London Note

Feb. 18 2002 2:27 PM

London Note

Minicab misery.

Magnus (it's not his real name) drives a car for a West London minicab company, and like many of his colleagues at this minicab firm, he's of Ghanaian extraction but has lived in London for 32 of his 40 years. Since February 1, Magnus, who has been driving minicabs for longer then he cares to recall, has been robbed twice and on another occasion narrowly avoided being robbed and stabbed. He's convinced all three of his aggressors were Jamaicans, but he hasn't reported any of these incidents, which took place at night, to the police. He doesn't see the point. The two robberies happened very quickly, Magnus explains. On the first night, as he stopped his car at a red light on Uxbridge Road, the young male passenger in the back leant forward, took Magnus's mobile phone from the front seat, and dashed out of the vehicle, disappearing down a side street. When Magnus rang his mobile from a pay phone a few minutes later, the thief said he was prepared to leave the machine at a designated location after £25 had first been left somewhere else. Magnus' mobile phone had been kidnapped. With no evidence that the kidnapper would act in good faith, Magnus refused to agree to the terms and bought a new mobile the next day.

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On the second occasion, a man he was driving to Camberwell pulled hard on the hand break on Shepherds Bush Green. As the car veered out of control, the cool-handed thief reached inside Magnus's jacket pocket and plucked out his wallet. Before he could bring the car to a halt, the man had jumped out and vanished. But it was the third incident that led Magnus to consider a new career. On February 9, Magnus dropped a man off in Finsbury Park at about 2.30 a.m. He put the fare in the new wallet he'd bought after the Shepherds Bush robbery three days earlier. The wallet was stuffed with bank notes after a busy Saturday night. As he turned his car into the street, a man tapped on the window and asked for a ride. Although, as Magnus reminded him, it is illegal for a minicab driver to pick up a passenger who hasn't called the minicab company first, the man persisted and Magnus relented when the man said he wanted to go to Goldhawk Road, which is where Magnus had told him the minicab company was based.

Half an hour later, as the car approached Shepherds Bush, Magnus noticed that the man, who was sitting in the front seat, had become agitated. He had been told in advance that the trip would cost £25, but asked what the fare would be, claiming only to have a £20 note on him. Magnus now knew to be worried. So he said he didn't care about the fare, and that the man could treat this journey as a gift—from one black man to another. No, the passenger insisted; the driver must have something. Would £5 do? Magnus repeated what he had said, and they argued back and forth until Magnus pulled up at the last house in Sycamore Gardens off Goldhawk Road, where the man had asked to be dropped. By then the man was not just agitated but had become seemingly deranged, rubbing his trousers frenetically. When the car stopped, the man put his right hand into his trouser pocket and started to pull something out. Magnus saw enough of a blade to take fright and instantly leapt from the car. He started running west along on Benbow Road with the man in pursuit. It was only after he had jumped over a railing designed to stop pedestrians from crossing the Goldhawk Road that he looked back again and saw that the man had vanished. An hour later, Magnus and a friend, whom he had summoned to his aid on his new mobile phone, went back to Sycamore Gardens to collect his car. The engine was still running and both front doors were open. Then Magnus remembered he'd put his wallet under the seat, not in his jacket pocket. Miraculously, the wallet had not been stolen.

Magnus, like all of London's 25,000 licensed minicab drivers, must soon comply with a 1998 law that comes into force at the end of the February. Each minicab driver will from then on have to display the name of the firm he works for and his own driver number on the dashboard. There must also be sticker on the boot or the bonnet of each car indicating that it is a minicab. Magnus agrees he was stupid to pick up the man in Finsbury Park, but he believes he's about to become a more obvious target for street criminals than he ever was. People who hail a minicab driver who is prepared to break the law—to "tout for hire"—will have some reassurance that the driver is licensed. But a minicab driver's best protection, his anonymity, will go. Now a thief won't even have to call a minicab company to rob a minicab: he will be able to identify one anywhere. And that is enough for Magnus to be thinking about a less dangerous trade.

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