Did someone call a cab?

This is another long post, and continues a series reflecting on my teenage years and early 20’s, living in Bexley, in Kent; leading up to the time that I left there for good, it covers the period from 1973-1976.

By mid 1973, a lot of things had changed in my life. After a short spell of sharing a house with a group of friends the previous year, I had returned to the family home, and I also had a new job. I had turned 21 years of age by then, and I felt (and actually was) very grown up. The years of unhappiness brought about by my parents moving me to Bexley were behind me. As outlined in another post, (Last train to Bexley) there had been difficulties with my father in the past, which though not healed, were at least in a state of remission.

The new job, was as a company representative for Rizla, the famous manufacturer of cigarette papers for hand-rolled cigarettes. The British arm of this company had decided that it needed to try to capture the burgeoning youth market, as the traditional customers would all soon be dying out. They recruited a new team, with the intention of taking this smoking style into the 1970’s, and re-inventing the whole idea of rolling your own cigarettes. We would be doing exhibitions, roadshows, and introducing new and exciting products, to appeal to the younger smoker. I applied, and got the job, with a nice new company estate car, and an area that went from East London, out to Essex, and on to include the whole of East Anglia, East of Cambridge. This was a great job, as it involved no selling at all; our job was simply promotion, fostering awareness, and giving things away! The large area meant that I would need to stay away occasionally, and promotional team activities also gave me the chance to travel all over the UK, to help out in campaigns. I was in a new world, of suits and ties, maturity and responsibility. I rose to the challenge, and off I went.

However, this post is not about working for Rizla, that is another story. This is about what happened the following year, after I left.

During my time travelling around, I had met a woman. My long-term relationship with my first serious girlfriend, had dragged on unproductively for almost seven years, and was going nowhere. We had got too used to each other, and I was not ready to get married then, or even think about it. She was obviously bored anyway, but we dragged on, two nights a week, going to the same places, with the same people. We both knew it was over, but neither of us could be bothered to make the effort to end it. It needed a catalyst, something to push one of us over the edge, and I found it.

One of the routine tasks in my new job, was to call into all the branches of a well-known chain of Newsagents that were in my area. I was on my way back to the Rotherhithe Tunnel one day, when I decided to make a last call into a nearby East London branch, to fit up some new dispensers, and leave some promotional material. The managers were new, and they were not from London; they originally came from the Midlands, and had been living abroad for some years. The husband and wife team were very friendly, and also very pleased to make the acquaintance of a ‘local’ man, who could tell them about the area. They had two small boys, and felt more than a little trapped in their flat above the shop, in a forbidding area, that was unfamiliar to them , and also intimidated them. I was instantly attracted to the wife, who was bubbly and flirtatious, and a few years older than me too. We rapidly embarked on a long and torrid affair, which drastically changed the lives of all concerned.

But this post is not about that affair; that is for another time, perhaps.

This affair soon precipitated a split with the aforementioned long-term girlfriend. As well as allowing me free rein to conduct the new relationship, this also freed up a lot of time, at least the two days a week that I had normally spent following the habits of many years. Of course, the nature of a romance with a married woman, dictates that things cannot be planned, and often have to be fleeting. Consequently, I was soon kicking my heels at weekends, hanging around the houses of happily settled friends, or spending too much time in my Uncle’s pub in London. One of the friends that I looked up had fallen on hard times. Losing his regular job, he had decided to work as a cab driver in Kent. This had proved to be unexpectedly lucrative, as well as suiting his somewhat dissolute lifestyle, as he could more or less choose how often to work, and for how long. He suggested that I give it a try, as he was sure that it would suit me.

After considering this for a while, I thought that I would give it a go. I knew the area well, and had the time to spare. The extra money would come in handy too, as I planned to keep my job at Rizla, and just do the taxi work at weekends. I would have to buy another car, as I obviously could not use the one provided by the company. With my mum agreeing to be guarantor, I was able to get a loan, and bought a brand new car. It is hard to imagine these days, but I got a new Hillman Hunter 4-door saloon, with a 1725cc engine, delivered to my door, for £875. I had specified metallic paint, and vinyl, rather than the standard velour seating. I reasoned that vinyl would be easier to keep clean, with the car being used by all and sundry. I chose a local cab firm, just down the road at Blackfen, as my friend had previously worked there. I arranged to start work that weekend, sorted out special insurance for taxi work, and with a new A-Z map book, and some cassette tapes to play, I was ready to go.

