DR MIKE GALVIN: Reflexivity and Black Cabs

Taxi image credit: MMorgardo

In my last article in TaxiPoint (Ethnography and Black Cabs) I wrote about the part of my doctoral dissertation, Culture, Change and The Management of London’s Taxi Drivers that related to aspects of the Knowledge. And although the Knowledge appears to be the thread that binds the industry together and steers so much of its thinking and action it is not by any means the whole story.

Today I wanted to touch on another part of my research which was culture, and what a rich culture this industry has. My research methodology was ethnography, the study of tribes and within the taxi industry there are many tribes which I shall explain. Another part of my methodology was reflexivity, which is explained below;

‘Reflexivity means thinking through what one is doing to encourage insights about the nature of social science and, especially, the role that language, power/knowledge connections, social interests and ideologies, theoretical moves and manoeuvring in the socio-political field play in producing particular accounts.’

In essence, reflexivity is thinking through and challenging what one sees as a researcher, why one views it in that way and trying to unravel what is really going on and of course remove the researcher from the researched. Of course, more researchers equal more theories or views of what is going on and why. Concepts including culture do not just happen, they don’t stay the same and they are viewed differently by different parts of the community, including the black cab community but also those from outside the community. We all view and understand things from our own perspective, taking an extreme but simple example someone born into a very wealthy family and someone born into a very poor family will both view social structures such as class differently. This will be more so if they come from different countries, different religions and are of differing genders and of course ages. Therefore, there is not a single truth there are just many variations on a single truth.

The Black Cab Culture – Diversity before it was invented

My initial view when I began researching for my dissertation was that there was a very strong culture in the taxi industry amongst the different tribes, amongst Knowledge boys, amongst black cab drivers amongst radio taxi drivers, amongst older taxi drivers and even down to trade unionists, LTDA members etc and dare I say it the public, the press and the competition. In fact, the more my research dug into the industry and the more reflexive it became the more tribes or communities I found and the more the initial perception of a strong culture became somewhat dissipated.

When I became a taxi driver in 1981 a very high percentage of drivers were Jewish. Being a Londoner (Clerkenwell – another tribe with sub tribes; Italians and Irish with some East Enders thrown in) I was very familiar with the term Jewish and as a family we knew many Jewish people albeit I was to discover somewhat superficially. So, after getting to know more Jewish people through the industry I discovered I knew very little about Jews. From the Knowledge through driving a taxi to managing a taxi company I discovered a huge amount more. It’s an old cliché I guess but after joining the industry I attended Bar Mitzvahs (and Bat Mitzvahs), Levaya’s and Simcha’s and even an Aufruf. Whilst about all I knew at the beginning was that I had to wear a skull cap everyone was happy to welcome me in and show me what to do and importantly what not to do. This welcome was evident to me when I moved into the taxi industry so was that a Jewish cultural trait that had spread into the industry by the very many (at the time) number of Jewish members or is it just a human characteristic or could it be a little of both or nothing to do with either?

Very different cultures (in my case Irish Catholics on one side and Northern economic migrants on the other) mixed effortlessly with the (I believe) majority Jewish community in the industry, with the secular and with many other less populous groups that were forming a larger proportion of the new intake into the industry. The Knowledge and the culture of the industry with its expected behaviours, often referred to as the formal culture bound us together in friendship, acceptance and camaraderie long before ‘diversity’ was ever invented or perhaps more accurately spoken about. It was only some 50+ years ago that there was the first black taxi driver and the first lady taxi driver lady I knew well called Marie White. In fact, my own mother was only the 12th lady taxi driver when she got her badge back in the 80’s.

Culture, Language, Rank and Custom

Cultures at a macro level have accepted behaviours, customs and ideologies. They also have language. When I became a taxi driver there was a merging of East End cockney rhyming slang, Yiddish and probably street market terms which formed what Garner and Stokoe claimed in their book to be a lingo franco (a merging of languages) to form the cab trade terms such as musher, droshky, gelt etc. In fact, to anyone arriving in this country however hard they had studied English they would have found the conversations in trade cafés and shelters hard to decipher.

The strong cultural themes that came through to me and would impact my career in the industry were statements such as; everyone is equal, getting the right job, be lucky etc. These messages directed taxi drivers’ behaviour – radio taxi drivers did not see the Chairman or CEO as any different to them… ’we are all cab drivers’! Therefore, the concept of power was far from clear – there were some hierarchies in evidence, but these did not come from a job title. As proud as many people I met were of being a cab driver they could also invert that pride to an insult – who does he think he is? He is only a cab driver… often with ‘like me’ appended!

