London cabbie, Mason McQueen, first appeared on TV screens in the series, Toughest Place To Be, where he tried plying his trade on the chaotic streets of Mumbai. He was such a hit with viewers that the BBC gave him his own series, A Cabbie Abroad. This time he got to drive the mean streets of Cambodia, Fiji and Arctic Canada, getting under the skin of those places as only a cab driver can.
Mason talks to Peter Moore about becoming Bethnal Green's answer to Michael Palin – and why you shouldn't haggle too hard the next time you wave down a tuk-tuk.
How did a London cabbie get a gig as a TV presenter, travelling around the world to places like India, Cambodia and Fiji?
(Laughs) Good question! I always watched the series Toughest Place To Be … and really liked it. I thought they’ve got to do a cab driver one day. And as they say, you’ve got to be careful what you wish for. Lo and behold, I was reading the taxi trade paper and I see it advertised. I thought ‘I’ll go for that.’ But I never seriously thought I was going to get it.
Easy as that?
Sort of. First they came down to my house and interviewed me. Then they asked me to come up to Oxfam in Kilburn so they could film me working there for a few hours. Then I get a psychologist, on the phone, asking me all kinds of questions. Don’t ever say yes to a psychologist. It leads to thirty more questions. The psychologist said ‘I think they’re quite keen on you at the BBC’ and about a week later, they phoned me and said ‘We’d like you to be our cab driver.’
The Toughest Place To Be gig saw you working as a cab driver in Mumbai. How was that?
I’d never been to India before. And the poverty is just so in your face. It's difficult. You just start crumpling every time you try to do a piece to camera. Especially with the little ones at the traffic lights. They’re absolutely covered in diesel and fumes. There would be an 18-month-old holding a six-month-old in her arms. Don’t tell me there are not fatalities. There’s got to be. The driving standard there is dreadful.
And I guess working as a cab driver there, you were thrown right in the deep end.
It was a whole new ball game for me. The driving standards were appalling. Anything goes. Survival of the fittest. You’ve got to keep your eyes open. But it works for these people. In Mumbai, people are on their horns the whole time. It’s organised chaos, but it works.
Did you find anything, as a cabbie, that is the same thing the world over?
Yeah, the moaning. Every cab driver in the world moans!
What surprised me about your latest series, A Cabbie Abroad, was the way you got to tackle some really serious issues.
People thought it was going to be a bit slapstick. Just me driving a cab somewhere, cracking jokes. But being a cabbie is my conduit into a country, getting to the heart of the story. If you got into my cab in the West End and we got talking, you’d tell me you work for a travel magazine and bang, we’re into a conversation. And that’s how it was in all those other countries too. I was able to get into issues. In Mumbai, that was poverty. In Cambodia, the anti-government protests. Fiji it was the situation with the military dictatorship there. And in Canada, the issues facing the Inuits.
It doesn't seem forced either. Your bit about diabetes in Fiji started with a fare to the hospital. A guy got a boil on his leg and a week later you’re taking him to get his leg cut off.
Amputated, yeah. It was a real shock. He was a lovely guy. But I tell you, the smell in the cab, from his gangrene, it was outrageous. It was like 80 degrees. Really humid. And the smell! Oh my God! Unbelievable.
Them issues, as a cab driver, they are there, in your face. I think, being an East Ender, in the face of adversity, you’ve got to have some humour as well. We bring a bit of that to the show. Plus some real stories, about important stuff that is going on the places where I go. A bit of warmth and there’s some weight there. People are really enjoying it.
You had a real empathy with the people. As a viewer you didn’t feel you were being lectured at. By chatting with the local people – and staying with them – you got across the issues affecting them.
Some of the places, like Mumbai, Cambodia and Fiji, there’s not a lot of room there. People living in single rooms, so you’re going to bond. When you’re driving around in a cab for 12 hours, you’re going to bond. You can’t force it.
In the Cambodia episode you explore the country's dark past. How was that?
I wasn't supposed to go to Cambodia. I was supposed to go to Egypt but the powers that be decided it was too dangerous. It’s weird how things turn out, innit? I mean, people protesting peacefully and you shoot them dead, just before Christmas. What's that all about?
