Tag Archives: 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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In the Hot Seat

(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.

Going Blank

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.

Making Mistakes

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.

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Fantasy Driving Jobs

(Original edit of piece written for CallOver magazine)

Inspired by a schedule of driving-related TV programmes over the winter, I found myself fantasising about other driving jobs I could do.  My programmes of choice during the worst kipper season known to man included Ice Road Truckers and Double Decker Driving School.

I often joke about swapping the cab for a “rig” and moving to Alaska, but the wife says the cat won’t like the cold weather.  I wondered if I might be able to become the first ice road trucker in Leighton Buzzard, but my plans were scuppered by one solitary day of snow this winter.  Once I got the cab off the snowy driveway, and onto the main road the snow was just mush.  In Central London you wouldn’t even know it’d been snowing.  That was the extent of my career as an ice road trucker.

When I was an examiner, I dreamt of the Knowledge and cab driving every night.  Away from the sharp edge of the Knowledge I dream about road systems a little less frequently, but it’s still common for me to dream of the complexities of road systems.  I remember one morning waking in panic because I couldn’t find my way out of Victoria one-way system.  I often have strange dreams about driving my cab.  Once, my cab turned into a cycle and I had to deliver my passengers the best I could.  Another time, I dreamt my vehicle disappeared completely, and I had to piggy-back my passengers over puddles.

In a common re-occurring dream I am driving a bus.  Sometimes I’m driving it from the top deck, where I feel I have less control.  Bus driving is clearly a frightening scenario in my subconscious.  I once sat in the driver’s seat on a bus at the London Transport Museum, but doing it for a living has never appealed to me.  I wouldn’t like to drive anything bigger than a TX4 in London.  After pretending to drive the museum bus to Lewisham, the tube train driving simulator seemed much more fun.  Gissa job, I can do that…

I cringed on my sofa while watching the would-be bus drivers on Double Decker Driving School.  I imagine it as one of the hardest, most frustrating, jobs in London.  All those narrow congested roads, constant diversions, swarms of cycles, pop-up pedestrians; and the anxiety of trying to clear box junctions.  Everyone’s trying to cut you up.  I don’t know if they still have bus inspectors, but I’m sure there’s pressure to make timetables.  And they know exactly where you are and what you’re doing at all times.  No nipping in to see other blokes’ wives like in the 1970s comedy, On the Buses.  Then there’s the customer side of things.  I’m nervous enough carrying one passenger; I can only imagine the stress of having fifty passengers taking their frustration of the traffic out on you.

Each to their own.  What comes over in Double Decker Driving School is how determined and enthusiastic the trainees are.  They see bus driving as a stable, secure, career.  Doing the best for their families is the re-occurring theme.  The pride the bus driving trainees have when they pass their test was an inspiration.

During the writing of this article I had the misfortune to experience the work of more professional drivers after I ground to a halt on the M1 on my way home.  My RAC rescuers included a bloke who used to be a taxi inspector at Penton Street; and Romanian George, who transported me and my cab home from London Gateway Services.  I said I don’t think I could drive anything as big as a breakdown truck, but he said it was easy.  It seemed easy enough on the motorway, but I wouldn’t want to get called out to a breakdown in Hanway Street.

George seemed happy in his work. The bloke who loaded up my cab to take it from my home to the garage was proud of his work too. He provided a lively running commentary as he connected up a complicated series of straps and cables and winched the cab up ready for removal (I’ll never complain again about strapping in a wheelchair and using the ramp extension).  I would have shown more interest had I not been so concerned about the fate of my cab in Luton, and the enforced three-day holiday.

I suppose there are good and bad aspects to all jobs.  I might still imagine hauling my rig across the ice roads of North America, but I probably wouldn’t get on with the reality of it.  And the missus is right; it’d be too cold for me and the cat.  No, I’ll stick to the cab for now.

There’s a perverse dictum that says the more challenging a job is, the more you value it.  Few of my friends would like to do my job.  The satisfaction comes from doing something that others couldn’t do, and rising to the daily challenge.  There’s probably more than a hint of masochism at play here.  Bus drivers probably already know that.

Blog:  pubcat.co

Copyright:  Chris Ackrill.

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