The truth about driving people around London for very little reward

Originally published in The Financial Times Magazine

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 rage and moan.

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. It’s pre-Uber. 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 next – how I was warned about violence, and given advice about dealing with women – keep reading…]

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), 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 – till now. In November, the PCO put up on its website a list of about 2,000 companies qualified for operating licenses. (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 applied to work as a driver.