Your visit to the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum with Polo was quite moving as well. He just didn't want to be there, did he?
All that stuff with the Khmer Rouge happened when he was a kid. He’s scarred by it. When I went to eat the spider, he said ‘I used to eat these raw. De-fanged and raw. He'd try to get hold of crickets, maybe a handful of rice. That’s all they lived on. Gees.
In the Canada episode, you looked at the plight of the Inuits.
Yeah, it was terrible. Thanks to mining, Iqaluit is a real boom town but some of the locals have fallen by the wayside, dragged too quickly into the modern world.
Like poor Pablo, living in a tin shed in sub zero conditions, because the hostel for the homeless there was just too dangerous.
I asked him why and he said there was a lot of bullying going on. He was small little waif of a guy, it’s just chaos there. He said if I’m in my shed with my friends at least we’ve got our own company and peace. Because there’s heavy narcotic use in the hostel, he’s even known guys being raped in there. It’s dreadful that that sort of thing is happening in a rich country like Canada. Iqaluit is a little city with big city problems that should be, could be fixed.
How does that make you feel?
Sometimes I come back I feel guilty and helpless that I can’t fix it. Simon, the director said ‘You are highlighting it.’ If you can do that then stuff can be done from that. Like a woman got in contact with me regarding Polo in that she wanted to help with his mum’s medical care so Susu can go live with them. That’s my job done mate.
Did you find any common bond between you and the people you stayed with around the world?
Well, in Mumbai and Cambodia, there were real little communities, just like around Bethnal Green when I was younger. You knew everyone on the street and everyone looked out for each other’s kids. There was a sense of acceptance that was nice. Always welcoming, always smiling, even though they’ve got nothing. Living on the breadline, really.
That’s another thing that astounded me, particularly with the guy in Fiji, just how little money these cab drivers make.
I really wanted to start on the guy running the cab office in Suva but I couldn’t, he would have taken the cab off us. Charging him that sort of money for a cab that was so old. I was looking at it as more like $15, $20 a day for that Toyota. He was giving him $60, $70 a day for it. Plus the fuel. What do you say to someone who works all that and just keeps his head above the water and the wolf at the door? I gave him a bit of money at the end of the epsiode and that allowed him to pay off his rent and put a deposit down on a little bit of land on the slum there where most people in his position live and his rent becomes $20 a month then and that is it, rather than the extortionate $180 a month he had to pay the guy for that shack. They got elections in Fiji in September. I’ll be watching that with interest.
What was the most difficult thing you had to do?
Eat the spider in Cambodia. Putting a tarantula in my mouth and eating it was really difficult. I’m not a great fan of spiders. I thought it was going to get smaller once I popped it in, but it expanded. It filled my whole mouth up.
Driving the tuk-tuk in Cambodia was pretty tricky too. The camera equipment was just behind me and the balance was a bit out. The traffic was manic too. You really had to keep your eyes open. There were so many scooters, so many motorbikes, and traffic moves pretty quickly too, so if you did have an accident there it could be quite bad. The icy conditions and travelling in the blizzard in Canada was tricky too.
Do you have a favourite episode?
They're like my kids, I love them all. Couldn’t pick one out. Obviously, I have a soft spot for the Mumbai one for Toughest Place To Be. It opened the door for me. I mean, getting my own series? Hello! I’m 46! I didn’t go looking for it in my life, but it’s here now. Thankfully, I like talking to people. It’s something I’ve always done. I get it from my grandmother. We used to go to the shops for a twenty minutes and we’d be there for like two hours while she’s talking to everyone.
Any tips for travellers using cabs?
Depends what country you’re in, of course, but always try to use a licensed cab. Not that that will help much in some of the places your readers go to!
When I was younger, I used to haggle really hard with taxi drivers and tuk-tuk drivers, often over pennies. After seeing the hard life these guys had on your series, it struck me that I should have been a bit more generous.
Think about where you are in the world and about how hard that guy is working. Has he got a family to feed? But you need to be looked after as well, so you come to an agreement, reach some mutual ground, after a nice bit of communication.
In South East Asia, in particular, what the tuk-tuk drivers charge is pretty minimal. $15 and you've got them for the whole day. And if you want to know about somewhere, really get under the skin the place, stick with a cab driver.
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