Memories by the meter

Author: AA GILL

The city has a thousand stories: apocryphal, paradoxical, instructive, fabulous and defining. They sketch the metropolis's self-image, its boast and its hubris. Collectively they build up another image, a legendary city that floats above the bricks and the smoke.

One of London's most abiding and popular stories is its taxis. Every city has taxis, but only London has its sherbets. (That's rhyming slang: sherbet dab, cab.) Black cabs are its legend. They carry inside them compendious and pithy anecdotage from taxidrivers with their Google-ish geographical memories. They are notoriously vinegary and opinionated. "A taxidriver said" is shorthand for right-wing prejudice and street common sense, along with a dose of football sentimentality. Traditionally, they're older white men from the East End. A lot of the cabbies were once Jewish, and a Yiddish-Cockney mash-up of short-fused humorous pessimism still infects the taxi.

One of the more polished Victorian stories about cabbies and their cabs is set some time in the 1870s. One dark evening in December, a gentleman takes a cab across London. He is a politician going to a meeting of importance at his club. And as he gets out he asks the cabbie to wait for him, he shouldn't be long, promising an extra sixpence. It starts to snow. The meeting goes on. The gentleman has dinner and continues with his deliberations over cigars in the snug. As the fire droops in the grate, he realises that a grey light is stealing in through the window. He excuses himself, pulling up his fur collar, and as he steps into the freezing dawn, there, quite forgotten, is the cabbie sitting hunched in his greatcoat atop his cab. He is frozen hard in death, the mittened hands still grasping the reins of the silent, snow-draped horse.

The gentleman is, of course, mortified. He'd inadvertently condemned the man to eternity for the sake of a sixpence and a garrulous dinner. He looks at the white heavens and promises in the manner of Victorian gentlemen that something will be done to atone. He summons another cab and drives home to ponder what that something might be.

The apocryphal story insists that the gentleman was Anthony Ashley Cooper, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, and what he did was set up a charity to build refuges for cab drivers. As the cabbies couldn't leave their cabs to get something to eat or get out of the rain or snow, the shelters had to be on the street. They continued to be built into the next century; at one time there was something like 60 of them.

But from 1908, motorised cabs with their clockwork meters started to take over from the old Hansom cabs. The refuges fell into disuse and were demolished without anyone noticing much and there are now just 13 left, most of them in the genteel areas of south-west London. They are all the same: wooden tongue-and-groove structures with pitched felt roofs, fancy gabled ends and windows too high to look in. They were always painted a pleasant apple-green colour, and they have the rural look of grand potting sheds or small cricket pavilions. Sometimes they boast hanging baskets full of pansies. Inside there's enough room for a small kitchen and a dining room/library. Being relentlessly keen at social improvement, the Victorian charity insisted that they all incorporate invigorating literature and periodicals; now it's mostly tabloid papers.

Londoners don't really notice the cab shelters much. Some of them serve builders' breakfast sandwiches and cups of tea out of hatches, but inside they're reserved for the Green Badge-holding cabbies. They are a small part of London's story.

Cabbies and taxis are a big part of every city's public relations. A cab driver is probably the first native you meet in a new place. Except in most large cities he won't be a native. He'll have arrived just ahead of you, but with less luggage. Only in London is driving a cab not an entry job for a new immigrant, and that's because it takes about four years to train to be a taxidriver. They have to do something called The Knowledge or, as they call it, The Knodge. They learn hundreds of journeys by rote, mentioning every street, every turn, every point of interest, like a Dreamtime walkabout. Cabbies have to grow extensions on their hypothalamuses to fit it all in.

So they really do sound like the voice of authority. They are famous for their trenchant views on politicians and criminals and referees and the French. They also have earthy and Calvinistic opinions about celebrities, conversations invariably starting, "I had that Rolf Harris in the back once. Nice bloke, but not like that Liza Minnelli. Had her in the back. Looks sweet, but 'as she got a mouth on 'er."

Writing this about taxis exhumes two people who are rarely thought of now, but both had walk-on parts in London's story. Or ride-on parts, really. First, the astonishing Earl of Shaftesbury, who was a panoramic do-gooder. He makes the Gateses look like Scrooge. The cabbies' refuges aren't even mentioned in the list of his philanthropic achievements, which ranged from ragged schools (the first systematic education of the poor) to the law that stopped exploitation of children, in particular of the climbing boys - orphans sold to chimneysweeps whose occupational disease was cancer of the scrotum.

When the earl died, 196 different charitable organisations were present at his funeral in Westminster Abbey. And, as his son described it, the streets round the abbey were packed with "the halt, the blind, the maimed, the poor and the naked standing bare-headed in rags amidst a pelting rain, patiently enduring to show their love and reverence for their departed friend… to be laid at last to his long sleep amidst the sob of a great nation's heart".

The other is Joseph Aloysius Hansom, a man whose bearded face disproves nominative determinism. He gave his name to the cab he invented, a carriage with a low centre of gravity to help manoeuvring, a suspension that relieved the horse of strain, and a secure ride for passengers. The most successful carriage ever invented, it travelled from London to every major city with streets. Hansom failed to make any money out of it; he should have been the horse-drawn Henry Ford. But the combustion engine rendered his brilliant invention obsolete within a generation, proving again that timing is everything. And it is timing that prompted this odd rumination around Christmas.

For me, the taxi is always linked to my family taking me up to the West End to look at the Christmas lights and the tree, a present from Norway, in Trafalgar Square, and then to Hamleys Toy Shop. Always in a taxi, which was a part of the treat. The smell of them, the ticking of the clockwork meter, and the irregular timing of the diesel engine was always a harbinger of stockings and plum pudding. That yellow light was the bright star of wonder.

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