In my latest piece for Taxi magazine I talk about my time as a Knowledge of London Examiner. Over the next few issues I’ll be saying more about the Knowledge: tips & insider knowledge. To read more, there are still a few copies of my my book available from the YPS Bookshop, or from Amazon (if you must):
Tag Archives: Knowledge of London
As I’m not driving a cab any more I’m relying on anecdotes…
(Original edit of article written for Taxi magazine).
Reports suggest that cab passengers will soon be able to get alerts when the Google app they are using senses that you have strayed off course. Minor diversions shouldn’t trigger an alarm, but if you go off course more than 500 metres you might have to explain yourself. I don’t think I’m being controversial in saying that it’s largely the private hire competition who are going to be the more nervous, though we’re all likely to get the occasional passenger who thinks they know more than we do about the geography of London. I don’t know about you, but I trust my own judgement over a computer anytime.
I first became aware that customers were following my route on a phone app about five years ago. After a short hop from The Mall into Soho, my Indian man beamed and said “very good.” It was good to get the vote of confidence, though I had nothing to worry about. On a different run the bells might have been ringing though. I’m sure almost all cab drivers going from Central London to Heathrow use the M4. Look at a map: we should be using Bath Road for some of those runs to Terminal 5. Someone following the route on an app might question this. I’ll go any way a passenger wants me to go. If anyone ever questions me over a run to Heathrow I’d me more than happy to sit on Bath Road and go around those roundabouts and around buses.
I’m unsure if the new alerts on Google will factor in the time element. Or the pain-in-the-arse element. Have a look at Victoria to Cricklewood. It’s a straight line, so would satisfy the bots at Google. Have you ever tried driving from Marble Arch to Cricklewood? I go home via the M1 so if I ever finish near Victoria I make for Staples Corner. I wouldn’t go up Edgware Road though! It involves negotiating two of London’s most slow and challenging gyratories: Hyde Park Corner and Marble Arch. Then there’s the crawl up Edgware Road. If the shisha fumes don’t overcome you, the stop-start traffic will. It goes on for miles, dragging through Kilburn and Cricklewood. West End Lane is no better.
Driving myself home I usually bypass Marble Arch and go through Mayfair. Once I’m on Regent Street I just go straight up into Regent’s Park and come off at Avenue Road. It’s a much longer route than going straight up Edgware Road, but it’s faster. Carrying a passenger it may or may not save money as well as time. Finchley Road can be bad with all the buses and coaches, so I sometimes use Fitzjohns Avenue.
A satnav only shows you one way, unless you fiddle about with the settings. Both the shortest or fastest route settings are pretty useless in London. I also warn against using a satnav if you’re on holiday in Wales. I once set the satnav for a route that would have been simplicity itself had I followed a map in the traditional way. My satnav’s shortest route sent me down narrow country lanes for miles. It was a very stressful experience.
A satnav doesn’t take into consideration road closures – I’m unsure if the new Google app does. Cannon Street has hardly been open since they closed Bank Junction off a few years ago. The Bank closure left Cannon Street as the only sensible option through the City, but it’s never open. At the time of writing half of Mayfair and Marylebone is closed. I think the closures are temporary, but who knows? Even if there’s a yellow sign up, they don’t tell you much.
Our Knowledge training teaches us to use the shortest route. It’s right and proper that our default is set to the shortest route, but in practice we need to employ our own internal computer – our brain – to find the optimum route in any given situation. Traffic conditions change throughout the day. With experience we learn what certain roads are going to behave like at certain times of the day. It’s a huge matter of pride that we know the shortest route. We’re proud of our lines, but sometimes they’re out the window when we need to keep moving to save time. The skill is to have alternatives stored in our brains to use when traffic is heavy. This is where misunderstanding can occur. Thankfully few people question us, as our customers usually have confidence in our judgment.
We could get a few more questions as more people follow the route, preparing themselves for an alarm bell to go off on their new Google app; but we’ve every right to feel confidence in our abilities to both know the shortest route, and to get out of trouble if we need to take evasive action due to heavy traffic or road closures. The situation is worse for our mini friends who have largely learnt on the job, often slavishly following a satnav. Our work is cut out keeping up with the constant changes to our road systems and traffic behaviour. We know that a satnav won’t get us out of trouble, but our brains just might.
(original edit of article published in Taxi magazine this week).
