On the Meter

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The Knowledge of London (Part 8- Receiving the coveted Green Badge)

After being red-lined at the very last hurdle, I felt bewildered, and remained so for many days.

I was at a loss, and had no idea where to turn. 

All sorts of paranoid thoughts swam through my mind. Why had I been barred from passing? Were there too many cab drivers already out there? Had there been a mix up due to the PCO’s change of location? Had they mistaken me for a troublemaker? Of course, there was an even worse reason- that I simply wasn’t good enough. I prayed that the latter wasn’t the true reason.

I spent the next few weeks in a haze; the days consisting of stale revision which I had no drive for, the nights concentrating on drinking far more than I should, before passing out and dreaming of what it would be like to a London Cabbie, earning a living for myself.

The next appearance date seemed to take an age to arrive. 

Once again, I arose early and made the torturous journey towards the Palestra. I still felt beaten; the energy sapped from me, my eyelids heavy, my shoulders sagged.

After hours of feeling queasy, my morning of wait finally came to an end.

“Mr Jordan, please.”

I was called in by one of the friendlier examiners (albeit with a reputation for asking tough points).  As I followed him along the still fresh and new-smelling carpet towards the office, the examiner leafed through the brown, cardboard folder containing my file. I’d never seen an examiner study a file so closely, and it seemed apparent that he’d noticed something amiss.

“Hmm” he mused as we paced the new walk of fear, “I wonder if you can pass the stage in one go?”

Upon hearing this, my spirits soared. 

I suddenly had divine visions of being asked ultra-simple questions; perhaps “Trafalgar Square to Whitehall”, “Waterloo Bridge to Waterloo Station” and good old “Manor House to Gibson Square.” Such teasers would enable me answer pitch-perfect, thus providing the examiner with good enough excuse to award me the mystical ‘Double A’ mark; the only score that allows you to pass the stage in one go.

Sadly, my daydream was to be annihilated.

After sitting down, the examiner, kindly as always, told me to relax and not to rush or worry. He made no mention of my previous redline however, and proceeded to ask me a number of places in deepest South London.

With the usual, intense regime of revision and exploring, the points and routes I was asked that day would have been relatively obtainable. However, I’d been slack the past few weeks and my brain felt as if it had been squeezed like a spongy, executive stress ball.  I managed to name the addresses of quite a few points, but when it came to describing the routes in between, I was in disarray.

Needless to say; I received a ‘D’; no score.

I felt myself descending even lower.

As I sat there in the chair, I began to panic; another three D score like this, and I’d be pushed back a stage; I’d have to do the 28s all over again, and all that after being so close to the finishing line.

My head was lowered and I could feel my eyes itch and my face begin to prickle. Upon seeing my deteriorating state, the examiner seemed to take pity on me. Before sending me on my way, he provided me with a number of study tips, and told me that I would definitely make it as a cabbie.

Although I still felt beaten and drained, the examiner’s soothing words helped to spur me on. 

Shortly after the appearance, I threw myself back into the Knowledge, studying the map intensely and combing the now familiar streets for even more obscure points, ensuring that the road restrictions were burnt into my conscience as much as possible.

Late one night, during this period, I was driving along Bishopsgate, in the heart of the financial area. It was a Friday night, and the roads were inevitably swarming with swaggering drunks; many dressed in business suits as they unwound from a stressful week in the fiscal game.

Not far from Liverpool Street Station, I stopped at a red light. Whilst waiting, I glanced around, making a note of the shops and office blocks in the vicinity. Contemplating a large office block to my right, I noticed a fracas. 

A deeply inebriated fellow was urinating against a broad, glass wall which formed part of the office block’s lobby area. His discharge was trickling down the glass, creating a sort of urinary waterfall. At the same time, the drunk wasn’t bothering to support himself, and was shaking both fists triumphantly in the air, whilst his uneasy body swayed back and forth.

Worse still, on the opposite side of the glass, an exasperated security guard was banging on the transparent wall, waving his hands in a doomed attempt to stop the rogue. I dread to think how the guard’s view appeared.

As the light flicked from amber to green, I drove off, thinking to myself that when (if I ever did) pass the Knowledge, I would be picking up such people; having to deal with them in close proximity.

However, I didn’t allow this unglamorous thought to deter me. Once on the final stages of the Knowledge, you’ve simply gone too far to give up! 

Knowledge students are driven by a fierce dedication; determined to see it through and achieve the ultimate ambition of being one’s own boss, to carry out their role in the seat of an iconic vehicle:

The London Black Taxi.


My next three appearances were something of a blur, each one providing me with more confidence as it passed. Somehow, I managed to score three ‘C’ marks in a row; 9 points.

