We haven't had it so good since the mid-Eighties, when to live in SE5 and beyond seemed to mean you had a 50-50 chance of a ride.
'I don't go there,' a cabbie once told me unequivocally, meaning, I think, south of the Thames.
'This is Peckham,' another accused as we turned into Camberwell Church Street. (Oh, all right, it's Peckham. It just calls itself Camberwell.) But times change. London has been stiff these past few years with cabs for hire, their drivers cock-a-hoop when they pick up a fare.
Then, the other evening, a Northern Line train stopped at London Bridge and would go no further. London Transport, having trousered my pounds 1.30, would not deliver me to the Elephant (track failure at Stockwell or something). I hadn't enough cash for a bus to the Green, so I joined - and thus doubled - the queue on the cab rank.
'Will you take me to . . .?'
Perhaps he thought I said 'Casablanca'. His face said 'Pull the other one]' or words to that effect.
'And you'll have to wait there a moment while I nip indoors for the money.'
'No,' he told me very rudely. Just came straight out with it. No.
Now there's a green shoot, if ever I saw one] It took me right back to those great days when merry kerbside banter was the very stuff of London life. And once again it made me wonder why.
Camberwell is really no distance. And I don't think I'm a bad passenger. I don't smoke Cuban cigars or douse myself in Youth Dew in the back of a cab. I have never done a runner, or been sick on the floor.
I say please and thank you nicely, I listen with attention to the drivers' interesting perceptions, I seldom demur when they take me the pretty way, and I tip inordinately lest they think me not a very nice person.
That's the hardest part, when they refuse, not sweetly, apologetically, appealing to your sympathies, but as if they think that, frankly, you are not quite the thing.
What to do about it? You feel such a fool as you recite that magic incantation, the six-mile rule. Hop smartly into the cab before making your preposterous demands, and you will be driven with such ill grace, you will be thankful to arrive in one piece. Write to the whats-its-name, the Carriage Office? You can never quite remember its proper title, can you, or find it in the phone book? Or you don't have a stamp. Or the ink in your Biro's dried up.
I keep having these revenge fantasies in which I flag down a taxi and peer in through the window, taking stock.
I look the driver over with a cool surmise. I curl my lip at his photographs of wife and kids, sniff disparagingly at his deodoriser tree. 'Oh, no, I don't think so, thank you.' For isn't there always another one behind.
Not for much longer] If the auguries are true, lighted 'for hire' signs will soon be rare as hens' teeth. Besides, not all London cab drivers have seriously disordered personalities.
Simply, I suppose, one remembers the few, while forgetting the many who are princes among men.
(And why, even now, are so few of them women? In the past couple of years, I think I've had two, a nice Bermondsey girl who knew all the back-doubles, and an extraordinarily beautiful black one, neither of whom oppressed me with their views on European Union or the price of fish.)
Anyway, the second driver to pull up at London Bridge that night was a real gent. Camberwell? No problem. A few seconds' wait? His pleasure. The journey took 15 minutes and we clocked up six quid. And I got my own back. I did] Feeling distinctly bullish, encouraged that another economic miracle is just around the corner, I gave the nice guy a tenner.
That settled the other bastard's hash]Reuse content