Kirsty Gunn: I'm getting the lowdown on the black cab code of honour

I've it in mind to take Paul of Edinburgh Black Cabs up on his offer to meet him and a bunch of drivers for coffee sometime soon.
Silly trams snake around Edinburgh empty, even at rush hour, adding to the many inconveniencies of driving thereSilly trams snake around Edinburgh empty, even at rush hour, adding to the many inconveniencies of driving there
Silly trams snake around Edinburgh empty, even at rush hour, adding to the many inconveniencies of driving there

Following a column I did a few weeks ago, about the situation for black cabs around town in the wake of the Uber revolution, Paul got in touch suggesting we might get together so he can talk through the whole situation with me in detail, from a registered – and I might add historic – cab company’s perspective. In particular I’m to get more details around the shocking modus operandi that is pick-up and drop-off outside the stations, but also he and the others will fill me in a bit more on the illegal cabbing scene in Scotland’s capital, and throughout the country altogether for that matter. Clearly the whole taxi scene is volatile and set to blow.

I have to say the entire email exchange has been just the nicest, most pleasant sort of communication I’ve had with a stranger for some time. Friendly, generous – even though Paul and others were unhappy that I’d taken the Uber rep I’d spoken with for the column at his word, and believed I’d been given a somewhat skewed version of the cab context overall. “I’ll explain fully and openly about how the black taxi trade does work in Edinburgh,” he wrote. “I believe you’ve been hoodwinked by this Uber driver, maybe even through his ignorance. This is not about point-scoring, everyone has a choice, be it black taxi or Uber,” he finished, with no rancour or unpleasantness; he just holds a different view, that’s all. Would that so many differences of opinion be expressed as congenially and with such a jolly sense of get-together.

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“Let’s make a plan for the New Year,” I wrote back, and we’re fixing a time for early January, I hope. I’m looking forward to it. A bunch of black cab drivers massed together over elevenses… Perhaps I’ll get to go with them to one of those special cafes black cab drivers seem to secretly know about? However you see it, it’s an opportunity, this, to gather information and learn a thing or two – and who knows, the short story writer in me is also thinking, maybe there’ll also be a tale to tell from all this? For when else does one get the opportunity, out of the blue, to take up a kind of unexpected invitation that hurtles you into an otherwise closed off world?

It’s like being allowed inside a secret society, is how it feels. For surely they are members of a kind of club, these drivers. We know. We’ve seen the way they give each other those special nods and waves when they’re out and about. And have that terrific way of sticking up for each other and never muscling in on each others’ fares. It’s a whole code of honour, ethics. I’ll get the lowdown on the entire scene and report back. It’s going to be great.

In fact the sooner I get back inside a cab the better, as far as my family is concerned. I’ve been spending far too much time driving myself and no one is ever very terrifically happy about that. “Buckle up, girls, your mother’s behind the wheel” used to be my husband’s rallying cry every time I slipped, with a merry jingle of the keys, into the driver’s seat. Edinburgh driving I’m worst at, I would say, Sutherland the best – with London somewhere in between. Driving up in the Highlands is always pleasant and easy, of course, as the roads are small and we can always go at a nice relaxed pace that allows for livestock and birds and so on. Near us there are wild goats.

Indeed up in the hills behind Rogart I’ve worked out a certain speed that even stops the awful alarm ring the car gives off if I don’t have my safety belt on. Which, frankly, I don’t think I need to wear much up there and won’t, and nor will I be told. Nothing makes me more mad than the amount of nannying that’s going on altogether in this country, and throughout Britain altogether, in matters of personal transport – from bike helmets for days out with a picnic those annoying signs all over the motorways and dual carriageways telling us to get our eyes tested or to have a rest. As though we need transport centres telling us what to do and why all the time! Isn’t there a better way of spending public money than expensive overhead signs that clutter up our consciousness with banal messages about possible rain forecasts or the foolishness of taking drugs and driving?

At least in London and Sutherland there’s none of that nonsense. As far as cars and driving are concerned people get on and just do what they do sensibly and quietly. It’s the cities and towns and the roads outside them in Scotland that are the worst. Talk about surveillance! It’s like you can’t turn around without being chided for something or another or given a fine.

I think I’ve gone off driving in Edinburgh altogether after last week when I was issued a ticket… while I was off getting a ticket from the phone-up ticket machine across the road! I was so busy being nannied that the nanny hadn’t even had time to check that I’d actually done anything wrong! But perhaps all this is intentional. Sometimes I think everything about driving in Edinburgh has been designed to drive us all out. The one-way streets, the silly trams snaking around everywhere, empty, even at rush hour, the no turns here, no exits there, the parking attendants that give tickets while one is buying a ticket… The only saving grace in the whole affair is using one’s car to drive straight out of town across the beautiful new bridge, something I am enjoying doing more and more.

The Queensferry Crossing. The very name of it, as I was telling an American friend recently, is bedecked with ideas of elegance and charm and the most gracious kind of passage. Forget “Buckle up, girls”, I feel like we are all in a state of glide as we cross over into the Kingdom of Fife and back again. From when we approach and see the stunning sail-like arrangement of white struts and spires resolve itself into a single column that looms up in front of us like of a futuristic obelisk, a pared-back pillar of white veering into the sky, to when one comes on to the bridge itself and there’s the gorgeous flick-flick-flick of the struts and frets play out beside us as we spin along. It’s as though we’re inside one kind of massive, gorgeously complicated machine, inside a harp or a guitar or a the skeleton of a huge and beautiful bird.

That structure down at the site of the twin towers in New York they call ‘the bird’ has nothing of the avian qualities of the Queensferry Crossing, I’ve been telling my American friend. The Crossing will keep me driving for a long time yet – my family will have to just deal with it.