On the Meter

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Knowledge of London (Part 3; learning the streets of the City by night)

Driving through the darkest, narrowest byways, exploring the remotest parts of London, studying The Knowledge late at night and into the earliest hours of the morning, could at times, be a rather depressing, sometimes frightening experience.

Driving around dim, lonely streets in a small car during unsociable hours, one of the commonest problems I faced on The Knowledge was that I looked like a ‘kerb-crawler’; a punter looking to pick up prostitutes.

In some areas- such as Sussex Gardens in Paddington; a notorious late-night, red-light district bristling with seedy hotels- there were large, official yellow metal signs related to this sordid activity.

In most parts of London, these yellow sign-boards announce that a either a fatal road accident, or a serious crime (usually a murder via a stabbing or shooting) has occurred and witnesses are being sought.

However, in Sussex Gardens, these signs acted as warnings, instructing men not to kerb crawl, and that undercover Policewomen worked in the area to keep an eye over proceedings. I was often aware, therefore, that driving slowly along a road, in order to make notes of points and restrictions, could bring potential suspicion.

My fear of being apprehended would worsen when prostitutes actually tried to approach me. This first time this happened to me was in South London.

I’d pulled over onto a street which, although quiet, was not far from the centre of lively Brixton. Being a warm night, I had the window wound down slightly. With the handbrake on, I began to make a few notes on road restrictions in the area.

There I sat, with my clipboard on my knee, jotting down a few words. With my head down, I didn’t see the young woman approach my car. As I wrote, I suddenly heard the voice through the small gap in the window;

“Got a light mate?

The woman posing the question looked quite ill; her eyes were heavy and red, her hair-although fairly long and blonde, was scruffy and straw like. A cheap necklace hung around her neck, and she wore a grubby, sky-blue jogging-top and loose tracksuit bottoms.

“Sorry” I replied, “I don’t smoke.”

The woman then crossed her arms, hugging herself and appearing to shiver, despite the warm air. She looked around quickly and said;

“How about a bit of business then?”

I suddenly realised her real reason for approaching me. Being a little young and naïve, I didn’t really know how to respond.

“Oh… no, I’m sorry” I replied…. pausing a moment before adding, rather pathetically;

 “I’m… just out doing The Knowledge.”

The woman shrugged and slunk off. I felt sorry for her; she was clearly very dependent on drugs and I dread to think where her next lot of cash came from.

Another time, I was in Dalston, not far from Ridley Road Market; a bustling and lively place by day. However, this was around 1am and, once again, I’d quickly pulled over at a quiet spot in order to jot down a few notes on the area’s one-way systems and road prohibitions.

As I wrote, I suddenly heard a clunking noise, as someone attempted to open my passenger door (which was thankfully locked). I looked up and saw a young woman, probably no more than 20, wearing a tight trench coat and large, round earrings. A little startled at the interruption, I quickly put the car into first gear and slowly began to drive off, waving my hand, uttering “no, no.”

Despite this, the woman clung onto the door handle, and looked at me through the window with a mixture of pleading and desperation; I distinctly remember her mouthing the word, “Please…”

As I glanced over my shoulder to check that no cars were approaching, I spotted a lone man across the road, dressed in a long, leather coat, his hands thrust into his pockets, carefully surveying the scene. I guessed he was the unfortunate woman’s pimp.

These were the most direct encounters, but I would often see prostitutes standing by the road, attempting to beckon me over. Some would try and walk in front of the car.  

Although famously labelled ‘the Oldest Profession in the World’, I always found the presence of prostitution deeply depressing, for it often led me to wonder with dread what had driven these young women to selling themselves in the first place.

London’s Ladies of the Night were not the only ones to try and gain access to my vehicle. On one occasion, in Whitechapel, a tall man in a tight leather jacket swayed over and tried to open the door. I suppose he must have mistaken me for what is actually the London Cabbies’ sworn enemy- the illegal night tout; a plain, unlicensed car looking to pick up passengers for a quick- & potentially dangerous- buck.  

On another occasion, also in Whitechapel, I was waiting at a red traffic light (always frustrating late at night when there is no apparent traffic), when a young fellow, not much older than 18, casually walked over to my car, bent down and peered directly in through the passenger window, squinting as he did so. It looked to me as if he were sourcing items to pinch, so I immediately put the car in gear and pulled off. Luckily, the lights changed to green as I did so, but I was quite prepared to go through a red-light in order to prevent a potential car-jacking.

Hostility seemed to be everywhere when I was doing the Knowledge by night. 

One evening, just off of Hammersmith Broadway (a popular nightspot, bustling with bars and pubs), I was trying to work out a fiddly system of one-way side streets.

As I turned into a little road off of Hammersmith Road, I had to slam my brakes on- a group of four men, clearly drunk and uniformly tailored in jeans and white t-shirts, had swayed out into the road. I managed to manoeuvre around the revellers, despite them hurling insults and abuse as I did so.

As I trundled up the road, I heard shouting and, glancing in my rear-view mirror, I discovered that the inebriated group had decided to give chase! 

