs of guilt at some of the prices that have to be charged for some relatively short journeys, but I'm sure they'll disappear before too long.

Looking forward to the weekend since I won't be able to do much work next week due to half term holidays, so it'll be a case of see what I can do with the time available between my band's gigs, the Rugby World Cup final and Lewis Hamilton trying to win the F1 title.

Be lucky!

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

What does it all mean?

No, I haven't decided to give it all up before I start and become a psycho-analyst. A couple of people have already mailed me or left comments wondering what different terms within "Cabbie slang" mean.

Well, here goes with an explanantion of some of them.

Bilker - Someone who tries (and sometimes succeeds) in avoiding paying the fare for a journey
Butterboy - Nothing to do with Marlon Brando and half a pound of Lurpak. A butterboy is a new cabbie, and since you're new in the job you are "but a boy".
Dirty Dozen - Twelve roads through Soho that get you from Regent Street to Charing Cross Road without having to sit behind several thousand double decker busses on Oxford Street
Flyer - A fare to one of the airports
Gasworks - The houses of Parliament
The Iron Lung - a bloody useful toilet in Horsferry Road SW1
Kipper Season - The time of year when business is a bit slack, supposedly from when cabbies could only afford to eat kippers instead of steak
Legal - The fare on the meter without a tip. You wouldn't do that to a poor hard working honest bloke would ya?
Musher - An owner driver, as opposed to a driver who rents his cab
On the cotton - The shortest distance between to points is a straight line (or at least it would be if you didn't have to drive round buildings and parks to get to your destination. To see whether the route you took is shortest (I'm sure there'll be discussions about "moving lines" later on) you hold a piece of cotton over the map between your start and finish points. If the route you took is close to the straight line, it's described as being "on the cotton".
Putting on foul - nothing to do with dressing up like a chicken, or acting like Christiano Ronaldo in the opposition's penalty area, but joining a taxi rank that is already full.
Roader - a long journey, normally to outside of the London boroughs (note that a cabbie can refuse a fare if it's over 12 miles, or if they think their safety might be compromised. However, if it's 12 miles towards my house at the end of a night shift, it's got to be worth considering)
Wedding Cake - The Queen Victoria Memorial outside of Buckingham Palace

It's just possible that I already use some others and have become a part of my everyday vocabulary, so I don't see them as slang, so let me know if I come up with some strange expression and I'll try to explain it. (Or I might just make something up to see if it gets into common usage - Maybe we could invent this year's "Borange")

I'm also looking forward to picking up new slang expressions, be it cabbie related or otherwise. Just not too much of that Mockney stuff though, please.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Starting Out

OK, a first attempt at writing on the web.

Actually, not really the first time, having published a football fanzine for a few years, along with its website. They say, there's a book in everyone. Well I certainly hope mine comes out soon. It's been really uncomfortable riding that scooter around London for the past three and a half years with that inside me.

Why ride a scooter for so long? Quite simple really.. the answer, not the author, although some might argue otherwise.

After having spent 7 years at home as a stay-at-home dad while our daughter grew up, I decided to think about a career for when she got a bit older. The prospect of going back into and office and selling things 9-5 (or for however many hour the job takes, as my last couple of contracts so quaintly phrased it) filled me with horror. To put all that work in for little return just didn't seem to suit me.

So, what job could I do where the hours are totally flexible and where I wouldn't have to be shut inside an office environment for the rest of my working life? I enjoy driving... yes, even in London... so why not think about becoming a cabbie.
To become a licensed hackney carriage driver in London, an applicant needs to demonstrate that he or she can find the shortest route between any two given places within 6 miles of Charing Cross Station in the centre of London. And all without the aid of map or sat-nav system.

The process of learning and demonstrating all this is known as "The Knowledge of London".

On average it takes a knowledge-boy or -girl, around three and a half years to complete the knowledge. All at their own expense, and all in their own time.

A list of 320 routes forms the backbone of The Knowledge, but is far from all you'd need to know. Once you've learned the routes, you also need to find places (known as points) on those routes. These can be restaurants, bars, museums, offices, stations, pretty much anywhere a passenger might as to go to.

The easiest way to find these points is simply to get out there and find them. It can be done on foot, or by car, but by far, the most popular way is to use a scooter or moped. You'll recognise a knowledge boy in town. Their bike usually has a perspex screen on the front normally with a map or a list of roads and points that they need to find.

And so for several years, in all weathers, a knowledge boy will be pounding the streets searching for somewhere that the examiners have asked in previous exams (known as "appearances"). Once all that bike work is done and you've worked your way through the appearance system you then have to learn 132 routes from the edge of the six mile radius out to the London Suburbs.

And that is the stage I am now at. I've managed to drive all of the routes adding another 1500 miles or so to the 24,000 I've already done (I suspect it would have been quicker and easier to have become the pilot of a 747). The next couple of weeks will be spent revising these runs before I go back up to the Public Carriage Office (PCO) where I will have to recite a few of them at the examiner's choosing.

Providing I'm successful, I'll then be given a final talk, presented with my badge and I can then start work once I've picked up my cab from the rental company.

And that, in a nutshell is what I've had to go through in the past three years. I'm sure these pages will tell you more about some of the details as I recall them once I'm in the job. Or perhaps it'll all just fall out of the already full dustbin that is my brain. Who knows?

Right! Revision beckons.