And before I knew it, I was once again up for my ‘Req’….

As before, I went through the same routine. Arising on a dark, early morning, ensuring my suit was up to standard and journeying into London by train like a sardine packed in a tin; the sweat from fellow commuters providing the brine. 

Naturally, this was all accompanied by the usual feelings of dread and nausea.

After again enduring the torturous waiting regime at the Palestra Building, I found myself back inside an examiner’s office.

The examiner was a very forbidding fellow. As we sat down, he said nothing, instead choosing to scribble down a number of notes in my file which, by now, had become rather shabby.

The examiner put his pen down and peered up at me.

“Good Morning, Mr Jordan,” he announced.

“Good Morning, Sir.”

The examiner stared at me for a few seconds.

“I’m Mr -----“

He announced his name, but I already knew who he was. It was the very same examiner who’d thrown a book across the room and told me that I was no good, so many appearances before.

“Yes, Sir” I replied.

There were no more formalities; it was straight into the points and runs. I cannot remember what they were now; I was in too much of a stupor. However, I do recall the very last run:

“Farringdon Station?”

“Cowcross Street, Sir.”

The examiner scribbled a note.

“To… East Finchley Station?”

“High Road, East Finchley, Sir.”

“Yes. Off you go then.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

And so I described the route. 

However, a combination of fear and exhaustion meant that the run was a bit of a mess; I was all over the place, and used lots of back streets and dubious cut-throughs. Finally, I managed to utter the concluding words;

“Set down East Finchley Station on the left….”

The examiner peered at me again and leant back; his chair creaking.

“Hmm… now, if I were a city banker paying good money, you wouldn’t take me that way would you?”

“No, Sir.”

“So, why did you do it?”

“I… I don’t know Sir. I do apologize; my mind’s not with it at the moment.”

“How would you do it then?”

I thought about it for a moment, thankful for the time to analyse my bodged route.

“I’d stick to main roads, Sir. I’d use Archway Road…”

“Ok then,” replied the examiner. “Run it backwards.”

And so I did; East Finchley Station to Farringdon Station.

Once completed, the examiner said nothing for a few moments. More notes were jotted and I sat with my head spinning.

I prayed that I’d done enough but, somehow I didn’t think I had.

The examiner finished writing and his pen clicked shut.

“Ok, Mr Jordan, I’m going to pass you today.”

And that was it. I’d completed the Knowledge of London.

I stuttered something, and I’m not ashamed to admit that my eyes became damp. Soon, I felt cool, salty water streaming down my glowing cheeks. Four and a half years of torment were at an end.

I’d qualified as a London Cabbie.

I apologised for my embarrassing state.

“It’s ok,” replied the examiner in a fatherly way, his severe demeanour now gone. “Take your time; it’s always an emotional moment.”

He then said,

“I think you’ll make an excellent cab driver.”

And that made me well up some more.

As I wiped my eyes with a smart jacket cuff, the examiner spoke to be in a more informal manner, telling me all about what was to happen next.


Once you’ve received your Req, that’s still not quite the end of things. You then have to spend six weeks or so on the ‘Suburban Runs’; a crash course at the end of which there is yet another test!

The Suburbs are relatively straightforward, taking you out to places such as Romford, Plumstead, Harrow and Palmers Green. 

Their study is very basic, and requires nowhere near as much detail as the six mile radius around Charing Cross; you simply have to learn the main routes in and out. 

Having said that, there are still around 100 of the blighters to learn, and those weeks you spend on it are still rather pretty intensive. However, the pressure is nowhere near as great; you have passed the Main Knowledge of London and the final finishing post is just about within site.

In my experience, the toughest part of the suburbs was learning the area around Heathrow Airport. 

Naturally, it is vital that London’s Cabbies have a firm grasp of London’s major airport and, when on the Suburban runs, you spend a lot of time there; learning the ins and outs of all five terminals in considerable depth.

Heathrow Airport is the size of a small town, and it is a vicious, complicated place to get a grasp upon! 

I spent a great many nights there, cursing to myself as I took wrong turns and ended up on mile-long roads with nowhere to turn around, the smell of aviation fuel in my nostrils as Jumbo Jets soared overhead, taillights blinking, engines rumbling as the mighty aircraft headed towards places I dreamed to of visiting once I’d started to earn a living for myself.


I've previously neglected to mention that, towards the end of the Knowledge process, you also have to undertake a driving test behind the wheel of a cab. 

