When you climb into a London taxi you enter a small capsule of class consciousness. Among themselves, cabbies refer to business customers as "bowler hats", while they often address their passengers as "governor", with that familiar, fascinating cockney mix of deference and sarcasm (approximately one part deference to nine parts sarcasm).
Inside the taxi you can go one of two ways: you can be the cabbie's mate, or you can assert social superiority by ignoring him. I once rode in a taxi with a senior female journalist. She asked the cabbie to turn down the broadcast football match he was listening to. He did so, but not sufficiently for her liking. He then started to make some friendly remarks about the progress of the match, and she leaned forwards and simply slammed the partition glass.
When the time came for her to pay the fare, I listened carefully for any slighting remark from the cabbie, but he was utterly meek. My colleague had cowed him - a very good word, in the circumstances - into silence.
I do not have the nerve to behave like that, being intimidated by the sheer bad-temperedness of cabbies. In their book Taxi!, Simon Garner and Giles Stokoe contend that the correct collective noun for taxi drivers would be "a grumble". Here are two of the drivers quoted on a subject theoretically dear to their hearts: the cabmen's shelters where they are served fascinatingly old-fashioned meals such as pork chops and two veg. "The bottoms of all the shelters were completely rotten," recalls one driver. Another reflects: "The drivers would get in there, and they would bore each other to death."
I am fearful of this tone, and also of a sort of wildness that I detect in cabbies, these hard-eyed mercenaries of the road. You hear stories of them locking in their passengers at the flick of a switch and then carting them off to the police station so that some possibly quite small transgression can be avenged. And I never forget that every cabbie who takes me home knows where I live. Consequently, I respond gamely to any comments the driver might care to lob my way, and work up a series of moderately controversial remarks that might tickle the cabbie's fancy. Early on this year, one of them was: "I really think Ranieri's going to get the business done at Chelsea." Later on, this became: "I used to think Ranieri would get the business done at Chelsea, if you can believe that." A remark I do not recommend is: "I believe that by law you are still required to carry a bale of hay."
Ideally, I become the cabbie's friend, but not on the basis of complete equality. To explain . . .
As Nick Georgano points out in his book The London Taxi, the old two-wheel, horse-drawn hansom cabs were known for tearing around London with scant regard for the etiquette of road use. There were only two seats inside, and so they were not suited to the transportation of families, unlike the more staid, four-wheel "growlers". Rather, they were associated with young blades or rakes: dashing, slightly disreputable, youngish men. These are my role models when I climb into a cab. I lounge on the seat, crossing my legs expansively, swearing freely as I banter with the cabbie. The understanding between us is that I'm very glad to get away from whatever place I've just been in; that I've just experienced some kind of close shave, and that the cabbie is in a sense my getaway driver.
The test of whether I've succeeded in my Champagne Charlie pose is twofold. At the end of the journey, the cabbie should ask: "You want a receipt, guv?" He should then add, as an afterthought: "Tell you what, mate, take a handful of blank ones." If he then gives me a near-subliminal wink of the eye . . . Well then, that's the icing on the cake.