a city through the eyes of a girl who's not sure how she ended up here

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Have you got The Knowledge?

'Where's that, love?  Sorry, my Knowledge is a bit rusty.'  The cab driver I hailed in Chelsea wasn't entirely sure where my home road in North London was.  I rattled off a list of nearby places and the name of the main road that runs towards it.  'Alright, hop in!' he said, and off we went.  At Hyde Park Corner he apologised for disturbing me in the back and asked if I had a preferred route.  We traded streets and road names for a while and he formulated the quickest way in his head; a human GPS re-plotting a route in real-time.  'I probably ran this route when I did The Knowledge' he explained, 'but I've not been there in years.'  
(Photo credit: TfL)

'The Knowledge' is the education that all London cab drivers must undertake and complete in order to be allowed to drive a black cab.  Learning The Knowledge probably gives someone the best understanding it is possible to have of how this vast city fits together.  In London if you need to know where something is, and often what is currently going on there, the best person to ask is a cabbie.  But the process of gaining The Knowledge is extremely tough, as I learnt when I got chatting to my cab driver on this trip home.

The average time taken to complete the full Knowledge training is four and a half years; my driver tells me he took five years as he was working whilst he learnt (as a postman, which he says was so awful it kicked him to finish his training!).  Although he does admit that he only began his lengthy scholarship as a £1,000 bet, laid down by a cab-driving friend.  A friend of his completed The Knowledge in only two years, but he did little else with his life during those two years, and had no other job.  The first step in gaining The Knowledge is the Blue Book.  (I love the mystery of all these innocuously simple words used to describe a city's most detailed, intimate secrets!)  The Blue Book - when my driver began his training - contained 480 'runs', or routes through the city from one place to another, passing through 100,000 streets; despite the fact that my cabbie admits his usual bread and butter routes are frequent trips running the short distance between the West End and the City.  

Runs are worked or learned on two wheels rather than four.  You can spot learner cabbies on small scooters (complete with L plates) with photocopied routes taped to their windshields in streets all over London.  On wintery, rainy days however my driver states, unsurprisingly, that this training becomes rather grim.  But the tough road to one's own four wheels and cab licence does not end there.  New cabbies must also go through 'appearances', extremely formal tests in which examiners, addressed by examinees as 'Sir' or 'Ma'am', will demand precise descriptions of routes chosen completely at random.  These routes have to be provided from memory, without even a map to illustrate the driver's chosen roads.  Examiners are notoriously provocative and will attempt to wind up new cabbies to prove they are not yet ready to face the British public.  Those that finally pass are clearly not only very knowledgeable but have the patience of saints; which is no surprise when you think of some of the drunker customers they get driving evening shifts.

My driver tells me of a study conducted back in the 2000s which examined the progress of wannabe cab drivers, following 100 new drivers as the learnt The Knowledge.  Five years later only three of the original 100 learners had become cabbies.  The remaining 97 had not yet finished learning The Knowledge or had given up on the task ahead of them.  So next time you get in a London taxi and become frustrated with the route your driver is taking, don't start telling them they're going the wrong way or rant and rave about their chosen way.  These people have proven themselves more than capable of manoeuvring their cabs through this complex city.  Think before you pipe up...do you have The Knowledge?

4 comments:

  1. The famous Knowledge! I like taking back cabs because usually they know where I am going, unlike some Addison Lee drivers. That said, some black cabs can be rude too, or depressed, or even lost (one tried to convince me that we were going towards the River when we were actually going in the opposite direction -apparently he was just coming back from a vacation and his Knowledge was more than a bit rusty!).
    With satnav and all the technology, don't you think that a different Knowledge is needed?

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  2. Well I reckon that nothing (certainly no technological gadget) is better than a human brain with personal experience for navigating around a complicated, ever-changing city. Although granted, some cabbies are more charming than others, but I think they have a lot to put up with; not all their customers are as nice as you and I, MuMuGB!

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  3. This is one of the only post I've read written by a non-cabbie which manages to capture the essence of life on The Knowledge and working as a cabbie.

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    1. Well thank you very much, David! Coming from a cabbie I will take that comment as a great compliment. All that I know and write about London cabs I learnt from drivers themselves...you taxi drivers are a wise and knowledgable bunch.

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