(My edit of article published in Taxi magazine this week)
In the Hot Seat
Did anyone watch the C4 documentary The Knowledge: The World’s Toughest Taxi Test? If you didn’t, you missed a treat. Filmed at the PCO, it showed interviews with Knowledge candidates and examiners, and excruciating footage of candidates being interrogated in actual appearances. You could feel their pain.
We’ve all been sat in a chair unable to locate a Point of Interest in our mind; either in the examination room, or in the driver’s seat. When asked for a street or hotel that you can’t think of immediately, thoughts come from all directions to cloud your thought processes, and your focus disappears. As any Knowledge Boy knows, places you pass every day can be forgotten when put on the spot. As a Knowledge examiner I remember one tea break discussing the places we’d been asked for in our cabs but went blank on. My contribution was Upper Berkerley Street, but other examiners provided examples just as embarrassing.
Early in my career, a bloke asked for New Kent Road, then fell asleep soon after getting in. At Elephant and Castle I asked him where he wanted to be dropped off. I was horrified when he said he wanted dropping off at New King’s Road, several miles in the opposite direction. I completed the journey with no extra charge. He was fine about it. And so he might have been. That was at least twenty-five years’ ago, and I’m still convinced he asked for New Kent Road.
Airport hotels can be difficult to remember if you rarely go out to the Flyers. Well before the advent of the Cabbie’s Mate, an Arab gentleman asked me for a hotel at Heathrow Airport. I should have asked my passenger for the precise address, but I thought I’d ask another cab driver when I drew alongside one on the drive out to Heathrow. I was told that the hotel was the facing you as you pull onto the main roundabout on the airport spur. As I drove along the M4 and on to the slip to the roundabout I saw it was a different hotel completely. I drove past the entrance and was now back on the M4 heading west to God knows where. I eventually found out that the hotel was on the edge of Slough, a town that I’ve still never been to in all my years of cab driving.
I made a similar mistake another time and found myself heading into Buckinghamshire. It’s a novel experience for a London cab driver to drive past sheep grazing on green pastures: it usually means you’re on your way to Gatwick Airport, or have trapped a lucrative Roader. It’s a sickening feeling when you have an irate passenger in the back that’s going to arrive home late, and you’re burning time and diesel.
I find airports confusing: all those fast-moving lanes going in all directions, over-complicated direction signs, and all those car parks. I was therefore a bit on edge after trapping a nice ride to Heathrow. My passengers wanted Terminal 2, then Terminal 5. I dropped at T2, then followed the signs for T5. I followed the signs on the airport service roads, around roundabouts, and avoided the dead end car park lanes. I was just congratulating myself on following the complicated route when I saw one last sign. It said “Taxis Only”. I’m driving a taxi, I thought, so I took that lane into the terminal. I then found myself on the back of the cab rank. Thankfully, I managed to get out of trouble by driving over the kerbing. Embarrassing though.
The Westfield shopping centre at Shepherd’s Bush still causes me anxiety. It’s a convoluted route to the official taxi drop off, and it resembles an airport with its confusing lanes and car parks. On my first visit there I panicked and dropped a Caribbean family off inside the customer car park. I pretended this was where cabs normally set down. My passengers were none the wiser, and would have saved a couple of quid. I, on the other hand, paid a pound to get out of the car park. I did the same thing again a few years’ later when they changed the road system.
Don’t even talk to me about Westfield Stratford. They moved my football club next to it. I’ve been a few times as a pedestrian and I get lost after every game.
Last year, an American couple got into my cab on the Haymarket rank and asked for “Rueben’s”. I repeated back the destination to confirm. I ran a nice quick route up to Baker Street and stopped outside Reuben’s, London’s most celebrated kosher restaurant. “Where’s the hotel?” asked the man. I realised my mistake immediately. We got caught up in traffic on the way to Rubens Hotel opposite Buckingham Palace, and of course the extra fare was down to me. The couple were fine about it; in fact he implied it was his wife’s fault. The fact was, we couldn’t hear each other over the noise of the traffic when we set off from one of London’s busiest roads.
The moral of the story is: always confirm the destination before setting off – even if you have to shout. And don’t trust fellow cab drivers to know more than you do. It’s often said at the PCO that your Knowledge is never as good as the day you gain your badge. When in doubt it’s probably best to ask a Knowledge Boy for directions.