A taxi can mean many things to many people: a refuge on a wet night at three o’clock in the morning, or a basic and sometimes expensive mode of transport from one destination to the other.
Taxis are also an important part of any city’s transport infrastructure, hungrily taking up the slack when the buses stop running or the railway tracks are ripped up. They can become symbols of cities, emblems of identity, such as the yellow cabs of New York, the black cabs of London or the Cadillac taxis of Havana.
Lee Henry’s fascinating account of the role of the taxi in Belfast's rise, fall and rise is a unique documentation of an occupation that has much to tell us about the development of Northern Ireland's capital.
Subtitled as ‘a drive through history, one fare at a time’, Belfast Taxi is a brilliantly researched root and branch history of taxiing in Belfast.
Henry has interviewed a wide range of drivers and cab company owners to create this oral history, but has backed up the tales and memories of a multiplicity of workers with research ranging from the impact of the Motor Traffic act of 1926 to the introduction of the Austin FX4 to the Belfast market.
If that makes it sound like a nerd’s account – up there with a guide to the bus routes of the south Down area – Belfast Taxi is far from it. The legislation is referred to when relevant, but it is the wide collection of characters, and their wild and oftentimes unbelievable stories, that take centre stage.
Henry has an obvious respect for taxi drivers in Belfast – perhaps because his adopted grandfather worked as a public hire cabbie in the 1950s – but also through a journalist’s interest in the details that make up driver’s lives.
Who now, for example, remembers Silver Cabs, the forerunner of today’s FonaCabs and Value Cabs? Luckily, Henry managed to track down 91-year-old Ralph McMurray, who began working for William John McCausland in the 1950s after working for Anytime, Anywhere cabs.
McMurray’s memories of the 1950s and 60s development of private hire taxis, and William John’s particular way of dealing with trade union negotiators or other cab companies, make for fascinating reading. The dominance of the McCausland family is apparent throughout the book, with a later chapter featuring Stephen McCausland, now owner of Value Cabs, driven to grow the company and describing taxiing as ‘addictive’.
Belfast Taxi highlights the huge impact of the Troubles on the taxi industry in Belfast, on long gone private hire firms like Enterprise Cabs of the Albertbridge Road, as well as on individual drivers, such as Charlie O’Brien, who recalls driving Kate Adie and the media corps through the debris strewn streets of the 1970s.
Many taxi drivers lost their lives during the Troubles, and the story of survival through the long years of tit-for-tat killing – when taxi and delivery men were easy targets – chills the blood, pervaded as it is with a sense of those surreal nightmarish days.
One interesting chapter concerns the Shankill and West Belfast Taxi Associations. The WBTA grew up to replace the receding bus service of the early 1970s, and was a community service run on collective terms. Their unique approach of collecting passengers en route as opposed to one passenger hiring the whole taxi has developed into a part of the folk memory of Belfast people.
The development of the WBTA from an ad hoc collective to a central pillar in the business life of west Belfast is fascinating, and Henry’s interviews with men such as Jim Neeson and Stephen Long – who grew the business and managed to make the company ‘legit’ in the face of opposition – are honest and don’t shy away from exploring some difficult issues, such as the killing of two SAS corporals in 1987.
If you compare the growth of the WBTA with the decline of the Shankill Black Taxi Association, which has fallen from 150 drivers in the early 1970s to 12 in the present day, there is an instructive history of the changing face and power shift in the west side of the city over the last 40 years.
Henry shows an impressive dedication to represent as many different types of drivers as possible, so we hear not only from local male drivers, born and bred in taxiing, but also from those pioneering women drivers such as Majella and Deirdre, foreign nationals like the Czech artist Tibor, or the Italian Alboino with his staggering optimism about his adopted city.
Belfast Taxi is an excellent addition to our understanding of Belfast’s development, and the humble taxi’s role in it. As Henry points out, taxi drivers view history through their rear view mirror, glimpse things that the ordinary citizen never sees, and react to the change in the city faster than most businesses.
This short history gives us the view of the city from road level. It’s a view to be recommended.
Belfast Taxis is available from Waterstones and Easons, published by Blackstaff Press.