At dinner with Suntory recently, I was pleased to be seated next to John McLaren, who is always good for an entertaining story. I was keen to hear about his more recent career as a novelist.His first novel, Black Cabs, was published in 1999. It hinges on the notion that some passengers in cabs are so arrogant as to talk loudly with one another as though the driver were insufficiently intelligent to comprehend their confidences.The story has a group of London cabbies working the city and overhearing discussions about planned takeovers. Armed with this information, they start to play the market to great advantage.Arrogance has been known to manifest itself among writers and journalists, but this rarely happens in cabs. Laptop poised, we arrive in a faraway country of which we know little, take a cab from the airport, ask the driver his opinion on the forthcoming war, election or whiskytasting, and arrive at the hotel ready to file a story.“Bowmore, Islay, Tuesday: This windswept island nation will within the week invade the seccessionist colony of Jura, according to informed sources. Islay’s President Jimbo has reportedly lost his patience with the rebel band of deer that currently control Jura,” etc, etc.On such an assignment, I flew into Wick to find only one taxi at the airport. I hired it for the weekend. As we drove off, the cabbie introduced herself: “They call me Mad Cathie.” I wondered why. “Maybe it’s because they think I’m a terrible driver.”In Inverness, a cabbie identified himself as Billy Bun. Not only did Billy locate precisely the sites of the longdemolished Glens Albyn and Mhor, both now buried; he also drew my attention to two relevant pubs, one called the Glen Albyn.Still budding with helpfulness, he insisted on finding the 1893-1926 version of the Ferintosh distillery, now posing as a business park. When at first he did not succeed, he drove to Dingwall police station and insisted that they help him with our inquiries. Under close questioning, they finally released the fugitive Ferintosh into our custody.In a cab in London the other day, my phone announced itself. Its ring-tone is Scotland the Brave.I was asked my nationality by the driver. He then informed me that despite having been born in Brighton, and of a mongrel stock similar to my own, he was a claimant to a Scottish earldom. He was pursuing his claim through the Lord Lyon of Scotland, and hoped shortly to be in possession of a significant slice of Scotland. I shall look out for developments in this case.I might be helped by Colum the Cabbie. He told me he had qualified as a barrister, but had been prevented from practising by dyslexia. He cross-examined me and was keen to obtain one of my books. Such was his enthusiasm that I was tempted to stop at my office and sign a book for him as a gift, in lieu of a tip.I dropped this idea after he told me about a famous actor he had recently taken home. The actor had invited him in, saying he wish to give him a signed copy of his best-selling autobiography. Once inside the house, it became clear that the actor had sexual designs on Colum.No such misunderstandings with the cabbie who drives me back to London from country weekends. Rex, who is 70, once stayed on his feet for three rounds with one of the Turpin brothers in a fairground boxing ring. We mused over the record of a mutual favourite, Willie Pastrano. In what year was he beaten by Chic Calderwood, of Craigneuk, Lanarkshire? We called into my office to check on the internet. The answer was 1960. Rex’s guess had been closer than mine. I reached into my collection of single malts and gave him something unusual from Islay.It was a week or two before we saw each other. “That whisky you gave me... it reminded me of the smell in my uncle’s cottage in County Tyrone.”
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