Tag Archives: Studying the Knowledge of London

Knowledge Promotion

(Original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

 

I don’t spend much time surfing the net. I prefer to read proper magazines, made of paper. It was a friend who alerted me to the adverts promoting a career in the London taxi trade. He’d seen the Knowledge promotion on Instagram (I’m not exactly sure what Instagram is; like Teletext for young people, I should imagine).

I completed the Knowledge nearly thirty years ago, in December 1988. A week or so after getting my badge, an old-hand asked me how long it took me to pass the Knowledge and join the trade. He then helpfully informed me it would take me longer than 3 ½ years to get out of it. No doubt he’d had drivers telling him the same in the 1950s and felt the need to pass on this priceless nugget of information. I was earning good money and had more work than I could handle. I laughed off his advice and have always resisted the temptation to give the “Game’s Dead” treatment to a Knowledge Boy.

I did eventually leave the trade to do other things, and I foolishly allowed my cab licence to lapse. By 2001 I was a careers adviser. Nine years on and I was fed up of it: I was disillusioned with the politics, and felt the need to run my own show again. Although I was living seventy miles out in Northampton I started the Knowledge again. I reckoned it would take me about two years. After four months I was invited to a re-test. I didn’t know such a thing existed. I felt ill-prepared, but I somehow showed enough to gain a new licence after one mammoth Appearance with the legendary Mr Wilkin.

Work levels weren’t as high as they were on my return to the trade in 2010, but I couldn’t complain. Things are certainly tougher now and we can’t be certain that things will improve. New applicants need to know they are taking on something worthwhile. This isn’t a career where you can dip your toe in to test the water; you have to commit to around three years of hard, headbanging study, and a series of traumatic exams. Only then can you try it and see if you like it.

Fewer than 700 students are currently studying the Knowledge – nearly an 80% reduction in just a few years. More drivers are retiring than joining the trade. I’ve said a few times within these pages that driver numbers need to be maintained so we have collective power. We need to be part of a thriving trade, constantly topped up with new blood when older drivers leave, or go to the great cab rank in the sky. We need enough drivers to service the radio circuits and app-based hailing services. The circuits also need to grow. If we fail to do so, the circuits will lose accounts. Think also of the Knowledge schools, garages, and other supporting services.

A delicate balance is needed between under and over-supply. If the Knowledge was easy, the trade would be flooded. I wouldn’t want to be part of a trade that’s over-subscribed. I’ll leave that to our competitors. Giving your drivers just enough scraps to keep them hungry and dependent only makes the owners prosper.

The toughness of the Knowledge creates comradeship. Everyone who completes it joins an elite band of people who have achieved something monumental. If it was easy, it wouldn’t have so much value. But it shouldn’t be so tough as to deter people who could become really good cab drivers. The Knowledge needs to be firm, but fair. I’ve spoken up against the practice of Red-Lining recently. This is where a Knowledge candidate can be put back a stage should he or she fail to gain enough marks within a particular stage. It’s right that you should stay on the treadmill if you’re not progressing, but you should never be put back. This is the sort of thing that puts people off.

The new Knowledge promotion rightly stresses the trade’s inclusivity. It doesn’t matter about your background; whether you’ve a university degree, or were expelled from a sink Comprehensive. All you need is motivation and the determination to succeed.

So who might be interested in signing up? It depends on where you are coming from. People join the cab trade after doing other things. It’s not a school-leaver’s career. You need a bit of adult disillusionment in the world of work first. If you’re happy with your job, fine. Many people’s jobs have both got harder, and less secure. Is it more risky going on the Knowledge, or staying where you are while things deteriorate and you become at ripe for redundancy? My job in 2010 seemed secure, but it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t fun anymore. It was more of a risk to stay on.

It’s very competitive out there on the streets. We’re being undercut by Uber, and Uber themselves are being undercut by new outfits. We’ll surely go through more periods of uncertainty before things settle, but we’ll come through. It could well be a good time to start the Knowledge.

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Knowledge Appearance Myths Uncovered

Appearance Myths Uncovered

It’s fair to say I’ve experienced the Knowledge from all angles.  I gained my green badge in 1988, left the trade completely in 1999, then started the Knowledge again in 2010.  I was surprised to be offered a re-test four months’ later, well before I was ready; and even more surprised to pass a long, gruelling, Appearance with Mr Wilkin.  A year later I became a Knowledge examiner, left after eight months, then returned as a temp for another seven months in 2015. In the summer of 2014 I also did some tutoring at a Knowledge school.  Throughout these experiences I was confronted with a lot of questions surrounding the weird and frightening world of the Knowledge.  Some questions were asked by Knowledge students, while others were thrown up during the course of my work as an examiner and a tutor.