I took my test whilst on the first attempt of 21 days….and, despite having being a qualified driver for over 10 years, I failed first time! Naturally that led to more frustration and hair ripping! (Thankfully I passed on the second go, although taking the test twice proved rather costly).

As Christmas approached, I once again returned to the Palestra. 

I was asked around five Suburban runs and, much to my relief, I passed. I was then told to return the following day, for my passing out ceremony and badge presentation.


Inevitably, when the next day arrived, it didn’t feel real.

Arriving at the Palestra, yet again I and about 15 other graduates had to go through the waiting process.

This time though, it didn’t matter. Elation replaced the feelings of sickness.

I, and I imagine a number of other candidates there that afternoon too, also underwent a moment of reflection; thinking back to the first time we sat at Manor House Station, contemplating Gibson Square, our various appearances and the emotions and turmoil experienced, the ups and downs of the ferocious Knowledge.

We were allowed guests for our presentation; my parents, without whose support I would never have passed the Knowledge, accompanied me. However, for the first part of the presentation, only the graduate cabbies were allowed.

During the first part of our talk, we were congratulated and given general advice on things such as cab etiquette amongst other drivers, ‘the abstract of law’ (i.e. rules governing how we conduct our trade) and the suggested amount of cash to carry in your float.

Our guests- mainly family members- where then allowed to enter the conference room. 

They were congratulated on their patience and understanding whilst dealing with us (now ex) Knowledge Boys and Girls through our apprenticeships.

And then the badge presentation came.

One by one, our names were called and, as we made our way to the front, there was a gentle ripple of applause.

When my turn came, I stood up automatically; it felt like being called for an appearance in the dreaded waiting room all over again. 

I arose and, on shaky legs, walked towards the examiner, who shook my hand and handed me a certificate, a paper license and a little plastic bag which was around three inches long, two inches tall. 

My parents snapped my photograph, and I returned to my seat, clutching the precious items which I’d just been handed.

Back in the chair- and not forgetting to clap the remaining candidates- I peered down at the paraphanallia I’d just received- in particular, the small plastic envelope.

The transparent packet contained an oval shaped, metal badge; green in colour with a thin, gold trim, and a thicker gold stripe running across the middle. Arched over and below the curve of the badge were the words:

“London Cab Driver.”

And, through the gold bar in the middle, my unique number was imprinted in black numbering. 

My pride swelled. I couldn’t comprehend that I was finally clutching the elusive prize; a small, green, metal badge.

In order to obtain it, I’d exhausted myself mentally and physically. I’d been through fear, frustration, humiliation and despair. 

I’d put my family through hell. 

I’d immersed myself in maps and notes by day, whilst trawling London’s roads by night; seeing the city at its best and worst.

I'd spent countless thousands of pounds on my training.

It had been a gruelling process.

However, The Knowledge of London really is a superb training programme for potential cabbies.

The vigorous study; getting to know London inside out, street by street, learning every building, being immersed in London’s staggering history and, of course, the eccentric, petryfying appearance examinations, all really do prepare you for the job.

I am proud to have completed The Knowledge of London, and I wouldn’t change the experience for anything.

Every now and then, especially when held at lights on Trafalgar Square, I sometimes glance down at the wee, metallic, green badge hanging around my neck. 

And I still find it difficult to believe….

I am a qualified, London Cabbie.

Next time, I shall be giving an account of my first day on the job……

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Knowledge of London (Part 7- the Final Stages... & a knockback)

Once you reach 21 Day appearances; the final stage of the Knowledge of London, you begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

You’re examined once every three weeks, and the time flows far quicker than those murky days when you were bogged down on map tests and 56 day appearances (having said that, the system is currently experiencing delays, which means those on the Knowledge are having to wait a lot longer than usual; 90 days in some cases. Interviews for new examiners recently took place, so hopefully this backlog will soon begin to clear up).

Once you’ve accumulated somewhere in the region of 9 points on the 21 appearance level, you know you’re near the end. If, on your next appearance, you manage to score a C, then that’s 12 points, and you’ve passed the final stage.

Your final appearance is also known as your ‘Req’; that being shorthand for ‘required’. In other words, the examiners are satisfied that you’ve reached the required level of Knowledge in order to qualify as a London Taxi Driver.

Receiving your Req is a magical experience. As the examiner leans across to shake your hand (something which, as a golden rule, they never do before this moment), and tells you that you’ve passed and made the grade, the sense of relief and achievement is overwhelming.


As autumn approached, I was finally on the 21s.

I’d had six appearances at the 21 day stage, scoring three Cs and three Ds. As I’ve described in an earlier post, you only get 7 goes at each stage. Fail to accumulate 12 points, and you have to start the stage all over again.

