Tag Archives: London

Taxis of the World: Know Them

taxi from Suvarnabhumi AirportBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

The taxi business seems to be one of those areas of modern life that naturally sorts itself into the good, the bad, and the ugly. The common cab is often a traveler’s first introduction to a new place, and more countries seem to be realizing the importance of that first impression. At the very least, you expect the driver, like the doctor, to “First, do no harm.” With luck, the driver will also know where he or she is going. It helps if they’re friendly, too – or at least minimally surly. You don’t want a driver to turn you down because it’s not enough of a fare to bother with. Sian Powell (who writes for The Australian, mostly about Thai politics and government) reports on the state of taxicabbery in the Chinatown of Singapore, where the meek are not blessed. Rather than tell the driver a destination and risk being spurned, Powell recommends the assertive approach:

I prefer to plump myself in and let the driver argue about it later. That way I have the upper hand, although it is true that I have been forced to retreat many times, when the taxi driver flatly refuses to go where I want to go, and I have to get out in a huff.

Powell evokes the dismal vision of 30 wet pedestrians queued up at a taxi stand. It’s very hard to catch a ride in the rain, because the liability costs for even the smallest accidents are too high for the owners to risk. And of course, in the rain is when you need a cab the most.

Kampala, Uganda, sounds like an absolute purgatory, according to Roger de Budo. Foreign tourists are shocked by the murky clouds of stinky exhaust gases, and the noise! He says the taxis “advertise their services not with a single sharp blast of their horns but with something like five or six long blasts every 200 metres.”

The pseudonymous “bfick,” who took the picture on this page, says,

When a car is purchased new, used or passed onto the next owner in Thailand, it’s common for a Monk to bless the car and the new owners; hence the markings on this taxi driver’s roof for good luck.

Which is all very lovely, but Thailand is also a battleground, say Chutima Sidasathian and Alan Morison of Phuketwan. “Black-plate” taxis are a very big problem, which instigated a crackdown, and led to an airport blockade and other unpleasant events. Apparently it’s been a pretty much constant battle between airport scam artists and the government, with some dramatic acting-out. And many miles away, in the dignified, ancient capital of the Czech Republic, taxi drivers and police recently had a street brawl, we learn from Dinah Spritzer in The New York Times. And that’s only the latest incident in an animosity at least two decades old. The trouble is the city authorities established the rates, and drivers charge two or three times the set amount. A couple of years ago, the mayor went out disguised as an Italian tourist and was charged five times the going rate. Things are better now, but the tourist must do his or her part, and here are the suggested tactics for transportational survival in Prague: get the concierge to call a reputable taxi for you, or you yourself can text-message the legit firms, and make arrangements. When you’re out and about, catch a cab only at the designated taxi stands. The whole industry is always infected with politics. In an Australian city, there’s trouble because foreign students are allowed taxi-driving licenses while native Queenslanders of the same age are not.

London, England, was recently voted Taxi Paradise of the World, so the British reputation for politeness is accurate. Also quite costly. A polite society is an expensive society, apparently. Maybe London cabbies are so cheery because they are now driving something cooler than those old, clunky black things. We learn this from Cathy Smith, author of Write and Sell Travel Articles, who has been at this game for over twenty years and who also provides a history of the word “taxicab” and the notion that the government took over control of this form of transportation because the drivers, historically, engaged in competition too vigorous for the public health and safety.

Harmeet Shah Singh, who writes regularly for CNN International, tells us that the upcoming Commonwealth Games have inspired Indian authorities to bring the auto-rickshaw industry to new heights of visitor-friendly attitude and service. A number of avenues for complaint are reported to be already in place, and soon, government-sponsored English classes will help auto-rickshaw drivers cope with an expected 100,000 tourists in October of next year. 40,000 vehicles are involved, which seems to imply more than 40,000 drivers, because why let a perfectly good vehicle sit idle for part of the day when a brother or cousin could be out there making money with it? Anyway, a reported 8,000 drivers are said to be booked for schooling in not only English, but first aid and life skills. And yoga.

First, it seems like anyone who ekes out a living as an auto-rickshaw driver in India must already possess an abundance of life skills. Second, doesn’t almost everyone in India speak some English already? There’s a bigger proportion of English speakers in India than there are India speakers in the West, you can bet your bottom rupee. Anyhow, the term “psychometric tests” is mentioned, which hints that New Delhi undertakes to guarantee the sanity of its cab drivers, always a sound practice in any metropolis.

This summer, news came from Tehran that tourism taxi service will be given a new look — orange — though the make of car was not quite chosen yet. But the Iranian drivers (who are, through a quirk of bureaucracy, overseen by the Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organization) are also scheduled to learn English. Fluently.

