The examination to become a London cabby is possibly the most difficult test in the world — demanding years of study to memorize the labyrinthine city’s 25,000 streets and any business or landmark on them. As GPS and Uber imperil this tradition, is there an argument for learning as an end in itself?
At 10 past 6 on a January morning a couple of winters ago, a 35-year-old man named Matt McCabe stepped out of his house in the town of Kenley, England, got on his Piaggio X8 motor scooter, and started driving north. McCabe’s destination was Stour Road, a small street in a desolate patch of East London, 20 miles from his suburban home. He began his journey by following the A23, a major thruway connecting London with its southern outskirts, whose origins are thought to be ancient: For several miles the road follows the straight line of the Roman causeway that stretched from London to Brighton. McCabe exited the A23 in the South London neighborhood of Streatham and made his way through the streets, arriving, about 20 minutes after he set out, at an intersection officially called Windrush Square but still referred to by locals, and on most maps, as Brixton Oval. There, McCabe faced a decision: how to plot his route across the River Thames. Should he proceed more or less straight north and take London Bridge, or bear right into Coldharbour Lane and head for “the pipe,” the Rotherhithe Tunnel, which snakes under the Thames two miles downriver?
“At first I thought I’d go for London Bridge,” McCabe said later. “Go straight up Brixton Road to Kennington Park Road and then work my line over. I knew that I could make my life a lot easier, to not have to waste brainpower thinking about little roads — doing left-rights, left-rights. And then once I’d get over London Bridge, it’d be a quick trip: I’d work it up to Bethnal Green Road, Old Ford Road, and boom-boom-boom, I’m there. It’s a no-brainer. But no. I was thinking about the traffic, about everyone going to the City at that hour of the morning. I thought, ‘What can I do to skirt central London?’ That was my key decision point. I didn’t want to sit in the traffic lights. So I decided to take Coldharbour Lane and head for the pipe.”
McCabe turned east on Coldharbour Lane, wending through the neighborhoods of Peckham and Bermondsey before reaching the tunnel. He emerged on the far side of the Thames in Limehouse, and from there his three-mile-long trip followed a zigzagging path northeast. “I came out of the tunnel and went forward into Yorkshire Road,” he told me. “I went right into Salmon Lane. Left into Rhodeswell Road, right into Turners Road. I went right into St. Paul’s Way, left into Burdett Road, right into Mile End Road. Left Tredegar Square. I went right Morgan Street, left Coborn Road, right into Tredegar Road. That gave me a forward into Wick Lane, a right into Monier Road, right into Smeed Road — and we’re there. Left into Stour Road.”
We were there, on Stour Road. It was a cold day, with temperatures hovering just above freezing, and snow in the forecast. For McCabe, on his bike, the wind chill made it feel considerably colder. He was dressed for the weather: a thermal shirt, a sweater, an insulated raincoat, Gore-Tex pants pulled over his jeans, gloves, work boots, a knit cap under his motorcycle helmet. McCabe is a tall man, about 6-foot-2, and he is solidly built, like a central defender on a soccer team. He’s handsome, with a wide smile and blond hair. He speaks in short sentences, snappy and definitive, especially when talking about London. We were in Hackney Wick, an industrial area adjacent to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, where the 2012 Olympic Games were held. Stour Road sits in a particularly remote corner of the neighborhood — a few wind-lashed streets, lined with warehouses, hemmed in by canals and a highway flyover.
“They call this area Fish Island,” McCabe said. “I’m not much of a fisherman, but many of the roads here are named for fishes — freshwater fishes, I believe. So just here you’ve got Bream Street.” He gestured down a road where a lumberyard was set back behind a corrugated metal fence. “Follow that to the end, you’ll come to Dace Road. You’ve got Roach Road. All names of fishes.”
