John-Paul Flintoff: Closing ranks

John-Paul Flintoff


Closing ranks

Confessions of a minicab driver

Getting late already. We’re on the way to Hertfordshire, for a funeral, and the bloke in the back – mid-30s, not much hair, looks a bit like Nick Leeson – spends the whole time on the phone.

At Muswell Hill, he asks someone: “Am I speaking to the future world champion?” On Colney Hatch Lane he calls a colleague to say some third party is taking the piss; and when he sees the heavy traffic on the North Circular he breaks off to grumble.

On another call, he too-casually mentions his uncle’s funeral (“Well, it’s one of those things”) and at Edmonton, on the A10, he reveals information about his business at a level of detail that Financial Times journalists would not ordinarily hear.

And practically every time we get stuck at traffic lights – which happens a lot – he uses his phone to make inquiries about the funeral.

He says nothing to me directly, but his tense mood is infectious. At 3.42pm, 10 miles from our destination, I ask if he knows when the funeral starts. “Yeah,” he says. “Quarter to four.”

So I drive faster and more dangerously. I use the slow lane to overtake and, at a big intersection, blatantly jump a red light – causing him to pause, briefly, mid-sentence.

We reach the cemetery – a chilly field of gravestones, miles from anywhere – at precisely 4pm. (On time, as it happens, because the Volvo behind us contains the minister.)

[Hey – thanks for reading so far. To be completely transparent, this story is from my archive. I dug it out of the grave because I thought it might attract your attention – and I guess that worked. To find out what happened after, how I was warned about violence, and given advice about dealing with women, keep reading. If you read to the end, I’ll tell you something else…]

My cheeks are flushed: the drive has been intense, I’ve had nothing to eat or drink for several hours and I’m intoxicated by traffic fumes. But an hour later, when the funeral ends and mourners rush towards their cars, I’m shivering.

When my man gets in, I ask him to sign a form confirming my waiting time, because this job’s on account and I won’t get any money otherwise. Then I engage first gear and he’s off again with the phone calls.

On the North Circular, he decides against going back to work and asks me to take him to Golders Green, where he stops to buy cakes before directing me to his home. Finally, at 5.50pm, I ask him to sign my form again. He does, and I thank him, but this is not reciprocated. “No worries,” he says, and jumps out.

He leaves no tip.

According to Transport for London (TFL), which as part of the Greater London Authority oversees all aspects of the capital’s transport system, there are 40,000 minicabs in London, accounting for approximately 70m paid journeys a year. To and from funerals as well as weddings, hospitals, restaurants, offices, theatres and Christmas parties.

Anything, in fact, for which Londoners or visitors to London need transport from door to door.

Amazingly, minicabs have never been regulated – in London, that is, though they have elsewhere – till now. TFL has consolidated control of minicabs within its subsidiary, the Public Carriage Office, which previously oversaw only the more prestigious black taxis.

And in November, the PCO put up on its website, www.tfl.gov.uk/pco, a list of about 2,000 companies that have qualified for operating licenses under the first stage of the planned reforms. (Still to come are driver and vehicle licensing.)

To capture an impression of the industry at this transition – to see what it’s really like, from the inside – I’ve applied to work as a driver.

I’ve hired a car for 10 days: a white, X-reg Mondeo with 18,600 miles on the clock. I’ve paid a month’s insurance: more than I need, but the shortest period available. Then there’s a fee payable to the firm that takes me on, in return for which they refer me work. (The fee varies from company to company. Some charge commission instead.) I’ve bought a new, large-format A-Z, a Christmas tree-shaped deodorant to combat the stench of cigarettes and the first of several tanks of diesel.

  • Car hire: £125 a week,
  • plus £250 deposit.
  • Insurance, one month: £160.
  • Referral fee: £85
  • A-Z, deodorant tree and one tank of fuel: £52.32
  • TOTAL, just to start: £672.32

It’s easy to see why people without access to such sums work illegally as touts, hawking for business on street corners in dilapidated vehicles for which they have no insurance.

Ignoring duplications, such as the 15 different trading names used by Swiss Cottage Car Service Ltd, the PCO lists 61 operators in the borough of Camden. The one I have chosen to join is Belsize Radio Cars, located on the first floor of an anonymous building near Finchley Road Tube station.

It’s from here that Mike Ferris resolves the transport problems of north London.

When calls come in, Mike says, “Hello, car service..?” He takes the caller’s phone number and taps it into his computer. If they’ve used the company before, this brings up their address and other details.

He asks where they’re going, then hangs up and allocates the job to whichever driver in the area has been waiting longest.

Mike covers day-shifts with his boss, Beatrix Freinthaler – known to drivers and customers alike as Trixy – a former secretary who bought into the business in the 1970s and seems to enjoy it rather less than she might.

Mike’s been doing the job for 15 years and wants to get out: he’s doing the “knowledge” – to qualify as a black cab driver – because he reckons that might be more lucrative.

To obtain a licence, operators such as Belsize Radio Cars have paid between £800 and £1,400, depending on their size; taken out public liability insurance; demonstrated compliance with health and safety, fire, radio-operating and planning regulations; and undertaken to keep detailed records relating to bookings, complaints, lost property, vehicles and drivers.

