My incident in the back of a cab

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The Independent Online
It is one of the clichs of the journalistic trade that foreign reporters often get their first and maybe best briefing about a place from their taxi driver.

You fly into Kuala Lumpur, you don't know what's going on, you get a taxi from the airport, you ask the taxi driver what's going on and he tells you. It's your first impression, and however wrong or right it is, it stays with you. If I were a dictator in some foreign trouble spot, I would set aside a few billion local ingots for training taxi drivers in answers favourable to the regime.

I think the first person to spot the immensely penetrating quality of first impressions on a writer was George Mikes - at least, he was the first person I noticed in print. He remembered flying into New York for the first time, having been allowed into the cockpit of the plane where he was given a quick tour of the place by the nonchalant pilot.

He remembered coming to his hotel room and having to put down all his luggage while he opened the door, because he needed one hand to turn the key and another, simultaneously, to turn the handle of the door.

He thus arrived in New York with the staggering insight that you can fly a plane into America with one hand but it takes two hands to open a hotel door once you get there. It's the sort of knowledge that seems terribly valuable, despite being completely worthless, because it was your first impression. It was the equivalent of the taxi-driver briefing.

Well, the only foreign capital I visit regularly is London. I didn't realise this until coming to live in the West Country, but most people in Britain regard London as a foreign capital. You still quite often meet people down here who have never been to London - it's the equivalent of George Borrow and other 19th-century travellers wandering through Wales and finding people who didn't speak English, only Welsh - and you meet any amount of people who have been to London once and don't think they'll go back again.

In a way, it's their revenge for feeling that London doesn't know about them or care about them. There is a widespread feeling that news is London- based, that weather reports are South-east oriented and that people should have thought twice before putting Parliament in Westminster.

A cousin of mine in Scotland who regularly has hurricanes and wild storms passing through his home country tells me that they are never reported on TV. He wouldn't mind that so much except that when a slate falls off a roof in central London, it makes the headlines.

So when I arrive in London and jump in a cab, I now - after six years away - feel as if I am arriving in a foreign capital. And I have those conversations with taxi drivers that are vital if you are a reporter, a luxury if you have nothing else to do and torture if he has London News Talk on too loud. But it does, even if you talk only about the traffic, give you some sort of impression of the place.

"I'm glad you don't want to go west," the last driver said to me, as we headed from Paddington towards Ludgate Circus." There's been an incident at Hammersmith somewhere, and the Cromwell Road is solid back to the M4."

An incident. There's a very London word for you. It covers all possibilities from murder to bank raid to suicide to bodies on the line; it implies violence and distress; but what it means is disruption to the traffic, so you don't bother to discuss what kind of an incident it was.

"And I'm glad we aren't going to the City, either, because it's getting worse and worse there, now that they're adding new one-way systems to all the checkpoints and everything ..."

What checkpoints was he talking about? Then I remembered. The cordon round the City of London. Bombs, terrorists, and all that. I had read about it. I had never seen it. It had never affected me. It was hurricanes in Scotland in reverse. It happened in London, so I ignored it. It was something half-glimpsed on the news, in a foreign capital.

"Are they keeping the checkpoints there still?" I asked. "I thought they must all have been taken away in the wake of the ceasefire."

"Chance would be a fine thing," he said. "They said that although they don't think there will be any more bombs, the effect on the City has been so beneficial that they are going to keep them there."

"Beneficial in what way?"

"Apparently fewer cars means less pollution, less crime, fewer road accidents, less stress, less everything. So they're sticking with it."

Strange to think that one day, when our inner cities are clear of fumes and traffic and noise and stress, the IRA will be able to ring the media and claim responsibility.