The Knowledge: London cabbies' multi-year, grueling training


If you want to drive a black cab in London -- the only cars that passengers can hail from the kerb -- you have to pass "The Knowledge," an unbelievably tough exam that tests you on your minute knowledge of every street, landmark, hotel, restaurant, hospital, church, stadium, airline office, club, police station, court, and tourist destination within six miles of Charing Cross station.

In a fascinating longread that traces the history of The Knowledge and the ways that it has butted up against satellite navigation, Uber, and a changing city. Driving a black cab has historically been a path to upward mobility for working class migrants, albeit one that required unbelievable labour and sacrifice, and those kinds of opportunities are vanishing fast in neoliberal, austerity Britain.

The Knowledge is notorious for snatching away lives, and for putting minds in a vise grip. “Everything becomes about the Knowledge,” McCabe said. “My wife will be talking to me about plans or the kids, and it’s not even registering what she’s saying. Because all I’m thinking is, ‘I can’t turn right into that road in Hammersmith, can I?’ If you read the paper, or watch the news or a film, you’re looking at the background. ‘Oh, I know that road there.’ ”

McCabe said that he dreamed about the Knowledge: sometimes exhilarating visions of zooming through London streets, more frequently nightmares about unfamiliar roads or disastrous LTPH appearances. Often, McCabe would wake in the middle of the night and hurry downstairs to study the map. In his dining room, there were three maps: two jumbo London street plans — one laminated on the dinner table and one tacked to the wall — and an enlarged view of the W1 postcode, the bustling zone which stretches south from Marylebone to Piccadilly and east to Soho. McCabe had ledgers he’d filled with jottings on topics like “Small and Awkward Squares.” There were also flashcards that McCabe had made up, listing a point on one side (“Tooting Mosque, SW17″) with information about its location and navigation on the other (“Gatton Road, one way, access via Fishponds Road”). McCabe stacked the cards in piles of 300; he had 40,000 in all. His home, he said, had become a library of the Knowledge.

But book-learning gets you only so far. “You’ve got to get out on the bike,” McCabe said. When he was doing Blue Book runs, McCabe would ride the streets all night, leaving when his wife got home from work at 9 p.m. and returning at 4 in the morning. Pointing, McCabe told me, can be “very cold, very lonely, very dangerous.” One night, McCabe was out pointing on his motorbike when a driver slammed into him from behind. McCabe went over the roof of the car, but suffered just a few scrapes and bruises. The bike was totaled. “I’m stationary in the filter lane, and the car just came around the bend and hit me,” McCabe said. “This was on a road called Pound Lane. Right across from the fire station at the corner of Harlesden Road.”

The Knowledge, London’s Legendary Taxi-Driver Test, Puts Up a Fight in the Age of GPS [Jody Rosen/T Magazine]

(via Making Light)

(Image: Chilly London, Tower Bridge, Lars Plougmann, CC-BY-SA)