Amid the bust, a boom in polite taxi drivers and cheap builders

Harriet Sergeant
Published: 26 October 2008

So now we have it. Britain is in recession. How is life going to change? Despite the hardship and worry for many of us, there are unexpected benefits.

Take taxi rides. The past 10 years have seen them become increasingly fraught. The plethora of Smartie-coloured control buttons, video screens and soothing voices leaves me screaming. When I ask tentatively whether the football commentary could be turned down, drivers snarl, “Don’t you be telling me what to do in my cab,” and eject me into the rain.

Last week when the driver, after getting paid, got out of the cab and approached my door, I feared the worst. Was my tip too modest? Had he taken offence? He opened the door. I shrank back. He looked puzzled. Suddenly I understood. He was not about to hit me. He was, in fact, performing an action I had not seen for a decade. He was holding the door open for me.

Dinner party conversations, too, are much improved. Gone are house prices, holidays and school fees. Now it is all about guns. The collapse of their world has turned many young hedge fund managers and bankers into armageddon fantasists. If they are going down, then so is everyone else.

One power surge too many this winter, a number have explained to me, will see our ancient power grid collapse and civil society with it. They urge me, a single mother alone in the world but for a teenage son and a fluffy dog, to get a gun for our protection.

They may have lost their wealth, but these young men still retain their attitude to gadgets. One advocated the “street sweeper”. A short bulky gun with a rotating magazine, it is, I am assured, the Prada of home defence – easy to use in the hall or on a staircase. An extra bonus is that the bullets do not go through walls. “You can get it on the internet,” a banker assured me, displaying the same disregard for our gun laws as he had for financial regulations. “Customs won’t notice.”

As others have discovered to their cost, the banker’s information is not entirely reliable. Not many households in the world can boast an item labelled a “destructive device” in the United States and a “prohibited weapon” in Canada.

An older hedge fund manager proved more helpful. We were dining at high table in an Oxbridge college when he whipped out his BlackBerry. Street sweepers, we discovered, are legal in Russia. In Moscow you can even get them gold-plated.

For the UK householder this recession offers more tangible benefits than the street sweeper. The service industry, for example, has come down to earth. Last week Lord Desai warned that the coming recession will hit university-educated white-collar workers in the south and east.

Nothing sums up the fate of the services dependent on this sector better than the Polish builder. Originally cheap and dependable, he, like everything else in the economy, has overheated.

A week before the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a Polish builder and I contemplated the cracked paintwork on the back of my house. Juggling three different mobile phones, he said: “I have workers on seven sites in the area.” He advised restoration work, “like they do in museums”, using a filler unique to Poland. “Much cheaper and better than you get here. I will drive it over for you. I do everything professional.”

For this he quoted a sum large enough to buy a small house in Greece, Italy or even Poland itself. Then came the recession. The high zloty and strong Polish economy mean that my builder can no longer import Polish builders. He is even thinking of returning to Poland himself.

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  • HARRIET SERGEANT

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