Black Cabs Matter

My name is Rudy Gangadeen and I drive a black cab in London. My first name is Roodranath but most people call me Rudy.

I come from what used to be Pasea Village but everybody just says, “Pasea” now. In a family of six siblings, I’m the only boy.

My father was recruited by London Transport and went there in ’69. And we all just sort of followed as the finance allowed.

My wife, Dianne, was born in England of Trinidad parentage. Her father is from Pasea, her mother is from Iere Village. My father used to live in Dianne’s dad’s house. Caribbean people, when they go to London, gravitate to one another. We trickled to London to Dianne’s dad’s house in Holloway, quite a nice area. We moved to Hackney, quite a deprived area.

I met Dianne when I was 13 and she was eight. There’s a picture of me hugging her up after her christening outside her dad’s front door. Around 1981, I saw her walking on the street and she looked very nice, tall and pretty. She was going on 17. I made a quick U-turn. In ’87, we came to Trinidad for Carnival and got engaged at her family’s home in Marabella, a little Hindu ceremony.

My dad said, “Listen, you’re dating the people’s daughter for so many years, you engaged to her, I think it’s time you got married.” I said, okay. We got married in ’92, two ceremonies, a nice Hindu ceremony and a big bash in a Presbyterian church, the reception at Islington Public Library on Holloway Road. All her dad’s friends from Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, St Vincent and her mum’s friends, nurses from Ireland, Fiji, India, all over, were there.

Ashley was born in December 1992, Dionne two years later. We’re often told we got it wrong. Ashley should be the girl and Dion, the boy; my answer is, “No, they’re British, so it’s correct”.

I lived with my grandparents in Pasea. I went to London as a 13-year-old in 1974, to join my parents. My grandfather died in ‘75. [In the family] we attributed that to the fact that all of us had trickled away. He lasted less than a year [after we all left] but he was a grand fella.

My grandfather was a labourer with the University of the West Indies but he was everything to me. He was an action man, in the Caroni Swamp, fishing. And I was forever with him, everywhere. The guy could hold a cutlass, he could hold a saw. He encouraged me to do things like that. At nine or ten, I could chop a coconut confidently! That was down to him.

I was outside in Pasea all the time, playing cricket, going to Hillview at the base of the mountain. It was a fun life. I went from there to Holloway Boys, right next to Holloway Women’s Prison, where the last woman was hanged. I hated it! I didn’t like being confined inside.

I gravitated to the West Indian boys but I found it very difficult to make friends. After a time, I realised, well, my family was there and I had to make a go of it. I always wanted to come back to Trinidad but finance was very limited and the first opportunity I got was in 1980, after six years in England.

I had very few friends but I made London fun-filled. It’s a city where you don’t have to have a million to do things. I travelled in London on the bus, not the tube. We used to get a pass. I had a lot of free time and, most Saturdays, I’d just jump on the bus and go down to the Science Museum and spend the day just walking through. It was free of charge.

After six years, I came back for the first time for four weeks when I was 19 and rekindled friendships. Over the last nine years, I’ve come home almost every year, sometimes twice a year and, whenever I leave, I expect friends, the area, everything, to be the same the next time. But it’s not like that. People’s lives move ahead. Our children are in their 20s and we do our own thing now. I rent a car and we link up with people.

The knowledge of London is a system where a cabbie has to memorize, every place of interest – every police station, hospital, nightclub, shopping mall, every street in a six-mile radius from Charing Cross [railway station]. They estimate it’s 25,000 streets and 7-8,000 places of interest. There might be a run from, say, the Hasley Crawford Stadium to Independence Square, and you have to learn every place of interest in a quarter-mile radius from the stadium and every place of interest in a quarter-mile radius from Independence Square. The examiner wouldn’t ask you for a route from the stadium to the square; he might say, “The Marriot to Nicholas Tower” – and then you have to give the fastest, most direct, cheapest route for the customer.

The first time I signed up for “the knowledge” was in 1986. The “blue book” has 512 runs [black cab routes through London]. And I didn’t do any of them. I just threw the blue book aside.

