Celtic Illumination, part 343, You talkin’ to me?
I was surprised to discover, although I have to admit I wouldn’t be now, that in order to become a taxi driver I had to undertake a test. You would have thought some form of driving test but no, it was basically knowing where most of the pubs and restaurants were in the local area. It felt as if there were just a line of people standing with their hands out waiting for me to walk past and drop some money into their palm. There was the medical, which wasn’t very detailed but was quite expensive. I had to pay a solicitor to tell me that it was me myself standing in front of him that I wasn’t somebody else. I even had to pay for the privilege of having an ex copper, the licensing officer, ask me a series of daft questions about pubs.
All I had to do now was decide if I wanted to be a private hire driver or a Hackney Carriage driver. At the time I didn’t know the difference so opted for the cheaper license of private hire driver. The Hackney Carriage is what we most commonly refer to as the London Black Cab, these vehicles can pick any person, or persons, up anywhere. The private hire license only allows you to pick up a passenger who had pre-booked or from a regulated stand. You may think what’s the point or what’s the difference and I would agree with you but in the world of taxi driving it is the line in the sand. Hackney drivers regard themselves as the professional end of the business while any old Tom, Dick or Harry can work away in the private hire end.
Admittedly most Hackney drivers buy their own cab which is quite a hefty investment, then they will either split the cost with another two or three drivers or hire the cab to a suitably licensed driver when they are not working. The private hire lot is more like a combination of the whacky races and a demolition derby. I was only part way along my journey of self-discovery, I had my taxi driver’s license but would I actually cut it as a taxi driver, would I be able to, as we had always discussed in the armed forces, do any job to survive. Of course I didn’t really need to do the job to survive, for me it was the principal of the whole thing; I was putting myself to the test.
I contacted a local taxi firm and was told that I could join them if I wanted, but then the hand came out again. I would have to hire a vehicle from them on a weekly basis and the cost was known as the ‘settle.’ You could use your own car, as long as it passed the local authority’s test and was granted a license, then you would have to hire a radio from the firm on a weekly basis. Rather than sink more money into the scheme I decided I should stick with the hire a cab option just in case it didn’t work out. I mean how difficult could it be, driving from one point to another? I was given the keys to a small family saloon type vehicle, a Ford Orion, and told to speak to the other drivers to find out how things worked.
The owner of the firm seemed to be a little rough around the edges but as I would be self-employed and working on my own most of the time I paid him no great attention. The other drivers were a motley collection and although I had a lot of questions to ask I started off by listening. First off I was told that I was not allowed to go near Wigan. I thought it a bit odd but the drivers had created their own rate of fare for Wigan passengers, which was higher than the Skelmersdale rates but lower than the Wigan rates. I would not be allowed to go near Wigan for at least two months until I understood the scheme. Some of the drivers only worked two nights a week and that was sufficient for them, some worked seven days a week
I could have done with a sat nav but instead relied on my local street map. I’ll never forget my first fare, a lady wanted to go from her house to the local shopping centre. I collected her, dropped her off, charged her the correct fare for the distance travelled and when I reported in was asked to return to base. Seems that I had gone completely the wrong way around and as she was a regular customer she felt I had done this on purpose to get more money out of her. It didn’t matter how rough around the edges the owner of the firm was he understood from my body language that the last person who had suggested financial impropriety on my part was probably still picking their fecking teeth up. The matter was quickly forgotten about and I went off to see if I could hack the test I had set for myself.
Skelmersdale was one of those towns built in the sixties and seventies where architects and designers based social housing on mathematical formulae’s rather than comfort, ease of access or aesthetics. If you look at a map of Skelmersdale you will see that all the estates are in alphabetical order, running clockwise from the top, and all centred on the main shopping centre. There was a constant stream of people who would travel from their homes to the shopping centre and back again by taxi, something I could never work out for there was a decent enough bus service, much cheaper than the taxis and these people were always claiming poverty. According to the other drivers it was the Friday and Saturday evenings where the most money was to be made.
If the trade on a Friday and Saturday evening was good it was said to be bouncing. It was quite pleasant picking people or even small groups of people up from their houses, looking fine and smelling sweet and taking them to wherever they wanted to go. Things got a little different as the evening wore on, the perfume and after shave being replaced with the sweet stench of beer and alcohol. The pubs would close and groups now wanted to head to the clubs many of which were on the outskirts of Wigan and Liverpool. Most passengers were now roaring drunk and every person that got in to the vehicle asked the same fecking question, “Been on long mate?”
On my first Friday night I found myself with a handful of drivers at the main office. It was about two o clock in the morning and trade had really slowed down. There was a local night club which closed at two so we were expecting some trade. It was called the One Hundred Club and was as tacky as they come, it lived alongside the town’s only Chinese restaurant, The Red Dragon, and a pub called The White Swan, which in true Scouse humour was known as The Mucky Duck. Despite the fact that we knew people were waiting for taxis outside the One Hundred Club the guys were hanging back. I asked what the problem was and they explained that no one in their right mind would go there at that time in the morning.
The Mucky Duck was regarded as the roughest pub in the town, it is where you would go if you wanted to buy drugs or get stabbed. There is a perception that taxi drivers carry an array of weapons alongside their seat in case they were attacked. I had been warned not to as the local licensing officer, the ex-copper, loved springing snap inspections on taxis, and would take you off the road for anything from one day to a week, if your vehicle wasn’t clean both on the inside and the outside, if he found anything that could be used as a weapon he would take your licence away all together. Typical authoritarian asshole, who used his position to persecute the hard working guys rather than help them.
For me, as always, looking at life through green tinted spectacles, everything was simple. I was a taxi driver, I needed passengers, and there were passengers waiting. I told the guys I was off to The Mucky Duck and ignored their jibes and offers of wreaths. The parking area outside The Mucky Duck was surrounded by a high embankment, nothing severe, about two and a half feet high but high enough to offer a form of seating. In the darkness I could see a large group of people, about a dozen in all, they were all seated, some were smoking, some eating, some were conscious, but all were prospective passengers. I radioed the others and told them that there were about twelve fares waiting and to get themselves up with me and earn some money.
And I was correct, there was about twelve people and each and every one of them wanted a taxi. I know this because all twelve decided to get into my cab. My little vehicle was licensed to carry four people and even with my lack of experience I could see that I was overloaded. To add to the commotion they were all rip roaring drunk. I had to get out and start pulling people out of the back of my vehicle. Someone then threw a punch and complete pandemonium erupted. Thankfully some of the other drivers did turn up and in their headlights it looked like a zombie apocalypse. I suppose in a way it was their form of initiation, allowing me to go in on my own. Some people might feel awful but I felt good for if I had been allowed to submit myself to one of their initiations there a good chance I might have been accepted by them. I might be able to pass my own test.