Friday, November 27

Taxi to Church

 An interesting piece here from the Church Times, believe it or not. Colin Dobson is interviewed on his life of taxi driving.

I fell into taxi driving following six years of looking after my father when he became ill. By the time he’d passed to glory, I’d run out of money. It was the greatest privilege of my life to care for him, as he slowly lost his powers. In many ways, the dad became the son and the son became the dad, but I gained so much.

I already had my licence from part-time work as a chauffeur, driving the great and the good. I thought it would only be a temporary thing for a few months. Eleven years later, I’m still at it. I might have found my vocation.

The best thing about it is the people. Every week, in ordinary times, anywhere between 100 and 200 souls are moving in and out of my taxi. Each one has a story to tell, and they often share them with me. There are some extraordinary human beings living among us in Oxfordshire, and my passengers are a great blessing to me. Many have become friends.

The worst thing is the people. I’ve seen some dreadful things — especially between the hours of one and five in the morning: drunkenness, violence, and abuse of all kinds. A very wise fellow, working in a senior role for one of the many Christian organisations based in Oxford, once said to me, as I collected him at 4 a.m. for an airport run after working all night, that I have to guard my soul. He’s right.

In the main, I take people safely to airports, cruise terminals, festivals, pubs, restaurants, and schools — but they’re all closed during coronatide. A customer insisted on paying me more than five times the cost of his fare, to help see me through until September. It’s one of many extraordinary acts of generosity of the time, some of which I’m sworn never to disclose. But God knows.

It’s been economically devastating — the worst stress of my life. A thriving business disintegrated overnight with £35,000-worth of work cancelled before the lockdown began. Bookings are slowly returning to about one third of their usual level. Many customers have decided not to book holiday airport travel; and there’s no business travel.

I’ve only survived financially because of the generosity of my customers, friends, and church family. I was able to operate a shopping service free to the vulnerable, thanks to other people’s donations.

As my living depends on it, it’s necessary to be pedantically practical about my car and not overly concerned with aesthetics. I run a Hyundai I40 estate, diesel, which has loads of boot space: enough for four check-in suitcases and carry-on baggage. The fuel economy’s great, but I’m not wedded to the brand. My next taxi may be something completely different — even electric, if only it were affordable.

A coffee break can be a brief stop at a drive-through on the motorway, or something more life-enhancing, like a four-hour walk around Guildford Cathedral on the way back from Gatwick.

My last holiday was for the canonisation of St John Henry Newman, a former assistant curate of my church — St Clement’s, Oxford — in Rome, last October. The cost of holidays isn’t just the travel, but also the lost income. There’s no holiday pay for the self-employed. None of my holidays since I became a taxi driver would have been possible without the kindness of others.

Writing is cathartic. In the past four years, I’ve written over 30,000 words in the local paper as “The Rank Insider” — published every Wednesday in actual newsprint in what used to be the North Berks Herald. I’m not afraid to write about my faith and my work.

I still live in Oxford, where I was born and went to Church of England schools till I was 13. As children, we played in the ruins of Holy Trinity Church. Almost the entire parish was razed in the ’60s and early ’70s, but I still see the old street pattern. These days, I live in a village on the outskirts, with my two beautiful, spirited cats. They saved my mental health.

I’ve never been unaware of the existence of God. I didn’t become a believer until August 1988, but, at primary school in the 1970s, there were traditions such as an annual nativity play, and daily assemblies with songs like “Lord of the Dance”. This contains the entire message of the gospel, and I’ve known my entire life that it’s the greatest story ever told.

The most significant thing to happen to me in recent years was rolling up to one Ash Wednesday evening service at St Clement’s, where they’ve shown me over years the actual meaning of “by this everyone will know that you are my disciples”. They’re extraordinary people.

God’s been nagging me for years, but discernment is the hardest thing about attempting to live the Christian life. It’s my intention to work as hard as I can for the next three years, to raise enough to retire to a slightly down-at-heel seaside community, to pursue photography and writing and whatever else comes along. I will still probably be driving for people, too. God has a habit of upsetting the best-laid plans, though.

There’s such a thing as righteous anger, though I spend my life trying not to get angry, as there’s far too much to get angry about. Eleven years of taxi-driving tells me that it’s best to remain calm, wherever possible, even in the face of the most dreadful provocation. But I can’t abide the greed and injustice which appears to be endemic in the provincial taxi industry. That’s why I now work for myself.

I’m happiest when I am at the all-night petrol station buying the bread for holy communion, or at the holy table setting up for it. There’s an extraordinary sense of the Lord’s presence there, though we’re not at all High, and the surroundings are quite different from Newman’s day.

One of my achievements during the first lockdown was digitising my 14 boxes of comedy and music records, cassette tapes and CDs, many of which belonged to my mother and grandmother. Spotify is marvellous, because you can carry your entire music collection around with you. And, yes, I do listen to music while I’m driving. I only listen when I have no customers. I listen to poetry and podcasts, too.

My hope is in God who provides in wholly unexpected ways. I’ve seen “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” in this desperately stressful year.

I do pray, but not nearly often nor systematically enough, nor even, probably, for the right things. I do suffer from a dreadful level of shyness when praying with others; but my church home group have been extraordinarily gracious and kind.

I carry a battered old Bible in my taxi, and sometimes a rosary hangs from the rear-view mirror; so I’m often asked to pray for others who don’t feel that they can offer prayer themselves, because “I don’t quite believe enough.” I tell them that they’re good enough for God. I pray most often for peace.

I couldn’t be locked inside my own place of worship: I’m a keyholder. But I wouldn’t mind being there with Newman, who raised much of the money to build it. Inside, it’s quite different from his day, and I wonder what he’d make of it, and of Oxford in 2020. I also have quite a few questions for him about his prodigious writings.

Colin Dobson was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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