The Good Book

Bill Keeth watches a BBC TV documentary entitled ‘To Kill a Mockingbird at 50’

Taxi drivers the world over have a reputation for being know-alls to a man – as well-versed in international politics and penology (according to their own account anyway) as they are knowledgeable about successive World Cup competitions, Manchester City’s trophy cabinet and anything else their respective fares may care to mention.

But this is a generalisation, of course. Because there is no way all taxi drivers are like that.

Take Fred Housego, for instance, theLondonblack cab driver who famously won BBC Mastermind back in 1980.

I know of another taxi driver, too, formerly a swimming instructor and a born raconteur to boot. Of impressive physique and Ernest Borgnine-like features, the guy in question is a bibliophile of some standing and has long tracked out for a local taxi firm which has a lucrative contract with Granada TV. So it is by no means unknown for well-heeled TV types, upon climbing into his cab and demanding the “Home, James” treatment to hear our boy chirrup with aplomb: ‘I shall, sir, employ my best endeavours and proceed with all despatch!’

Or other elaborate verbiage to this effect as he stows his copy of The Independent beneath the driver’s seat.

And it was whilst filming in Monroeville, Alabama (author Harper Lee’s hometown; Truman Capote’s, too), that TV documentary maker Andrew Smith (‘To Kill a Mockingbird at 50’: BBC4, 12 July 2010) came across a cab driver of a similarly unexpected vintage.

Despite her fame, author Harper Lee has given no interview since 1964, so our TV presenter, Andrew Smith didn’t get one either. But Andrew Smith is a self-confessed fan of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer prize-winning, multi-million selling novel, To Kill a Mockingbird*. So much so that he never has got around to watching the excellent film starring Gregory Peck and Robert Duval lest it spoil the book for him. Mind you, the book was certainly a trailblazer in its day, dealing as it does with the trial of a negro wrongly accused of rape and defended in court by white lawyer, Atticus Finch.

Meanwhile, thwarted in respect of the interview he’d hoped to get, Smith remained hopeful of provoking some sort of racist reaction that he might point a finger at, and gloat. So he spent his time trying to wind up everyone in town: blue-rinsed matrons, relatives of Harper Lee, fans of the book, teenagers inbobby-sox, town councillors, a wizened old judge – even a dyed-in-the-wool Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Lawksamercy!

Yep, every one of these got the “Well, pardon-me, for saying so-Sir/Ma’am, but”, interview treatment from television journalist Smith. But only the aforementioned Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan rose to the bait, employing the “n” word without restraint in addition to displaying a KKK costume on camera. Another altogether dubious delight to which viewers were treated was the sight of the Grand Wizard’s Christmas card of choice. This bore the image of a Klan member holding a rope with a noose at the business end of it. The Grand Wizard assured us he’d be sending this card to all and sundry in season, each inscribed with the words “Greetings from Ku Klux Klaus”!

Great galloping white-sheeted good ol’ boys, if I didn’t need me a finger of whiskey before the dang interview stuck in muh craw!

Because it was at this point that Smith pulled his master stroke, sending the Grand Wizard off home in a taxi cab driven by . . . a ‘negro’. Not any old stage property of a ‘negro’, I’ll have you know, but a ‘negro’ of Mike Tyson visage and stature who would obviously have experienced little difficulty in toting barge or lifting bale if called upon to do so . . . pretty please with a cherry on top, if you really wouldn’t mind, Mr Tyson, sir!

Smith, for his part, waited by the taxi rank, quizzing the driver upon his return.

Did the cab driver object to chauffering the Grand Wizard? Nope. That was his job, wasn’t it? Driving people about.

Didn’t the Grand Wizard make him angry? Nope. (Slight pause.) See here. (At this point, the cab driver produced a pocket-sized copy of The New Testament.**) The cab driver began each day of his life, he said, by reading an extract from this book. And if the Good Lord in his wisdom had seen fit to allow a man like the Grand Wizard to draw breath, then who was he to argue.

Thereupon, in much the same way as Andrew Smith had been handing out copies of his favourite book around the town, the cab driver pressed upon him a spare copy of The New Testament.

Smith accepted the book without demur, tapping each edge of it on a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird he held ready in his hand not unlike a gambler new in town arranging a fresh deck of cards prior to shuffling and dealing them.

Not once did he open the book he’d been given. For a moment he seemed speechless, too: schtum as a cowboy of the silver screen playing listlessly with a doffed Stetson beside his partner’s in-filled resting-place on Boot Hill, forbidden by Hollywood screenwriters from commenting further or more profoundly upon events taking place before his very eyes.

  • *   To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee, J P Lippicott & Co., 1960.
  • **The New Testament, Sinag-Tala Publishers, 1999 – Bishop Challoner’s version, annotated
  •      in red throughout, thereby listing one reading per day for every day of the calendar year.

Bill Keeth’s new book Four Years to Life is on sale at Waterstone’s and on Amazon.

October 2010


Bill Keeth’s books, Every Street in Manchester ISBN 1859880649 & Write It Self-Publish It Sell It ISBN 97809558863 are available from Amazon and all good book shops. Bill can also be contacted via his website, http://www.novelnovella.com.

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