Taxi!

We step off the pavement, one hand waving uncertainly. We want attention – the attention of the taxi driver – but, as we are modest, we fear the attention of the pedestrians, cyclists and drivers around us. For our hesitant hand sends a signal. A gesture that semiotically conveys  – or so we believe – our privilege, wealth and exclusivity. Here is someone who rejects more demotic forms of transport. Not for us the perilous thrill of the railway carriage. We require (we demand!) a private space. And so we oscillate painfully between shame and desire; wanting and not wanting; resolution and denial. That one gesture reveals our emotional ambiguity. We hold our liminality within us.

hansom-cab-1600Our signalling is successful. A black London cab executes a perfect U-turn – a masterclass in precision and confidence – that attracts notice and does little to sate our desire for anonymity. We state our destination, open the door and step inside.

And now the stories can begin. For this small, thoughtfully designed and comfortable cabin coaxes and nurtures stories. Maybe, as in the railway carriage, we are beguiled by movement from one locale to another while remaining in one unchanging place. But here this movement is not determined. With a train, the path is fixed, the rails demand one trajectory and one trajectory alone. In a taxi, although our destination is known, our route is not wholly ours to decide. We follow the mercurial whims of our driver. She or he is our flâneur who ‘can progress at their own pace and change their route at their own whim’ (Dale and Burrell, p.72). Of course this freedom is not unconstrained. Choices of speed, route and style of driving are controlled by road conditions, the Highway Code and the desires of passengers. But free of these contingencies, the ‘spatial order organizes an ensemble of possibilities’ (De Certeau, p.98). And maybe memory, the unrecognised preference for one street over another can ‘orient the magnetic field of trajectories just as they can haunt dreams’ (De Certeau, p.104). We are at the mercy of our driver’s dream-play. The shops, thoroughfares, offices and wharves unreel outside our window like as stop-start movie offering suggestions, possibilities, connections.

Our taxi experience is also liminal in other ways. Maybe we are travelling to a meeting. The space around us is infused with business concerns and demands. Yet it carries other resonances. For this is a space we experience on our way to the playhouse, the cinema or, who knows, an illicit assignation (for like the railway carriage, these are spaces of transgression). The meanings fog and coalesce – this is Lefebvre’s ‘lived space’ where ‘phenomenologically experienced space’ is ‘overlaid with ‘imaginary spaces’ whereby the material and the cultural are fused’ (Dale and Burrell, p.10). Like the business dinners analysed by Sturdy, the taxi is a place where the boundaries between ‘work time and leisure time, friendliness and professionalism are blurred further’ (Sturdy, p.929).

And maybe it is this enfolded liminality that encourages stories. For there are many of them. Travelling with colleagues, I have heard stories of clients, past leaders, rival firms and, indeed, our world outside work. Each story seems to begat another. And as we listen we learn: knowledge that is rarely encoded elsewhere is embodied and exchanged.

That such a space – this enclosed taxi cabin – engenders a willingness to narrate and, consequently, to reveal should perhaps not be so surprising. Look around you – as we sit on our compact seats, we are divided by a screen from a silent other. The other hears our stories while their face remains concealed. Maybe this explains our compulsion to tell our stories. For alone with a confessor, what else can we do?

So maybe we should satisfy our desire and banish our shame. For a taxi journey is not an extravagance. It is a liminal opportunity that helps us know our fellow travellers and the world around them better. Rather than view taxis as ephemeral non-places that underpin the ‘fixed instability involved in sticky mobile lives’ (Costas, p.1480), let us celebrate their potential. For without them, our stories, revelations and confessions would be far fewer –  and far poorer.

Costas, J. (2013) ‘Problematizing Mobility: A Metaphor of Stickiness, Non-Places and the Kinetic Elite’, Organization Studies, 34(10), pp. 1467–1485.

Dale, K. and Burrell, G. (2008), The Spaces of Organisation & the Organisation of Space: Palsgrave Macmillan.

De Certeau, M. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life: University of California Press.

Sturdy, A. (2006) ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner? Structures and uses of liminality in strategic management consultancy’, Human Relations, 59(7), pp. 929–960.

Illustrations

Forestier, A. (1890) ‘A hansom cab drove to the offices of the very respectable firm of solicitors’. Available at: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/hansom-cab/

Railway

The railway carriage is a liminal place. It represents both spatial and temporal transition. Within its utilitarian or luxurious confines (for it is a place that also likes to classify us), we are moved from one locale to another while remaining in one unchanging space.  This in itself is problematic – as De Certeau observes there is both immobility inside and outside of the carriage. The fields, villages and towns have only ‘trompe-l’oeil movements…vision alone continually undoes and remakes the relationships between these fixed points.’ (De Certeau, p.112).