Although tanked up on booze, they were still quite capable of running, and were pounding up along the road after me, barking what were clearly insults, despite being too thuggish and slurred to understand.

Luckily, my trusty little Peugeot didn’t give up on me and, using the little knowledge of the area which I’d already acquired, I managed to fiddle my way out of the one way system and back out onto the safety of a main road!

Another time, around midnight, I was driving along Sanford Street; a long road which runs through New Cross, and is mainly populated with industrial sites. 

Just off of, and clearly visible from Sanford Street, there is a large mural on a road called Cold Blow Lane (the notorious Millwall F.C used to have their stadium at the other end of Cold Blow Lane).

Painted at the height of the Cold War in 1983, the mural, which takes up the entire side of a house, is entitled ‘Riders of  the Apocalypse’, and depicts Maggie Thatcher, Michael Heseltine (defence secretary at the time), Ronald Regan and the then Soviet Premier, Yuri Andropov, all straddling nuclear cruise missiles as they brazenly jockey around the world. 

Here's a snapshot (note; Ronnie Reagan's off camera!)

Although this unexpected mural lends a pleasant charm to the area, that is where the list of things to see and do on Sanford Street ends.

Maybe I’m biased, but I’ve never associated positive things with Sanford Street. 

In 2008 for example, on Sterling Gardens, a small road off of Sanford Street, two French students were brutally robbed and killed; their small, rented house set on fire afterwards in a bodged attempt to cover up the evidence.

This was one of the most vicious murder cases in recent London history, and when I first heard about this awful story, I wasn’t surprised.

The Sanford Street quarter is, to put it simply, a diobolical place.

Another example of this area’s bleak history is the ‘New Cross Fire’, which occurred about ¼ a mile away from Sanford Street on New Cross Road itself, in January 1981. 

The fire took place at a house party, killing 13 young black people. Nobody has ever been convicted of its cause, but much evidence points to the blaze being the result of a racially motivated arson attack. 

* * * 

As I mentioned a moment ago, I was driving along Sanford Street one evening at around midnight. At the northern end of the road, there is a railway bridge, and Sanford Street dips a little in order to pass below it; the cutting creating embankments on both sides.

As I approached the bridge, I spotted a gang of around seven kids- and they were kids; nobody in the bunch of scallywags appeared to be older than 13 (remember… this is around midnight!)- loafing around on the left embankment.

The next thing I clocked was the lump of breezeblock lying in the middle of the road, right beneath the bridge.

As I drove closer, a young lad from the embankment youth club waddled down towards the road and headed for the breezeblock chunk. Picking up the grey brick, he did an audacious dance in the middle of the road, wriggling his tracksuit-clad torso from side to side. 

Having commenced this ritual, the little sod proceeded to run up onto the opposite bank as my vehicle approached. There were no roads to turn down, and a U-turn wasn’t a sound option.  I had to drive towards the ambush.

I deliberately slowed the car, in order to bamboozle the youngster’s expectations. Then, as he raised his arm to hurl the missile, I put my foot down, quickly increasing speed (and probably sending quite a shock through the system of my little Peugeot!) 

I heard a clacking sound as the breezeblock exploded into gritty pebbles behind me. Glancing in my rear-view mirror, I saw the wee assailant back in the middle of the road, re-commencing his war-dance, his fingers held up in the predictable ritual of the ritual V-sign.  

The breeze-block throwing incident was nowhere near the worst thing to happen during Sanford Street’s history, but it made me wince to think what would have happened if the rocky lump had managed to smash my driver’s window.

With the end of the Cold War, some would say that the apocalyptic mural beside Sanford Street is redundant.

Personally, I think it’s still very apt; a sound representation of the lurking terror and destructively cruel nature which still stalks this particular area of London.

To be continued...

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Knowledge of London; Training to be a London Cabbie (Part 2; the early stages)

I was born and grew up in North-West London.

However, before signing up to study The Knowledge, I can safely say that I’d never driven a car in Central London before.

In my first Blog about the Knowledge, I described how most students use a moped or scooter to carry out their practical studies. However, a smaller number choose to carry out their driving in a car.

This was the category I fell into, and there were two reasons for this:

1) I live very close to a motorway; a broad stretch of tarmac which gets me into Central London very quickly. Unfortunately, British law does not allow smaller engine vehicles such as mopeds or scooters to use these fast roads.

2) I thought I’d be a lot safer on London’s roads if I was enclosed by four metal panels! I have a lot of respect for people who ride around London on two-wheeled contraptions; that takes guts.

When I was a baby, my father- a carpenter by trade- used to ride a bicycle into Central London to attend the various building sites he was employed on. One morning, he was hit and knocked off of his bike at the notorious Marble Arch junction. Although he thankfully sustained no serious injury, hearing that story when I was older made me apprehensive about riding around Town in such a vulnerable manner!

