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……

14 comments:

  1. This is a wonderful story. I only hope that I can find you when I am next in London. I am particularly impressed with all the history you must know, and how valuable that is to your passengers. London is rather a complicated place, or so I've found on each of my visits (during which I've been pleasantly lost on foot several times). You deserve great congratulations for this, and I wish you luck as you go forward in this fascinating profession.

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  2. Hi there Charlie. My name is Gil and I have been driving a taxi in New York for the last five years. I take as much pride and honor in my profession as you do. I wish New York had it's own version of "The Knowledge." I've taken it upon myself to be as well-trained as possible for this challenging job, but many of my colleagues in the yellow force don't care enough about it to uplift our reputation. All day long people enter my cab with the assumption that I will not know what I'm doing, or worse, that I'll "milk the meter." By the end of the ride they are thoroughly impressed by geographical awareness, swift maneuverings, friendly conversations, an anthropological understanding of the city's history, and much much more. I have a blog too. Check it out, let me know what you think! I'd rather receive constructive criticism than politeness. I like your blog and have added a link to it on mine. If you ever come to New York, you can ride along with me in the front seat while I work. Cheers!

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  3. http://www.taxicabnyc.blogspot.com/

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  4. Gil, you are a true Gentleman. Thank you so much for your kind words.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Diane, thank you so much. Your kind words mean a great deal to me.

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  6. Well Done ! I can relate to your story well having been redlined while on 21s and 9 points,
    Im on 21s and 3pnts with one D so i have 5 more chances to get 9 points starting tomorrow at 8 am!!

    All the best to u sir. Thanks for the inspiration, you have given me a real boost and i just called farringdon stn to east finchley!!!
    Ill be stunned if im asked that tomorrow!

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  7. Great blog, really motivating posts, only wish you changed the font and black bankground my eyes are killing me!

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  8. I didnt get asked Farringdon Station To E Finchley but I did score a C with Mr Thomas.
    Your Story helped my fears (some of em at least!) fall away.

    Thanks mate

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