In Kent at that time, there were no ‘official’ taxis, of the kind that you find in London, and other large cities. There were Council Licenced cabs, and private cabs, which in London, were called ‘minicabs’. In Kent, we were somewhere in between the two, in that we did not get flagged down in the street, but were still professional, and reasonably well-respected. In an area with few trains after 11pm, and only two bus routes serving the main arteries into London, we were more or less essential to the local people, whenever they did not want to drive, or if they did not own a car. The minimum fare was cheap, so affordable, and even longer runs were good value for customers, particularly for groups of three or four, splitting the cost. For us as drivers, it was a simple process. We ‘rented’ a radio from the owner, for a fixed fee, whether just from Friday night until Sunday, or for the whole week. We got use of the meagre facilities at the base, and were given the jobs dependent on who was nearest at the time. A quick check over the insurance, and a cursory glance at the car, and you were a taxi.

The first weekend was a revelation. On the Friday night, I worked from 7pm until almost 5 the next morning. In that short time, I earned more money than I would get for a whole week in my normal job; and I still had all of Saturday, and until midnight Sunday, to earn more. Even deducting the radio rental and petrol costs, the total for the weekend approached a month’s salary; and it was all in cash. I could hardly believe it. I had earned enough in three days, to last me a month in normal circumstances. I had found my way around with little or no fuss, and had met lots of friendly people, as well as some who were very drunk. There had been none of the anticipated trouble, and no damage to my car, inside or out. The jobs had just kept on coming, and there had been very little downtime, or unnecessary mileage. This had to be the way forward, I told my young self.

Very soon after this, I said a fond farewell to Rizla, and became a full-time cab driver, seven days a week. With shifts arranged to suit my ongoing affair, I worked mostly at night; and at weekends, I rarely went home at all. This helped with my unstable relationship with my father, as when I was out, we did not have to confront our mutual dislike. After a short break for sleep, most of my day was my own, and I would usually turn up for work between 7-8pm. No more getting up early, wearing a suit and tie, and doing what was expected of me. Just after my 22nd birthday, I was my own boss, and happier than ever. My pockets were always full of ready cash, and the work continued to increase, with earnings only limited by how long you could stay awake. I managed most shifts on lots of coffee, and fifty cigarettes; the original cassettes were getting worn out, but I had re-stocked on more good groups to listen to. The car was both a home on the road, as well as a mobile office; and with toiletries, and a change of clothes in the boot, I was always prepared for anything. By this time, I also knew the area like the back of my hand, and had become one of the senior drivers, despite also being the youngest.

At the time, everybody took cabs. Whether it was an old lady going to a hospital appointment, a young mum with too much supermarket shopping, or a group of young girls on a night out, they did not hesitate to do it all by taxi. Foreign holidays were enjoying increasing popularity too, so airport jobs were frequent. We had a fixed price for all the most popular airports, and went as far as Stansted and Luton, accommodating the package tour holidaymakers. Those less well off, would get the cab to East Croydon Station, continuing to Gatwick by train. I preferred to stay local, doing the small, flat fare runs. I would happily give away airport jobs and long journeys, as it made economic sense to me, to do lots of smaller jobs, with less mileage, and accumulated tips. Tipping was considered to be perfectly normal, and almost every passenger would tip, and do so generously. The tips alone would often cover your radio rent and fuel, leaving you in profit with all the actual fares. On day shifts, there were also ‘Account’ jobs, business customers that paid direct to the company. These fares would be added up, and deducted weekly from any radio rent that you owed. They normally involved small parcel delivery, or sometimes a business client, collected from a local station. If you were lucky, you had a small parcel, together with an unrelated cash job going in the same direction, thus doubling the usual fare.

Despite most passengers being friendly, the driver had a strange anonymity, and was almost invisible at times. Customers would argue fiercely, end relationships, or indulge in heavy petting, seemingly oblivious to your presence in the front seat, not even separated by a partition. Groups of friends would chat loudly, comparing boyfriends (or girlfriends) physical attributes, sexual prowess, or bad hygiene. As mobile phones were almost unknown at the time, many of our jobs were pick ups from telephone kiosks, and we got to know the locations of them all. Part of our promotional activity, was to ‘card’ these boxes, in fierce competition with other local taxi companies. Any time we were passing a phone box, without a passenger on board, we would stop, quickly remove all the competitors’ cards, and hurriedly replace them with our own.  This became a nightly routine, and we would go through dozens of cards each shift. On the rare occasions when it was not busy, it was easy enough to walk into any local pub during the evening and call out; ‘did someone call a cab?’ Nine times out of ten, a passenger would come forward, and you would have them in the car, and on the way, before they realised that it was the wrong company. We would just laugh it off, as a genuine mistake, and they would pay up at the destination as usual.