So, although I knew using a car to study the Knowledge would add extra expense, I went to the bank and took out a small loan in order to buy one. The vehicle I purchased was a little, blue Peugeot 106; second hand. It was an ex-courtesy car and, as such, was in good condition with little mileage on the clock. Those conditions changed of course after its stint on the Knowledge!

Once I had my trusty little motor, I thought it would be a good idea to give London-driving a go before starting my Blue Book runs for real. So, early one Sunday morning, around the time of my acceptance interview, I decided to take the car out for a spin.

It was a very liberating experience. I set out at about 5.00am, the sort of time when the dawning sky looks like a giant bruise; all purplish, dark-yellows. Before long, I found myself in the deserted centre of London.

Although it sounds like a clichéd comparison, the roads that morning really were like the opening scene in Danny Boyle’s 2002 film, '28 Days Later'; the post-apocalyptic film in which a young man awakes in an abandoned hospital- the seemingly sole survivor of a rabid plague- and proceeds to wander the eerily deserted streets of London. (This famous sequence of course owes much to John Wyndham’s fantastic 1951 novel, The Day of the Triffids).

I felt like I had London to myself; I drove along Piccadilly (the world-famous neon signs were flashing and flickering away, although nobody was there to see them or be influenced by their advertising), down towards Trafalgar Square (just me and a chilly, stony Nelson high up on his plinth) and along Fleet Street (the bustling commuters replaced with empty, rolling beer bottles, and scraps of paper shifting in the breeze).

However, my monopoly over the city came to an end as I approached one of my favourite London landmarks; the gorgeous St Paul’s Cathedral. As I approached the famous icon, the road narrowed and chicaned; a feature of the ‘Ring of Steel’; a restrictive system of barriers and obstacles slung around London’s financial district during the 1990s in response to IRA attacks, and still strictly enforced.

As I slowed my little Peugeot, a Policeman stepped out and ordered me to halt. Although I would later be stopped numerous times by the Metropolitan Police during my time on the Knowledge, this was the first time I’d encountered such a situation, and I had no idea what to expect. A little panicked and thinking I’d done something wrong, I scrambled for the cheap, plastic window lever and turned it quickly, the glass shuddering down into the door.

The policeman; not much older than me, looked into my vehicle.

“Good morning, Sir…. May I ask where you’ve come from this morning?”

I told him.

“And where are you heading?”

The first question was easy. This one threw me…for I had no destination!

“Well… nowhere to be honest,” I replied, trying my best not to sound too dodgy. “I’m going around in circles. I’ve just started the Knowledge, and am having a drive around.”

As soon as I mentioned the magic word, ‘Knowledge’, the young Policeman’s expression changed and he tapped the roof of the car with his gloved hand.

“Oh, OK, no problem. Off you go then, and good luck!”

The following week I set out to begin my Knowledge proper. 

Again, I set out early on a Sunday morning. However, as I mentioned in my previous Blog, I didn’t know where Manor House, the famous Knowledge starting block, was! Sure, I’d seen it on the A-Z map, but it looked far too tricky to reach from where I lived. The beginning of the second run; Thornhill Square looked far easier to reach as it wasn’t too far from the Euston Road; part of a major artery which cuts through Central London.

With the streets to myself, I trundled around in my Peugeot, jotting down lots of scrawny notes. There were a bewildering number of road restrictions; mainly one-ways and streets blocked with gates (something, as I now know too well, that this area of Islington is famous for!)

I did my best to think about how I’d work around these obstacles, and it felt rather like a giant game of Cat and Mouse between myself and the local Council responsible for this jumble of constraints. It was good practice, because every working day now feels like this!

Alongside this, my brain did its best to comprehend the array of points (places of interest) in the ¼ mile circle. To this day, I can still remember St Andrew’s Church, West Islington Library, the Marathon Ethiopian Restaurant, the Cally Swimming Pool and the RIGPA Buddhist Centre on Caledonian Road to name but a few.  A lot of places which you discover and commit to memory on the Knowledge may sound obscure, but customers do ask for them.

I then drove the route to Queen Square, near Great Ormond Street Children’s hospital (I’d studied the run alongside the map the night before). As I drove the route, I noted each road and did my best to recite and remember it, to see the streets in my head.  Just to make sure, I drove the route another two times, burning it into my memory!

The next time I went out, I felt a little more confident, and was able to find Manor House and carry out the first run. In the Manor House area, I have a vivid memory of stopping the car on a small side road to get out stretch my legs in the early morning air. I swung my foot out, placed it on the pavement…. And trod directly into a soft mound of dog muck. I’m not sure whether or not this was a good luck omen, but it was certainly an inconvenience. I had to remove my trainer and wrap it in a plastic bag, which I was lucky enough to have in the boot of the car. I then continued my driving, operating the accelerator pedal with my besocked foot.

I soon settled into a routine. At the time I started the Knowledge, I was working in a department store, and I would do as much London driving as I could early on weekend mornings.

Whilst at work, I would often carry written copies of my latest runs in my pocket, and would take every spare moment I could (often unofficially, by sneaking a trip to the warehouse), to unfold the crumpled paper and recite the routes.