So who actually led the industry? If indeed it was led. Was it an amorphous group who moved as one or were there some influencers and leaders within it who did lead it? Is it impossible for a community to develop the norms, behaviours and standards that were clearly obvious by osmosis? Was it good for the community to be at the same level i.e. all cab drivers? Was it a weakness or a strength? I guess you could add to that list of questions - why is anyone bothered? Researchers are bothered as things just don’t happen.

Behaviours appeared to be based on a number of concepts. Why would a driver who let another out of a side turning expect the driver who was let out to wave the driver who did the letting out on in front of him… because each wanted ‘their job’. Why… because that was the accepted behaviour. There was always some superstition mingled in with this feeling of ‘right’. Likewise, why was there such a hullabaloo when someone was let out and craftily pinched the first job… because it wasn’t his job! He was acting counter culture. Without rules, formal and informal there is of course likely to be anarchy and what the taxi industry always seemed to desire was operating within a well-ordered society.

A Generous Community

One of the activities that struck me and still does was the willingness of so many drivers to give up a day or more a year to give under privileged children, veterans and servicemen, the disabled and all the other groups a day out. The trips to Disney where drivers are away for a week was a substantial undertaking. Drivers spent days carpeting the outside of their cab, transforming their cabs into battleships, teddy bears’ picnics or just festooning the whole cab with balloons or crepe paper before each of these days out. These are truly remarkable indicators to any researcher of a generous culture a community that puts back. I was also hugely impressed when I first joined the industry with the tireless work that so many committees with inspirational and frankly humble leaders such as Bill Tyzack, Charlie Flemwell, Russell Pollock, Michael Son and many others who did so much to make these events happen, to raise funds and cement the culture of this community. These were not some saintly do gooders or I don’t believe personally wealthy individuals – these were cab drivers who after every committee meeting, after every outing had to go back and earn a living driving a cab. Likewise, every cab trade accountant, insurance company, fleet and radio circuit displayed their sponsorship certificates in their premises as a proud cultural artefact of their association with these illustrious organisations and their good deeds which were so tightly bound to the culture of the industry.

I can’t think of a mantra stronger than ‘there is no one who walks so tall as he who stoops to help a child’ of course the slogan of the Underprivileged Children’s Taxi Drivers’ Fund. So apt, so powerful and so descriptive.

Generosity also came in smaller packages and it would have been remiss of me not to mention at least one of these. Charlie Rubenstien was a taxi driver who epitomised much of what I have written. I got to know Charlie’s future son-in-law at the Knowledge school and very soon he invited me to join him and Charlie a few evenings per week in his house in Redbridge to do call overs. Charlie was far worse than any PCO examiner. He knew London in a way that I shall be for ever envious. He did his Knowledge on a bicycle as did his brothers, they were all London cab drivers. For no reason other than pure kindness and altruism I sat in his lounge three or four evenings a week with him testing his future son-in-law and I being served cake and coffee by his lovely wife Jean. I remain forever grateful on a number of levels – that kindness, that generosity of spirit and the fact that he managed to make the Public Carriage Office seem soft.

Whilst I don’t want to somehow paint my research as having uncovered some misty eyed, nostalgic love fest dressed up as a tough industry – I can certainly claim to have experienced and witnessed incredible kindness amongst what are in effect small businessmen who work hard for every pound. From a research perspective – where did that generosity come from? Was it one of the demographics in the industry that inspired others? Was it the inspiration of the few to the many? Why did so many drivers give up days of (it was never a single day as the cab had to be ‘dressed’ and ‘undressed’) paid work to volunteer to give people they did not know an incredible day out? What was the reward? Intrinsic, extrinsic or a tradition that flowed through the industry and was recognised and respected by those in it? How did it start and why? Why did it carry on? Will it always be part of what the industry does?

