“Politics? Bollocktics!” said the taxi driver when I told him I was studying the subject, back in ‘92; he then went on to berate a history of politicians in a way that made me believe he must be a ‘student’ of the game himself. His words could apply to a general feeling towards the people’s representatives some twenty four years later.
When I used to wait for my sons to come out of school, I was one of only a few men in the playground amongst the mothers and other female carers. There would be the ‘odd’ stay-at-home father like me, a granddad or two (usually with the wife), but the other men were mainly Bengali taxi drivers, whose shifts gave them the flexibility (or burden) to pick up their children. A study by the RSA showed that most taxi drivers do the job for their family, and thus for the money, as do most working class people.
Theirs is tough job, especially at night when the back of the cab may be filled with laughter, alcohol (aka motion) sickness, heavy petting, fighting, etc.. In Scotland, the advice given to one new driver was not to wear a seat belt, as you were likely to get strangled if the passenger decided to rob you. At the same time the liberalisation of the market with mini cabs and Uber, means it is a far more precarious occupation financially. Imagine spending three years doing ‘The Knowledge’, only to see the market allowing any person with a banged up motor to call themselves a cab driver.
Taxi drivers also spend a lot of their time waiting; hoping that the next fare doesn’t want to simply go half a mile up the road (only about a third of their working time is paid for). “When you get one [low-paying fare] after another, after another, you know your day’s wiped out.” But when the wait is over, their job is not just driving but also conversing with the punter, whether voluntarily or as part of the service. The one stereotype I do like of a taxi driver is them having an opinion about everything, whether they know what they’re talking about or not. They are not an uneducated group who ended up taxi driving because there was nothing else going for them. One bloke even won Mastermind one year.
Poets have often taken an interest, as they do with most things, in taxi drivers. Michael Symmons Roberts wrote a poem recently for Carol Ann Duffy’s Guardian poems on climate change (taxi drivers are ambivalent about it, as you can imagine when measuring it against their own income). And Tania Hershman does the same in Conversations with a Taxi Driver, Falmouth when ‘informed’ about Mirabella’s Mast; “the world’s largest, he tells me,/holds inside its vastness: stairs. Nor more scaling/rigging, a civilised ascent.” I like this taxi driver because although he wishes to impart his knowledge of the giant yacht, he also likes the mystery (i.e. not knowing) of its height. “Mirabella’s mast, he/tells me, is made of lead, and we don’t know, he/says, why it is so tall. Just because it can be.” He then goes on to speak with pride about his son who’s in the army and is responsible for driving a General. This allows our passenger to imagine a link to the yacht and a relationship of power. “I imagine, as we go, the son, inside Mirabella’s/mast, leading his General by the hand.” This is a fascinating short poem because it leaves a lot to the imagination, allowing us to drift with our thoughts the same way a taxi driver must do when waiting on their next fare.
Tania Hershman is the author of a poetry chapbook, Nothing Here Is Wild, Everything Is Open (Southword, 2016), and two short story collections: My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions (Tangent Books, 2012), and The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008) and co-author of Writing Short Stories: A Writers’ & Artists’ Companion (Bloomsbury, Dec 2014). A third short story collection and her debut poetry collection are forthcoming in 2017. Tania is curator of ShortStops (www.shortstops.info), celebrating short story activity across the UK & Ireland, and is working on a hybrid prose/poetry book inspired by particle physics for her PhD in Creative Writing. www.taniahershman.com
Conversations with a Taxi Driver, Falmouth
Mirabella’s mast, the world’s largest, he tells me,
holds inside its vastness: stairs. Nor more scaling
rigging, a civilised ascent. Mirabella’s mast, he
tells me, is made of lead, and we don’t know, he
says, why it is so tall. Just because it can be. A
son, he tells me, drives around a General; he’s an
army man. David, he says, David is treated well.
I imagine, as we go, the son, inside Mirabella’s
mast, leading his General by the hand. Where is
my command? says the old man. Here, whispers