Taxi Noir: The Knowledge (Part 2)
Welcome to Part Two of a run-through of the Knowledge of London, the training that London taxi drivers have to go through to get licensed. The first part is learning 320 prescribed routes – known as “Runs”. After learning the Runs you are invited up to Transport for London’s Taxi & Private Hire office for a “Map Test”. This gives you an idea of how you’re progressing. Once you’ve jumped that particular hurdle you can apply to start formal examinations, known as “Appearances.”
You present yourself at 230 Blackfriars Road in a suit and tie, book in at admin, then sit and sweat in the waiting area until you are called by an examiner. The official rules say you should dress smartly. They don’t say you have to wear a suit and tie, but the examiners tend to be a conservative bunch and won’t make things easy for you should you turn up in an open-necked shirt – not that I’ve ever seen it. In the past, examiners were all Metropolitan Police civilians. Quite a few examiners still tend to be retired police officers, though these days they come from a variety of backgrounds. Current examiners include ex-detectives, people in financial services, and a trained actor.They all hold a London cab driver’s licence though. Interestingly, quite a few police officers also become cab drivers after retiring early.
Knowledge Boys live and breathe the Knowledge. It can take over your life. Candidates don’t just obsess over the geography of London, they obsess over their examiners too. They build up profiles of each examiner, together with their supposed specialities and preferences. Some examiners are known to favour certain areas of London, or are more interested in Points of Interest than the actual geography. If an examiner asks you for Points that you don’t know you will leave the examination room very disappointed. Some examiners like asking long Runs, some like short, complex, Runs. Most examiners have their favourite Runs that they ask time and time again. These Runs are known as “Bankers” and are pored over and dissected at each Knowledge school and on web forums. Examiners are given nicknames. “Mayfair Hugh” is so-called because he favours Central London Runs, particularly around Mayfair. A few examiners strike fear into the heart of the candidates; “The Silent Assassin” is like a kindly doctor burdened with the sad duty of having to inform you of a serious illness. He’s a nice guy, but very demanding. It’s no exaggeration to say he gives a grade D out more often than not. A D is a fail.
An appearance is a very scary and formal event. You are called in to a small room and wait to take a seat opposite the examiner. Most candidates know not to sit until invited to, or to move the chair. The chair is in exactly the position the examiner wants it in. There’s little else in the room apart from a map tilted on a lectern on the examiner’s desk. You’ll usually get a few brief pleasantries. The examiner is always addressed as “Sir” or Ma’am” – like The Queen. The occasional clever arse addresses a female examiner as “Darling”. Such people need to be reminded that “Darling” starts with “D” – a fail.
An Appearance lasts about twenty minutes. You are asked four Runs. On your first appearance you will be asked Runs based on four of the 320 Blue Book Runs. On subsequent appearances you can be asked anything within six miles of Charing Cross. Before you can start reciting a Run you need to identify the starting and finishing Points. If you fail to identify – or “Drop” – a Point you will lose marks. You have to do well enough to gain a C grade over the four Runs to make any progress. Marks are ascribed to each Run asked and if you do badly, you’ll see all your hard study come to nothing. It’s all very emotional.
You’ll be asked to return in fifty-six days. As you progress you’ll be asked to appear every twenty-eight days, then every twenty-one. One glorious day you’ll receive a handshake from your examiner. By then, you should hopefully have passed the “Drive” – a special taxi driving test (I needed three in 1988). It’s still not quite over as you’ll need to return at least one more time to prove you know the main routes around the London suburbs.
It’s a big achievement when you get your green badge. I left school with no qualifications, but passing the Knowledge gave me the confidence to carry on studying. Some say the Knowledge is the equivalent to two A Levels. Nonsense. It was harder than either of my two degrees.
Things were run pretty much the same when I started the Knowledge in 1985. I know all about the system because in 2011 I became an examiner myself. It was the best job I ever had, but that’s another story for another time…
Ps. My cat, Rocky, helped me when I went back on the Knowledge in 2010