Monday, September 10, 2012

A London cab driver and the Olympic spirit (guest post)

It has been an amazing few weeks- the Olympics and Paralympics have electrified London in a way that many thought impossible. Having been marginally involved in the preparation and planning from an NHS perspective, it has been exhilarating to see all the work of the last two years come to fruition. None of the nightmare scenarios that we had considered and planned for has happened. Our concerns about hospital staff unable to come into work, health facilities unable to receive their supplies, some major incident putting massive pressure on local NHS facilities: none of these came to pass. Instead we have had an amazing six weeks of sport and communal joy. I will never forget the spectacle of Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony, which set the tone for the weeks that followed. That evening, I saw so many of my British Nigerian friends tweeting and updating their status on Facebook to “Proud to be British” I had never seen that happen before, in quite the same way. In Danny Boyle’s magnificent celebration, we saw a vision of the Britain that we lived, that we were a part of that incorporated our experiences and stories. For many of us, watching national teams from all over the world, bursting into random conversations with strangers on the Tube, it was a good time to live in London.

On a personal level, the last week has also been one of much happiness. The current edition of Granta, published at the end of August, focused on Medicine, included my essay, an account of my experiences as a young Nigerian doctor working in rural Northern Nigeria. Roped in to speak at launch events at Foyle’s in Charing Cross and at the Freud Museum in Hampstead, I enjoyed speaking to vibrant London audiences who asked questions, praised and challenged some of what I had written in my essay, “People Don’t Get Depressed in Nigeria”. On Twitter and Facebook, many people got in touch to say how much they enjoyed the essay, a few sent private messages, detailing their own experiences with depression and thanking me for raising the issue.
On Saturday, I was interviewed on Monocle 24 radio, by the journalist Georgina Godwin who asked if I still considered Nigeria home. I answered that I did but that I also considered London home and thought myself extremely fortunate to live in a time when the concept of having more than one home was less challenging than perhaps any other time in history, citing the availability of Nigerian news on the internet, the access to Nigerian food and culture in London to support my answer.

Yesterday, Sunday, was a lovely day in London. The sun was out; the Paralympics were drawing to a triumphant close. I agreed to meet a friend, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, visiting from Nairobi, for lunch. He invited the British Somalian writer and artist Diriye Osman and for four hours, we sat in the sun, outside a pub in Notting Hill Gate and talked Africa, politics, music, literature, art. It was an amazing afternoon. As the evening drew close, I called a taxi to take Binyavanga to the airport to catch his flight back to Nairobi. Diriye left to catch the tube to his next appointment. I suddenly remembered that I had agreed to drop off a book for a friend visiting from Nigeria. We had agreed to meet in the West End and he had told me he would be there until 7pm. I thought of ringing him and decided against it. I thought of taking the tube but worried that I would be late. And so I dashed on to Notting Hill Gate, just outside the Kentucky Fried Chicken shop and scanned the horizon rapidly for a black taxi with its light on. For a few minutes, none appeared and I wondered whether I was better off trying to catch the tube instead. But I had wasted precious minutes and so thought I would stick to trying to call a cab.

I looked far into the distance and spotted the glowing orange light of an unoccupied taxi. Heaving a sigh of relief, I stretched out my arm; but well before it got to me, it swerved in to the kerbside, picked up a passenger and moved on. Fortunately, another taxi was a few minutes behind it. I put my arm out again, but as he drew near, he leaned over and switched his light off. “What a shame”, I thought, “just my luck to pick a driver who’s going on break when I’m in a hurry”. Stung by a previous incident last year, when late for church, I had run up to a black cab driver at a set of traffic lights, asked to be taken to Charing Cross and been told he was on break, only for him to pick up a white woman a few metres on, I made a note of his number and watched to see what he would do next. Sure enough, like a repeat scene from a bad film, again I saw this black cab swing into the kerb, about a hundred metres ahead and pick up a white couple. I was gobsmacked. Fortunately there was another taxi behind him who picked me up and took me off successfully to my appointment.

Seated in the back of the second taxi, I tweeted directly to the Mayor of London’s Twitter account and to the Transport for London Twitter account. My tweet said “ cab driver with reg number XXXXX just refused to pick me, switching off light and then picks white couple 200m later” TFL responded an hour later, sending me a web link for a formal complaint. I haven’t heard back from the Mayor of London.

The incident was like a needle bursting the balloon of self-congratulation that I had been floating on over the last few weeks.

After the previous incident earlier last year, I had made a formal complaint to Transport for London and written to members of the London Assembly complaining about the incident. Then like now, I had managed to take down the offending cab driver’s registration number, and in addition, on that occasion had the number of the cab who picked me up, as he had witnessed what had happened. In spite of this, I received this response from Transport for London

The 'For Hire' sign displayed on black taxis requires the driver to accept a fare generally only if the taxi is at a stand or is stationary on the street other than at a signal or sign. If a taxi is stopped at a sign or traffic signal, they are deemed to be 'in motion' and so are not obliged to accept a fare if hailed. In this case, Dr Anya appeared to hail the first taxi when it was stopped at a traffic signal. Even though the 'For Hire' sign was lit, the driver was under no obligation to accept the fare at this point (although we noted that Dr Anya saw this driver later accept a fare at Notting Hill Gate Station). For this reason, we could not progress Dr Anya's complaint further. We do wish to emphasise however that we very carefully considered Dr Anya's complaint, and certainly recognise the seriousness of the allegation it contained.

Given this, I do not see that there is much point in trying to make another formal complaint.

When I shared the story of the previous incident with friends, I found the responses very interesting. Many of my white English friends were surprised, not believing this could happen; a few doubted my interpretation of the events. Many of my black friends said they had had similar experiences in the past, with one telling me how much things had improved since the 80s when after clubbing, they would get their white friends to hail a cab for them. A few black friends said they could understand the driver’s perspective, as he may have been scared of being robbed. I pointed out that a robbery was highly unlikely in the heart of central London, but admitted that I may have contributed by wearing a bright African shirt. This time, I was dressed in a suitably muted tailored English shirt (complete with cufflinks) and trousers, and so am unable to blame my attire. Another black friend, said “Serves you right, what were you doing, taking a cab anyway? You should have been cycling” Perhaps he was right.

Ike Anya is a Nigerian public health doctor and writer living in London