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.
“No, how about Oswyth Road?”
My brain began to seize…
“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?”
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.
“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….