Scoring 3 Cs had enabled me to scrape 9 points together. However, the accompanying D grades meant that I only had one shot left. As my possible Req approached, my nerves and anticipation became unbearable.

My friends, family and fellow Knowledge colleagues told me not to worry; they were all convinced that I would score my C, topping my points up to 12, and thus receive the life-changing handshake to tell me that I’d graduated from Knowledge Boy to London Cabbie.

Although tense, I was inclined to agree with them. In thinking this, I was not being arrogant or over-confident. It was simply based on the fact that, in Knowledge circles and the London Taxi Trade, the Req is seen as a formality.

Knowledge students do get red-lined (sent back) on the 21 day level, but this usually happens after a few D scores. Once near the end, and only requiring three little points to complete the process, it is almost unheard of for the candidate to be red-lined.

I’d been on the Knowledge for over four years by this point and, in that time, I’d never heard of anyone failing when up for their req.

The final appearance is often a straight-forward affair, with simple points and routes being asked. Some students have even been asked to recite ‘Manor House to Gibson Square’; the very first Blue Book run which every Knowledge Boy and Girl knows inside-out.

My Req was scheduled to take part during an interesting period of the Public Carriage Office’s history.

After being based on Penton Street in Islington since 1966, the operation was moving to a new location in Southwark; the ultra-contemporary ‘Palestra Building’. 

This move transported the PCO south of the Thames; actually taking it back towards its original home which was on Lambeth Road, before 1966 (although from the 1850s up until 1919, it was based in an annexe to the Metropolitan Police Force’s New Scotland Yard. As with the rest of the London Taxi trade, it has a long history).

The Palestra is a very avant-garde piece of architecture. Built to house important departments for Transport for London, it is very much a working building; a hefty office block, with towering walls mainly consisting of glass, dotted here and there with pale-yellow panels.

The upper levels are formed of a large slab, which juts out over the lower floors, giving the building a top-heavy appearance. Tucked below this shining mass of modernism, in a corner of the broad forecourt, there is a white, streamlined, pod-like structure, which looks like something out of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Oddesy. Here's a Palestra pic:

In short, the Palestra is a prime example of early 21st Century London architecture.

Despite the contemporary design, the building’s title is of Ancient Greek origin; a Palestra was an arena used for training wrestlers and athletes. Considering one of the Palestra Building’s functions is to put Knowledge students through their paces, this is rather an apt moniker, and one I'm assure its victims can relate to. 

The Knowledge of London’s sparkly, new HQ is modern, colourful, air-conditioned and a temple to open-plan office space.


Going there for an appearance is still a terrifying experience!

In fact, I think it is actually a more gut-twisting place than the old Penton Street office.  

The main reason for this is that the Palestra, with its governmental links, is an exceedingly security-conscience environment. Because of this, you have to go through the waiting room procedure twice!

I’ll explain my experience there, and hopefully I’ll be able to convey what the process at the new building is like.


It was the day (fingers and toes crossed) of my Req.

The PCO opens very early, and 21 day appearances are usually amongst the first appointments of the day. If I remember correctly, my appearance was scheduled for around 8.30am.

I woke up before 5am and, being October, it was a dark morning. My anxiety had reached drastic levels, and I’d probably had no more than three hours sleep. As I crept around in the gloom, the blue glow of Breakfast Television pulsing in the background to reassure me that the trains were running to schedule, I went through the same routine I’d been through many times before:

Shirt on; buttoned so tight it pinched the neck, the same dark, blue tie with red stripe, shoes soundly polished, hair tidy and brushed, chin void of stubble and splashed with aftershave. Score-card (by now teeming with blue or black biro representations of ‘C’s and ‘D’s- I never scored anything higher) securely packed on inside blazer pocket. Check, check and check again.

Travelling into central London on the already packed commuter train, people’s elbows in my face as they sought to read the Metro newspaper in yoga-like positions, it felt as though I were a child about to experience my first day at school all over again. This feeling was nothing new- every build up to an appearance felt the same.

Despite the all too familiar nerves, I was still highly curious to see the PCO’s new home. 

It's very easy to get to; Southwark Tube station is directly opposite, which is most convenient. However, that morning I would have preferred it to be some distance away- I’ve always found a brisk walk does wonders for easing a restless stomach!

Arriving at the Palestra Building is rather like entering the lobby of a large, modern chain hotel. The entrance hall, especially first thing in the morning when people are arriving for work, is bustling.

Passing the swarms of people, you make your way to the check in desk, where the smartly-suited staff check your appointment card and provide you with a security badge, which you have to pin to the lapel of your suit.

