It was exactly fourteen years ago today.
It was in the very early hours of Bloomsday – the 16th of June.
I had flown back from Rome to Stansted on Ryanair.
Delays on the flight back to London had escalated to the point that I only narrow managed to get the delayed last train out of Stansted to Liverpool Street station… but, by the time I arrived there, I had missed the last tube train to Kings Cross.
This is what happened, as I wrote it in my diary when I got home:
A few of us followed the signs for the taxi rank at Liverpool Street station – temporarily by Platform 15 – arriving just as a taxi picked someone up. No other taxi appeared. After about ten minutes a British Rail man, who must have seen us on the security cameras, came and told us taxis would not be coming to the rank because it was after the last train. But, if we went and stood outside the Broadgate office development they stopped there.
“Don’t go to the ones on the left,” he told us. “They just hang around to rip people off. I know the bloke who runs the scam. Turn right where there’s a real rank.”
Sure enough, outside to the left there were about six black cabs with men hanging around looking hopeful. We went to the right and waited while taxis circled: some passed, some stopped and took the first person in the queue, some asked for people going in specific directions.
When I got to the front of the queue, a cab drew up and the driver asked if I was going north; I said yes – either to Kings Cross Thameslink for the next train (in about 2 hours) or, I asked: “How much would you charge to take me to Borehamwood?”
“How much are you offering?” he replied.
“Thirty quid?” I suggested. (I knew it was about £25 on the meter from Heathrow.)
He paused, then said, “Alright,” almost with a shrug, as if he didn’t care.
The cab driver was short but broad and had hooded eyes which he blinked slowly in the mirror, as if he was aware of controlling them. He said he didn’t specialise in stations or in any particular area and he’d always worked nights because it was more interesting. Like many a cab driver, he fancied himself as a bit of a philosopher.
“People have two faces they wear,” he said to me through the glass, “and the one they put on in the wee small hours of the morning – in the dark in the night in a cab – is their real one. No-one ever puts on their real face at work, do they? I mean, I do, because I don’t care – people can take me or leave me. But people show the real person they are when they’re in a cab and it’s night and they’re talking to the back of your head.”
He told me he had been looking for anyone going north because he had someone to pick up near Camden in 90 minutes.
He eventually told me that he was involved with two ‘escort girls’…
“I’m not their pimp or anything,” he said, “I don’t get involved in that side at all. I just drive them to places and I’m around if they have any trouble. I don’t wait around while they do whatever they do, but I stay fifteen minutes after I drop them off and I’m there fifteen minutes before they’re going to finish.”
The girls, he told me, charged £300 per hour for a minimum four hours. If they were only wanted for an hour, they would still get four hours pay. Some other girls charge £1,000 per hour with a minimum four hours.
“I didn’t even ask what they did the first two or three months. I mean, I knew – I’m not stupid. But it’s just business. I do it for the money. They pay me a decent amount – if they paid me less, I wouldn’t do it – and they give me a bonus if I sort out any trouble for them. I’m not tied to them. It’s not like they keep me or anything.”
The two girls he knows are not just on ‘call-out’; they often arrange parties with other girls for what he called old age pensioners – old men – mostly Jewish and Asian old men, he said, many retired, he said, who can afford it.
“They specialise in…” the taxi driver told me, “…what they specialise in.”
“After a couple of months,” he said, “one of the girls asked me if I could sort out any problems that came up for them. I said I preferred to sort things out by just talking to people but, if I had to do any more, I was OK on that.”
I mentioned there used to be a brothel in the countryside just outside Radlett (next to a Little Chef restaurant which has since been demolished). It had occasionally been mentioned in the local paper. They even reported when it finally closed down: the madam had decided to retire.
“It seemed a strange place to run a brothel,” I said.
The cabbie told me there still was one in Radlett. But, he said, I’d be surprised how much use is made of big country houses at weekends.
“Lots of parties,” he said.
I mentioned I had heard Xxxxxxx Xxxxx and his friends had had a big party at a hotel near Tower Bridge when they were planning the alleged £800 million ATM robbery and they’d brought in British Airways stewardesses for the party. The driver said he’d heard it was Virgin stewardesses.
We agreed Xxxxx was a clever man.
“I mean,” said the cabbie. “He doesn’t need to do any of that for the money or anything.”
The cabbie said he had heard Xxxxxxx Xxxxx had been involved in some made-to-order insurance robberies. The owners of the houses agreed with Xxxxx that burglaries would take place and specific very valuable insured items would be taken. After the robberies, the owners would be given back the main items; the burglars would keep some relatively unimportant minor items; and Xxxxx would split the insurance money with the owners. There was never any problem getting the insurance pay-out because there really had been a robbery.
I said I had read that one of the five youths allegedly involved in the murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence was related to a well-known South London criminal family but I did not know which one.
“Oh,” the cabbie told me, “One’s a member of the Cxxxxx family who are related to the Lxxxs – they’re gypsies. The gypsy families are very violent.” He said all five of the Lawrence ‘suspects’ were ‘well-connected’. When I got home, I looked the names up in a couple of very thoroughly indexed books: the Cxxxxxs go way back to the days of Jack Spot in Soho, but there was no reference to the Lxxxs. None of the Lawrence defendants have the surname Cxxxxx, though they could still be part of the family.
Perhaps the cabbie was making it up. Perhaps he was repeating a new urban myth. Or perhaps it was true.
He told me he lived in Hastings with his wife, but was only there at weekends. During the week, working in his cab, he stayed at a flat he had in Potters Bar, just off the M25.
He said he got regular work out of ferrying the two girls around and it filled in the gaps picking up fares in whatever area he took them to. This explained why, unlike other cabbies, he did not specialise in any particular area of London.
When I got home there was an e-mail from Tara TV asking me if I could go to Dublin to do some work for them. I thought about how much the world had changed since James Joyce wrote Ulysses about Bloomsday in 1904.
But then I thought Maybe it has not changed at all.