A Taxi Driver, Yesterday.
I can’t remember where we were going, only that it was late and it was autumn and Hull Fair was in town. I was living in London at that point, only coming back to Hull for short spells. It felt both strange and comforting to hear a local accent, despite the bleak picture it was painting. He was a bleak and sardonic fellow, this taxi driver, a proper old school King Of The Road type. One of them characters who slouch back in the drivers seat and steer one handed, manoeuvering through the world beyond their windscreen with bemused contempt.
This was 2008, and the talk of impending recession was adding to the weight of sodden woe that the previous years floods had left in their wake He was telling me about how things were dead, business was dead, and no one had any money. Lots of people didn’t even have houses. Thousands of families across the city were still in emergency accommodation, and now, to top it all off, people were about to start losing their jobs. Hull has never been Acapulco, but at that particular point it felt that God had loosened his flies and pissed all over the city from a very great height.
He was playing country music on his radio, this taxi driver. In an attempt to join in with the general mood of fatalism, I made some passing comment about pelting myself off the Humber Bridge.
It’s all right you laughing, he said, I took someone up there the other week who wanted to see himself off. About two, three o’clock in the morning. Some young lad. Last job of the night.
What happened, I asked him?
He changed his mind, he said.
To me, this was a heroic act made all the more intriguing by a central character that would rather be perceived as a cold-hearted bastard than a hero. I thought he was brilliant.
And then he related a bare bones version of the section that ended up in the book; how a taxi driver talked a young man out of taking his own life by demanding his wallet.
It’s a remarkable thing to do, to persuade someone to live. In my experience, people who truly want to commit suicide don’t usually pause to have a debate about it, rational or otherwise. It’s not a conversation that many people get to have. So there’s a dramatic scene there to begin with. But the thing that truly intrigued me about this tale was the teller’s ambiguous intentions. It’s fair to say this fellow wasn’t exactly Samaritan material. As far as human suffering was concerned, he seemed to be the Hercules of Indifference.
The encounter stayed with me for weeks. What was this taxi driver’s motive? Salvation? Mockery? Greed? Or just a practical response by a cash strapped cynic who saw an opening? Did he want to save this lad’s life or take his money? His dry and dismissive delivery suggested the latter. When pressed, he refused to acknowledge any attempt at rescue whatsoever. I wanted his fuckin wallet, he said. About a hundred quid in there.
I wanted to believe it was the other way. To me, this was a heroic act made all the more intriguing by a central character that would rather be perceived as a cold-hearted bastard than a hero. I thought he was brilliant. He had saved someone’s life by a daring feat of psychological manipulation. And he refused to seek any accolade. He was like Travis Bickle in reverse.
I decided to write it up as a film script with a pal of mine called Mick Redmonds. We had plans to shoot a short film, but quickly discovered that the two trickiest filming environments were cars and the dark, and our film featured nothing but both. There was talk of other scripts but money and time were in short supply and we both turned our attentions elsewhere.
Hull has never been Acapulco, but at that particular point it felt that God had loosened his flies and pissed all over the city from a very great height.
But the taxi driver stayed with me, so I re-worked it as a short story. And then, with the discarded back-story, I put together another short piece about the lad in the car. Then another about his girlfriend. Before I knew it I was writing about an entire community, some of whom were related through either blood or water, some of which hardly knew each other. All living lives under testing conditions. And then I scrapped the idea of short stories and spun them all together against the backdrop of the Fair.
As the work progressed, I found a few themes kept coming up throughout the creation of Scream If You Want To Go Faster. One of them was the idea of stoicism. In my mind, I saw an active conversation between the cosmic determinism suggested by the floods and the human freedom symbolized by the fun fair. The heritage of Kingston Upon Hull is steeped in stoicism, mainly because of the fishing trade. Six times more people died fishing then mining. We were no strangers to the elements and their capacity for sudden cruelty, and I think this has bred a distinct psyche among its citizens; unsentimental and stoic but with a huge hidden capacity for tenderness. Romantic realists. Anchors made from flowers.
I’ve not bumped into that taxi driver again, which is strange for a city as insular as mine. But no doubt he’ll pick me up at some point. And when he does I’ll tell him about how his story turned into a book.
Not that he’ll be bothered, of course.
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