And then the waiting begins.

The first stage takes place in a large space next to the check in desk; an area sporting long rows of sofas; chairs which are soft, yet surprisingly uncomfortable at the same time (although the discomfort can probably be attributed to nerves).

As you wait, other Knowledge candidates arrive. Soon, the waiting area is dominated by anxious, smartly suited, trainee London Cabbies.

After some time, a representative from the Public Carriage Office emerges from the upper echelons of the Palestra. 

Armed with a register, they call out names of those due up. Candidates who have had the audacity to arrive early have to remain until the next call. Being left behind probably feels rather like missing the last US helicopter to leave Vietnam’s Saigon in 1975.

Once under the control of a PCO rep, you are escorted to one of the Palestra’s many lifts. Just like at the old Penton Street office, most of the candidates are too nervy to talk, and the journey is conducted in shuffling silence. Of course, the silence is even more pronounced when you actually enter the elevator; a public space which is notorious for encouraging muteness.

Once up and on the required floor (I can’t remember which exactly now, I think it may have been the 4th or 5th), the second round of waiting begins.

You now find yourself in an broad, open plan office with potted plants, water-coolers and a long set of bookshelves containing magazines, books and periodicals; although I’m not sure if any Knowledge candidates ever feel relaxed enough to leaf through any of these volumes. 

Similar to downstairs, a waiting area has been set aside for Knowledge Boys and Girls to bide their time in. This new area is slightly smaller, and bears a passing resemblance to the waiting room as seen in BBC1’s ‘The Apprentice’; the ante-chamber to Lord Alan Sugar’s intimidating lair.

This was all rather novel, but the process was pretty much the same as it had been at Penton Street; sit, twitch your knees up and down and experience debilitating nausea.

As always, I had a small canister of ‘Rescue Remedy’ in my pocket, which I would take out regularly, and spray into my mouth liberally. I think it helped somewhat, although it may have just been a placebo. It was probably due to the fact that it tasted a little bit like whiskey that it helped to sporadically calm my nerves.

Whilst waiting, I managed to get talking to another Knowledge Boy. He too was up for his Req. In whispered tones, we wished each other luck, and assured each other that our Knowledge apprenticeship would soon be over.

One by one, the people around me were called in by the examiners.

My turn seemed to take forever, and all manner of feelings coiled and twisted within me. 

In order to maintain my spirits, a jumbled version of the theme tune from the Sylvester Stallone classic, ‘Rocky’ passed through my mind, followed by the ‘Eye of the Tiger’ anthem, which was in the third instalment of the boxing movie franchise (and a much better Rocky episode too, cos’ the baddie- ‘Clubber Lang’- was played by 80s icon, Mr. T). I put these contemplations down to hitting the Rescue Remedy too hard.

Finally, my turn came. It was the same examiner who had once asked me what his name was. I had no idea back then, but I certainly knew now.

I followed him towards the new, unfamiliar office.

Like the rest of the Palestra, the new cubicles were fresh and modern, with smart office-type chairs and walls made from smoked glass, thus allowing a good deal of privacy for you to make a wally of yourself in. The walls seemed a lot thinner though; I could just make out the muffled voice of a Knowledge Boy next door; “leave on the left Strand, Comply Trafalgar Square, leave by Whitehall….”

There were no formalities. In a dead-pan tone, the examiner asked me the first point. I can’t remember what it was exactly now, but it was exceptionally obscure and my stomach froze.

“Sorry, Sir…”

“No, how about Oswyth Road?”

My brain began to seize…

“Sorry, Sir.”

“Tenbury Court?”

“No..sorry, Sir I can’t see it.”

My face began to flush and burn, but there was no let-up in the viciously vague points the examiner asked.

“The Linnean Society?”

“No, Sir.”

By now my head was down, shaking slowly. I couldn’t believe what was happening; I’d been so close to achieving my goal moments before, but I now felt as though I didn’t know a single thing about London.

“Albion Walk?”

“Sorry Sir….I don’t know."

I must have been asked around 15 points of this obscure nature. 

When we eventually landed upon two points which I somehow managed to recall, my brain was so pounded, that I made a complete mess in describing the ensuing routes between them. By then however, I wasn’t really bothered; I knew I’d failed.

After what felt like an eternity, the examiner etched a ‘D’ onto my score card. 

Handing it back, he said that I needed to get out onto London’s streets more; my knowledge of London’s points wasn’t good enough. There was no mention of the fact that I’d only been three marks away from passing, nor did the examiner even tell me that I’d been redlined.

As I left the office, I had an inkling how Stallone's Rocky Balboa must have felt when he first fought Mr T's Clubber Lang back in 1982.

