Where To Now, Guv?
It’s no idle boast to reiterate that the London black cab is still the best in the world; new editions have hands-free doors and are the size of your living room inside, like tardises. The drivers may not wear white gloves like they do in Japan, but they’re endlessly entertaining, curious-minded individuals, and talking to them is part of the fun of the ride.
I love black cabs, and feel as if I grew up between them and the London Underground system. Which makes me worry now that their livelihood is under threat. It’s true that for a few years they got a bit big for their boots, and you couldn’t find a single cab over Christmas, but then minicabs stole their fares, even though people knew that with some they were taking a risk – wedged into the back seat of a rank-smelling Ford Corsair was no way for a single woman to travel at night.
Then Uber arrived, changing the game again. The Dutch company is a worldwide smash with punters, but pays no British taxes because it’s registered out of Ireland. Controlled from your phone, the app sends you the closest free vehicle at a fraction of the cost of a black cab. A friend of mine who advocates them has hired them several times when we’ve been out for a beer – and so far only 1 out of 5 has actually turned up. If they can’t find the road you’re in, they often give up and take another fare. Black cabs have staged a number of rather pointless strikes, meanwhile the free-market minded government allows Uber to operate tax-free. So, will it all start to go South for the man who wouldn’t once go South of the river?
Originally, the Hackney Carriage was either named after that area of London, or stems from the Spanish Jaca, a small breed of horse perfect for pulling a carriage, or most likely from hacquenée, the French term for a general-purpose horse; nobody is quite sure about its roots. For a while both horse-drawn carriages and motorised ones existed side by side. Then came the Hansom cab, designed by Joseph Hansom, the difference being that this one had just two wheels. It’s the one you always see in old Sherlock Holmes films.
Petrol-powered cabs with meters arrived at the start of the 20th century. The sexiest-looking cab, the FX3, appeared in 1947, but the most famous – and the one that remained in production for nearly 40 years – was the FX4, in 1958.
Opposite Pentonville Prison, just up the road from the Breakout Cafe (if I put that in a Bryant & May book you’d think I made it up) is an unassuming building called Knowledge Point School. It’s the training arm of the taxi trade, and teaches drivers the Knowledge in London. This is where the black cab drivers pass their live exams after they’ve driven all over London by moped with a clipboard attached to their handlebars, learning every road in the city.
Inside there’s a shop selling A-Z maps of every possible size and shape, and above is a classroom where you have to show that you’ve learned to recognise every single street in London. It’s a mammoth undertaking, which is why only 3 out of every 10 would-be drivers who sign up ever make it to the end. London drivers, also known as the Green Badge drivers, must learn 320 routes, 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks or places of interest within a 6-mile radius of Charing Cross.
It usually takes 2 to 4 years to pass and, once qualified, cabbies can work anywhere in the Greater London area, keeping whatever hours they want.
The tutors at the Knowledge School are experienced drivers who specialise in tripping up pupils with trick questions – in much the same way that a drunken Londoner will insisted to a cabbie that he knows the best route to Hampstead from Brixton via Whitechapel. Pupils also have to know landmarks and certain buildings, because much getting about labyrinthine London is via odd landmarks, often the names of pubs, and drop-off points are described rather than given addresses. ‘It’s a left past the Black Prince’ or ‘Just opposite the Duke of Norfolk’.
Cabbing is changing; there are women drivers now, fewer Jewish drivers, well over half are immigrants, and nobody goes to Chelsea or Islington much because the houses there are emptied out, owned from overseas. Conversely, former no-go areas are now hugely popular; Shoreditch, Dalston, Liverpool Street, Vauxhall, Smithfields are where the new cheap bars and clubs are. Only tourists go to Camden, Westminster and Soho.
Of the current options available, black cabs are the most expensive way of getting around London. Soon, though, the underground is threatening to extend its running hours around the clock, which will further chip away at the old black cab system. Why learn such a complex thing as The Knowledge when your business is shrinking?
There’s a fightback going on as the black taxi service develops new apps. Maaxi is designed to match up to five strangers travelling in the same direction, so that they can share a ride and split the bill. I hope it works. The black cab remains a London icon and its most stylish way to travel – I was horrified the first time I boarded a yellow taxi in New York and found myself sitting behind scratched plexiglass like a prisoner.
As for conversation, here’s the tail-end of a long semi-bonkers conversation I had with a black cab driver when we were stuck in rainy traffic – so far on the journey we had talked about politics, the National Health Service, art, the fastest way to Wapping, favourite writers – and then serial killers.