Sometimes I would be on checkout duty and, during quiet periods when there were no customers to serve, I would take a scrap of paper and draw the ¼ mile circles and routes in between as I saw them, attempting to replicate the intricate London roads and all of the one-ways, restrictions and points which they contained.

After a few months, I decided to switch from driving early in the morning, to driving late at night; usually between around 10pm and 2am. Around this time, my family offered to help me through the Knowledge, and I was able to quit my full time job. I must say, I could not have carried out my studies of London without the support of my parents, and it is something for which I’m eternally grateful.

Studying full time allowed me to truly absorb myself in London. During the day, I would recite my runs, using a chunky marker pen to draw the routes on a large, laminated map of London (something which all Knowledge students will be familiar with). The map of London became a close companion, and I would keep it on display at all times. I spent hours absorbed in it, and there was always something new to find. I wrote countless pages of notes on road restrictions and points, I drew maps and stuffed several folders with paperwork.

It would often make my head throb but, as the runs went by, I gradually began to gain some understanding of London’s road system, piecing the huge area together in my mind, bit-by-bit.

Driving the runs late at night was good in a practical sense. It offered constantly traffic-free roads, and a quick journey between home and Central London. The darkness of night was no problem; London is well lit, although in my mind’s eye, my memory often recall the streets bathed in a dull, electric-orange sodium light!

With most major cities, the hours of darkness can bring about a Jekyll and Hyde type transformation, and London is certainly no exception. Although driving at night offered roads free of traffic and congestion charges, it also enabled me to see the place at its worst....

To be continued.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Knowledge of London; Training to be a London Cabbie (Part 1)

A question I’m sometimes asked by passengers in the taxi is “How long did it take you to pass?”

By this, they mean how long did it take to pass ‘The Knowledge of London’ (usually shortened to ‘The Knowledge’), the process of study and examination which you’re required to pass before you’re allowed to drive a famous London Taxi.

The answer to this question depends on the individual and the era in which they passed. Personally, it took me 4 ½ years which is currently about the average (although I’ve known some who were a lot quicker and others who are still stuck on the process).

Although I get asked this question, those who enquire often have little idea what studying the Knowledge actually entails, and there are many more people who have no idea that we have to take such a test at all!  

Licenced London Taxi Drivers are required to know every road and place of interest in the main London area; that is anywhere within a six mile radius of Charing Cross (a major railway station just up from Trafalgar Square, before which lies the official centre of London).

Although Licenced Taxis in London date back to the time of Oliver Cromwell, the requirement of studying this vast area is a relatively recent one- it was only introduced during the Victorian Era; in the 1850s!

In 1851, the ‘Great Exhibition’ was held in London’s Hyde Park. In those days, Great Britain boasted a huge Empire, upon which the Sun famously ‘never set’, and London was at the centre of that mighty power.

The Great Exhibition was intended to be a celebration of all that was British and all that was part of the Empire; a massive showcase for Victorian technology, engineering and innovation. 

Housed in a vast hall, constructed from cast-iron and glass (depicted in the above illustration), The Great Exhibition was one of the first truly international events;  the Great, Great Grandfather of the modern expo, and people flocked from all over to savour its imperial delights.

Events on this scale are a useful way of testing a city’s infrastructure and, one of the main complaints visitors to the London of 1851 had, was that the cab drivers (horse-drawn in those days, of course), had no idea where they were going! (They must have been bad back then- how difficult could it have been to find a giant, gleaming glass hall in the middle of one of London’s main parks?!)

Following this grievance, it was decided that London’s Cab Drivers would have to take a test, to prove that they knew the road system and could transport their passengers with confidence. Apparently, this idea of testing a potential cabbie’s knowledge was suggested by Queen Victoria’s husband; Prince Albert.

The Knowledge has evolved and grown since then, although the initial intention of the system remains the same; to ensure that potential London Taxi Drivers develop a solid grasp of the area in which they intend to convey the public. Studying the Knowledge is a very intense process. I shall do my best to describe what is involved, and to give you an idea of what those 4 ½ years were like to live through.

Before you can even begin studying the Knowledge, there are several criteria you must satisfy. Firstly, you have to have a clean criminal record; a CRB check is carried out for this purpose. Minor infringements, such as any points on your driving licence, must be declared. If you fail to do so and the Public Carriage Office (the body in charge of taxis in London) later find out, you’re in trouble!

As well as proving you are of ‘good character’, a medical check is also required. Naturally, the CRB and medical checks have to be paid for; the first expenses on a very costly road! There is no outside financial support for those on the course. If you want to be a London Cabbie, you have to fund the training yourself.

After these requirements are met, you are officially accepted as a student of the Knowledge (in cabbie’s speak, this makes you a ‘Knowledge Boy’ or ‘Knowledge Girl’, regardless of your age). Until very recently, becoming a Knowledge student began with the ‘Acceptance Interview.’ From what I understand, this formality has now been replaced by an information pack, which is sent to the potential student’s home. That’s a shame, because the Acceptance Interview was a good taste of the process to come.