McCabe had spent the last three years of his life thinking about London’s roads and landmarks, and how to navigate between them. In the process, he had logged more than 50,000 miles on motorbike and on foot, the equivalent of two circumnavigations of the Earth, nearly all within inner London’s dozen boroughs and the City of London financial district. He was studying to be a London taxi driver, devoting himself full-time to the challenge that would earn him a cabby’s “green badge” and put him behind the wheel of one of the city’s famous boxy black taxis.
Actually, “challenge” isn’t quite the word for the trial a London cabby endures to gain his qualification. It has been called the hardest test, of any kind, in the world. Its rigors have been likened to those required to earn a degree in law or medicine. It is without question a unique intellectual, psychological and physical ordeal, demanding unnumbered thousands of hours of immersive study, as would-be cabbies undertake the task of committing to memory the entirety of London, and demonstrating that mastery through a progressively more difficult sequence of oral examinations — a process which, on average, takes four years to complete, and for some, much longer than that. The guidebook issued to prospective cabbies by London Taxi and Private Hire (LTPH), which oversees the test, summarizes the task like this:
To achieve the required standard to be licensed as an “All London” taxi driver you will need a thorough knowledge, primarily, of the area within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross. You will need to know: all the streets; housing estates; parks and open spaces; government offices and departments; financial and commercial centres; diplomatic premises; town halls; registry offices; hospitals; places of worship; sports stadiums and leisure centres; airline offices; stations; hotels; clubs; theatres; cinemas; museums; art galleries; schools; colleges and universities; police stations and headquarters buildings; civil, criminal and coroner’s courts; prisons; and places of interest to tourists. In fact, anywhere a taxi passenger might ask to be taken.
If anything, this description understates the case. The six-mile radius from Charing Cross, the putative center-point of London marked by an equestrian statue of King Charles I, takes in some 25,000 streets. London cabbies need to know all of those streets, and how to drive them — the direction they run, which are one-way, which are dead ends, where to enter and exit traffic circles, and so on. But cabbies also need to know everything on the streets. Examiners may ask a would-be cabby to identify the location of any restaurant in London. Any pub, any shop, any landmark, no matter how small or obscure — all are fair game. Test-takers have been asked to name the whereabouts of flower stands, of laundromats, of commemorative plaques. One taxi driver told me that he was asked the location of a statue, just a foot tall, depicting two mice sharing a piece of cheese. It’s on the facade of a building in Philpot Lane, on the corner of Eastcheap, not far from London Bridge.
If you go to LTPH headquarters, where the examinations are conducted, you will behold a grim bureaucratic scene, not much different than the one you might find in an office devoted to tax audits: nervous test-takers, dressed in suits, shuffling into one-on-one sessions with stone-faced examiners. But for more than a century, since the first green badge was issued to a hackney cabman piloting a horse-drawn carriage, the test has been known by a name that carries a whiff of the occult: the Knowledge of London.
The origins of the Knowledge are unclear — lost in the murk of Victorian municipal history. Some trace the test’s creation to the Great Exhibition of 1851, when London’s Crystal Palace played host to hundreds of thousands of visitors. These tourists, the story goes, inundated the city with complaints about the ineptitude of its cabmen, prompting authorities to institute a more demanding licensing process. The tale may be apocryphal, but it is certain that the Knowledge was in place by 1884: City records for that year contain a reference to 1,931 applicants for the “examination as to the ‘knowledge’ [of]…principal streets and squares and public buildings.”
In 2014, in any case, the Knowledge is steeped in regimens and rituals that have been around as long as anyone can remember. Taxi-driver candidates — known as Knowledge boys and, increasingly today, Knowledge girls — are issued a copy of the so-called “Blue Book.” This guidebook contains a list of 320 “runs,” trips from Point A to Point B: Manor House Station to Gibson Square, Jubilee Gardens to Royal London Hospital, Dryburgh Road to Vicarage Crescent, etc. The candidate embarks on the Knowledge by making these runs — that is, by physically going to Manor House Station and finding the shortest route that can be legally driven to Gibson Square, and then doing the same thing 319 more times, for the other Blue Book runs.
