EVERY LONDON CABBIE MUST PASS THE INFAMOUS KNOWLEDGE – ROSHAN VARMA writes on his experience
Before embarking on the “Knowledge”, I was driving lorries around Europe but thought I’d love a job which was both flexible and rewarding financially. I was 40 years old at the time and most of my previous jobs involved driving in one capacity or another. A friend of mine is a cabby and I always was secretly jealous of his lifestyle – going to work whenever he wanted, coming home whenever he wanted and earning a decent living. I thought to myself, that’ll suit me down to the ground. Do that thing called the Knowledge, learn a few streets, pass a couple of tests, get myself a cab and a map and off I go! Easy! Little did I know at the time that the next 4 years were going to be the hardest of my life.
The London cabby is consistently voted the best on the planet. This is no coincidence. We have to go through what’s known as The Knowledge of London. A lot of people would have heard about it. But not many know what it actually involves. It is a lot more than getting on a moped and learning a few streets (as I was about to find out). The financial commitment, the strains on your family, the dangers of negotiating your way around London’s streets in the freezing cold, the hundreds and hundreds of hours drawing on a laminated map, going to a Knowledge school and facing the dreaded Knowledge examiners is only part of this journey.
So my journey into the Knowledge begins…
First things first. I sent off my application to Transport for London with all the necessary documents and once accepted the relevant CRB checks and medical are completed. I was invited into TfL’s offices, along with other Knowledge students, for an initial talk. It was hosted by Mr. Swires (an examiner) and we all sat there trembling with fear when he walked in! He categorically said, that most of us likely characters will probably not complete the Knowledge so feel free to walk out at any time! Now, some may say that this is just trying to scare us. I’d say, that’s probably right! Because the Knowledge really isn’t for everyone. The commitments can stretch some to breaking point. Mr. Swires then asked, “Does anyone know how to get from The British Museum to Trafalgar Square?”
Complete silence in the room! Then, at 100 mph, Mr Swires says :
“Leave on the Right Gt Russell St, Left Bloomsbury St, Forward Shaftesbury Ave, Forward Princes Circus, Leave by Shaftesbury Ave,Left Monmouth St, Comply Seven Dials, Leave by Monmouth St, Forward Upper St Martin’s Lane, Right Cranbourne St, Left Charing Cross Rd, Forward St Martin’s Place,Forward into Trafalgar Square”. Complete silence. I didn’t even know where The British Museum was, let alone how to get to Trafalgar Square from it! Mr. Swires then explained what this journey was going to involve. “You will learn streets, police stations, places of worship, embassies, schools, restaurants, clubs, hotels, train stations, government buildings, monuments, bridges, squares, parks, sports venues, universities, galleries. And everything in-between. All 30 thousand plus of them!”
I was now thinking that this is going to be impossible. But, no, instead of stumbling at the first hurdle, I pursued this, what seemed, an impossible task. I kept saying to myself, the end goal will be that shiny London Black Taxi.
I was to meet Mr. Swires again much further down the line. More of that later.
I got kitted up with a moped, all the bike gear and off I went to the nearest Knowledge School. It soon became apparent that this was going to be very expensive. The regulator (TfL) give us an introduction to the Knowledge. the rest is up to us. Including the enormous expense of it. Apart from the moped, the most important purchase initially is what’s called the “Blue Book”. This is 320 runs around London. (It has varied in the number of runs over the years). These 320 runs have to be ridden and memorised. The only way to do this is to get on that moped, whatever the weather, and learn them one by one. The foundation of the Knowledge is the Blue Book runs and constantly “calling” them over would be the only way that they would stick in the brain. Aswell, as the 320 Blue Book runs, thousands and thousands of points had to be located. Not only do they have to be located – we have to know how to “Leave” and “set down” each point. Are there any restrictions such as zig zags outside or road bollards or anything else in the way. The examiners know exactly if we have visited and studied each and every one of these points when it came down to examining us. There are no short cuts to this.