The ‘interview’ was in fact a group talk. I had my Acceptance Interview (and the majority of my exams- or ‘appearances’ as they are known in the trade) at the old Public Carriage Office on Penton Street in Islington, North London.

The offices on Penton Street (which are now the HQ of London’s bicycle hire scheme; the PCO has since moved to the ultra-modern 'Palestra' building in Southwark), were an incredibly intimidating place. On the outside, the building is relatively modern; a typical 1960s concrete office block, built to replace the original PCO which was based in Lambeth.

Despite the late 20th Century exterior, the interior had a far more old fashioned atmosphere. The Penton Street office was characterized by long corridors (one of which was nicknamed ‘the corridor or fear- which I’ll explain later), heavy wooden doors and floor lino coloured in a typical institutional grey. If you can imagine the most oppressive characteristics of a typically traditional school, then you’ll be close to getting a feel for the old PCO. Most cabbies who underwent their apprenticeship at Penton Street have rather unpleasant memories of the place!

In 1979, Thames Television (an old licensee of ITV) broadcast a comedy-drama play about The Knowledge (perhaps unsurprisingly, called ‘The Knowledge’). Written by the late Jack Rosenthal, the play is fondly recalled by those who watched it and, in 2000, the BFI included it in their list of top 100 Best British Television Programmes.  The Knowledge was filmed on location around London, including many scenes within the Penton Street PCO. Although over 30 years old and primarily a comedy, the play is a pretty accurate portrayal of what the training of a London Taxi Driver involves. Jack Rosenthal’s play can be found on YouTube.

Sometime later, in 1996, the BBC made Streetwise; a Modern Times documentary about the Knowledge process. Again, this featured many scenes filmed at Penton Street, and the show gave a very good indication of what being a Knowledge student involves. Sadly, this documentary is now rather hard to come by.

Going back to my personal experience, my Acceptance Interview/group talk was held in a relatively large room on the ground floor of the PCO. It was about the only room in the building to have been recently decorated, probably to lure potential Knowledge students into a false sense of security! The floor was covered in a blue carpet, and on the walls, there were several photos of old taxis and their cabmen, complete with moustaches, bowler hats and long coats. There were also several glass cabinets, comprising a sort of mini-museum, displaying antique taxi paraphernalia (such as mechanical taximeters and old ‘for hire’ lights). 

In this room, there were rows of small desks; each designed for one person to sit at. Apart from the lack of a little inkwell in the corner, these desks were pretty much like the ones you’d find in school. Upon arrival for the talk, you were invited to sit at one of these desks and await the examiner who was presenting that day.

Sitting and waiting there felt very much like the first day at school. There were about 15 candidates, most of us wearing smart suits (vital protocol when a Knowledge student visits the PCO) and, mainly due to nerves, there was silence; nobody said a word (once passed of course, a group of London cabbies are far from quiet!)

Although Knowledge of London examiners have a fearsome reputation, the examiner who gave my talk came across as quite amicable. However, he did make a point of insisting that this talk was informal; once past this point, things became very serious and regimented!

During the talk, which lasted for about one hour, we were told how to study for the Knowledge and provided with a copy of the ‘Blue Book’ (a publication which I’ll explain in a moment). The handful of people who were not smartly dressed that day were let off the hook.

“However”, said the examiner, “from now on, every time you’re up here for an appearance” (an exam), “you’ve got to look the part. We only accept suits- jackets buttoned up. Shoes must be polished. Your hair must be tidy. If you’ve got a problem with that, you can say so now ladies and gents, but you’ll have to walk afterwards.”

This comment created a brief, silent buzz, rather like in a wedding ceremony when the gathered spectators are asked if they know of any reason why the nuptials shouldn’t get hitched.

Unsurprisingly, nobody piped up.

Satisfied that we were going to play ball, the examiner then moved on to provide us with a little statistic; a factoid which I believe all potential cabbies are told (and, is generally true).It is even mentioned in Jack Rosenthal’s film.

“Most of you won’t pass. The drop-out rate is around 70%. That’s the way it is, folks. Some decide it’s not for them; a lot of people can’t handle the amounts of information they have to deal with for this. Once you begin The Knowledge, your life is taken over."

With that wonderful bit of encouragement, the examiner wrapped up and wished us good luck.

And that was it, we were on our own!

Earlier, I mentioned ‘The Blue Book’ which all Knowledge students are provided with at the beginning of their quest. I remember my copy well; a dinky A-5 sized book with fresh-smelling, glossy paper. The cover featured a modern-art type illustration of a smart little taxi, driving through a zig-zaggy representation of London Town. Inside, there were a number of pages repeating what the examiner had just told us. These were followed by lists of the 320 ‘Knowledge Runs’.

It was an exciting pamphlet to own, giving the feeling that you were in on a little secret, handed down from generation to generation; the key to mastering London.  The little book was also deceptive. It made The Knowledge look like a straight-forward, neatly packaged process… which it certainly isn’t!

