(Article written for Taxi magazine).
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 though. 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 examiner drink-up session at Dogget’s many years later. “The Gentleman”, Mr Lippitt, was my role model when I first became an examiner, and Steve Thomas took on that mantle later on, once I’d settled into my position at Palestra.
Austere and Formal
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 twenties, or perhaps the Knowledge was a little easier in the 1980’s? Although, the examiners were more austere and it was a bit more formal than it is now, London was smaller and less complex. For example, Canary Wharf didn’t exist, and hotels didn’t change their names every week. The examiners might have made things difficult for you, for their own cruel amusement – but they usually stuck to Points that might be asked by a real live cab passenger.
With Points changing so frequently we were all guilty of asking for places that no longer existed – Ghost Points. Well, the Mirabelle restaurant still looked open to me, and how did I know that St John’s Wood police Station had closed months ago?
Where the buildings still physically existed, ghost points were seen as legitimate. Illegal turns weren’t, and we’d have to be sure of ourselves for allowing or penalising manoeuvres we weren’t certain about. I penalised someone for turning right from Prince of Wales Road into Kentish Town Road. It’s completely legal; in fact I completed that turn myself driving in to London that very morning! I had to make a humiliating phone call to apologise. One chap turned right into Cosway Street from Marylebone Road. It sounded wrong, but I wasn’t 100% sure. My computer wasn’t switched on so I couldn’t check it out quickly. I’m sure he went on a Knowledge web forum afterwards to boast how he turned over an examiner. Fair play to him.
Examiners didn’t always agree with each other in interpretation. Coming from the east and setting down at Marylebone station was a bone of contention. Opinion was divided: all the other examiners said you couldn’t do it, I said you could. Mark Gunning was adamant that you had to make an illegal U-turn, whereas I maintained that you turn right into Harewood Avenue, then turn again into Melcolme Place. The matter still comes up on Knowledge web forums.
Some people are let down by nerves. I ran some mock appearances at a Knowledge school when I finished at TfL. Candidates would invariably perform well, but up at The Towers they’d lose it.
Candidates have been known to declare themselves ill when they’ve seen Dave Hall come out to call them in. People have collapsed in the waiting area. At least one person couldn’t wait to use the toilet before being called, and went inside the examination room.
Occasionally, someone would put in for an appearance before they were ready, and would fail to answer a single run, but generally if you’ve got as far as having appearances you know you can do it. The Knowledge is very democratic: it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your background is. Aziz from Afghanistan was better at the Knowledge than I ever was, as were a few others. We always looked forward to the arrival of Vera. She was extremely good at the Knowledge and she had a delivery as calming as the shipping forecast.
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 – even become an examiner.