(16 July 2001) If I ever write a novel, I will have acquired enough material simply by travelling in London taxis and listening to the tales of the drivers. This was never so when I lived in London, mark you. When I was a Londoner, I always had the same conversation with London cabbies. About the lining of the roof of their London taxi, and how expensive it would be to replace.
You don't believe me? Then you've never tried carrying a double bass round London, which is what I mostly needed taxis for.
What happens is that you hail a taxi, and he stops and looks suspiciously at the bass, and says: "OK, but don't put that thing through my roof. It cost £60 to replace last time it was done." Then you have the conversation.
It's different now. I no longer have a double bass to come between me and the cabby, so I can get straight to the life story. There was a man, for instance, whose wife was going through the menopause, and he was suffering from it dreadfully and talked about it wonderfully, and another who still played in a band at 50 and wanted to know if he still should, and another who had been a barrister ... all good stuff for novels.
Only a month ago I found a taxi driver with a fascinating other life, a man who took me to a memorial service at St Bride's, in Fleet Street.
"You got any connection with Fleet Street?" he asked.
"I used to work there," I said. "Bouverie Street. For Punch."
"Me, too," he said. "Bouverie Street, I mean. I was a printer at The Sun, across the road from you. Pre-Wapping. I gave up after Wapping. But I had a big break when I became a taxi-driver. I was hired one day by a man who wanted to spend all day going round London. He must have approved of me, because he offered me a job driving in Morocco."
"Morocco?" I said.
"Ever heard of Tony Scott?" he said.
"The jazz clarinettist?"
"No. Film man. Brother of Ridley Scott. Always making films in Morocco. Lovely scenery, you see. Willing locals. Cheap location. Moroccan army always available as extras. But they always need drivers, so he offered me the job, and now I spend half of each year making films in Morocco ..." This led to such a fascinating conversation about film-making from a taxi- driver's perspective that I was quite sad to reach St Bride's.
The next taxi-driver I had, the very one who took me to the Spectator party this month, was an Irishman, getting on in years now, who had migrated here in the 1950s.
"From Kilkenny way, I was. I came from a farming family. That was the only life I knew. Up at the crack of dawn, ploughing. And ploughing mostly with horses, not tractors. But the way Irish farms are inherited, it's hard for all the family to keep farming, so I came to London to seek fame and fortune."
And did you, uh, find it?
"Well, I've done all right, but it was my daughter who did well. She went to university to study the history of politics. Got a degree. Took a temporary job in a printing firm. She's still there, one of the big wheels, doing very well. Does a lot of Marks & Spencer's printing."
I've boiled down the conversation hugely, and I've left out his stint as a commercial geologist and the great adventure he never had when a man from Singapore asked him to take him in his taxi from central London to Basel in Switzerland, and he couldn't because he didn't have a passport, but the picture of transition from Irish soil to big business in London in one generation is striking enough. It was like sitting through a complete novel.
Which brings me to the young taxi driver three weeks ago who I thought was getting through a novel. At every traffic light he started reading something on his knees. Once or twice he brought out a dictionary and looked up a word. Eventually I couldn't resist it.
"What are you reading?"
"I'm not reading anything. I'm sending a text message.
"To be honest, I'm trying to send a really rude message to my ex-girlfriend. To get my own back. And I'm trying to impress her by using one or two big words. But I know she'd only laugh if I spelled them wrong, so I'm looking them up to be on the safe side."
Is this a dangerous trend? A taxi driver who is trembling on the verge of actually writing his own novel? I'd better get cracking if I am ever to write my taxi-based saga. And claim all those trips as literary research.Reuse content