I had to make a visit to the booking out desk, where my next appointment would be arranged. Never before had I experienced such a disheartening experience. I was dumbfounded, dazed. Handing the card over to the booking-out attendant, I managed to ask;

“Have I just been redlined?”

The office fellow put his glasses on and quickly scanned my card, toting up the Cs and Ds.

“Four D’s… yes, you have.”

With that, he picked up a red biro, and struck a line through my previous marks, erasing several months of hard work  in one swift go. It was back to the beginning of the stage. 

Taking all stages into account, I’d accumulated 33 points but I’d now had 9 wiped off. Failing to achieve those last, 3 little marks had ended up costing me an enormous amount of time and money. By this  point, all I wanted to do was go out and start cabbing; to begin my career, be a working man and achieve some dignity. That simple pleasure had been denied, and I felt ill.

At Penton Street, you were at liberty to exit the building as soon as you’d booked out. Not so at the Palestra though. With its high security regime, you have to wait until enough of your group have returned from their appearances, so that you can be escorted back downstairs and out of the building.

After my soul-destroying blow, I just wanted to get out of the place. As it transpired, I had to wait over 20 minutes, rocking back and forth, feeling sick. Exiting through the glass wall seemed like a favourable option.

The Knowledge Boy I’d been speaking to entered the waiting area, smiling broadly. He gave me the thumbs up and nodded. I shook my head and explained what had happened. He couldn’t believe it.

When I finally made it back to the lobby, my father was waiting there, along with a good Knowledge friend of mine who had recently passed. Both were anticipating good news.

“I got redlined.”


My cabbie friend thought I was joking. It took some persuasion before he accepted that I was actually being serious.  

Walking outside, the Autumn morning was fresh and beginning to brighten. However, my psyche at that low moment was quite the opposite.

We were approached by the small groups of Knowledge schools’ point collectors. They too were flabbergasted about what had happened; they’d never known it before. When I told them the points I’d been asked, they too struggled to pin-point them.

Later that day, when the revision sheet was published, a number of the points I’d been asked appeared as ‘unknown.’ This rare label meant that the points were truly elusive; the point collectors didn’t known them, nor did the Knowledge school  tutors. The points had never been asked before, and therefore appeared on no database. Nor could they be tracked down via researching the A-Z or internet. 

In short, their location was only known by the examiner, and a tiny handful of London’s 7 million odd inhabitants.

I’ll  never know why I was pushed back at the final hurdle.

As far as I was aware, I’d always behaved myself on appearances, I’d never questioned any decision and, although far from being a genius, I felt that, after 4 and a half years intense study, I was familiar enough with London to pass the process.

Having said that, the frustration and tough times experienced whilst on the Knowledge are excellent training. When I look back on it now, I can see why the examiners behave in such an eccentric manner.

They are emulating real-life passengers.

When working as a London Taxi driver (indeed as in any job that involves close contact with the public), the majority of people you meet are wonderful- polite, patient, understanding and friendly; just as the examiners can be.

However, you’ll sometimes get the odd fare who seems intent on spoiling your day!

I’ve had passengers who’ve told me my routes are bad. That I shouldn’t have taken that street. That I’ve added unnecessary money to the meter. Passengers who get muddled up with their location, or who don’t know where they’re going at all. People who test your patience and good nature to the very limit.

I’ve had people banging on the Perspex divide, asking me what on earth I’m doing. I’ve had drunks mumbling nonsense at me and I’ve had people slump asleep- just as an examiner pretended to do on one of my appearances!

I’ve also had the insult which infuriates London Cabbies the most:

“How can you not know? I thought you were supposed to take a test?”

Oh, if only they knew!

Whilst on appearances, experiencing the occasional insult or undisguised contempt from the examiner, you behave yourself, bite your tongue and learn not to sink to that level. This acquired skill then transfers itself when you enter the real world of ferrying patrons around.

You see, as well as being a test of your London expertise, the Knowledge is also an analysis of your temperament.

To be continued….

Saturday, 16 July 2011

The Knowledge of London (Part 6- Appearances and studies)

Many appearances, especially the early ones, were rather bizarre affairs.  

Each appearance lasts for around 10-15 minutes, but that is more than enough time to give your brain a thorough sauté.

On my second appearance, I was in the waiting room as usual, when my name was called. If anything, I was even more nervous than the first time, as I now had an idea of what to expect and had been warned by the examiner on that occasion that the process would only get tougher.

“Mr Jordan, please.”

“Yes, Sir.”

At this point of course, having little experience of the PCO, I had no idea whom each examiner was.