Everything to do with the Knowledge is intense.  You can feel the fear and pressure as an examiner, though I found being a tutor was the most challenging episode.  Tutoring at the school was very humbling.  The experience reminded me how seriously everyone takes it, and how it affects people.  Students seemed to thrive on rumour and conspiracy theories, and people were now looking to me for answers!  Students would sidle up to me at the end of a session and expect me to know why they didn’t perform at their last Appearance.  I had no answers to this.  They seemed competent enough handling mock Appearances in a school setting, but would be full of self-doubt when they scored a couple of “Ds” up at the Towers.

Some of the questions asked at the Knowledge school surprised me, and I think some of my answers surprised people too.   Many questions asked were based on ancient myths that I am surprised are still circulating. So, I think it’ll be useful to look at some of the issues raised, and expel some myths about Appearances.  Here then are some responses to some questions I’ve received in my Knowledge-handling career:

 

  • You are not obliged to wear a suit and tie, but I would strongly recommend it. The rules say you should dress in a smart, professional, manner.  I know, professionals don’t all wear suits and ties these days, but your examiners feel the need to maintain tradition, and they expect that of you too.
  • Examiners are not told what they can ask. Your first Appearance will be based on the Blue Book.  After that you can pretty much be asked anything  – though it must be within the six-mile limit.  Maps issued to examiners don’t have the six-mile limit circled, but few Points outside the exclusion zone get asked these days.
  • If you think your examiner has made a mistake, politely point it out. If unsatisfied, ask to speak to the manager ASAP.  Your query will be taken seriously and it won’t go against you.
  • There are no quotas: examiners don’t have to pass or fail a certain number of people in any given period.  There are no quotas for men and women either!  (I took this question seriously). Nor there is prejudice against people with ginger hair! (I treated this question less seriously, but it’s worth thinking about!).
  • Examiners sometimes ask obscure Points that are unlikely to be asked by a cab customer. Examiners know you spend longer on computers or in a school than you do on your bike.  Every day, they see candidates who roughly know where a Point is because they’ve looked it up on a computer, but they don’t know exactly where it is because they’ve not seen it with their own eyes.  Never guess a Point.  If you own up immediately, you’ll only lose one point.  If you get a guess wrong you will lose a lot more.
  • You are judged only on your current Appearance. Your previous Appearance sheets are scanned and attached to your file, and all files now only exist on computer.  Sometimes your examiners will look to see what runs you were asked previously, and they might hone in on your weak points.  If they have time.  Not surprisingly, the computerised files take longer to view than the paper files, and they give less information.  Generally, all an examiner knows about you are the questions you’ve previously been asked, and your scores.   Don’t worry about your last Appearance, just concentrate on the here and now.
  • Examiners don’t say bad things about you on your file. Not any more, anyway.  The days are gone where your weaknesses and attitude were commented upon.  Occasional comments on your performance are made on your Appearance sheet, but these are brief and strictly factual.  In the spirit of transparency, these comments are likely to be written on your feedback sheet, so there are no secrets.
  • Finally, my personal favourite! …There is no date in your file suggesting your Req date.  The idea makes me laugh, but enough candidates have asked it to suggest that people still believe this ludicrous rumour.  See above:  there are no quotas.  It’s purely down to your performance over time.  Once you’ve gained enough points you get your Req.

I often read web postings where students worry about very trivial problems.  There is always more than one way of running a run. The important thing is to connect the two Points.  Keep it simple if you don’t know the name of every little cut-through road.

Finally, a bit more about confidence.  In many cases, a bad Appearance is caused by being excessively nervous and lacking confidence, things that are virtually impossible for me to cure.  You’re nervous, because it means a lot to you.  A touch of nervousness is good, it sharpens you.  Some people always study harder than you, or at least they say they do (sometimes it’s quantity over quality too).  Don’t compare yourself with others.  If you’ve studied as hard as time and resources have allowed, you’ve done all you could.  You have earned the right to be confident.  Ignore the myths and rumours.  The examiners want you to succeed.  An Appearance is your opportunity to shine.

Blog:  pubcat.co

Copyright:  Chris Ackrill, 2016.

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Knowledge is Power

Knowledge is Power

(original edit of article for Taxi magazine).

I hear that Conservatives on the Greater London Assembly are calling for the Knowledge to be scrapped in its present form.  Assembly member, Richard Tracey, mentions an ageing workforce, with the Knowledge standing as a barrier to future drivers.  The report also argues that the Knowledge is obsolete in the age of GPS.

