Seeking 'Knowledge' in London Students: To drive one of the city's signature black taxicabs, aspirants must learn and recite about 800 routes and take five oral examinations. Five knowledge schools teach would-be drivers

Sun Journal

November 19, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- With a map and a motorbike, Phil Barber pursues "The Knowledge."

Like thousands of other would-be London taxi drivers, Barber is up before dawn, prowling the city, searching for streets and landmarks that must be memorized.

Most nights, he sits in a smoke-filled classroom, reciting convoluted directions with other students, imagining himself as a taxi driver ferrying tourists and locals through a metropolis.

To become a taxi driver, Barber must acquire "The Knowledge," the ability to learn and recite about 800 routes around one of the world's more confounding cities. He has been at this exercise for nearly four years. And if he has to go four more, he will.

"This is getting to me," Barber says. "But I won't be beaten."

"The Knowledge" is a rite of passage, and an oral tradition. It is what separates a London taxi driver from virtually every other cabbie around the world.

At its most basic, "The Knowledge" is a series of oral tests given by five examiners for London's Metropolitan Police. Over a period that extends two years or more, students must show the examiners that they are making progress at memorizing the city and its main suburban routes, covering some 792 square miles.

Like children in a classroom reciting mathematics tables, the would-be taxi drivers have to call up the routes from memory in tense 15-minute sessions. Progress is charted by the number of days between exams, beginning with 56 and ending with 14. The students have to learn 1,400 different places of interest, everything from St. Paul's Cathedral to a dog memorial on Carlton House Terrace.

"Before I started this, I never knew there were so many war memorials in London," Barber says. "And pubs? There are thousands of them. We have to know police stations. Hospitals. Hotels. Embassies. Every cinema and theater."

Seven of every 10 who attempt to gain "The Knowledge," fall by the wayside. Beginning next year, new "Knowledge" candidates will have to pass a 100-question written test before they can begin the arduous oral exams.

Eventually, those who gain "The Knowledge," are allowed to take a taxi-driving test, and then claim their license.

London has 23,000 licensed taxi drivers working in 20,000 of the city's signature black cabs, which are still built to accommodate even a passenger in a top hat. A new cab costs $47,000. Used ones can be had for around $12,700.

Climb into the back of a London taxi, and a passenger can be confident that the driver will find the destination. Not only that, the driver is bound to go the shortest route, a neat trick in a city crammed with one-way streets, dead ends, traffic circles, squares, bridges, tunnels, parks and a major river, the Thames.

"Roads here are a bit twisted," Barber says. "I didn't realize how bad they were."

Barber, 42, a former bricklayer who works part-time construction and courier jobs, had little idea what he was in for when he decided to enter a trade that has been regulated since the 17th century.

"The Knowledge" was introduced at the time of the 1851 Great Exhibition, a fair that celebrated Britain's industrial might in the Victorian era. The public wanted the cabdrivers of horse-drawn carriages to know their way around the city.

"The Knowledge" became a skill handed down through generations, fathers teaching sons, friends instructing friends. Others paced London streets on their own. The city's big taxi fleets set up classes to teach drivers.

Now, five major knowledge schools, charging about $12 a week in tuition, teach the would-be taxi drivers.

Down at the Knowledge College in south London, taxi driver and teacher Paul O'Donnell, 35, oversees the progression of hundreds of students.

"We've had an airline pilot, ex-soccer players, retired policemen and firemen, a manager of a bank," O'Donnell says. "We've had people in construction, courier drivers, mail carriers. You name a profession, we've had them. You've got people desperate to get a license."

Nearly all the students are men. They range in age from their 20s to their 50s.

"People are attracted to the freedom of the job," O'Donnell says. "There is no one on your back. No deadlines. You want to go for a swim on a hot day? You can. As long as your taxi starts, you've got work. The downside of it is, you have to work unsociable hours."

Taxi drivers are loath to give details of their earnings. But the profession is seen as a route to a stable middle-class lifestyle.

"There are taxi drivers who earn a good living," O'Donnell says. "Others are in dire financial straits. Buying and maintaining a cab is very expensive."

So, what does it take to gain "The Knowledge?"

"Dedication," O'Donnell says. "They have to read the maps. They have to go on their motorbikes in all weather. Come Christmas Day, you'll see a knowledge boy ride past you. People want it very badly. Nothing stops them, whether it's the rain or the snow."

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