Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Book review: Belfast Taxi by Lee Henry

Belfast Taxi: A drive through history, one fare at a time by Lee Henry, a journalist and Web Editor of CultureNorthernIreland.org, is a book based on interviews Henry conducted with more than thirty Belfast taxi drivers of all ages and backgrounds. The author's grandfather was a Belfast taxi driver which may go someway in explaining his interest, but in this book it is Henry's skill as a journalist that shines through as the drivers have each revealed to him their individually interesting stories. Describing the drivers as "opinionated, personable and forthright", like their counterparts all over the world, he points out that what sets them apart is "their experiences of working in the Troubles." Encouraged by the drivers to go ahead with the book so they could tell their stories, some were happy to have their manes revealed whilst others preferred to remain anonymous. The chapters cover all aspects of the trade; origins, during the Troubles, working with the Press, Falls and Shankill taxis, women taxi drivers, Foreign national drivers and modern Belfast.

 One driver is a keen amateur historian, a great source of information on the origins of Belfast taxis, even going back to a public sedan-chair stand in the early nineteenth century. The biggest advance in Belfast taxi history was the arrival of the Austin 'black taxi' in 1958, enabling anyone with the money to buy independent employment.

From the late 1930s private taxi hire grew and by 1960 Belfast was a thriving city. But as the decade progressed tensions arose and during the 1970s, 80s and even 90s, Belfast was not a safe place, with daily bomb alerts, hoax calls and synchronised explosions. Some drivers were inevitably killed but taxi drivers still continued to work, some closer to the danger than others as the chapter 'Working With the Press' describes. Taxi drivers who knew the city were in demand by the press to drive into the high-risk front line, with one driver naming working passengers as Kate Adie of the BBC and Olivia O'Leary of RTE.
Taxis were also needed by the public when bus services were interrupted and suspended in west and north Belfast. a good neighbour scheme of car pooling 'the people's taxi' into the city was joined by taxi drivers who drove a set route for a a fixed route fare.
The first female taxi-company owner Sally Rodgers is afforded a chapter all of her own. A blow-in from Portglenone and remarkably, a mother of fourteen, she took over a struggling taxi depot in 1975 during the Troubles and is considered a pioneer in the industry. Belfast City Airport taxis has grown over the years since the airport "was only a wee wooden box" and Belfast's regeneration has bought visitors to the city, and celebrities such as at the 2011 MTV awards. As one driver tells Henry, "One of the celebrities and her entourage had gone for burgers. would you believe it, she was sick in his cab!...Famous or not...,I would have bucked her straight out onto the road." That's no-nonsense Belfast taxi talk for you!

Henry also interviewed foreign nationals who had made their way into the business, who both spoke highly of their acceptance by the Belfast community. Describing themselves as "ordinary decent people, the advent of peace has made the drivers into better professionals working in one of the up-and-coming cities of Europe.
This book is packed full of stories from the no-nonsense drivers of Belfast city. It is a reader-friendly collection of the information collected by Lee Henry from his interviews. Telling the history of Belfast and the changes in society through the drivers stories, Henry has managed to write an informative and genuinely interesting book without resorting to stuffy date quoting. Using the voices of the drivers he has managed to gather information about real people by real people and it is both a pleasure to read and a way to subconsciously educate yourself about Belfast society and history.
Of interest to anyone who enjoys reading about society and history, particularly of Ireland, it can also be dipped into as each chapter can be read in its own right.
 Author Lee Henry
Published by Blackstaff Press www.blackstaffpress.com

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