Give a minicab man a few column inches and he’ll take a whole bus lane

The chairman of London-based minicab firm Addison Lee has used the company’s in-cab magazine to launch a series of eye-catching polemics

Are you a regular reader of the “Chairman’s Column”? I can heartily recommend it. You may not even have heard of it. It’s the short opinion piece near the front of the quarterly in-cab magazine Add Lib, which you’ll find in all cars affiliated to Addison Lee plc, a large London-based minicab firm. It’s written by the chairman of the company, John Griffin. If you live outside London or don’t use minicabs, I’m happy to report that it’s available online via the company’s website.

I just love the fact of it. Add Lib is not a political publication. It’s a bit of fluff to read in the car while the driver slavishly follows the satnav through gridlock – it’s a glossy compilation of retail opportunities. So when, a couple of pages in, you stumble across a short but highly politically opinionated article by the bloke who runs the company, it’s something of a surprise. Yet it refuses to explain itself. There it is, among the reprinted press releases about new bars and shoe shops and the photos of models and celebrities: the words “Chairman’s Column” with a picture of John Griffin, looking grumpy in glasses and a suit, and then a piquant taste of his views. As if it’s long been part of the duties of someone running a minicab firm to write a regular column about topical issues. As if, like the Queen’s Christmas broadcast, it was a regrettable and unavoidable duty which it would be churlish of him not to fulfil. As if chairman and column went together like best man and speech or auctioneer and gavel.

He’s broached a wide range of subjects over the years. London politics: “During the last mayoral election it seemed that the real issue was getting rid of Ken and his Trotsky agenda.” The war on drugs: “We need to start asking the question as to what visible means of support these dealers can point to which has led them to such good circumstances. If they fail to offer a satisfactory explanation, then we must assume that their expensive items are from the proceeds of criminal activity.” Even phone hacking: “It does not come as a surprise to me that any journalist worth his salt would take advantage of this opportunity.”

Eye-catching stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree: Ken Livingstone’s stewardship of London through eight years of an insane financial services boom was in fact a communist regime. The solution to the drugs problem is to arrest young people who look incongruously wealthy. Phone hacking was just a creditable sign of initiative. It’s not hugely unusual that he holds these views – just that he’s so desperate for a context in which to express them. Thank God he doesn’t drive a cab.

His latest piece is a real humdinger. Perhaps appropriately for an authority figure among drivers, it’s a diatribe against cyclists. His sympathy lies with the motorist who might quite understandably fail to spot “a granny wobbling to avoid a pothole or a rain drain” and thus find themselves “guilty of failing to anticipate that this was somebody on her maiden voyage into the abyss”. He bemoans cyclists’ lack of training, insurance, impact bars, air bags and road tax liability, and ends: “It is time for us to say to cyclists ‘You want to join our gang, get trained and pay up’.” (His punctuation, not mine.)

This is classic Griffin. A more oleaginous arguer might have conjured up an unsympathetic cyclist: a cocky shades-wearing courier, weaving between cars while listening to his iPod, or a self-promoting politician surrounded by obliging paps and tailed by his ministerial car. But not Griffin – he’s happy to go straight for the granny: the stupid, myopic, shaky old biddy, wobbling around the road in the way of minicabs, who doesn’t even have the goodness to look where she’s going, get a driving licence or buy a fully taxed Lamborghini. The thought that she, and cyclists in general, probably don’t want to join his “gang” simply doesn’t occur to him.

This guy is a major talent. I’ve often wondered when he’d break through. Well, it happened last week when Griffin wrote a letter to all 3,500 Addison Lee drivers exhorting them to use London’s bus lanes. They’re reserved for buses and black cabs so this is illegal. But Griffin doesn’t see it that way: “The current bus lane legislation is anti-competitive and unfairly discriminates against the millions of passengers that use Addison Lee.”

At last he’s found a big enough fan to throw shit at. Amid consternation from cyclists’ groups, taxi drivers and Transport for London, it emerged that Addison Lee has donated £250,000 to the Conservative party and Griffin has personally lobbied former transport secretary Philip Hammond. Meanwhile several government departments are continuing to patronise Addison Lee.

I can understand why. It’s a very reliable service for anyone visiting the capital. Using a smartphone, you can effectively hail an Addison Lee car in minutes, and some of the drivers even know their way round London. The others are often as amenable to following a passenger’s directions as those being barked out by their in-car machines. It’s a bit expensive but not terribly expensive which, in London, is the closest you get to the sensation of a bargain.

Griffin’s suggestion that his drivers have a right to the same privileges as proper cabbies who’ve done “the Knowledge” is, of course, offensive. But that’s exactly what he means it to be. He must be one of those men who can only unwind by winding people up. I’d say that he wasn’t a very nice fellow if I thought he was even momentarily concerned with coming across as one. But he can’t be stupid enough not to know how his pronouncements will make him seem.

Like Michael O’Leary’s strategy with Ryanair, this could be very effective. We don’t need to like the guy who runs the minicab firm we use – just to feel that the company is well run and will get us from A to B as quickly as possible. Griffin’s attempt to appropriate the bus lanes makes us think exactly that.

It’s ridiculous to claim that bus lane rules discriminate against “the millions of passengers that use Addison Lee”, as if they didn’t have every right to get on a bus. It’s not an argument that holds up for a second. Except if, in that second, you’re late, sitting in a minicab in stationary traffic, and enviously eying the empty bus lane to your left. In those moments of towering selfishness, Griffin’s arguments have real eloquence.

guardian.co.uk

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