In 1992, I signed up for the second time and I was hungry for the knowledge then. I had to pass it then because Ashley had been born. I joined with four other guys, English guys, and I was the only one who passed. The pass rate is ten per cent.

It took me 18 months – the average is two-to-four years – but I had a lot of help from Dianne and I ate, I slept, and, if I may use the term, I crapped knowledge for two years. We had no nights out, only takeaways. I finally passed the knowledge of London in 1994.

The knowledge is harder now than when it was designed after WWII – there are so many more places of interest, just in nightclubs alone. Less people are joining it because a lot of guys think, “Why should I spend three years getting it then have to buy a taxi for £50K?” You could buy a Mercedes for 30 grand! A lot of these newbies come off the aircraft, get their minicab licence and they use a satnav. I have a satnav but I don’t rely on it except to find my way back [to London] if I get a job taking me out to the sticks.

I’ve had wealthy people stop me in Notting Hill and put their five-year-old children in my cab to take them to such-and-such Montessori. Very often I drop people FOC, free of charge. I’ve had bilkers – people who leg it. I’m too old now to run after anyone.

When I passed, it was just three oral questions. Now, there’s a written test and you even have to pass a wheelchair-loading test.

I did an HND (higher national diploma) in mechanical engineering and worked in the Ministry of Defence. But the knowledge of London is the hardest thing I’ve ever passed.

You’re your own boss, whether you own or rent your cab. And you have a job with unlimited overtime.

I’ve driven into Buckingham Palace often. Because they have tea parties and I’ve taken guests.

I had Amy Winehouse in my cab once. She was absolutely pissed. Her friends had to pull her out of the cab. They thought she was going to be sick. When I asked for payment, they told me to eff off.

Trini people are few and far between in London but, when I do pick up a Trini passenger, they’re surprised to find a Trini driving a cab. They thing I’m an Indian from India first. But, when I start speaking, they make out the accent. And, normally, I have a Trinidad flag on one of my visors, so that gives it away. I’m a small ambassador for Trinidad.

Sometimes, black cabs are the saviours of London. In 2005, London had the bombings, and all the underground shut down, all the buses shut down, the cellphone network shut down, cabs were getting people home. I actually gave blood on that day. A couple of times we’ve had code red at Heathrow, like the Icelandic cloud. As soon as they call us, we’re there.

My daughter and wife say I talk too much but that’s an advantage in the job: you got to be able to talk to people. I normally wait until the person sits in the cab before starting. “How was your day?” You can see from their body language if they want to talk.

There’re lots of good things about having the knowledge of London – the independence, the flexibility, all of it. But there’s a certain pride that a little coolie boy from Pasea managed to pass it. I’m held in high esteem and that’s a nice feeling.

There are a number of bad things: working nights and picking up the wrong sorts. People try to pass counterfeit £50 for a £5 ride. Some people do treat you like dirt but you’ll never see them again and then you pick up ten people who are like diamonds.

I do sometimes come home grumpy. But five minutes of chatting with Dionne or Ashley or Dianne or reading something in the paper about T&T soon cheers me up.

Last year, Dianne & Dionne went to Dubai, to Dublin, and they begging me to go. I said, “When I go on the Travel Channel, I see all those places! Ashley was in Amsterdam on a three-month placement and he said, “Dad, I have my own apartment, come!” I said, “They have people from Amsterdam in London, I can see them already. I don’t have the urge to go to those places – but I need to come to Trinidad.

After 40 odd years away, and I love being in England, that’s where my kids and wife were born, for me Trinidad will always be home. It’s the people, the physical environment, the bacchanal – the place is so vibrant! When I come back from five days in Tobago, I ask, “Why did I sleep in Tobago? I should have stayed awake the whole time!”

Trinis can be the worst or the best people in the world. A Trini like bacchanal. He will cut you off and, when you meet him at the next light, he won’t even watch you.

Trinidad & Tobago, to me, is the physical place and the people. Although I’ve been away coming up to 44 years, it’s home. If it wasn’t for all the stupidness we copied from the outside, it could be the paradise everybody is looking for.