Which is why I was rather puzzled by the examiner’s first question…

After taking our seats, the examiner ignored me for a considerable length of time. At first, he shuffled and arranged several piles of paperwork for no apparent reason. He then proceeded to gaze idly at his computer screen, slowly gliding and clicking his mouse. For all I knew, he was looking at a price comparison website.

I sat there feeling awkward, not saying anything- another unwritten rule whilst on an appearance is that you do not speak unless spoken to. A small, framed photograph of the examiner’s wife, taken in soft-focus, stared back at me from the desk.

Suddenly, the examiner decided to speak.

“What’s my name?”

It took me a moment to register this question. I had no idea what the examiner’s name was; I’d never met him before. All I could do was apologise.

“I’m sorry, Sir… I don’t know.”

“Ok” replied the examiner with a smile, “rule number one on The Knowledge- I’ll never ask you anything you don’t know.”

I nodded eagerly.

“So,” he continued, “what’s my name?”

Now I was truly baffled. I stuttered and apologised again.

But the examiner had already moved on.

“Highgate Private Hospital?”

I rejoiced; it was a nice, straight-forward point.

“View Road, Sir.”

The examiner made no reply. He stared at me whilst tapping a pen up and down in his hand. His silence and failure to confirm my answer quickly led me to believe I’d given the wrong address. Squeezing my eyes, I began to cycle through the other roads in the area.

“Not View Road….” I muttered…. “erm... Denewood road? North Hill?”

“Highgate...Private...Hospital…” the examiner repeated, slowly putting emphasis on each word. 

By now, my brain was in a real fluster. I had no idea where the hospital was.

"Sorry Sir.... I don't know."

“You just said it…” my interrogator stated, “View Road.”


Despite this surreal appearance, I somehow managed to score a second ‘C’.


Something similar occurred on my third appearance.

As I followed the examiner into his office and before I’d even had a chance to take a seat, he was already barking out my first run.

“Right. Elephant and Castle Station, and from there we’ll run it to St Martin’s Theatre.”

“Elephant and Castle Station is on London Road, Sir.”

As I sat down, the examiner walked to his desk and, still standing, leant over his desk with a puzzled look, carefully scrutinizing a map, his eyes bunched up like a short-sighted person who'd lost their spectacles. 

“No… that’s the tube station.”

(Just to clarify, there are TWO Elephant and Castle Stations- an Underground one and a British Rail one, more or less opposite each other!)

“Oh, sorry Sir. It’s Elephant Road then.”

Still looking at his map and not at me, the examiner simply replied,

“No, not that one.”

Once again, my brain began to scramble. These were two major points and, as far as I knew, I’d given the correct roads no problem. But the examiner was saying I hadn’t. With a mixture of dismay and bewilderment, I began to name other roads in the area, hoping to stumble across the correct one.

“St George’s Road, Sir?”


“Erm…Elephant and Castle Circus?”

“No, no… you've already said it- London Road. I wanted the tube station. Come on; let’s get going- St Martin’s Theatre.”

On this appearance, I made a number of mistakes; the biggest occuring on a run in which I chose the wrong route to traverse around Hyde Park. 

Once my runs were complete, the examiner wrote at length in my file. He then gave me a brief lecture, telling me that he’d given me a ‘D’; so no score.

“You can’t be making mistakes like that,” he explained, waving his hands around animatedly. “If I gave you a ‘C’ today and you get another one next time, then you’d be on 28 days wouldn’t you? And you’re not good enough for that yet. Anyway, take it on the chin. Learn from it.”

As he handed back the scorecard, the examiner gave me a quick wink.

Whilst these appearances were odd and threw my mind off track, the examiners themselves were perfectly hospitable. 

However, in some cases, they could be pretty hostile!

On one particular appearance, the examiner took great pride in ignoring me. He asked me the runs and, as I called, he immersed himself in paperwork, neither looking at nor listening to me.

At one point, however, he picked up a book… which he proceeded to hurl across the room. Smacking a wall, the book dropped to the floor, clanging a metal waste-paper basket as it did so. I did by best to ignore the disturbance, and continued to recite my given route.

After this agitated display, the examiner then pinched the point where his nose joined his forehead and, with great weariness in his voice said;

“You’re not very good are you, Mr Jordan?”

“No, Sir… sorry, I’m having a rather bad day today.”

The examiner let out an exasperated, weight of the world on his shoulders kind of sigh.

“If I were a passenger in your cab, I’d be pretty, damn dizzy by now wouldn’t I? You’re going around in circles.”

“Yes Sir… sorry.”

On another occasion, the same examiner pretended to fall asleep!