Cafes and Shelters – a Rumbustious Culture

No one could have been prepared when stepping into what are colloquially known as cab trade watering holes. The noise is off the scale. The shouting, the excitable stories, the insults (mainly good natured), the jollity. When I first got my badge I remember stepping into the Café in Orange Square with some trepidation – would I immediately be spotted as a butter boy, a newby, someone with nothing much to contribute? NO! The café was full but someone shuffled up and a seat magically appeared. Within seconds I was involved in the whole hullabaloo. Stories of objectionable customers, amusing parodies of customers, of PCO officers (a perennial pantomime baddie), of vehicle breakdowns, of possible lawsuits against M&O (another perennial pantomime baddie), inter radio circuit rivalry with the various committee members painted as heroes or villains – were the stories true? Who cares they were great to listen to and especially the second or third time around when they got better and almost certainly more exaggerated! Rumours abounded in these hot houses of gossip, intrigue, and spleen venting – were any true? Some may have been but they were hugely entertaining even if there wasn’t an ounce of truth in them. Common retorts to regular comments (why did you come this way it is always congested/why is it that much it is always less than that) were practiced and communicated and no doubt used when the moment arose. From an academic perspective these were a form of support groups, venues for personal growth for honing skills and for learning but oh what fun they provided in the process.

The Trade Press – Angry, Outlandish and a Guardian of the Rules

At one time there was almost a publication for every driver in London. The trade press was gritty, vibrant, excitable and graphic. Every page told of the world against the cab trade, the unfairness, the stupid decisions, the theories and conspiracies and amongst it were the trade’s own proposals – surely Monty Schiman’s plan to pave over the Thames to provide a six-lane motorway through the capital (the Thames itself was to be diverted into an underground pipe) was to remain one of the most outlandish but also one of the most memorable – nowadays of course it would have been a 12-lane cycle path.

But the trade press amongst its conspiracy theories, perpetual outrage and shouty anger was also the place for highlighting the rules amongst the drivers, the informal but accepted rules, the customs and boundaries of the industry. Those minor homilies kept the trade in check, massaged the haloes of those that practiced them and we would like to think embarrassed those who didn’t. It was also the place for obituaries.

Obituaries are to an extent social history and in this case the social history of the taxi industry – what did this person do, what did he/she achieve, why will they be remembered? A common theme was the pride of the deceased having been a taxi driver, of being well known, of having very many friends in the industry. Lives well lived, people well respected and much missed. Strong family ties. The decency of the industry was reflected in almost all of these obituaries. At times an obituary may have been the first time that a group in a café or shelter actually knew the person’s name having spent their whole career being known as Curly (normally bald!), Airport John or whatever name that they had inherited on some occasion too far back to remember.

There was an apparent culture of fearing that the trade was never really recognised as an industry for being what it really was – decent, generous, hardworking, charitable and a valuable part of London’s transport infrastructure. Why did the industry feel this way? Was it a valid assessment? Doesn’t every industry feel the same?

So What Has All This Got To Do With Academia?

Social Science and Social History is fascinating as an academic subject. Why do we all behave individually as we do? Why do we behave in certain ways within groups? What governs and influences those groups and their behaviour? How do groups deal with those that don’t follow the norms, customs and accepted behaviours of the group? How did those norms develop in the first place? These are the things that social scientists and ethnographers spend their waking hours researching and pondering over. As we all join the industry, we bring some of ‘us’ to the mass that is the existing culture. If that ‘us’ is represented by more than one it will have a greater effect on the whole, but that change won’t be instant, easy or universally accepted. It certainly won’t be instantly accepted.

The Knowledge has many effects on the industry but one is that, in a Darwinian way, it restricts entry to a narrow demographic. To become a cab driver you must be tenacious, physically tough (wet, cold etc), able to memorise incredible amounts of data, confirm to unwritten rules (culture) at the PCO and be able to afford it both financially and from a family perspective. Unarguably that list defines a very specific demographic and is partly the reason why our headmasterly friend mentioned in my last article when greeting (sic) prospective Knowledge boys at the PCO was able to predict that most would never make it.

I would posit that when I joined the industry it was an industry that had a majority of Jewish drivers, most would have been servicemen in their time (National Service ended in 1960 with the last serviceman being discharged in 1963), many would have been through the war as an adult or a child and most would have needed to do the Knowledge on a bike. I would suggest that what is known as people’s a priori (simply put - their past experience) would have contributed greatly to their beliefs and value system and their behaviours and ultimately to the formation of the culture of the industry. As that demographic and its a priori dissipated so the industry’s accepted norms, customs and behaviours have changed… but have they? And if they have what have they changed from and to? And even more importantly how have those changes come about? What drove them? That is the academic sweet spot as I explained at the beginning it depends where you have come from and how you view the current reality.

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