Rank outsiders

When Will Self stepped inside the world of the taxi driver to research his latest novel, he expected to find a cynical trade, fuelled by frustration and cruising on contempt. But while the bigotry and intolerance are for real, he argues, the face in the mirror has a more interesting story to tell
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I can't go in cabs just now, can't go in them at all. I can't abide to be in that confined space, which has been the transitory abode of a nameless multitude. I can't bear to surrender myself to the knowledge of another - his or her intimate understanding of an urban topography - or to their mechanical skills, their sweaty grip and bored torque on the plastic rim of the steering wheel.

I can't go in cabs just now, I hate to be whisked through nameless streets by an unnamed individual. And I can't talk to cabbies just now; oh no, truly, I can't. I hate the bizarre and immediate intimacy of the relationship; the way that the driver retains all the power, while the passenger lies back on the sweat-stained couch. It's like some awful parody of therapy: the cabbie is the repository of all our secrets, while we spill our guts on the upholstery. The second he's dropped us off, he'll pick up some new and neurotic client, and he'll blab: "You'll never guess what the last geezer I 'ad in 'ere said to me..."

I can't go in cabs just now. Put in psychoanalytic jargon, I've had a bad transference. In spending two years writing a novel with a London cabbie as its protagonist, I've succeeded in converting what was beforehand a mild disinclination into flat-out repulsion and paranoia. Now, when I stand in the street and see one of the black scarabs trundling towards me, I turn tail and flee, lest some strange reflex cause me to throw up my arm. I know what would happen if I did this: I'd stand stock still while the orange "TAXI" sign zoomed in on me - the cyclopodean eye of the beast - and then, when the electric window oozed down, I'd be confronted by my nemesis, who would enquire - his tones purged of any emotion whatsoever, "Where to, Guv?"

And it isn't only London cabs that do this to me - I can freak out in the provinces just as easily. I skulk past the ranks at out-of-the-way stations; I make excuses when my hosts offer to call me a cab; I feel tempted to tear the minicab company flyers from phone boxes, the way others shred prostitutes' cards. I hope this problem is going to resolve itself soon. It's irrational, it's unfair, and it's harming nobody but myself.

The worst thing is that I knew it would happen. It's been this way with all the novels I've written: in the writing of them I conceive an inordinate fondness and absorption in my characters, and then, in abandoning them, I comprehensively reject them. To continue with the psychobabble: I can't let go with love. It's been like this with marketing men, psychiatrists, chimpanzees and anything connected with the dead. When I was reworking Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, I began to enjoy a tumultuous homoerotic dream life. And when the book itself was finally out of the writing closet, I became subject to an equally powerful antipathy to all things gay.

But the cabbies, well, I could see them coming from a long way off. I've always had a strongly ambivalent relationship with London taxi drivers - and I don't think that makes me anything special. Indeed, as a cultural icon, the taxi driver is a peculiarly Janus-faced figure. As a rule, the cabbie is cast either in the comic or the tragic mode, with very little in between. He is either a chirpy journeyman, bumbling through the city on a Chaucerian, picaresque journey, picking up the Wife of Bath in Southwark - then dropping her off at the Maidstone Registry Office. Or he's a down-home Travis Bickle, wounded, psychopathic, the bulge of a .44 Magnum - "the most powerful handgun in the world" - ruining the cut of his England football shirt.

At the comic end of the continuum, we have the long-running US sitcom Taxi, wherein Danny De Vito and a cast of loveable misfits played out their lives in the honking, squealing garage. Fighting with the dispatcher, inveighing against their fares, but in the final analysis, presenting a warm and redemptive portrait of humanity. In Britain we never had a series to compare to Taxi, but we did have a hugely influential Play for Today, Jack Rosenthal's 1979 outing The Knowledge.

