'I 'ad that columnist in the back of the cab once ...'

I was told the other day that times must be hard for the humble cabbie, as it is now much easier to get a cab back to Essex. I asked my informant how far from central London he lived. "Fifteen miles," was the chirpy answer. I find it almost impossible to get a cab four miles into South London, but then I'm not a bloke in a suit with a fat wedge.

Cabbies are very keen to present themselves as knights of the road, custodians of The Knowledge, ferrying damsels homewards without raping them. The amount of times I've wandered the desolate streets with pounds 20 in my pocket that I'm just dying to hand over to any unwashed misanthrope who'll consent to take me. What typically happens is this: some fetid Catweazle responds to your frantic signallings by pulling in, considering the request, then silently shaking his head and driving off. Maybe I am just not attractive enough, but I suspect that Eva Herzigova in her undies couldn't persuade a cab-driver to cross the Thames.

Once, after having missed a train, I worked my way to the front of the taxi-queue at Charing Cross and piped my request through the leading cab's open window, only to be dismissed with a contemptuous "Nah. Get in the one behind." I trotted to cab number two, where a younger and nicer-looking driver said, aghast: "You can't get in here, love, you have to go with him." "Oh, that's all right," I pleaded, vainly wringing the door-handle. "He doesn't want to go that far." Number two just tutted. "Well, tell him he's got to, love."

Cabbie number one eyed me evilly as I returned. "He says you have to take me." "Look," erupted number one, "I don't have to do anything. I'm not taking ya." Back I went with heavy heart. I reformulated his position into something along the lines of: the cabbie in front waives his right to this fare and respectfully suggests that the honour should devolve upon you. Cabbie number two, shaking his head with "Do wot?" incredulity, moaned: "I can't take you! He's got to take you!" "I don't think I want to go with him now," I whimpered. He shook his head, sorrowfully. "I would take you, love, only ..." he jerked his thumb at the rank behind, where cabs three, four and five were rapidly filling up with fares and steaming off into the night, "they'd crucify me. You can't take another cabbie's fare. It's not right."

Back to number one, slowly. This time I didn't say anything, just looked at him like a seal-pup. "Right!" he yelled, wrenching open his door. Number two likewise leapt out of his cab. To my amazement, they squared up to each other on the forecourt. "Get in his cab!" screamed number two. Number one let off a volley of oaths. Two grown men were shouting: "You!" "No, you!" "No, you!" At which point I realised that I'd wasted so much time that another train was due, and cravenly scuttled away.

Cabbies' conversational skills are vastly overrated, but I did once play wedding-guest to an irresistible Ancient Mariner. So relieved was I to see smiling acceptance on a cabbie's face, that I hopped eagerly in, only to be thrown on to the back seat as he accelerated, cackling madly. When the door-locks clicked, I thought, this is it: chopped in bits by a maniac under a disused railway arch, unless you keep him talking. Was he ever keen to talk: wanted to tell me all about his recent stint on jury service. The case, involving a fiendishly complicated financial scam, took us all the way to Deptford at high speed - the car and his gob - where, unusually, he knew all the back routes (they should really call it The Ignorance).

We came to a halt, having overshot my house by 200 yards, but the doors remained locked as he leered over his shoulder at me. "So - would you have acquitted him or what?" The critical moment. What's it to be? A safe, warm bed or the railway arches? "Well," I hemmed, "it would depend on whether I thought he was a decent sort or not ..." "Exactly!" he screamed. "He was a diamond geezer!" "So did he ..." "Yeah, he done it, course he done it," said the cabbie, calmer now as he reversed at high speed up the deserted street. And then he did something really mad. He knocked two quid off the fare.

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