With fewer people starting the Knowledge, our reaction could be “good, more work for us.” It’s a short-sighted view though, as fewer drivers means less collective power. And collective power is something we are currently in need of right now. We need strength in numbers to fight the long-running licensing of Uber, and to curtail TfL’s damaging road “re-modelling” projects and road closures.
The private hire contingent outnumbers us considerably – around 113,000 mini-cab drivers against fewer than 24,000 taxi drivers. Of course, there are nowhere near 113,000 drivers on active service. Not many PH drivers stay around for long, but they keep their licences as they double as a Congestion Charge season ticket. Private hire drivers are less of a coherent group. We have the advantage as if we put our different political viewpoints aside and pull together, we can effect some change. It’s more than ever important to attach ourselves to trade organisations.
It might be a good time to start the Knowledge as you’re likely to get through the system quicker. When I became a Knowledge examiner in 2011 I was part of a cohort of six who were recruited to replace others who had recently left. Waiting times between Knowledge Appearances were running at double what they should have been: ie. A 56-day appointment could run to 112 days. This would have been incredibly frustrating for those affected.
I completed the Knowledge 30 years’ ago this coming December. It was tough in the eighties, but not as tough as some people make out. Sure, some people had bad experiences with examiners who made life difficult for them or acted inappropriately. Comparatively recently I’ve heard anecdotes from former Knowledge Boys who had things thrown at them – or had their appointment card damaged by the examiner scraping it against a wall during the last days of the Raj at Penton Street. No examiners were ever rude or unreasonable with me, though, and the Knowledge was easier to learn. No examiners asked me for silly Points of Interest. I just plodded along, safe in the knowledge that as long as I didn’t give up, I’d get there in the end.
The Knowledge is harder now. For a start, some districts of London barely existed in the 80s. There were a few pubs in Wapping, but past News International on Pennington Street, Points of Interest were thin on the ground. There wasn’t much in Rotherhithe, and Canary Wharf didn’t exist. There wasn’t even a lot going on in the square mile of the City, where livery Halls were the bread and butter Points. Knowledge Boys neglect livery halls at their peril to this day, but they also need to keep up with the hotels and bars. The City pretty much closed at 5pm. Restaurants and bars barely existed. The City is now chock full of lovely Points that need to be learnt.
It’s hard work remembering Points, and they change so frequently it’s hard to keep up with them. My Knowledge is nothing special. I have the memory span of a guppy. As an examiner, I only used to ask all those Premier Inns, Travelodges, Double Trees, &c. in the vain hope that I’d remember them myself. I remember few livery halls.
Compared with the old PCO at Penton Street, things aren’t quite so austere up The Towers; but the marking system puts undue stress on the candidate. Unless you’ve experienced the Knowledge in the last 17 years you won’t be aware of the Red-Lining system. You were rarely told how well you were doing, and you didn’t know how you were scored (many years later I learned the examiners used a marking system consisting of smiley faces). You understood that once the examiners felt you knew enough, they’d put you up a stage. These days you can go down. You can be relegated.
In the spirit of customer-focussed transparency, everyone leaves with a feedback sheet containing their scores – and possibly a few scribbled comments on their performance. If you don’t gain enough marks in order to gain a C pass in four Appearances you are Red-Lined and sent back to start that stage from the beginning. It could result in months of hard work down the drain. I think once you’ve amassed a certain amount of points you should be put up to the next stage. I don’t think anyone should be put back. The Knowledge shouldn’t be made easier, nor should it become medieval torture.
At least today’s Knowledge candidates are clear on what questions they can be asked. During my tenure, TfL finally worked out how to put a circle on a map. One amusing event was when we tried to manually draw the six-mile exclusion zone on the wall maps with marker pen. I was the one with the degree so they thought I should draw the first one. I made a right mess of it.
Anyway, for those starting the Knowledge now, they have more realistic expectations of the job. It’s been a tough few years, but I believe we’ve hit the bottom and we’re bouncing up again. I believe their investment in the trade can only go up.
