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The cabbies’ capital

This piece is in the 2013 Time Out London Visitor’s Guide. 

Richard Cudlip isn’t one of a kind, he’s one of 22,000 kinds, and London couldn’t function without them. Cudlip is a black cab driver, a licensed taxi driver who spends his days inside one of the world’s most recognisable vehicles and carries in his head the navigational secrets of the city. ‘I put the light on as soon as I leave my road,’ he says. ‘This morning I picked up a job in Balham that took me to Charterhouse Street. That was a nice start to the day.’

By the time we meet for a mid-morning tea in Borough, Cudlip has been to King’s Cross, Soho, Pimlico and Vauxhall, criss-crossing the city in the service of London. ‘Unless you’ve heard through the grapevine about somewhere being busy, you always think about heading for the stations,’ he explains. ‘And now, with Twitter, you have a good idea of where the customers are.’

Twitter hadn’t been invented in 2003 when Cudlip began doing the Knowledge, the gruelling test that every cabbie has to pass before they can drive the black cab. ‘I was working for Ernst & Young and I hated it,’ he explains. ‘My wife suggested I do the Knowledge. I’d wanted to do it in my early 20s, but I wouldn’t have had had the discipline. It’s the last thing you want to do at that age, driving round London on a bike, revising.’

Doing the Knowledge means learning by heart 320 ‘runs’, or trips from one London destination to another, being able to name all the principle roads and landmarks on the way – which amounts to 250,000 streets and 20,000 places of interest. This can easily take four years and sometimes as many as six. ‘The first run is Manor House to Gibson Square, that’s the one you always remember,’ says Cudlip, whose wife is now doing the Knowledge herself.

‘I loved it,’ he says. ‘It was the right kind of challenge. I got to visit all these bits of London I’d never been to. Those 320 runs give you the framework. It covers every postcode in a six-mile radius and gives you a route, in broad terms, around London, from one side to another.’

Cudlip now takes to the streets five days a week. The sort of things that would annoy most people –sitting in London traffic for hours– do not bother him, which is probably why he became a cabbie in the first place. What he enjoys is the freedom and flexibility. If he works a couple of long days, he can take a day off. If things aren’t working out, or he hits his financial target earlier than expected, he can turn off the light and head home. The choice is his.

‘Different drivers work different ways,’ he explains. ‘Some don’t do stations, they’d rather drive around. Others stick to hotels. Some just do airports, which is a very different way of working. You can wait four hours in the feeder park (the holding area for cabs) without knowing what sort of job you will get. You have to pay £6 to work Heathrow, just to cover the cost of the feeder park.’

Cudlip’s perfect day is made up of ‘lots of short journeys. That’s the absolute ideal. If you get a fiver including tip for taking somebody round the corner, it’s perfect. When somebody gets in, I might not know the building they want, but I can work it out close enough so I can make an instant decision about how to get there without having to programme a satnav.’

And even with the Knowledge firmly imprinted in his brain he’s always learning. ‘I love going out every day and seeing a new bit of London,’ says Cudlip. ‘I spent most of my life in London and thought I knew it, but now I know I had no idea.’

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The nature of London: Clay by Melissa Harrison

‘It wasn’t much of a park, really, more a strip of land between the noisy high road and the flats… Despite its size and situation the strip of grass was beautiful – if you had the eyes to see. The Victorians had bequeathed it an imaginative collection of trees; not just the ubiquitous planes and sycamores, and not the easy-care lollipops of cherries either, but hornbeams, service trees, acacias and Turkey oaks with bristly acorn caps like little sea anemones. It was alive with squirrels, jays and wood mice, while in spring thrushes let off football rattles from the treetops, and every few summers stag beetles emerged to rear and fence and mate, and begin another perilous generation among the logs that were left to decay here and there by government decree.’

‘Clay’ by Melissa Harrison

Next to my computer is a small round stone my daughter brought to me from the garden. If I was to pick it up and throw it at the bookshelf, I could hit any of a dozen novels set in London,  all of which carefully detail the grimy, grey, green-free streets of the post-industrial capital. They could be set in Soho (‘Adrift in Soho’ by Colin Wilson) or Kennington (‘London Belongs To Me’ by Norman Collins), Bloomsbury (‘Scamp’ by Roland Camberton) or Bethnal Geen (‘King Dido’ by Alexander Baron). I love some of these books dearly (all of the above) while others I find unforgivably bad (er, ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan) but they all inhabit essentially the same milieu – a London of narrow streets and Victorian houses that block out the sky, paved streets, traffic, pubs, smoke and people. This is the written London, or at least the London most experienced by writers in London which they then transfer to the page at the exclusion of almost anything else.

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None of them, then, do what Melissa Harrison has done with ‘Clay’, which is write a novel about nature in London. The plot, a slight but melancholic meditation on freedom, is really just a MacGuffin for this, Harrison’s real heroine. There are a number of non-fiction books enthusing at the way trees, weeds, flowers, foxes and immigrant parakeets coexist alongside largely uninterested Londoners – try ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ by Richard Mabey or ‘Scrap’ by Nick Papadimitriou – but by placing nature so firmly in the foreground of her novel – and the book is rich with descriptions on each page of everything from pine cones and owl pellets poo  [Harrison tells me that owl pellets aren’t poo] to rain clouds and long grass –  Harrison has managed to achieve what every London fiction writer surely dreams of: she makes you look at the city around you with freshly opened eyes.

I am perhaps a little biased – and not just because I know Harrison through Twitter (where she introduced herself to me by announcing she’d varnished a duck). The book is set in a part of London that I know already, a park based on Rush  Common, a strange, thin, scraggy strip of parkland that follows Brixton Hill from St Matthew’s church down towards the prison. I’ve always thought it a scrawny, rather pointless piece of grass but through her characters – a small boy called TC, a Polish farmer called Jozef and a grandmother Sophia – Harrison shows how much life can be concealed a short walk from a traffic-clogged A road. It gives an unexpectedly life-affirming twist to an otherwise sad but beautiful book, that resonates far louder than its slim size would suggest. Is it a new London genre? It’s certainly a welcome change from the norm, though I doubt whether many other writers would have the knowledge, passion and skill to recreate it so impressively.