But the Knowledge is not simply a matter of way-finding. The key is a process called “pointing,” studying the stuff on the streets: all those places “a taxi passenger might ask to be taken.” Knowledge boys have developed a system of pointing that some call “satelliting,” whereby the candidate travels in a quarter-mile radius around a run’s starting and finishing points, poking around, identifying landmarks, making notes. By this method, the theory goes, a Knowledge student can commit to memory not just the streets but the streetscape — the curve of the road, the pharmacy on the corner, the mice nibbling on cheese in the architrave.
Decades ago, most Knowledge boys did their runs on bicycles. Now, nearly all test-takers buy or lease motorbikes. In 2014, there are thousands of men and women plying the city’s streets on two wheels, at all hours, in all weather, doing runs and gathering points. It’s a ubiquitous London sight: a Knowledge boy on a bike, with a map or notepad strapped to his Plexiglas windscreen. When the candidate has completed his 320 Blue Book runs — and his accompanying 640 quarter-mile radii point-gathering expeditions — he will have covered the whole of central London. At which time he takes a brief written exam, proceeds to the first stage of the oral examination process, and the test begins in earnest.
The testing takes place at the LTPH office in a series of “appearances,” face-to-face encounters between Knowledge candidate and examiner. The test-taker is asked to “call a run”: to identify the location of two points and to fluidly recite the shortest route between the points, naming all the streets along the way. A Knowledge boy is first given 56 days between appearances to study; then, as he progresses, 28 days, and 21. The questions, meanwhile, get harder, with candidates asked to locate more obscure points and to recite longer, more byzantine journeys across London’s byways. Each appearance consists of four runs, and each run is scored according to an elaborate numerical system. Your total score earns you a letter grade, from AA to D. (AA’s are exceedingly rare; D’s aren’t.) Candidates who acquire too many bad grades are bumped backward — “red-lined” from appearances every 28 days back to every 56 days, or from 21s to 28s. There is no such thing as “failing” the Knowledge. You can either quit, or persevere and pass: proceed all the way through to the end of your 21-day appearances, gaining sufficient points to earn your “req” — to meet the “required standard,” and complete the test.
For Matt McCabe, that goal was within spitting distance. He was“on 21s, on six points,” making appearances just three weeks apart, with six points on his tally, and only six more needed — just two solid appearances, perhaps, away from getting his req. It was a pointing mission that brought McCabe to Fish Island that morning in January. He’d visited the neighborhood before, but had heard that a new point had come up in a candidate’s appearance a couple of days earlier. So he’d returned to take another look at the area — in particular, at H. Forman & Son, a wholesale fishmonger on Stour Road.
“Forman’s is quite famous,” McCabe said. He was standing outside the H. Forman & Son warehouse, a shedlike structure the size of a small airplane hangar. “They supply fish to the top restaurants in London. But now they’ve opened their own restaurant.” McCabe scrutinized the menu posted on a wall outside the building. He took a note on a small pad: “Chef: Lloyd Hardwick.” Hardwick, McCabe discovered by checking Google, had been the executive chef at the sleek restaurant on the top floor of the Tate Modern museum. “You have to look into these things. You know, the examiner could turn around and say, ‘Name me two Angela Hartnett restaurants,’ or ‘Name me four Gordon Ramsay restaurants.’ ” McCabe showed me a sign indicating that the restaurant also housed an art gallery. “You’ve got to note that. Instead of Formans restaurant, the examiner might give you Forman’s Smokehouse Gallery. That could be enough to throw you off.”
McCabe said: “This is an up-and-coming area. It looks like nothing, you know — but you put a bit of paint on the brickworks, smarten the place up, and all of a sudden it becomes a spot for little boutique stores or the up-and-coming D.J.s. You’ve got warehouse conversions; you’ll see guys coming out of the buildings in the morning — suit-and-tie, briefcase. If you’re driving a cab, you could pick someone up in the City at the end of the day heading back this way.”
