Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

The Taxi

Is there a historian at the wheel?
Photo by Zygia

This weekend, I was at London Paddington Station’s gleaming new taxi rank (completed just in time for the Olympics), where I was directed to an old green cab. Stuck to the glass partition inside the taxi was a laminated sheet showing the covers of at least 5 books, all by a certain Alf Townsend. These, it transpired, were written by the driver himself, and they were largely history books. There was London Taxis at War (2011), an account of the Second World War in the capital based on interviews with old cabbies, the autobiographical Blitz Boy: A Evacuee’s Story (2008), and Heathrow Cabbie (2010), a mixture of driver recollections/stories, set in the context of the airport site’s history, right back to the Iron Age.

As we tried to negotiate the traffic around Regent’s Park, Alf told us about his media work, interviews and TV programmes, many of which draw deeply on the oral history of the London cabbie community. It seemed that we had jumped into the car not only of a bona fide taxi-driver celebrity, but also of a historian. It was a reminder that history-writing is a vocation and a passion which of course flourishes outside traditional institutional or professional contexts. And a London taxi, it transpires, is a pretty good platform for publishing history – Alf Townsend said he had sold over 5000 autographed copies of his books in the black cab itself, to his passengers. There is a gutsy sales approach which academics, whose historical monographs typically enjoy a humble print-run of 200, might well mull over.


  1. A very interesting post. One professional historian who has explored the subject of London cabbies is John Davis (Queens College, Oxford) and I strongly recommend his essay: ‘The London Cabbie and the Rise of Essex Man’, in C.V.J.Griffiths, J.J.Nott and W.Whyte, eds, Classes, Cultures and Politics. Essays on British History for Ross McKibbin (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2011).

  2. Thanks for sharing, I will bookmark and be back again

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