Palestra

Palestra

I spent a lot of my adult life in the London taxi trade; studying for the notoriously difficult Knowledge of London examinations from the spring of 1985, to finally being awarded my shiny green badge just before Christmas in 1988. I left the trade completely when I “went off to do other things” in the 1990s, but continued to dip in and out of the trade since, finding it particularly useful in college and university vacations. In 2011 I landed my dream job and became a Knowledge of London examiner. I’ve moved on since then, but looking back, it was the best job I ever had.

The most satisfying part of the job was awarding a candidate their Requisition, indicating they had passed the Knowledge. A candidate who is three points away from his Req has already proved himself as most people would have dropped out long before this stage – approximately seven out of ten candidates who start the Knowledge never complete it.

Examiners expect great things from someone up for his Req, but it’s up to the candidate to keep focussed right to the end. Examiners are not usually disappointed, but some candidates turn up expecting an easy ride having taken their foot off the pedal.

I’d give quite complex Runs to a Req candidate, and if they were scoring well on the first three Runs, I’d often end with a gift: Run number one on the list of 320 prescribed Runs that every prospective cab driver has to learn: Manor House Station to Gibson Square. I’d ask it straight like that, or I’d sometimes tease them a bit, while letting them know that they are home and dry:

Palestra

Palestra

“Take me from Manor House Station to…  Where do you want to go to?”

“…Gibson Square, sir?”

“Righto, away you go…”

Virtually every Knowledge Boy on any stage will bang out this simple Run perfectly. If the candidate lived within the six-mile limit, I might ask him to take me to Gibson Square from the road he lived in. I’d only be half-listening as I’d underline his appointment card with a red pen, and write “Req.” on it. After the candidate had set down safely in Gibson Square, I’d congratulate him and reach over to shake his hand. It isn’t uncommon for candidates to shed tears when they gain their Req. It was emotional all round and I would feel quite moved myself.

I’d outline what happens next by way of his suburbs, as he’d need at least one more examination on his knowledge of the main routes outside the six-mile area. There wasn’t much point in trying to impart detailed information at this point as the candidate wouldn’t be taking anything in, but I’d advise him to make sure he physically drove around Heathrow and City Airports before being let loose on the public. A candidate won’t always be examined in detail on his knowledge of every little service road at Heathrow, but it’s best to learn how to get in and out of the five terminals before you’re driving passengers around for real.

I only got sent to Heathrow about once a month and I always sweated with anxiety as I approached the airport, worrying that I’d panic with a coach behind me and miss the turn. I always congratulated myself when I exited Terminal Four correctly and found my way back on the road to London (exiting Terminal Five once I found myself heading towards Southampton).

In the 1980s we were subjected to the Metropolitan Police driving test – known as The Drive Knowledge Point school sold me a package of tuition and loan of a cab for the test. You’d go out on the road with your tutor in the back, and you’d practice reversing in the school’s car park. During my first lesson I was persuaded to take my test in an automatic. I wasn’t sure at first, as if you were licensed for an automatic you couldn’t switch to manual later. I didn’t realise at the time that almost all London cabs were automatic, so figuring it unlikely I’d ever want to drive a manual I made the switch. I found driving an automatic easier and never looked back. I still don’t know why people drive manual cars in this country.

These days, you take the Drive when you are at an advanced stage on the Knowledge (these days the test includes disability awareness and how to load wheelchairs safely). Back then, the driving test was the final hurdle after all Knowledge formalities had been completed. You would therefore have a gap between finishing the Knowledge and gaining your badge, especially if you failed the test. The driving test centre was in Southgate Road, Islington (predictably converted into a block of flats many years’ ago). As I drove out of the gate with the examiner in the back, a man stopped me to ask for directions. This threw me, and I ended up making mistakes and failing the test.

I failed the next one too.  Reversing around cones evidently wasn’t my strong point. I was also told off for driving above thirty miles per hour on what the examiner called the “Turkish Sector” of Green Lanes in Haringey. I’d apparently run a red light to boot. I swear it was amber guv. I finally gained my licence after my third drive.

These days, happy cab drivers pose on websites with their appointment card propped up against a pint of beer, or a bottle of wine if they are posh. Nothing was mentioned on social media when I gained my green badge in 1988 because the internet hadn’t yet been invented. When I became an examiner in 2011 there were a graduation ceremonies at TfL’s Palestra building, where the Director of Taxi & Private Hire would give an inspirational speech, and pose for photos as he handed out the badges. The new cab drivers’ proud loved ones recorded everything on camera, and everyone laughed and joked with their old examiners as equals. It was a happy occasion. There were no such festivities welcoming me to the trade back in 1988. I just walked up to the Booking Out window on my own, paid my licence fee, and collected my licence, copy licence and green enamel badge. That was it; I was a London Cab Driver. Welcome aboard, son.