Some of the worst appearances were the ones when you couldn’t answer any of the posed questions. Quite a few times, I can remember sitting there, being bombarded with obscure points, none of which I’d seen, heard of or remembered.

“Santa Maria del Sur Restaurant?”

“Sorry, Sir.”

“Abu Dhabi House?”

“Sorry, Sir.”

“Ok, how about the Azerbaijan Embassy?”

“Sorry, Sir.”

“Prince of Knowledge Apartments?”

“Sorry, Sir.”

“Hmmm.... Haverstock Street?”

“Sorry, Sir.”

“No? Haberdasher Street?”

“Sorry, Sir.”

“The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy?”

“Sorry, Sir.”

“*Sigh* Mortons Hotel?”

“Sorry, Sir.”

“Nayland Hotel?”

“Sorry, Sir.”

“Where’s the smallest police station in London?”

Luckily that one I did know, as my Grandmother had mentioned it a week or so before!

“Trafalgar Square, Sir- on the south-east corner.” (It’s a hollow pillar with a door and window, now mainly used as a broom cupboard, but there is still a police phone in there!)


Although on the appearance stage, that does not mean your exploration of London stops. If anything, it intensifies.

Yes, you’ve completed the Blue Book but, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, that is merely the basis; the bare bones of what you need to know. Right up until the day you pass, you have to keep out there, driving around the metropolis; looking for points, checking roads, brushing up on your weaker areas. 

The way I see it, the learning never really stops- even now, as a fully qualified cabbie, I’m always spotting new places and picking up on nifty little shortcuts.

There are even a number of Knowledge schools in London, where you can attend lessons and revise with fellow students. The main schools employ ‘point collectors’; Knowledge students who stand outside the test centre (now at the Palestra Building in Southwark) in all weathers.

The point collectors are vital. When you’ve finished your appearance, you go up to the collectors and- provided you can remember- tell them what places and routes you were asked. Armed with this information, the schools produce a sheet, usually published everyday around lunchtime, listing as many questions as possible. These sheets can be collected in person, sent by post, or emailed to Knowledge students (for a small fee of course), and are a vital revision tool.

The most important accessory owned by every Knowledge Boy or Girl is a large, laminated A-Z map of London. This, along with the constant driving and scouring, enables you to really get familiar with London’s roads and layout. As time goes by, the image of this map slowly engraves itself upon your psyche. 

It may sound corny, but with such deep immersion, it feels like London really does become a part of you. Most students become very attached to their map, spending many long hours with it. I’ve still got mine; here’s a pic:

When not driving, you spend the majority of your time with the map. If you have a call over partner (a fellow Knowledge student with whom you revise), you meet up and, using the recently collected point sheets, take it in turns to call runs whilst your friend draws your route on the laminate map with a chunky whiteboard marker. 

Once the route is recorded, you spend time discussing it; “you could have tried this”, “do you think this street is more direct?”, “you wouldn’t use that route in rush hour,” and so on.

I was lucky enough to have two call over partners but, when alone, I would call over solo; recording my runs into a Dictaphone, then playing it back, listening to my strangely unfamiliar voice, drawing the route I’d described onto the map- before promptly tearing my hair out when I’d discovered I’d gone the wrong way!

When you study the Knowledge, it consumes your life. 

You eat, breath and sleep it. I’d frequently have dreams (or nightmares?) about roads and maps, dreams about being in a taxi, driving passengers around .

So intense is the Knowledge process, that it actually makes your brain grow (although I hasten to add, that is not in the style of the bulging head as sported by the ‘Mekon’ in the 'Dan Dare' comic strip. The growth is cellular and microscopic!)

The part of the brain in question is known as the ‘Hippocampus.' This name comes from the ancient Greek phrase for 'sea monster'; something which, with its curved, sea-horse like shape, this area of the brain somewhat resembles. 

The Hippocampus deals with navigation and, when you plunge yourself into studying London’s streets, this section of grey matter is exercised like a muscle.

Whilst studying the Knowledge, I actually took part in a study related to this. 

Responding to an appeal for volunteers, I went along to the National Hospital for Neurology in Bloomsbury. After taking part in a series of memory and navigation exercises, I was slid into a brain scanner; a long, narrow tube, bathed in a dark, purplish-blue light.

As I lay there with my feet poking out, huge magnets rotated around my head, mapping my brain. The magnets created such a loud, grating roar, that I was required to wear ear-plugs.

It was a claustrophobic experience, but having the opportunity to view snapshots of my brain was utterly fascinating! You can read more about the study of cabbie’s brains at the following link:

To be continued….