McCabe had spent his entire professional life in the building trade. He’d worked alongside his father, an electrical engineer, and then as the owner of his own small firm specializing in roof maintenance, steel work and asbestos removal. He liked the work, but it was grueling — 15 hours days, seven days a week — and the £50,000 ($80,000) he took home wasn’t enough, to his mind, to justify the sacrifices. A job as a taxi driver seemed an attractive alternative. London cabbies are self-employed businessmen who set their own schedules. The metered fares of taxis are high, and drivers keep what they earn. The overhead — the cost of gas and of owning or leasing a taxi — can be steep, but cabbies who put in the hours can make a good living. There are no official statistics, but drivers themselves will tell you that London cabbies can earn around £65,000 per year, about $100,000, while maintaining an enviably flexible schedule. As a cabby, McCabe figured, he could work seven, 10, 15 days straight — and then take four days off to spend time with his wife Katie, a hairdresser, and their children, Archie, 4, and Lulu, 3. He sold his engineering outfit and devoted himself full-time to the Knowledge, living off the savings he’d gained from the sale of his business.
It was now 37 months since he’d paid the £525 enrollment fee to sign on for the test and appearances. “The closer you get, the wearier you are, and the worse you want it,” McCabe said. “You’re carrying all this baggage. Your stress. Worrying about your savings.” McCabe said that he’d spent in excess of £200,000 on the Knowledge, if you factored in his loss of earnings from not working. “I want to be out working again before my kids are at the age where someone will ask: ‘What does your daddy do?’ Right now, they know me as Daddy who drives a motorbike and is always looking at a map. They don’t know me from my past, when I had a business and guys working for me. You want your life back.”
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.”
As McCabe progressed through the Knowledge, his pointing technique had become more refined. “At the beginning you might go to the Savoy Hotel on the Strand,” he said. “That’s a famous point; everyone knows it. But you start to think: What’s a more obscure point on the Strand? So you’ll pick up the Coal Hole Public House a few doors along. You start looking at George Court and find a little bar called Retro, a gay bar that plays ’80s music. You start thinking about the bits and pieces. I’m at the stage now where I’m looking at a new bar that just opened — inside a cinema. I’m picking up handbag shops, bowling alleys. You learn to kind of savor them little gems.”
It is tempting to interpret the Knowledge as a uniquely British institution: an expression of the national passion for order and competence, and a democratization of what P. G. Wodehouse winkingly called the feudal spirit, putting an army of hyperefficient Jeeveses on the road, ready to be flagged down by any passing Bertie Wooster. But the Knowledge is less a product of the English character than of the torturous London landscape. To be in London is, at least half the time, to have no idea where the hell you are. Every London journey, even the most banal, holds the threat of taking an epic turn: The guy headed to the corner newsagent makes a left where he should have gone right, blunders into an unfamiliar road, and suddenly he is Odysseus adrift on the Acheron. The problem is one of both enormity and density. From the time that London first began to spread beyond the walls surrounding the Roman city, it kept sprawling outward, absorbing villages, enlarging the spider-web snarl of little roads, multiplying the maze. Take a look sometime at a London street map. What a mess: It is a preposterously complex tangle of veins and capillaries, the cardiovascular system of a monster.
All metropolises are quirky, but in most of them efforts have been made to mitigate the idiosyncrasies, to make the cities legible, navigable, beautiful. In Manhattan and Chicago, planners tamed chaos with gridded street schemes; Baron Haussmann obliterated twisty medieval Paris with his sweeping grands boulevards, transforming the city into a linked chain of vistas, plazas and parks. London, though, makes no sense. It was the capital city of the greatest empire in history, yet it doesn’t look or feel imperial. There are miles of monotonous ugliness, disrupted not by splendor, but by gentility — the pretty whitewashed homes and stately squares in the well-heeled districts of West and North London. St. Paul’s Cathedral sits at the back of a small semicircular plaza that is pinned-in by the office towers and bendy streets of the financial district. It is difficult to get a decent view of the most beautiful building in town.
