The history of popular culture: 12 Taxi!

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Another cheap shot at taxi drivers? Not here. This is an honest attempt to find the place of the cabbie in the history of popular culture. Only problem is, we'll be going via the sports pages and the quick crossword.

Sorry, but any serious examination of this subject is doomed to falter on the shibboleths of taxi driving, bigotry and venality.

Seek out the literature of cab driving, and you will find titles like the New York Cab Drivers Joke Book, a collection of rabidly sexist and occasionally racist jokes, and Taxi Driver Wisdom, a book with the central premise that the only reason we are not better governed is that the people who really know how to do the job are too busy driving round London with an A-Z on their knee.

Driving round London, that is, when they should be going straight across it. There is a popular view that a licensed taxi driver sees a journey between two points not as a straight line, but as a right-angled triangle, the hypotenuse of which is to be spurned in favour of the other two sides. I remember a sketch from an old Benny Hill show in which two Japanese tourists hailed a cab in central London to go to Heathrow, and later looked out of their window to see Stonehenge.

Laugh? Well, we all did apart from the cabbies, who must be thoroughly sick of being pilloried for public entertainment in this way, while people who are ripping us off regularly and systematically, like lawyers, estate agents and dry cleaners, are allowed to take their place in polite society.

It is difficult to date exactly when taxi drivers gained their undeserved reputation and became outcasts. Despite the most assiduous research, I can find no recorded instance of anyone saying, " `Ere, I `ad that Marcus Aurelius in the back of the chariot," so we must assume cab-driving as we know it began in Paris in the early 17th century with the invention of a two-wheeled carriage for two people, the cabriolet, from which the word "cab" comes.

Around the same time in London, town journeys were undertaken in hackney coaches (named after the area in London, where the horses pastured), four- wheeled, vehicles drawn by two horses and carrying six people. When cabs were first licensed for hire in London in 1823, the fare was fixed at two thirds of the hackney coach fare. Perhaps that was the beginning of the mutual distrust, because by the end of the 19th century taximeters had been introduced to record the fare honestly and automatically, and to give young beaux on a first date something to pretend not to be looking at. By 1918, motor cabs, much influenced by the design of the Model T Ford, characteristics of which still remain, had replaced horse drawn vehicles.

As far as we can judge from old movies, the relationship between cabbie and customer remained cordial while we were comfortable with the concept of service. London cabbies tended to be know-it-all but in a chipper, salt-of-the-earth Cockney way, while New York cabbies were usually a pair of eyes in the driving mirror and a voice asking, "Say, ain't you that dame that's in all the papers?"

If this benign image was not already dead by 1976, Robert de Niro laid it to rest fairly effectively in Taxi Driver, in which his anti-social behaviour went far beyond reading the Daily Express and listening to Melody Radio.

I should have liked to have dealt briefly with mini-cabs, especially as the Queen Mother's favourite pop record was once reported as being "Car 67", a 1978 opus about a Birmingham driver asked to pick up an ex-girlfriend, but I'm afraid this is as far as I go this time of night, squire. Sorry.