Life was pretty good, and the cash kept rolling in. However, I felt that I wanted more than to be driving constantly. The setup in the office involved the owner and his wife running the show seven days a week, with no time off. I suggested to him, that I would do the night shifts, and he could do days, giving his wife time off to run the home, and sort out the children. I presented a suggested rota, and my required wage to work it. I would collect the radio rents, pay myself, then give him the balance. I also suggested the introduction of a new job allocation system, to avoid people ‘cheating’ by lying about being in the proximity of the calls. We would begin to allocate the potentially lucrative longer runs, and airports, to the full-time drivers only, and reduce the need for part-timers, by having an agreed shift system. So, I went from driver to cab controller in the space of a weekend. This was hardly promotion, in any sense, but it did give me the chance to rent out my car, adding another £100 a month to my income; and after over a year in the job, I was no longer driving all night.

The move was not so popular with most of the other drivers, who saw me as a chancer, and too young for the job. They tried to make life difficult, by not answering the radio, or going to the wrong address deliberately. But I held my nerve, as this only affected their earnings in the long run, so they could not keep it up. For me, the hours were just as long, if not longer, as I could not go home until relieved by the day staff. I was answering phones to customers, controlling cars on three channels, and never getting a break, until it calmed down in the early hours of the morning. The owner started to think that he was paying me too much. Things were running too smoothly, so he became suspicious of my motives, unused to anyone working hard, and with some loyalty. When he approached me with an allegation of alleged ‘favouritism’, preferring some drivers over others, I just resigned, and left him to it. That was the great thing about those days. I was working again, the next day, for the biggest taxi firm in the area, and my former employer’s main competition; there was never a second’s doubt that I would get another job.

I continued to be a taxi driver for two more years. In the larger companies, there was a shift rota, better organisation, and more rules and regulations. The money was still flowing though, and the other drivers, with a few exceptions, were an approachable, and comradely bunch. If you broke down,or had a problem with your car, someone would usually help you out, or drop you to a car repairers.

I eventually moved on, to an old established company, located near the River Thames, in Charlton. I knew someone there, and he told me that they were constantly busy, and that it was a good place to work. My final year ‘on the cabs’ coincided with my dad deciding to leave home, and putting the house on the market. I also called it a day with my long-running love affair, and met the girl who was to become my first wife. It was an eventful time, and not a good idea to be working all night, seven days a week. I transferred to the day shift, and found myself in a nightmare of heavy traffic, commuting rush-hours, and endless account jobs. My car carried more parcels than people, and I was forever waiting for the money. What had been almost relaxing at night, became stress and hassle during daylight hours. My love affair with cabbing was drawing to a close, and I could no longer imagine doing this job into old age. There was the added problem, that the years of irregular tax payments were catching up too. There was so much account work, I was having to pay cheques into the bank, attracting undue attention from the Inland Revenue; they wanted me to have a sit down with my accountant, and one of their inspectors. They had also passed my details to the National Insurance authorities, and they were now chasing me for back payments. The bubble had burst, and it was time for a change.

Mum had decided that her share from the house would be spent on a business. That way, she would have an income, and somewhere to live, if only above the shop. She asked me to go in with her, and she took the lease on an Off Licence in Clapham, South-West London. I put my years as a taxi driver behind me, and moved on to become a shopkeeper, proving Napoleon right, at least in my case. I had great memories of those years though, and no regrets. It was also amazing that I still had the original car, which I kept for almost another year, even after the move. Despite doing almost 150,000 miles, and being used every single day, it had never really let me down.

I eventually part-exchanged it for a Volvo, in 1977. I got an allowance of £895 for it, £20 more than it had cost!

4 thoughts on “Did someone call a cab?

  1. You have great recall and I appreciate how candidly you share slices of your life. I could never do that, I am very selective, so admire you for your openness, thanks. Really enjoyed reading your taxi driving experiences, you don’t remind me of Travis or Wizard at all 🙂 T.

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