The genius behind St. Paul’s, the architect Christopher Wren, nearly became London’s Haussmann. Just days after the catastrophic Great Fire of 1666, Wren produced a plan to rebuild London as an Italian-style city, with wide boulevards that terminated in piazzas and raised stone quays. But the plan never gained traction. The explanation usually given is economic: If Chicago is an expression of American pragmatism, and Paris an ode to symmetry, then London is a monument to English mercantilism and love of private property, to the power of the bourgeois freeholders and shopkeepers, who clung too tightly to their little patches of land to permit the clearing of space for Wren’s plan. In London, lucre trumps grandeur.
The result is a town that bewilders even its lifelong residents. Londoners, writes Peter Ackroyd, are “a population lost in [their] own city.” London’s labyrinthine roadways are a symbol — and, perhaps, a cause — of the fatalism that hangs like a pea-soup fog over the Londoner’s consciousness. Facing the dizzying infinitude of streets, your mind turns darkly to thoughts of finitude: to the time that is flying, the minutes you are running late for your doctor’s appointment, the hours ticking by, never to be retrieved, on the proverbial Big Clock, the one even bigger than Big Ben. You can see it every day in Primrose Hill and Clapham, in Golders Green and Kentish Town, in Deptford and Dalston. A nervous man, an anxious woman, scanning the horizon for a recognizable landmark, searching for a street sign, silently wondering “Where am I?” — a geographical question that grades gloomily into an existential one.
Which is where the Knowledge comes in. It is a weird city’s weird solution to the riddle of itself, a municipal training program whose graduates are both transit workers and Gnostics: chauffeurs taught by the government to know the unknowable.
If you follow your London A-Z Street Atlas halfway up Caledonian Road, in Islington, you’ll find Knowledge Point, the largest of London’s 10 schools dedicated to the test. The school occupies a nondescript two-story building, but you can’t miss it: At all hours of the day, Knowledge boys’ motorbikes line the sidewalk out front. For several years in the 1990s, there was something else parked alongside the bikes: the steed of a mounted Metropolitan Police officer, who did the Knowledge on horseback, after, and during, his working hours.
The school offers specialized lectures on dozens of topics: “Hotels Outside Central London,” “South West London Turnarounds,” “Barracks & Military Establishments,” “Lambeth & Waterloo.” Pupils pick up trade secrets, the aides-mémoires and acronyms that have been passed between generations of Knowledge boys. There’s “Cat Eats Well Then Shares Her Beef Gravy,” a mnemonic denoting a path north from the Aldwych — the crescent-shaped road that loops above the Strand — along a sequence of one-way streets: Catherine, Exeter, Wellington, Tavistock, Southampton, Henrietta, Bedford, Garrick. To access C.A.B. — the Chelsea, Albert, and Battersea bridges — you take C.O.B.: respectively, Chelsea Bridge Road, Oakley Street and Beaufort Street. A series of streets running north to south through Soho — Greek, Frith, Dean, Wardour — are Good For Dirty Women.
But the majority of a student’s time at Knowledge Point is spent in two cramped rooms on the school’s ground floor, where maps are arranged on flat tables and angled easels. These rooms are devoted to “calling-over”: sitting with a partner, taking turns reciting runs, in an effort to replicate the conditions of oral examinations at the LTPH office. Anytime you step into Knowledge Point you will find students, faces pinched in concentration, calling-over runs in the specialized jargon mandated by Knowledge examiners. A skilled caller — a “woosher,” in Knowledge slang — can sound like a slam poet or a rapper, whipping off street names and turnings in a pleasing syncopated rhythm as he races through London streets in his mind’s eye: Leave on the right Lillie Road, left Eardley Crescent, left Warwick Road, forward Holland Road, comply Holland Circus, leave by Uxbridge Road, forward and right Shepherd’s Bush Green. More often, what you will hear at Knowledge Point is the sound of strain: groans, hems and haws, cursing.
