(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine – currently available on-line).
Since applying for my cab licence in 1985 I’ve seen the Knowledge from all angles: from Knowledge Boy to driver; plus two short spells as a Knowledge examiner. I only wish I could remember it all!
As a Knowledge of London Examiner I’d often reflect on when I sat on the other side of the table. Some of my colleagues could remember the details of their appearances at Penton Street or Palestra, but some of us older ones couldn’t remember things so clearly. Dave Hall remembers his time on the Knowledge, of course. The “Smiling Assassin” remembers everything. He passed out at about the same time as me and has a detailed memory of many of his appearances. I don’t remember any questions I was asked. I don’t even remember which examiner gave me my Req (wreck). I remember a few of the examiners: I know my first appearance was with Mr Fryer but I don’t remember the details. I remember Mr Miller. I didn’t meet the dreaded Mr Orme until we both attended an examiners’ drink-up at Dogget’s many years later. “The Gentleman” Mr Lippitt, was my role model when I first became an examiner, and Steve Thomas became my role model later on once I’d settled into my position at Palestra.
I’d be terrified if I had to have an appearance now. I joined TfL at the same time as Mark Gunning and Kathy Gerrard. I wouldn’t have liked to have been on the other side of the table from those two! Maybe I had less fear in my 20s, or maybe the Knowledge was a little easier than in the 1980s? Although the examiners were more austere and it was a bit more formal than it is now, London was smaller and less complex: Canary Wharf didn’t exist, for example; and hotels didn’t change their names every week. The examiners might have made things difficult for you for their cruel amusement, but they usually stuck to Points that might be asked by a real live cab passenger.
I’ve dived in and out of the trade, but I’ve always returned. I had ten years out of the trade doing other things. After much study – and a failed attempt to become a teacher – I eventually became a careers adviser. I left school without qualifications so it was an uphill struggle to get to university. I knew I could do it because I’d passed the Knowledge. Anyone who has completed the Knowledge can show a high level of determination (remember that around 70% of those who start the Knowledge give it up). You have proven study skills and you can retain information. The permutations of possible driving routes in London are complex. If you can handle the Knowledge you can show analytical skills, as your brain is constantly computing road patterns. After the Knowledge I felt I could do anything. The grass wasn’t greener on the other side though. I soon became disillusioned with the so-called professional world, and I returned to the trade in 2010. The following year I became a Knowledge Examiner; the best job I ever had.
As I write, TfLs Knowledge of London department is closed. Prospective taxi drivers are unable to sit their exams and their examiners are temporarily unemployed. Those currently on the Knowledge have plenty of time in which to strengthen their skills until their next appearance. No-one need lose ground. Those who were intending to apply to start the Knowledge can start learning runs now, before officially signing up. The Knowledge take-up was falling. Now could be a good time to start. There have been periods in the past where short staffing resulted in long waiting times between appearances. There’s no longer that problem. The current examiners were enjoying a lighter caseload, so sign up and now and give them something to do!
It’s true that those on the Knowledge will be wondering what their chosen trade has in store for them, but cab drivers are all refugees from somewhere else. They join our trade because their jobs aren’t what they used to be: there could be more restrictions, less autonomy, less job security; and a reduction in real pay.
Older drivers are justifiably more negative, and newer entrants are justifiably more positive. It depends on your expectations. My expectations on income were higher thirty years ago, and the expectations of drivers who came before me in the 1970s were higher still. I accept that income levels are unlikely to ever return to those of 1988 when I gained my badge, and nobody in the trade now expects that level of trade to return. Those who’ve only been in the trade a few years have realistic expectations. They just want to see a return to recent levels, then to improve modestly. I’m sure things will recover. Everything in the taxi and private hire world has been shaken up. It’ll be interesting to see how people move around when the dust settles, and how the work is shared out in the new order.