Two years down the line I had learned all the runs and located enough Points of Interest to prepare myself for the examination process. This is where things get scary! Every Knowledge student dreads “TerrorTowers” – the place affectionately known where our topographical skills are put through it’s paces in front of a dreaded examiner. There are lots of stories about Examiners and the terror they strike into Knowledge students. Part of the Knowledge process is presenting yourself and being courteous and polite. Every Examiner has to be addressed as “Sir” or “Ma’am”. It’s the way it is and if you didn’t like it, go and do something else. Simple. The initial exam is a Map test. I just scraped a pass on mine. It is a test to see if you can locate points on a blank map and recite Blue Book runs. Then once I passed that, the Appearances start – these are what matters. They are in front of an examiner who will ask four questions. They are not necessarily Blue Book runs. They could be anything. From any point in London to any other point in London. You have to “call,” the question asked, in a fluent manner, naming every street, roundabout, junction, one-way system along the way. And hopefully get the examiner to his or her’s destination without having a nervous breakdown. Once the four questions have been asked, you get given a piece of paper with either a pass or a fail on depending on how you score.
My first ever appearance was a nervous affair. I didn’t sleep the night before. I just couldn’t. I kept jumping out of bed, looking at that map on the wall. What would I be asked? What’s the examiner going to be like? Will there many others there as well? There are a million things going through your head before an appearance. Suited and booted, off I went to my first appearance. We all sat nervously, waiting for our name to be called and, after what seemed like an eternity, my name was finally called by Mr. McDowell. He explained what appearances would involve and that it will be a long process getting through this stage. The first ever question I was asked on appearances was “Limehouse police Station to Olympia”. I almost had a heart attack when asked this but was very relieved it was over Thankfully, I scored (passed) my first appearance and I could really feel that I was on the way driving that shiny taxi. I was on appearances for two years. I can’t really explain it but I went through every emotion on my journey. It brings grown men to their knees in tears. The appearances are not only designed to test our topographical knowledge but our temperament. Our manners and our personality. We are voted the best cabbies in the world for a reason and before we are released in to the big city in our taxis, the examiners have to be satisfied that we are ready. The Knowledge exists because we study for a job that ultimately we will do for the rest of our working days. We study a specific subject to specialise in what we do. London is complicated, there are no straightforward ways to get from A to B and it’s ever-changing road layouts makes the Knowledge even more challenging.
I had around 20 appearances in total but the one that stood out for me was with Mr. Swires. Mr. Swires took my initial introductory talk before I started on this long journey. He s known to be a bit of a legend up at Terror Towers! He made an appearance out of me and my background. My mum is from Trinidad and my dad South Africa. My appearance was Trinidadian and South African themed! I had questions like the Trinidadian High Commission to The Springbok bar (South Africa Rd)! It was such a funny and enjoyable experience that appearance. A few appearances later, Mr. Swire saw me waiting for my name to be called out and said:”It’ll be a Carnival for you soon Sir!!”. A thoroughly lovely examiner. In fact, all the examiners that I had were nice. They are not there to be our friends or have chit chat with. They are there to test us on our Knowledge and to make sure we are ready to face the traveling public in a demanding and highly specialised job. They were always fair with me. They scored me when I deserved it and failed me when I was not up to scratch. My nerves got in the way on a number of occasions but you get to learn to control them in the end.
Once i reached the “Required Standard”, it doesn’t finish there. We are then told to go and learn the suburbs now! This involves yet another set of runs – but this time, around heathrow airport and the areas on the outskirts of London. Its about 120 extra runs that we need to fit into our already exploding brain. We also have to pass a specific DVLA driving test in a taxi. All London Taxis are wheelchair accessible, have hearing loop facilities for the hard of hearing, have bright handles for the visually impaired and an adapted seat that twists outwards for the customers that are not very mobile. We need to learn how to use the equipment involved that makes our customers as comfortable as possible. It’s a specific vehicle for a specific job. And, of course, we have to learn how to switch that all important meter on! Once i passed my driving test and learnt all the Suburban runs, it’s finally time for a last appearance. Mine was with the lovely Ma’am Ayres. She asked me 2 questions around Heathrow and 3 others. That final handshake came and my legs turned to jelly. Four years of hell had finally come to an end. A presentation with other Knowledge students was the final stage to this. We were advised on “Cabby Etiquette” out on the road. We have unwritten rules in our trade that makes working out there just a little better.
So, there it is. My experience on The Knowledge of London. Not for the faint-hearted. It certainly is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. I often hear the arguments about Sat Nav Vs The Knowledge. All I will say about this is, The Knowledge wins hands down every time. Our customers appreciate our in-depth knowledge of London and it’s complicated layout. Our friendly and helpful personalities are developed whilst on The Knowledge. Our temperament and customer-focused attitudes are born out of doing The Knowledge. It, quite simply, is the best topographical test in the World.