This comedy drama, featuring a fine cast of medieval-faced British character actors - Mick Ford, Michael Elphick and Nigel Hawthorne as the dreaded Examiner - gave greater currency to the workings of the London cab trade than anything since the Sherlock Holmes stories. So much so, that to this day, if you strike up a conversation about cabbing with almost anyone, pretty soon it will be name-checked. Rosenthal did achieve something rather magnificent: he took the viewer through the whole business of becoming a London cabbie, from putting in the application, to put-putting about the city on a moped, committing its labyrinthine streets to memory, to undergoing the dreaded "appearances", to finally receiving the coveted bronze badge engraved with its unique driver number.

Those who have seen The Knowledge know exactly what it is: an encyclopaedic understanding of all the London streets within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross, together with all the principal buildings and places of interest. The London cabbie is unique in the world in his mastery of this arcanum, which involves committing to memory twenty lists of sixteen "runs", together with all their significant "points". Recently, research employing high-tech neural imaging has confirmed what London cabbies have always known (or acted as if they knew), which is, that doing the Knowledge actually increases the size of their posterior hippocampus. So Fred Housego, the London cabbie who won Mastermind, was just one among a tens of thousands of big-brained drivers.

In Rosenthal's television play, the getting of the Knowledge is an exhausting and frustrating business. Traditionally, the only way to do it was to get a large street map, put a pin in at the beginning of the first run (Gibson Square in Islington), a pin where it ends (Manor House in Finsbury Park), and stretch a piece of thread between them. "Doing it on the cotton" is thus synonymous - in cabbie speak - with the most direct slice through the concrete cake of London.

But acquiring the Knowledge is only the half of it, because then the Knowledge boy - as he is known - has to face the dreaded "appearances". In the Rosenthal play these were handled with a light touch; although the examiner, Nigel Hawthorne, tried on numerous stratagems to unhinge the candidates - sneezing, sticking a pencil up his nose - in the end they passed. Furthermore, they appreciated that the tactics were justified: the examiner is only replicating the kinds of behaviour that the newborn cabbies will be on the receiving end of for the rest of their working lives.

However, my friend who is a London cabbie, and who helped me with the research for my own black, taxi saga, was distinctly less sanguine about his own appearances: "Looking back on it," he told me "it was flat-out abuse. Pure and simple." It was remarks like these, together with my own impressions of the trade, that confirmed in me what I was trying to do with my novel The Book of Dave. If The Knowledge is a warm-hearted depiction of cabbing, then at the other extreme there's Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), which, despite its New York setting, has become inextricably fused in the minds of all who've seen it, with our conception of the mind behind the maddened eyes we confront in the rear-view mirror. Reviewing the process of writing my book, and reading over Paul Schrader's seminal script for the film, it occurred to me that were I to pitch my book as a movie idea, I'd say: "It's like The Knowledge crossed with Taxi Driver."

"Listen you screwheads," Travis Bickle rants. "Here is a man who wouldn't take anymore, a man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth..." His maimed psyche speaks to anyone who as ever sat, transfixed, in the back of a London cab and listened to a stream of invective twist and curl back through the open hatch. In the collective consciousness of Londoners, the cabbie is a stock character. So much so that when I've been introducing my novel to audiences, I've said: "He is a racist, misogynistic, misanthrope - or, for short: a London cabbie." And they've laughed in recognition.

But how unfair is this? It certainly does no justice to the many, many thousands of acts of kindness that cabbies bestow on the world every day. If you want to send your kids across town late at night, do you choose an unlicensed minicab, or a licensed taxicab? Nor does it recognise the sheer diversity of the 50,000-odd licensed drivers who ply the streets, and who contain within their number all the ethnic and cultural diversity of the metropolis itself. My own cabbie informant comes from an East End cabbing dynasty, and while he himself conceded that he thought of the majority of his colleagues as "ignorant, lairy and racial", in the process of helping me to research my book, he himself came to a new appreciation of them. And why not? After all, he himself is no stereotype: but a gentle, intelligent man who cabs part time and works the rest as a mentor of disturbed adolescents.