The 320 ‘runs’ (or, more accurately, routes) contained in the Blue Book form the basis of learning The Knowledge; they are tools which enable you to efficiently explore every corner of London, thus etching an image of the enormous map upon your brain.  

Using the runs, the Knowledge Boy or Girl has to physically drive and learn every street in the Knowledge area which, as mentioned earlier, is a six mile radius around Charing Cross.

That area contains approximately 25,000 roads and streets.

There are also many thousands more ‘points of interest’ (shortened to points) on these roads which have to be seen, noted and committed to memory

Over the years, the number of runs and the start and end points have varied slightly. However, the fundamentals remain the same. The first run has always been “Manor House to Gibson Square.”

Situated next to Finsbury Park in North London, Manor House is a busy road junction and a station on the London Underground’s Piccadilly Line. Gibson Square is a smart, peaceful, leafy square in Islington, built during the Georgian era.

So, on their first run, the Knowledge student will make their way to the Manor House junction (if they can find it… I couldn’t at first and found it easier to start with the second run; Thornhill Square to Queen Square!)

Once at Manor House, the student has to study the area approximately a quarter of a mile around the start point. This means driving around all of the roads in the vicinity; learning the names, noting any one-way roads, and working out ways to overcome any turning restrictions.

There are also points to be discovered and learnt. A point can be many things; a hotel, pub, bar, restaurant, school, police station, fire station, court, place of worship, park, theatre, museum, gallery, apartment block, stadium, leisure centre, a shop, statue etc. etc.; the list goes on. 

Most Knowledge Boys and Girls tend to carry out their driving on a moped or scooter, as it’s easy to manoeuvre and relatively cheap on fuel. Having said that, I did recently witness a Knowledge Boy on a bicycle; the common Knowledge vehicle of choice prior to the 1960s!

Once satisfied they have grasped the ¼ mile radius around Manor House, the student then has to drive the route to Gibson Square. The route, as with all Runs, should be the straightest, most direct possible. It also has to be committed to memory; the student has to be able to recite every road name and every turn taken. So, Manor House to Gibson Square is generally described along the lines of:

“Leave Manor House Station on the left, Green Lanes.

Right: Brownswood Road.

Left: Blackstock Road.

Forward: Highbury Park.

Forward: Highbury Grove.

Right: St Paul’s Road

Comply (you use this word when you come to a junction or roundabout): Highbury Corner.

Leave By: Upper Street.

Right: Islington Park Street.

Left: College Cross.

Right: Barnsbury Street

Left: Milner Square.

Forward: Milner Place.

Set down Gibson Square facing."

These routes are learnt parrot-fashion, rather like a child learning their times-tables. Seemingly easy at first, but by the time you’ve driven 320 routes, that’s a lot of runs to recite, and many are a lot longer than Manor House to Gibson Square!

Most Knowledge students recite at least 80 runs a day (often more depending on the stage they're at); a process known as ‘calling your Blue Book.” After a lot of practice, most students can call these routes very fast; calling the Blue Book is a great treadmill for the brain!

Calling the runs can be done at home with a nice cup of tea. However, the real work is done out on the road. 

Going back to the run, the Knowledge Student has now reached their destination; Gibson Square.

Once there, they have to repeat the same process they carried out at Manor House; that is to drive a quarter mile around the area, learning all of the roads, restrictions and points of interest. Once satisfied, it’s onto the next run! Naturally, this is a slow and methodical process.

It may not seem like it at first but, after a while, these little quarter-mile radii (two for each run, so that’s 640 of them), along with the longer routes in between, begin to merge together, a bit like a fiddly jigsaw puzzle. 

After studying every run, the student will have covered the entire Knowledge zone and will be quite familiar with the area they are required to know… however, that is far from the end of it!

Next time, I’ll be writing my personal experiences of The Knowledge, including the exam stage… the dreaded appearances! 

Thursday, 16 June 2011

A Frustrating Emergency

When out prowling the streets of London for a fare, you generally expect to pick up people on business, tourists enjoying the wonders of London, or those who've had one-too-many, and need to be taken home so they can slump into their beds with a pounding head.

However, on the odd occasion, you'll come across a job in which the general rules of being a cabbie are turned completely on their head. 

A few months ago, I was driving along West End Lane; a fairly long road which winds through West Hampstead, boasting lots of fancy apartments, bars, shops and restaurants. Just off of West End Lane, there's a road called 'Broadhurst Gardens' where, in 1962, Decca Records had a studio. It was at this studio that a little known group of Liverpudlians named The Beatles failed an audition. After their disappointment in West Hampstead, the cheeky Northerners managed to sign a deal with Parlaphone instead, and the rest is history.

Anyway, a few months ago, I'd just passed the junction with Broadhurst Gardens, when I was flagged down by a rugged looking man in his early 40s. The gentleman was wearing a black t-shirt, his arms boasting a formidable gallery of tattoos. In these art-clad arms, he clasped a young girl in a pink jacket, no older than two.