As an ex-Knowledge examiner I take a particular interest in the subject, and I neither think the Knowledge is obsolete, nor deterring people from entry to the trade.  Unite Cab Section’s Peter Rose countered that the Knowledge isn’t a barrier, “it’s a qualification for the job.”  Quite right.  I’ve heard no calls for doctors’ training being made easier as it’s putting applicants off.  As far as I know, doctors still need an immense knowledge of medicine, even though their patients can self-diagnose on a computer, and the doctors themselves can brush up their knowledge on the web.

In the case of cab drivers, doctors, and other professionals, their qualifications on entry provide a minimum competence to do the job.  In our case, we know we don’t know it all when we gain our licence, but we have a sound basis on which to build our competence.  The Knowledge isn’t a barrier; it’s a hurdle, or a series of hurdles, that have to be successfully jumped.

The Knowledge is extremely hard work, but unlike other qualifications, it doesn’t have to be fitted into a set period of time like a degree course.  You can take as long as you want.  It’s possibly the most democratic form of occupational training known to man.  As the fictional examiner, Mr Burgess, says in the wonderful film, The Knowledge, it’s not about who you know, it’s about what you know.  Every applicant is on an equal footing; whether you start the Knowledge with a degree under your belt, or whether you earned a dishonourable discharge from a sink comprehensive.  You don’t need to sweat while your initial application is pondered over by a college admissions tutor, and you don’t have to convince anyone of your cleverness before acceptance.  You just need to have kept your nose fairly clean, and show the ability to identify some points on a map.  And I’m not diminishing the achievement of passing the map test.  I marked a few map tests as an examiner, and I wouldn’t feel that blasé if I had to pass one now.

Many more people start the Knowledge than complete it, that’s true, but every successful Knowledge Boy knows the maxim that “you can’t fail the Knowledge, you can only give it up.”  Some people are better than the Knowledge than others, but even the weaker candidates are rewarded if they believe in themselves and stick at it.  From the outset, you know the Knowledge is difficult.  Very difficult.  What Richard Tracey doesn’t realise is that the satisfaction comes from knowing it’s very difficult.  If it was easy it wouldn’t mean so much.  The one thing that all Knowledge candidates have is pride.  It’s a big achievement when they “score” at an Appearance, and a massive one when they get their Req.  When they attend their Finals talk and are presented with their badge they know they have achieved something monumental.

Those who would remove, or weaken, the Knowledge, would presumably be content to accept a taxi service where the driver relies on GPS.  On gaining your badge, you know more than any other new cab driver in any city around the world.  You also have the ability to beat the sat nav.  The sat nav is woefully inadequate for use in a complex city like London.  It can get you out of trouble, but it can’t handle the permutations of routes and road conditions that an experienced London driver has running through his blood.  GPS can’t analyse like a human brain, and it can’t advise on the best roads to use at certain times of day.  In these times of daily road closures and major diversions it is an inadequate tool to find you way around with.

The public would surely prefer their drivers to be trained to current standard, and I believe so would the drivers of the future.  The drivers are proud of their status.  A status that comes from knowing they are the best trained cab drivers in the world.

Would I change the Knowledge?  I wouldn’t make the Knowledge easier, but I would abandon the cruel points system that heaps unnecessary pressure on the candidate.  People shouldn’t be pegged back because of one or two bad Appearances.   Is the map test necessary?  In my day, you wouldn’t have an Appearance until you’d completed the Blue Book.  I think this is too long a wait for a benchmark assessment, so I’d go back to the time where you were examined on the first section of the Blue Book and abandon the map test.

There’s been a small reduction in the number of Knowledge applicants, but by no means has everyone deserted the Knowledge and gone over to Uber.  The taxi trade is still attractive enough to those who drive a mini-cab for a living.  Many Knowledge candidates are private hire drivers.  They initially took the easier option to do a similar job, so why would they put themselves through two or three years of hell for the green badge?  They are best placed to compare the two trades.  Do they know something others don’t?

Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.