Following my (second) exit from TfL I have gained some new followers. I have promised to post some advice on handling the Knowledge process, but I need to update this material. While you wait, why not put on Dark Side of the Moon and immerse yourself in the brief story of my return to the Knowledge, originally wrote as a magazine article in 2013. More articles to follow later…
As a qualified Careers Adviser I am naturally interested in the jobs people do. When I was a Knowledge Examiner I would sometimes ask my candidates about their work. I saw lots of firemen, several IT experts, some from City finance, tube and bus drivers – plus a fair few disaffected mini-cab drivers. The trade has a long history of being home to those with artistic talents: music and acting, for example. Quite a few cab drivers are ex-teachers; and there are former policemen on both sides of the examining table.
The Knowledge is a tough thing to accomplish, but once you’ve completed it you know you can do anything you put your mind to. I’m not sure how many cab drivers make the move out of the trade in order to follow a different career, as I’m the only person I know who did so. Nothing wrong with trying something new, but it’s a risky strategy if you give your badge up too. So, unless you love the Knowledge so much that you don’t mind doing it twice, take my story as a warning…
However depressed the cab trade has been over the last few years, it wasn’t as bad as it was in the early 1990s. I’d only been licensed for a couple of years, but was already looking for a way out. With vague ideas around writing and teaching I decided to take whatever steps were necessary to get to university. With no “O” or “A” Levels this wasn’t going to be easy, but I got there by first spending a year at a residential adult education college in Birmingham. It was the most productive year of my life, and one of the happiest.
After three years at the University of Bradford, I returned to Birmingham and started a teacher training course in Secondary English. But on placement I found I had insufficient passion for teaching, and found it unbearably frustrating.
My next move was to study for an MA with the Open University. The idea was to return to university as an academic and stay there. I realised this wasn’t going to be as straightforward as I imagined, so decided to become a careers adviser. I went back to Birmingham to take a one-year diploma.
What followed was probably my biggest career mistake of my life: I let my cab licence lapse as I didn’t think I’d need it again.
With my careers diploma, and most of my MA completed, I moved to Northampton to become a careers adviser. This was OK at first, but when the government de-professionalised, then dismantled, the careers service, the job changed and I lost motivation. I started to reflect more on my old life as a cab driver. Was it really that bad?
Thoroughly disaffected and de-motivated, I’d built up a colourful disciplinary record. With the writing on the wall, I found myself posting off an application to go back on the Knowledge. I hadn’t driven a cab for eleven years.
I started the Knowledge again, driving seventy miles into London. I did it by car, just one day per week. I reckoned it would take me two years. After four months I received a letter from TfL that I kept re-reading: I’d been offered a re-test on 2nd July 2010.
The Examiner had a calm, kindly, demeanour, and he put me at my ease immediately. But it was the toughest Appearance of my life: not just the six mile limit, but suburbs too (I originally passed the Knowledge in 1988 and had neither physically nor metaphysically visited many of these places since then). Points asked weren’t the major ones that I was expecting – I thought it would be all train stations and big hotels (I was never a Points man, even when I became an Examiner myself).
I felt like I was in there for an hour, though it was probably less. Eventually, he asked if I’d been asked enough. Yes, I certainly had, though I reckon I only got about 40% of his questions right. Amazingly, he congratulated me on my hard work and said I could make a coffee while I waited for my badge!
I later discovered that my “Super” Examiner was known as an East London End specialist. I only found this out when, in a surreal twist of fate, I was privileged to become an Examiner myself thirteen months’ later. Although I was working alongside my old Examiner as an equal I always regarded him with awe, and always fought the compulsion to call him “Sir”.
I left a month before my eight-month contract was up. It was a fantastic job, but my body never got used to getting up at 4.30am and travelling seventy miles. I’d just bought a new cab and had to work weekends as well. I was permanently tired, and I dreamt about the Knowledge every night. I never did get the hang of the drinks machine either.
I was 26 when I got my first cab licence in 1988. Getting it back in 2010, I was more appreciative. I valued it more. I was my own boss again, and I valued having my freedom back . It’s telling that I have photos of me around the house in my cab, but none of me as a careers adviser, or a student teacher.
Driving a cab can provide a good living if you put the hours in. It’s very flexible and pretty secure, if you don’t do anything silly. For me, it represents the freedom that I didn’t fully appreciate at 26. After several years’ disillusionment with the professional world, it made me realise that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
The teachers at my Essex comprehensive would have laughed at the idea of me going to university, but once I completed the Knowledge I knew I could do anything. Passing the Knowledge was harder than both my degrees put together, and remains the hardest thing I’ve ever studied. So when you get that badge – hang on to it!
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, October 2013.