As he climbed in, I could tell that the man was stressed, but amicable. 

"Royal Free Hospital, please mate."

"Is it for her?" I ask, nodding towards the girl- his daughter.

The young girl is clearly upset; she looks woozy and tear traces are smeared down her cheeks. 

"Yeah," replies the father as we set off. "We were in the play-park there, she fell of a climbing frame and bashed her head... I'm really worried about her; she's gone all quiet." 

Despite his obvious and understandable worry, the passenger is very friendly, with a strong London accent. I try to help him relax by asking him a little about himself. It turns out that he met and married a Norwegian woman, and now lives there (and, consequently, is learning the language!) His young daughter was born in Norway. As I drive, we both become increasingly concerned about her; her eyes keep slumping shut, and she looks increasingly 'out of it.' 

This was a journey during which I found myself cursing the road system of London profusely. West Hampstead to the Royal Free Hospital is a relatively short distance. However, as we strove to get the young girl to a medical expert, we were plagued by infuriating obstacles at every turn.

First off were roadworks- the frustrating 'temporary lights' which seem to stay red for an eternity, and only allow cars through in 30-second bursts of green. We had to queue for ages, and I found my fingernails biting into the steering wheel. How I longed for a flashing blue emergency light to stick on my roof. As it was, despite having a sick little girl on board, I had to stew in the traffic like everyone else.
After nudging through the temporary lights, I decided to take a shortcut. Although this was traffic-free, the privilege came at a cost- the route was a speed-bump hotspot. Every few feet, I had to slow the cab and crunch over high mounds of brick and tarmac; not good when you've got a youngster on board with a suspected head-injury.

As the journey progressed, the concerned father kissed his daughter on the head and glanced at me in the rear view mirror. “She’s very sleepy" he said in a tone; calm yet worried in equal measure. I could see what he meant' the child was eerily quiet, and I was becoming rather concerned about her wellbeing.

"It's OK; we're not far at all now" I reply.

However, moments after uttering this promise, we hit a snag. Although the road I'd chosen to take is cluttered and narrow, it's usually very quick and easy to ply thorough. I've never encountered problems along here.... until now.

At the top of the road, there's a hotel. As we approach the junction, a Luton lorry, decked out in the hotel's colourful livery, swings out of the driveway, probably completing a food delivery or beginning a laundry pick-up. The manoeuvre is sharp and dangerous, and even my passenger remarks that was "well dodgy."

I can sense what is going to happen next... at the top of the road, a passenger car has appeared and is now heading towards the lorry. With parked cars on both sides, there is absolutely no place for the vehicles to pass each other. The passenger car keeps going.... and before long, the van in front of us has ground to a halt.

We wait...

And wait...

The man in the back bites his lip and holds his daughter, looking down at her with increasing worry. Although I'm normally a very passive person, I decide that enough is enough. With a strange mixture of panic and anger, I jump out of the cab and walk up to the van-driver's window. 

"What the hell's going on?" I ask. 

The van driver shrugs his shoulders.

"He just got out; says he won't move."

As the bemused driver says this, I look towards the passenger car- and notice that it's empty, the driver's door wide open. It takes me a few seconds to register what's happening. 

I look around the other side of the van and see a man in his late 50s pacing up and down. 

"Oi! Is that your car?" I ask.


"You've got to move it. Now."

The man ignores me. He puts his hands into his pockets and continues to pace, shuffling towards the front of the van where he walks back and forth in defiance.

"I've got a sick child in my cab" I explain, "move the car, NOW! Or I'll move it myself!"

The car's driver looks up at me through round spectacles.

"That's your taxi?"

"YES! I'm trying to get a child to the Royal Free Hospital, MOVE THE CAR!" The frustration is becoming unbearable. 

The driver slowly looks again at the taxi. He seems to have a moment of clarity, whereupon the absurdity of the situation he's placed himself in becomes apparent. 

"Oh... er... good for you" he exclaims. With his head down, he returns to his car and reverses backwards. As he clears the path, the van moves forward and I leap back into the cab. 

"Thanks for doing that, mate" says my passenger.

"There was no choice" I reply, "We’d have been there all day if that bloke had his way." 

Minutes later we pull up outside the hospital's Accident and Emergency department. I tell my passenger that there's no charge, "Just get your daughter in there." The man quickly grips my hand in thanks, and tells me his mother's London address if I ever want to pop around for a cup of tea! 

As I leave the hospital, I reflect upon the vexations of the journey; roadworks, speed humps, near-misses and the crazed stubbornness of the public. It takes me a while to calm down, but as time passes I can smile at the farcical nature of it all. Just as well, because if I let it get to me too much, I'll be needing a trip to hospital myself!

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Cab Grumps

I was recently ranked up at the Tower of London, one of the most famous sights within the City.

Dating back to 1066 and the Norman Conquest, the Tower is one of those locations in London that is saturated in history. As such, it is a main draw for tourists and, because of this, the Tower of London cab rank is one of my favorites. The customers are nearly always visitors from abroad, and they often want to go onto another London attraction.