Having incurred this inconvenience and expense, they hope the process will produce worthwhile rewards.

London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone, has already announced that minicabs will be exempt from the inner London congestion charge. And he’s hinted that, like taxis, they may soon be allowed in bus lanes.

Ian Ferguson, a former soldier and lorry driver, runs three “private hire” operations (like many in the business, he dislikes the term “minicab”); publishes a monthly magazine, Private Hire & Courier; and rents out cars to drivers at his own firm and elsewhere (including me).

At his office in a Tooting mews, Ferguson offers me advice and argues persuasively that minicabs are as much a public service as black taxis and deserve the same privileges.

“You pick up the telephone and say to a minicab company that you want to go to… wherever. They never say they’re ‘not going that way’. But a black cab!”

He bounds out of his chair to begin a surprisingly comic performance. “You’re on the Fulham Road, so you check you look all right” – he smooths his hair, tucks his shirt deeper into his trousers…

“You see a taxi and you wave at it and shout,’Taxi!’ Then you say,” – he speaks precisely, with a comically poshed-up accent – ”’Hel_lo_, can you take me to Tooting, please?’

“And they say they’re not going there! It’s bollocks.”

As a beginner, Ferguson reckons, I’ll probably talk too much.

“You know why? You’ll be nervous as shit and vulnerable. You’ll have a complete stranger in your car.”

Only last month a driver in south London called Rahmatullah Abrahimi had his throat cut and was stabbed in the hand: three men acting together stole his car, £50 in cash and his mobile phone.

Similarly, a driver at Belsize Radio Cars tells me that not long ago a knife was held to his throat.

Ferguson’s colleague Jim Slater warns me about passengers doing a runner. One trick is to get in the car with shopping bags that they leave with you while “stopping off” somewhere.

Too late, you find the bags are full of rubbish.

He adds: “If they escape while you’re in traffic, that’s too bad, because you can’t abandon your car.”

Ferguson says: “You’ll get to see a lot of drunks from a different angle. They bore you to death. I had this customer, once, and he was such an arsehole to my drivers so I took him myself. He offered me a £5 tip. I didn’t take it. I told him a tip is a ‘gratuity bestowed upon an inferior’ – that’s what it says in the dictionary.”

His response? “He didn’t quite understand, because he’d had too much to drink.”

Finally, Ferguson gives me advice about women. (No, not that.)

If they’re travelling alone, it’s a good idea to hop out and open the door for them. Not only to be polite but to ensure they sit in the back, thus avoiding any potential for unpleasantness.

Many women fear minicabs because they’ve heard stories, often true, about attacks by drivers. But this is highly unlikely with licensed operators, Ferguson asserts, because they keep their drivers’ details on file.

So I begin. Just finding the pick-up can be hellish.

One evening, in the dark and the rain, I ring a bell at the side of a mansion block and say I’m looking for number 19. Over the intercom, a male voice says: “What’s the number on my gate?”

I tell him I can’t see one.

“Well go and have another look.” Peering closely, I find it says number two. “Well you haven’t found it, then. Goodbye.”

A woman to whom I rush one afternoon is similarly abrupt: “But it’s not half-past!” she shrieks. “You’re too early!” (Nobody at HQ thought to tell me when I was due.)

In a complex of offices behind Fleet Road, I walk into a reception area but nobody is there, so I turn to leave. From behind me, a voice says: ”’Scuse me..?” I turn to see a man standing with his hands on his hips. I say, “I’m looking for… ”

But he interrupts, presumably having noticed my badge and registered that I’m nobody important, saying: “You think you can just wander around..?”

“A lot of passengers forget cab drivers are normal people,” Ferguson told me.

And Lawrence Green, a fellow driver, gives me a pamphlet promoting a pressure group, the Greater London Private Hire Drivers Association, which suggests that members of the public consider a minicab driver to be “a second-rate citizen, a no-hoper, a ‘dole scrounger’, an ‘illegal immigrant’ or just plain stupid”.

My passengers, if they have such preconceptions, conceal them.

But one elderly woman says I look more like a student than a taxi driver – “Are you a student?” – and a young man asks if I’m new to the firm.

Is it so obvious? “No, but most people who pick me up are Asian. Or Croat.”

In a 12-hour shift you see an awful lot of people on the street, including a surprising number you recognise: a hairdresser shopping with her mother, or the guy who runs your local cinema.

You feel immersed in the population – but also insulated from it in your deodorised bubble.

The result is a surprising feeling of loneliness, which is worsened when people get inside the car and act as if you don’t exist. (Such as the teenager I collect from her hairdresser, who phones a friend on the way to Cricklewood and says, “Yeah, I’m in a cab… Yeah, I’m on my own.”)

I fully understand, now, why many drivers need only the slightest pretext to talk your head off.

One afternoon, I call in from East Acton in west London and find that Mike has been replaced by Trixy.

She asks where I am and how long it will take me to get to St John’s Wood. I guess 15 to 20 minutes, so she gives me an address and says, “Hurry up…!”

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