CarriageWe also progress in time, a movement governed by – or more accurately suggested by – timetables and schedules. Before 1840, such definitions of time were also inherently fluid. A journey was not just through time but between time with different towns deploying local systems of time. For the Victorians however, the modern railway carriage was, as John Bailey intriguingly explores, liminal in many other ways. If we peek through the smoke-smudged windows, we might discern a place of adventure, blurred identities, erotic escapade and transgression.

From one perspective, the carriage was a place of anxiety, discomfort and potential danger. There were no toilets, washrooms nor, in early carriages lacking corridors, an easy means of escape. Cardsharps, confidence men and tricksters (for where else does the phrase ‘taken for a ride come’?) were a recognised hazard. As Bailey observes, there was also a ‘persistent unease at confinement in the close presence of unknown others’ (p.6).  However, this close proximity might also dissolve reserve while mutual anonymity encouraged confidential disclosure and the relaxation of normal protocols.  The roles, identities and behaviours of everyday life could, for the duration of the journey, be altered or even abandoned.  This ambiguity is characterised by De Certeau as a ‘incarceration-vacation’ (De Certeau, p.114).

For Georges Simmel, modernity created the opportunity for ‘adventure’, an episode of heightened experience, informed by both risk and excitement and ‘torn-off’ from everyday life. But the railway carriage was not just a place of adventure, but also, as Bailey suggests, misadventure: in a society where gender relaxations were strictly governed, such an ‘enclosed space carried its own built-in erotic charge’ (Bailey, p.7).

Contemporary press reports revealed how first class carriages were much in demand by courting couples; popular song told of ‘tunnels so dusky’ where you can ‘kiss fondle and kiss with a double encore’; while musical halls echoed to Marie Lloyd’s rather less than innocent ‘She’d Never Had Her Ticket Punched Before’ (Bailey, p.9). Elsewhere, Ian Carter observes that ‘some ladies of the street had found that the seven-minute run [between Cannon Street and Charing Cross], provided ideal conditions for their activities at a rental that represented only a minute proportion of their income.’ (Carter, p.52).

Such transgression – albeit temporary – of the accepted social order is recognised by Turner who sees the liminal phase in tribal society as one where members of the community can ‘for a brief while have a whale of a good time being chaotic, in some saturnalian or lupercalian revelry…or institutionalised orgy’ (Turner, p.41).

And railway carriages generate other narratives of transgression. Narratives where morality and rationality are subverted. Carter identifies ‘the many hundred British crime novels and short stories’ with railway settings (Carter, p.46).  They also invite in that ultimate liminal character: the ghost.  A.M. Barrage’s The Green Bungalow, Steve Duffy’s Running Dogs and M.R. James’ A Warning to the Curious are just a few of the narratives that see the railway carriage as a haunted space – home to the dead but not dead; the there but not there.

And organisations too generate their own narratives of transgression. They rarely feature railway carriages but rather other liminal spaces: the Christmas party, the awayday or offsite, the business trip.  Here the physical space might be the office, a pub or hotel (identified by Pritchard and Morgan as a ‘place for transgressive behaviours’). We all, I suspect, have such stories.  In some, the mode is comic. Many years ago at the organisation I then worked for, the turgid annual address by the CEO at the Christmas Party was repeatedly and wittily heckled sotto voce by the office electrician  – in the character of trickster. In others, the mode is tragic.  I overheard such a story two days ago, ironically when returning from a conference on organisational storytelling.  The story was co-constructed by two, unseen travellers in the seats behind me and the plot a depressingly familiar one.  An office party, too much drink, unwanted sexual advances and a dismissal the following day. The characters too were familiar – the non-deserving victim, the villain, the supporter (the HR director perhaps?) (Gabriel, pp. 84-85).  Such stories suggest that while transgression brings creativity, release and the frisson of Simmel’s ‘adventure’, it also carries a darkling side of danger, anxiety and humiliation.

There is a final irony. For, as you have no doubt guessed, the place where I overheard this story was a railway carriage: the liminal space that is simultaneously narrative source, scene and progenitor.

Bailey, P. (2004), ‘Adventures in Space: Victorian Railway Erotics, or Taking Alienation For a Ride’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 9(1), pp. 1-21.

Carter, I. (2002), ‘The Lady in the Trunk’, The Journal of Transport History, 23(1), pp. 46–59.

De Certeau, M. (1984), The Practice of Everyday Life: University of California Press.

Gabriel, G. (2000), Storytelling in Organisations: Facts, Fictions, and Fantasies: Oxford University Press.

Pritchard, A. and Morgan, N. (2006), ‘Hotel Babylon? Exploring hotels as liminal sites of transition and transgression’, Tourism Management, 27(5), pp. 762–772.

Turner, V. (1982), From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play: PAJ Publications.