I hailed my own cabbie protagonist, Dave Rudman, for a number of reasons. Yes, I wanted a man whose transitory encounters with the mass of humankind exercised his cynicism, but more profoundly, I was gripped by the singularity of the Knowledge itself. One of the reasons I've traditionally found it hard to take black cabs is that as a typically arrogant, native Londoner myself, I've always believed that I intuitively know the route "on the cotton". Of course this is nonsense - the professionals don't only know central London, they have to know the 'burbs as well. Contemplating this, it occurred to me that were the city to be destroyed - inundated, nuked, decimated by some new pestilence - the individual best placed to rebuild it would be a cabbie.

For it's the cabbie who is the repository of the true shape of the city, far more than any politician, prelate or even planner. In my own tumultuous mind, this insight synergised with the cabbie-as-ranter to produce the notion of a cabbie who's a prophet: the architect of a New Jerusalem - or New London. "Here is a man," says Travis Bickle, echoing Christ's own "Ecce Homo". But I wanted my readers to have an answer to the implied question: who is that man whose face I only ever assemble in the manner of an Identikit image, putting together sections of a face glimpsed in mirrors?

One fact about the London cab trade: approximately half of all the licensed drivers only ever "work" the airport run. They drive out to Heathrow, rank up in an enormous feeder car park, and stroll into a café called Doug Sherry's. Here they are confronted by dump bins full of the numerous taxi drivers' free sheets: HALT, Steering Wheel, Taxi Times. For cabbies are a literate bunch. They eat and read and jaw, while observing a monitor that informs them when the can pull down on to the terminal rank and pick up a "flyer". If they're lucky the flyer will be heading for central London - if they're unlucky it'll be Hounslow. If the run isn't under three miles they have to go through the whole rigmarole of queuing again. The airport mob have opted for a regular, determined life. When they drop off their fare in the West End, they leave the "For Hire" sign off and drive back to Heathrow. Round and round, like clockwork.

On the wall of Doug Sherry's there are memorial photographs of late cabbies. Often they're pictured with fishing equipment, or other sporting impedimenta. The life spans indicated - 1931-1985 - are on the short side, tending to confirm what you would assume: that sitting in that juddering box for year after year, breathing in lead and carbon monoxide, absorbing the stress of the traffic, is bad for your health.

Certainly, poor health and conditions have historically dogged the trade. London cabs have been licensed since 1639, and by 1860 there were 4,600 plying for trade. In 1904 there were 7,499 hansoms and 3,905 four-wheeler "growlers" on the roads. Mid-Victorian philanthropists - led by MPs who observed the cabbies shivering outside St Stephen's Gate - raised money to build a number of shelters throughout the city, where the cabbies could be served with hot food and non-alcoholic drinks. Sixty-four were built, but only a dozen or so of the green wooden huts remain. They're worth searching out, because their appearance - some way between a cricket pavilion and a bothy - serves to underscore the truth that the trade is so ancient that it pre-existed the modern city, and may well survive it.

In town, at Muratori's on the Farringdon Road, you find the "mushers" who work the teeming streets, their senses honed like radar, to pick up a fare. Among them there's a certain contempt for the airport mob, but both clans of the tribe have their "stalkers", their "wrong 'uns" who nick fares, either by giving a bribe to the "waver-uppers" on the doors of fancy hotels, or simply by gazumping their fellow drivers. They're as much a part of the life as the "bilkers" - of whom there are a quite a number - who sit there pretending to be affable as they're driven across town and then do a runner.

Another fact: some estimate that in 1970 over 25 per cent of London taxi drivers were Jewish. Historians of the London cab trade, like the venerable Alf Townsend (whose Cabbie is required reading), are nostalgic about the Jewish cabbies. They dressed a certain way - ski boots and suede coats in winter; they had a notable clannishness, haunting the Porchester and Ironmonger's Row steam baths; and many of them wangled it so that they earned enough money on "cream fares" to escape to Tenerife during the "kipper season" (when business was as flat as one). But where are the Jewish cabbies now? Quit the trade just as they've quit the East End. Moved on to the 'burbs, Emerson Park and Stanmore, the working-class fathers of lawyer sons and doctoring daughters.