Is the ubiquity of English a monstrous plot of cultural imperialism? Or is it what Esperanto should have been, a giant step toward a warm fuzzy world where everyone communicates and understands each other? On the other hand, doesn’t a lot of conflict originate between parties who understand each other all too well?

photo courtesy of bfick, used under this Creative Commons license

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Naughty Mayfair, in London, England

Albany2

By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

Not long ago, we noted the popularity of London as one of Student Universe’s Top Ten Party Destinations. Taking a closer look, we find that the great British capitol has always been a place where young and old could find something disreputable to pass the time, especially if they were wealthy and titled. In “Mayfair’s dark secrets laid bare,” Jasper Gerard unearths some facts and rumors about a venerable building called Albany. He says:

So savagely do Albany grandees protect their privacy that even snappers photographing the place have found themselves at the wrong end of a porter’s boot… One resident, a Mr. Gundry, was so aggressive he horsewhipped someone in Hyde Park for brushing against his shoulder a year earlier.

That revenge for bruised honor occurred, of course, quite some time in the past. But that’s the point. This structure seems to have a cumulative history of anarchic behavior well cloaked behind a veil of respectability. Remember the Chelsea Hotel in New York, when all the rock stars stayed there? Albany was, in its glory days, kind of like that — only with servants who would carry an inebriated resident to bed and tuck him in. Hookers came and went freely and,  according to a certain painter who called Albany home for a couple of years, they still do. Tradition and discretion don’t come cheap; it costs about £1,500 or about $2,500 USD per week to live there.

The reason why all this came to Gerard’s attention is an art show that includes 40 paintings by Keith Coventry. The whole series is called “Echoes of Albany” and the pictures bring back the days of chippies, tarts, absinthe, serious recreational drugs, women who wore tuxedos and courted other women, and much, much more. If you’re in the neighborhood of Burlington Gardens, the exhibit runs through August 15 at the Haunch of Venison gallery.

Gerard, incidentally, has had an interesting and varied journalistic career. It’s easy to be sidetracked into something like, for instance, his interview with novelist Ian McEwan. But no. This is about the famous old mansion where three of England’s prime ministers have lived, along with a number of titled aristocrats and upper-echelon stage actors such as Terence Stamp. Antony Armstrong-Jones, the photographer who was married to Queen Elizabeth’s sister Margaret, once lived there. So did art historian Sir Kenneth Clark. The poet Lord Byron was once a resident, as were novelists Aldous Huxley and Graham Greene, playwright Terence Rattigan, and esteemed travel writer Bruce Chatwin.mayfair mural

Speaking of London nightlife, there’s trouble in paradise as burlesque dancers take to the streets to protest unfair laws that impede their ability to make a living and entertain the rest of us. And check out this site for a handy guide to “student nights” in London clubs.

And in the daytime, be sure to observe the statues. Yes, the sculptures in public places which, as we know, are of abiding interest to Kevin Dolgin as he makes his way through the cities of the world. In London, he found plenty to write about, in “Forgotten Heroes: London, England” which of course is one of the pieces in The Third Tower Up From the Road.

Albany photo courtesy of Wolfiewolf , used under this Creative Commons license. Mayfair mural photo courtesy of danielle_blue , used under this Creative Commons license

Ken Silverstein Considers the Arabic Novel in Sudan

sudan

By PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

In “Eloquent Phantom: Tayeb Salih’s search for an elusive present,” Ken Silverstein talks about a newly translated important classic work of fiction that takes place partly in Sudan, partly in London. Season of Migration to the North was written by one who sees everything through poet’s eyes. (Tayeb Salih died just a few months ago.) Silverstein also examines the Arabic novel as a genre, saying:

Written Arabic, fusha, stands at a remove from the quotidian worlds of family, street, and workplace, where a colloquial language is used …Almost all Arabic novels are written in fusha, which cannot but establish a certain distance between the elevated medium of description and the mundane events it describes-in other words, between style and content.

In Season of Migration to the North the protagonist, who has been away studying in Britain for years, is now home among the date palms beside the Nile in the boondocks of North Africa. He meets a man who plans to “liberate Africa with his penis.” This stranger is also a self-confessed murderer who soon disappears. The narrator tries to piece together the stranger’s story, to the point where it becomes an obsession. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is mixed up in this somehow, as are politics, race, and colonialism.

Investigative reporter Silverstein has written extensively about North Africa, and he has quite a lot to say about the Sudan-Darfur situation and the uproar over Sudan’s slave trade. He is fed up with political journalism everywhere. “The idea seems to be that we go out to report but when it comes time to write we turn off our brains and repeat the spin from both sides.” He is now the Washington Editor for Harper’s.

Sudan is mostly flat and dry, with jaggedy mountains and terrifying sandstorms, nomadic peoples, and endangered animal species. It appears to encompass about 40 different ethnic groups, and has been rated by the Failed States Index as the world’s second most politically unstable country.

SOURCE: “Eloquent Phantom: Tayeb Salih’s search for an elusive present” 06/10/09
photo courtesy of Radio Nederland Wereldomroep , used under this Creative Commons license