Howard Davies: Cab wars and what the Greeks really think about Grexit

Why I'm hooked on Uber, the view from Corfu and the time I entered the murky world of sport.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 24 Nov 2015

Since I cycle every day in London, I am not a great user of cabs, black or mini, and my sons' attempts to introduce me to Uber fell on stony ground. On the fairly rare occasions when a puncture, or the presence of my wife, require it I have always found a loud cry of 'taxi' to be both healthier and more effective than putting on specs to peer at a little screen. But the other day my brave Brompton and I were faced with a phalanx of Metrocabbies in Parliament Square, demonstrating against the Uber-threat to their livelihood. As I carried my steed through the maze, the thought occurred to me that if they were so concerned I ought to have a look at it.

I was an instant convert. I love the little screen with the tiny cars jumping along the streets. You can watch it for hours, even if you don't want a ride. And the price is right - about half the price from central London to home. What's not to like?

Well, some of the drivers maybe. With an Uber you can't be sure to get a West Ham fan with robust views on the Common Agricultural Policy, as you can with a black cab. There is no Uber-Knowledge, as far as I know, but with GPS who needs it? And in the States, where Uber is Ubiquitous, they are talking seriously about a driverless Google fleet in a short space of time. That removes the risk of a dodgy driver entirely. It could be curtains for the London cabbie as we know and love him.

More seriously still, it will be curtains for many journalists who rely on their cab rides from pub to club for almost all their intelligence about what the hoi polloi are thinking. (Look, I did ancient Greek O level and know that 'hoi' means 'the', but leaving the definite article out sounds pretentious.) It's a temptation hard to resist. The other day I heard myself telling some colleagues what the Greeks think about Grexit, based solely on a conversation with a Corfu taxi driver. A sample of one allows one to give a very clear response.

The answer is that they don't like the sound of it, but are curiously unconcerned. I guess that is because the economy of the islands is largely 'offshore' already in financial terms. It depends almost entirely on foreign tourists, either flush ones from the cruise ships, or the low-cost version like me, delivered by easyJet. Athens seems a long way away.

I was told that Mr Tsipras had been to eat recently at the marina where I moor my boat, in the most expensive of the three restaurants, which I haven't dared to visit. But his machinations are less important than the cruise-line schedules.

What is clear, though, is that the banking system will have a hard time recovering, whatever happens. No-one is interested in a bank transfer these days. Cash is king. It's not so much a tax issue, though no doubt that helps, but everyone is now very conscious that in a default or an exit, bank deposits would be devalued into new drachmas, whereas the euro in your pocket would be worth what it was before. That's what differentiates a Eurozone default from those suffered by Ecuador or Argentina, where notes and bank deposits were similarly at risk.

Once the population have left the banks, it will be hard to coax them back. I don't know the Greek for PayPal, but whatever it is we will hear more of it in future.

The FIFA top brass must be wishing they had stuck to brown envelopes, rather than using bank accounts in the United States. That is what has given the FBI and the Department of Justice their licence to kill. If the World Cup selection committee members had been prepared to accept rand, roubles or dinar in unmarked bills all would be well, and Mr Blatter would still be comfortable in his suede shoes, with his new squeeze by his side, in directors' boxes from the Nou Camp to La Bombonera.

Why is it, though, that sports administrators are such a sleazy bunch? I exclude, of course, my good friend Greg Dyke. He was a fearsome and, not to put too fine a point on it, brutally destructive midfielder in his day (as I know to my cost) but he tells it as he sees it.

I was recruited in the 1990s by the doomed Manchester Olympic bid as an ambassador, being as how I was dragged up there. I was director general of the CBI at the time, so had a punishing travel schedule anyway, and tried to tack on a visit to an Olympic committee member whenever I visited a country that had one.

In Poland, the guy had been the athletics boss for more than 30 years, into communism and out again. He came to the embassy and ate a packet of digestive biscuits, noisily, while I told him of the cultural and culinary delights of Ancoats and Ashton-under-Lyne. In Mexico, our man dropped me at the HQ of a sports newspaper, which their Olympian owned. He wouldn't come in with me, as the man was a well-known crook, and he couldn't afford to be snapped with him.

Señor was surrounded by sycophants and different coloured telephones at the end of a huge table, like a pastiche James Bond villain. I had barely begun on my list of the best restaurants in Salford when a phone rang. The routine was that he would pick them up in turn, shout '' then move to another until he found the one that rang. I smiled once, which didn't go down at all well. And after 15 minutes he asked me point blank what I had brought for him. The brochure full of architects' impressions of stadia didn't seem quite what he had in mind. I wished I had taken an FBI agent along.

Howard Davies is the chairman of the Airports Commission. Follow him on Twitter: @howardjdavies

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