For example, a wonderful customer I once picked up here was an ambassador at the Indian High Commission, who had invited some of his family over from New Delhi. Being his day off, he was taking the time to show the group around London, and he was quick to point out and celebrate the merits of London's famous Black Taxis!

One of the most joyful aspects of the job is meeting tourists; having a friendly chat with them, giving them mini-tours and learning about the history and culture from the places they themselves are from.

The Tower of London cab rank is often full to capacity and, as such, you can sometimes find yourself waiting there for quite a while. Cabbies take this time to pop to the cafe opposite the rank, nip to the nearby toilet, and to climb out of the driving seat for a chat and a much needed leg-stretch. You also have to look smart when ranked at the Tower of London- you're always guaranteed to end up in a couple of visitor's snapshots!

Well, the other day I finally found myself at the front of the queue. As I anticipated the next job, a group of three came towards me, appearing to be an elderly couple and their middle aged daughter. As they approached, the elderly gentleman, who was dressed in a long, beige coat and hat of the same colour, gave a slight wave of the hand, indicating that he wanted to hire me.

My windows were down, but they walked straight past without greeting me, or stopping to tell me where they wished to go. When parked up on a rank with the engine off, I prefer it when people tell me their destination before they get in, but I'm not offended if they choose not to.

The doors clicked as I released the lock, and the group climbed in, huffing and puffing. Once they were seated, I said "hello" to them, but received no response. The two women sat on the main, rear seat, whilst the husband/father sat on the flip down seat situated behind me. Here they perched, quietly muttering amongst themselves. There were cabs waiting behind me, so I thought it was about time I took the initiative.

"Hello" I repeated, "where would you like to go today, folks?"

The beige-coated gentleman peered at me through the perspex divide, his heavy breath rasping through the intercom.

"We want the, ahh.... the Noon Inn" (*Please note, I've made this hotel up; I never use real names!)

It was a chain hotel, with many locations in London.

"Which Noon Inn is it, Sir?"

The gentleman looked slightly flustered, with the 'I thought London Cabbies knew every location" look crinkled on his face.

"Well, it's the.. ahh..."

"Waterloo" piped up his wife; "the Noon Inn, Waterloo."

The gentleman paused, turned to his wife and, with rather blatant fury, barked:


So loud was the fellow's outburst, that it made the intercom speakers rattle, and a smothering atmosphere suddenly dropped over the cab like a shroud.

"The Noon Inn, Waterloo" the gentleman growled, repeating his wife's words.

Doing my best to combat the "you could cut the air with a knife" sentiment, I smiled and said that I knew that particular hotel, and it was no problem.

After a few minutes, the group were once again quietly talking amongst each other. Nor the wife or daughter had mentioned their husband's/father's outburst; their decision to gloss over it suggesting that it was something they were accustomed to. In a fruitless attempt to clear the air further, I glanced in the rear-view mirror and asked whereabouts they were from. Upon doing so, the wife frowned.

"What'd he ask?"

"He asked where we were from."

"What's he wanna' know that for?"

"Texas" replied the daughter, who seemed a little more tranquil.

(Before I go on, I must insist that Americans are often some of the loveliest people I meet in my job. Nearly 100% of the time, they are decent, cheerful, extremely friendly people with a passion for London which I find infectious. The group whom I describe here stuck in my mind because they were grumpy Americans.... an extremely rare thing indeed!)

My Grandfather is actually American, linked to the UK thanks to his long career spent in the United States Airforce. I often mention this fact when meeting friends from the States.

"Texas? Fantastic... My Grandpa's American too- he's from Vermont."

The group look unimpressed.


No further comment.

The group continue to chat amongst themselves, and I hear whispered gripes about my failure to immediately recognise the location of their chain hotel (which sports some 40 locations London-wide).

"D'ya remember that taxi-cab we took that time in New York?" asks the wife.

"Yeah... yeah, I do" responds the husband in his gruff tone. "You went to give the guy a tip... and I took it out of your hand."

The daughter's eyes slip back and forth as she listens to her parents' thrifty tale.

"That's right; you did... we used that money to go to a movie-theatre. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang we saw, wasn't it?"

"Did you have enough money for popcorn too?" asks the daughter. Her query is a serious, non-ironic one.

Sadly, her parents cannot remember whether or not they had enough change to purchase a sweet, maize snack.

After a fairly brief journey, we arrive at the requested hotel without any problems. Despite the hostile nature of my passengers,  I decide to remain polite and gentlemanly. After applying the handbrake, I quickly get out of the cab and open the passenger door. The women climb out and walk towards the hotel lobby; a process which they manage to complete without looking at me.

I sit back in the driver's seat and pick up my change float. The husband pays me and I hand the remaining coins over. As he clutches them and counts them in his palm, he turns his beige-coated back to me and shuffles away without a further word.

I put the cab in gear and spin the steering wheel, hoping that my next passengers will be a little more civil!