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 – “‘Hello, 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.