Seen in this way, cabbing becomes a more sympathetic vehicle, a portal through which incomers can acquire the most definitive of London identities. In recent years it seemed as if cabbies had abandoned "souf" of the river, but now in Stockwell, where I live, there are plenty of black, black cabbies on the road. How the London cabbie acquired his reputation for bigotry (and they are, overwhelmingly "hes", although there's a growing proportion of women in the trade), is thus a moot point.

Certainly, we are all what we eat, and as well as dishing it out, cabbies are on the receiving end of all their fares' workaday frustrations. A huge number of cab users are City "getters", and it's surely non-prejudicial to say that they must be a pretty irritating clientele to service when you're only clearing a "neves" (Cockney back-slang for £700) a week. Doubtless, there are also many fares who, like me before I learnt better, believe that cabbies deliberately get themselves snarled up in traffic so as to earn bigger fares. But the taximeter is a savagely just creation; within its little box it calibrates time, speed and distance, so that in traffic the cabbies' earnings slow to a trickle of pence. Once again, the cabbie's life turns out to be cruel synecdoche of the common weal.

However, there's no necessity about the way London cabbies turned to the right rather than the left. In Paris, where cabbies have just as defined an identity as their London counterparts, they have a reputation for being formidable anarchists. And the Parisian mythology of the cabbie is as a kind of Ravachol of the road, tossing back Molotov cocktails of insurrectionist invective into the laps of the bourgeoisie who sit behind. Alf Townsend locates the key decade as the 1970s, when rather than consolidating the traditional union affiliation of the trade to the T&G, licensed drivers responded to the threat posed by minicabs by forming profit-making associations, complete with their own radio circuits.

Whatever the reason, I have to say I feel a certain sympathy, even for the Thatcherite cast of the cabbie mentality. Surely in this - as in so much else - the licensed London taxi driver was only out ahead of the rest of the British working class: eyes searching the road to pick up the fares of the future. Besides, contrary to what people would have you believe, the London cabbie is not on a big earner. The manufacture and supply of the vehicles themselves is a virtual monopoly, and shelling out £35,000 for a new TX2 purely because it has a 25ft-diameter turning circuit, doesn't gladden the heart. Most cabbies either rent cabs, or if they buy have to borrow the money from finance companies. With hefty insurance premiums and maintenance on top of this, most drivers spend half their working lives in debt, with the timeshare on the Costa del Sol a distant Eldorado.

So, the London cabbie as a psycho-geographer, holding within his over-encephalised mind the ground plan of the hypertrophied conurbation as he drifts through its streets and howls down its arterial roads. The London cabbie as representative urbanite - his profession itself representing a semi-permeable barrier through which the incomer becomes native. The London cabbie as ranter, prophet and Cockney Cassandra, wheeling his mobile pulpit around Speaker's Corner as he delivers another timely homily. And finally, the London cabbie as a magus, who, like Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan, can teleport his fares from one location to the next while they remain in almost total ignorance of where they truly are.

Is it any surprise that the cabbie - and the licensed London cabbie in particular - struck me as such a perfect protagonist for a novel which attempts to express the zeitgeist? The only wonder, for me, was that so few narrative artists had used him before. Sure, the cab is always at the door, and the characters always clamber in and then debouche, but the cabbie himself remains a link man, stitching together scenes with his stereotypic presence. Perhaps this is the way we want it? Because to acknowledge that in the very interstices of our lives - the workaday A-to-B - there sits such a powerful psychic presence, is simply too much.

Whatever the truth of the matter, I hope that the next time you burrow into the anonymous confines of a cab - whether it's a black London beetle, or a minicab out in the sticks - you spare a thought for the driver. You may just be passing through - but he's there for the duration.

Will Self's 'The Book of Dave' is published on 1 June by Viking at £17.99. To buy it for the special price of £15.99 (including p&p) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897