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Knowledge Article

What Will You Be Asked?
You’ve passed scrutiny by TfL security and you’re in the reception area at 230 Blackfriars Road (you need the back entrance in Chancel Street). This is where you present your appointment card to the administration staff on reception. Note that, the appointment time on your card isn’t the time you should expect to be seen: it’s the time you’re meant to present yourself at reception. If you arrive more than twenty minutes after the time on your card it’s down to the examiner’s discretion whether they see you or not.
Nearer your appointment time, you’ll be allowed to sit in the waiting area and soak up the atmosphere. It must be quite exciting watching people exit the examination rooms and trying to read their faces to gauge how they did. What examiner will you get? Will they be in a good mood? Did they find some new Points over the weekend to hit you with – beware the Monday Morning Special. It’s easy for me to say, but try to relax. The hard work should have been done in the days and weeks leading up to this moment. It’s now time to convince Sir or Ma’am you’ve been eating, drinking and sleeping one-way systems, river crossings, and all those little turnarounds that examiners like to ask.
If it’s your first appearance you’ll be asked runs based on the Blue Book. The runs might be reversed, but the Points shouldn’t be too difficult. This is your chance to demonstrate what you have learned and get yourself off and running. You are allocated more time on your first appearance. Your examiner will give you a little spiel that will probably cover any questions, but don’t be afraid of asking the examiner to clarify things you’re not sure about.
On subsequent appearances you are more exposed to the unpredictable whims of the examiner and more is expected of you as you progress – particularly when you might get a drop. The Blue Book will re-appear throughout your Knowledge career and you neglect it at your peril. I often gave Reqs out after asking Manor House Station to Gibson Square.
The Knowledge is not an exact science and the “best” route is open to interpretation. I’m constantly dismayed reading Knowledge noticeboards where Knowledge boys quibble over a few yards! It usually doesn’t matter. I used to ask a lot of what I called “Dilemma Runs”: runs going between two bridges, or through parks. Regent Street to Hampstead? I usually didn’t care what way round the park you went, but people spent too much time and energy on analysis. There might be a point’s difference in it; not enough to get worked up about. If you find it hard to decide between two options it’s usually because it doesn’t really matter. I often used to ask the Blue Book staple, Victoria to Liverpool Street. “What does he want?” they would ask on Knowledge forums, thinking it might be a trick question. No trick. I didn’t care if you used the embankment or two bridges. I just wanted to see a bit of confidence on handling the basics.
If you don’t know if you’re allowed to leave on a particular side of the road, ask. If the examiner is in a good mood, he might tell you. If not, offer an alternative.
Runs are sometimes taken from the top of the examiner’s head after you’ve sat down, but it’s more likely they are decided upon earlier that morning or on the previous day. One examiner writes his runs out at least a week in advance. Beware the examiners with the tidiest rooms. A tidy room equals a tidy mind. An ex-detective examiner will dissect your runs with a forensic rigour. Don’t make your appearance a crime scene. Before you can say “I’m sorry sir…”, the blue tape will be out and you’ll be a chalk outline on the floor. That’s the corpse of your twenty-one day appearance, son. Stand back sir, there’s nothing to see here…
For best results, call with confidence. Examiners don’t like candidates who call so fast they can’t be followed, but a steady-paced, confident, call, will hold you in good stead. Rushing off seemingly without thinking works for a minority, but most people prefer a bit of thinking time. If the run doesn’t come to you quickly, try reversing it in your head. If you know the run, but can’t recall the name of a particular road, say so, and continue. I never cared much if you confused Cab Road, Station Approach and Spur Road; I just wanted to know you’d been there.
Hesitation is probably the area most open to interpretation. What one examiner sees as reasonable thinking time, another sees as not knowing, and worthy of docking a few points. In my introduction to New Starts I always made it clear that if you connect the Points up you will get some kind of score. Don’t tie yourself in knots chasing perfection, just connect everything up! There’s nothing wrong in keeping it simple. Don’t over complicate things if you’re not sure. You could make mistakes and loose marks.
Many candidates waste time on learning Points from the school’s sheets while neglecting to look for their own. Examiners are well aware that too many people “find” points on a computer and not on the street. If you’ve not seen it, drop it. You’ll lose one point, but if you’re guessing a Point and leave it wrongly, you could lose up to ten. I was never a Points Man. I wanted to satisfy myself that you knew the hotel ranks and could find your way out of train stations: the essentials a cab driver needs to know.
My advice to those on Finals is to have a good drive around Heathrow. It’s easier to learn it now than wait until you’ve a cab full of passengers and a mad coach driver behind you.
Dire warning: You will lose the whole ten points if you do anything illegal. If unsure, don’t attempt it. There are still people who turn right into Stratton Street from Piccadilly because they’ve seen cabs do it!
Good luck on your appearances! In the next issue we’ll be dispelling myths, and I’ll look at the most common questions I’m asked about the Knowledge process.
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2016.

