Much as I may whinge about the dire state of London's public transport system, the city's infrastructure does boast one redeeming feature; its exemplary taxis. Nowhere in the world are there finer cabs in which to travel, driven by more outstanding chauffeurs. And I say this having travelled in my fair share of cabs elsewhere. Arriving in New York for my first trip to the city alone, I (little, non-New Yorker, me) had to provide full directions to my silent, and obviously clueless, taxi driver from JFK to my destination in Manhattan! In Barcelona, I couldn't get a word in edgeways to check we were going the right way, as the driver kept up a screaming telephone conversation in Spanish about his grandmother's knee operation until he dropped me on the curbside. Taxi rides in less Western cities have varied from a small rusty van stuffed with 20 people and several chickens, (all of whom hit their head on the roof every time the vehicle went over a bump), to a microscopic yellow Nissan driven by a man who thought traffic lights were merely decorative street art.
How fortunate we Londoners are, therefore, to have our black cabs, all sleek and shiny, waiting to whisk us home after a night out, or rescue us in a rainstorm when we're carrying heavy bags. Aesthetically pleasing as our taxis are (and always spotlessly clean, what a joy), and even despite their much acclaimed minute turning circle (allowing U-turns in the most teeny of alleyways), what makes them so utterly fabulous is their drivers. Gaining "The Knowledge", the perfect mental A-to-Z map in their heads by speeding around the city on mopeds, these people know backstreets and alternative routes enough to inform city-wide escape plans. London cabbies are courteous, friendly, well-informed and interested in their passengers. I also suspect many are telepathic, as once, when weighed down by bags, and without a free hailing-arm to raise, I even managed to summon a cab with a "help me" eye roll.
I have had numerous memorable conversations with cab-drivers in the city, entertaining me through many a traffic jam, including a surprising, totally unprompted, 15 minute rant about "disgraceful" Amy Winehouse - apparently it's all the fault of her parents (her father, interestingly, is a cabbie himself). I have learnt from cab drivers why Judaism encourages the use of two sinks in a Jewish kitchen, as well as debated the benefits of the British Empire. When asked, I have also helped select a first car for the twin daughters of a cabbie who drove me home early one morning after a rather messy night out in East London.
What I like most about London cab-drivers though is that they appear to care about their cargo. When being dropped home late at night they take great pains to ensure that a young new-to-the-city girl gets safely back to her front door. "Get your keys out now," I've been counselled, "and have your phone in one hand. Call your housemates and let them know you should be back in 5 minutes." As I climbed out of the taxi and shut the door behind me, my driver shook his head anxiously and bemoaned "God, it's like dropping my daughter off on a night out." We have guardian angels in our black (or otherwise sponsorship-coloured) cabs, scouring the streets for those of us in need. Our London cabbies are the patient parents of our city - their yellow "Taxi" signs always on when we need them, and with a wise word, ready to see us safe home.