Monday, 14 June 2010

Helensburgh and taxis

My sister and I grew up 25 miles from Helensburgh, in the quiet seaside town of Helensburgh. Helensburgh's nothing special, if you overlook the fact that John Logie Baird was born and lived there. It used to be perceived as a place that retired people moved to and to a certain extent it still is. However, it's also the nearest town to Faslane Naval Base which means that the town is an interesting mix of locals and naval families.

If you tell someone who lives in Glasgow that you come from Helensburgh, you can pretty much guarantee that their reaction will fall into one of three categories:
  1. They have great childhood memories of being taken to Helensburgh on the train during those long hot summers that we don't seem to get anymore. Whilst there they played on the sand, and ate chips and icecream. Most of the people in this category were children during the 60s which means that they're dangerously close to being old enough to retire there. As a matter of interest, I used to work with a couple of ladies who have retired and are actually buying a house in Helensburgh to live out their "golden" years, so that does still happen;
  2. They know someone who lives there, or who lives in Dumbarton (the next town after Helensburgh as you're heading for Glasgow);
  3. They've never heard of the place but have heard of John Logie Baird and are therefore able to connect the dots;

Both my sister and I were born in the Maternity Unit of the Vale of Leven Hospital, which is about 8 miles from Helensburgh. We were both educated in Helensburgh and I went on to find work in the area, whilst my sister (the clever one) got the hell out and studied at the RSAMD in Glasgow. As well as living in Helensburgh I also socialised there and believe me when I tell you that it gets very old very quickly. Helensburgh has a population of approximately 26,000 people and it used to be that on a Saturday night, you'd see the same faces week in week out. That's pretty impressive considering the numbers of people who go through Faslane.

Me living in Glasgow now is a second attempt at getting out. Fourteen years ago my then fiancee and I bought a flat in Glasgow's south side and ALMOST managed to sever ties with the town. I'm not going to bore with the details but in 1998 we moved back, and I spent another 8 years trying to dig myself back out of the place. In the eleven years between buying that flat, and moving back OUT of Helensburgh again, I married the fiancee and had two children before separating and finally getting divorced.

At various points in my blogging, I'm going to try and share the odd bit of wisdom with you. Today's wisdom slice is this: if you live in a small town, and you don't want to dislike it any more than you already do, do NOT take a job that involves dealing with a large number of the town's inhabitants while they're under the influence of alcohol. The reason I mention this is because, whilst facing certain near-future unemployment, I applied for a got a licence to drive a taxi in Helensburgh. Oddly enough, before the badge had even arrived I had managed to get another job but because the job I found was temporary, I still drove the taxi as a safety net. So, I worked five days a week in Glasgow and then a full day shift in the taxi on a Saturday.

In those days, a Saturday dayshift in the taxi wasn't that bad. I would start at 7 o'clock in the morning, at which point you'll get the occasional person who needs to either get to work, or get home from a heavy night out. Then you've got a slump because lets face it, who's out and about at 9am on a Saturday for choice? I was a smoker in those days, and worked for someone who was violently anti-smoking so if I wanted to have a smoke, I needed to get out of the car. Mid-morning would pick up again as people would start targetting the local supermarket before it got busy and you'd find yourself spending a couple of hours running between the town centre shops and the various housing estates. During that time you could be sure that you would get plenty of comments about how the weather was really good or bad. You might even get a casual enquiry about how your shift has been, when you started and when you'll be finishing. The weather comment tends to get a bit old towards the end of your shift, especially if the sun is splitting the sky or it's throwing down rain. You might get the occasional run back to Faslane with someone who had perhaps come into town to watch the football in one of Helensburgh's many pubs and was going home for dinner before doing it all again that night. I was always happy to get these runs just because it got me out of the town-centre-to-housing-estate loop but I almost never ranked at the base unless there was a lot of activity there.

Teatime could be fun. When I started driving the taxis, I heard a lot of calls over the radio for delivery cars. I volunteered for a lot of these. Deliveries in Helensburgh were a double-edged sword: if you having a slow afternoon and both ranks were at a standstill, deliveries were a useful way of getting moving and making money - chippy deliveries generally came one at a time but the Chinese restaurants usually gave you three or four to do at a time, and you charged a flat rate for each one. The flip side was that if the ranks were going like a fairground and the controller knew you, the chances were you would end up delivering fish and chips while the guy that had been behind you five minutes ago got a lucrative run somewhere way out of town. Mostly though, deliveries were easy money-makers and the tips could be quite good too.

Nightshift is a completely different ballgame. When I worked an evening shift, I would start at 6pm so I could still get on the end of the delivery business if I wanted it, but I would then drive straight into that period between people getting food delivered to them, and going out and hitting the pubs. There would then be another slump around 11pm where the folks that were going out had already gone, and people weren't yet drunk enough to be heading for home. Whatever time of day I drove, I always made sure I had a good book in the car that I could dip into between hires. A warning about this incidentally: don't pick an author you can't put down or you'll get very annoyed very quickly!

After I'd been driving taxis for about 18 months, the woman whose car I drove most regularly was attacked as she drove someone to Glasgow late one Saturday night. Luckily for her there was a Glasgow taxi driver on hand to come to her rescue but the experience left her very shaken, and very nervous about working a Saturday night. The problem is, if a taxi driver is going to make money, a Saturday night is the night to do it. So I volunteered to run her car from the beginning of the evening shift until the end of the night shift. Theoretically I could have finished anytime after the streets were cleared (about 4-ish) but you could get quite a bit of passing trade between 4 and 6 and it made it worthwhile. Besides, the company employed two nightshift drivers and if both of them were busy, I would sometimes be asked to assist. In those days, I was probably making about 50% of my money after midnight so I was happy to do it.

I could go on about the taxi driving for hours, because it was a lot of fun and in those days very lucrative. However after my ex-wife and I split up, I started working two shifts a week as well as holding down the full-time job that I still do. Eventually, something had to give and about five years ago, I finally quit the taxis. I can honestly say that if I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd probably go back to it and I don't regret any of the time I spent driving taxis. Wouldn't do it in Helensburgh though!


  1. Its funny because I couldn't imagine driving taxi's. My friends who do always moan about the old people who smell like wee, or the drunks that have also probably peed themselves, before, or during the journey!!

    Awesome post Ian! Sounds like you had a great time!

  2. I used to get a lot of pleasure out of driving the taxi. Maybe it was because it was a part-time gig, so I wasn't paying the bills with the money, or maybe it was because I like interacting with people. Either way, I had good times as well as bad, but mostly good :)