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In the Chair

As an introduction, my name is Chris Ackrill, and I’ve recently completed my second period as a Knowledge of London Examiner. Since leaving, I’ve been overwhelmed with questions about the Knowledge and how to handle things at the New Towers – or whatever the new office is known as. It’s been impossible to answer every individual question put to me, but I have noted the most common questions asked and issues raised, and I shall address them in a series of articles for CallOver.
Arrival
Security have let you into the back entrance at 230 Blackfriars Road, and you have been deemed a fit and proper person to be examined on your Knowledge. Well done for getting this far. Many others will have given up before the Appearance stage.
If you’ve bowed to convention you’ll be wearing a suit and tie. The guidelines don’t stipulate a suit, but examiners tend to be a conservative bunch, so best play it safe. Can I leave the tie off on Dress Down Friday? I hear you ask. Best not. You might see staff walking around in jeans and Led Zeppelin T-shirts, but you will notice that your examiner sticks to traditional values. When I suggested to a colleague that I might dress casually on a Friday I was told that I’d be ostracised by the other examiners. That was me told. This isn’t the real world, it’s TfL
Get yourself a cup of water in the reception area if you want. You can take your water into the examination room, but drink it from a cup. Examiners don’t like candidates glugging back bottles. Not only is it off-putting, but it could be seen as a delaying tactic.
Keep Calm and Carry On
Your name is called and you follow the examiner into their room. Have your appointment card ready for the examiner, and take a seat when asked to. Not before. And don’t move the chair either. All your examiners have seen the film, The Knowledge, and know Nigel Hawthorne’s “Pickfords?” retort to any would-be furniture removal operatives. Some of us would have our day spoiled by someone moving the chair six inches forward. Petty? Perhaps; but examiners spend most of their day in that little room and they’re precious about their space. Handshakes are traditionally left until you get your Req. You can remove your jacket and loosen your tie, but ask first.
Male examiners are addressed as “Sir” and female examiners as “Ma’am”. Like the Queen. The occasional wide boy will try “Mate” and “Darling”. If you remember that “Darling” starts with a “D” it’ll help you to focus on the task.
Few examiners have personal items on their desks – the regime doesn’t encourage that sort of thing – but I guess if they do, the items are there to be admired. But not touched. Whatever you do, don’t upset a certain examiner’s arrangement of coloured pens, particularly if Chelsea have just had a bad result. If you get to discuss football, or last night’s Coronation Street, you can rightly feel privileged. An examiner sees up to sixteen people a day and there isn’t much time for chit chat. Please don’t be offended by brusqueness if the last candidate has put the examiner behind schedule. Some people think they’ve been called in late when they haven’t. Your card gives the time you’re expected to report to reception, not when you’re scheduled to be examined.
Nerves and Sickness
If examiners believe everything they’re told, then Knowledge candidates are the sickest individuals known to man. It’s accepted that an advanced warning of illness is often used to excuse a poor performance. Be assured that as soon as you start to say how illness has prevented you getting out on the bike, he’ll be reaching for his red pen in anticipation. A busy examiner doesn’t need to hear about your illnesses, or your family’s illnesses (I never actually had a pet’s illness cited as an excuse for a below-par performance, but I admit I might be swayed by the image of little Tiddles sitting at home with a bad cough).
If you are sick, postpone. Examiners don’t want folk coughing and spluttering in their confined space. You won’t be penalised for re-arranging your appearance.
Being nervous is natural, healthy even. The appearance means a lot to you and being nervous shows you care. Nervousness can sharpen you up and focus you. But if it’s extreme it might affect your performance. How you handle nerves was probably the most common question I was asked as an examiner. There is no definitive answer, as people cope with stress in different ways. You need to explore yourself to find your own individual answer. Thinking back to my own appearances, I’d say confidence came from knowing I’d been working reasonably hard, and that I stood a good chance of answering the questions reasonably well.
Many people think they are the most nervous person the examiner has seen that week/month/ever, but most people show nerves. Don’t try to get sympathy by a theatrical display of puffing and panting though. Examiners can sniff out the people who haven’t been working hard, and have a pretty good idea whether a poor performance has been caused by nerves or laziness.
The Right Room for an Argument?
Politely questioning the examiner’s decision is acceptable if you think a mistake has been made, but do it before you leave. The examiner won’t remember the intricacies asked of every run asked on every day, so there’s no point phoning up a week later to argue the toss. Mistakes will be put right if they are proved. Illegal turns are usually noted on your file. If you want to query something at a later date, contact the Knowledge Manager.
Does all all this sound scary? Just think of your examiner as a fellow cab driver. They want you to succeed, and they’re not trying to catch you out. They’ve all been through what you’ve been through. There’s a strange protocol in the Knowledge world, but you’ll soon get used to it. You’ll even be laughing about it in years to come.
Next month I’ll look at the sorts of questions you might get asked and how to handle them.
All my cab writings are available on my blog: pubcat.co
Copyright: Chris Ackrill, 2015.

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