Matt McCabe had been coming to Knowledge Point since he started on the test. A stickler for routine, he arrived each morning at 8:45. When the doors opened at 9, he would sit down across a table from his call-over partner, Steven Vine. I met McCabe and Vine at Knowledge Point one morning and watched them call-over. They spent hours switching off, settling into a patter of run-calling punctuated by mumbled expletives and other exclamations: “good pull” (when you correctly identify a tricky point), “bad drop” (when you forget a point or road that you should know), “nice line” (when your call sketches a nice straight path across the map).
To call-over effectively is to find a golden mean between geography and geometry. The aim is not just to navigate cleanly, naming the right roads, but to make the shortest and most elegant line between points. While McCabe called-over a run, Vine followed along, tracing his partner’s route with a marker on the laminated map. When McCabe finished, he and Vine stretched a ball-bearing chain over the map to assess the straightness of his call. This practice is known as “cottoning the run,” a phrase that dates to the days when Knowledge boys would use lengths of cotton twine to measure their runs. “They have a saying, ‘Don’t let the cotton strangle you,’ ” McCabe said. “It’s a reminder: Don’t get too tied up in having the perfect line. You’re always trying to calculate: ‘Which one would look the prettiest on the map?’ But sometimes you just gotta let it flow.”
The London landscape throws up constant impediments to the ideal of traveling in a straight line: parks, railway yards, one-way streets. The Thames presents another challenge. Because the area below the river is referred to as South London, most people assume that the dozen central London bridges spanning the water stretch north-to-south. In fact, the Thames’s flow is meandering; in places, the river crossings run along the opposite axis. (A Knowledge boy mnemonic instructs: “East to West, Lambeth or Westminster Bridge is best.”) At Knowledge Point, McCabe leaned over the map and pointed to the King’s Road in Chelsea. “If you were going from here, say, all the way out to Canary Wharf, you might cross the river twice to make it the shortest line. So you might run it across Westminster Bridge and bring yourself back across Tower Bridge. That will be a straight line, because you’re understanding the bends in the river.”
At his late stage of the test process, McCabe found himself facing a novel problem: too much Knowledge. “London now feels very small. At the beginning, you would be standing in Piccadilly and someone says to you, ‘Take me to Kilburn,’ and you would say: ‘Oh my God, that feels miles away.’ Now, I can take you endless amounts of ways. And that’s the dilemma you’ve got now: you see too many options.”
Seeing, for a Knowledge candidate, is everything — at its heart, the Knowledge is an elaborate exercise in visualization. When McCabe called-over, he closed his eyes and toggled between views: picturing the city at street level, the roads rolling out in front of him as if in a movie, then pulling the camera back to take in the bird’s eye perspective, scanning the London map. Knowledge boys speak of a Eureka moment when, after months or years of doggedly assembling the London puzzle, the fuzziness recedes and the city snaps into focus, the great morass of streets suddenly appearing as an intelligible whole. McCabe was startled not just by that macroview, but by the minute details he was able to retain. “I can pull a tiny little art studio just from the color of the door, and where it’s got a lamppost outside. Your brain just remembers silly things, you know?”
The brains of London taxi drivers have attracted scholarly attention. Eleanor Maguire, a neuroscientist at University College London, has spent 15 years studying cabbies and Knowledge boys. She has discovered that the posterior hippocampus, the area of the brain known to be important for memory, is bigger in London taxi drivers than in most people, and that a successful Knowledge candidate’s posterior hippocampus enlarges as he progresses through the test. Maguire’s work demonstrates that the brain is capable of structural change even in adulthood. The studies also provide a scientific explanation for the experiences of Knowledge students, the majority of whom have never pursued higher education and profess shock at the amount of information they are able to assimilate and retain.
Historically, taxi driving has been a white working-class industry, dominated by East Londoners: first, the Irish, and later, cockneys and Jews. For a century at least, the London black taxi has been a vehicle of upward mobility, steering a path into the middle class. Today’s Knowledge candidates include a new generation of London strivers. At Knowledge Point, there are nearly as many black and brown faces bent over maps as white ones, and in the clamor of voices calling runs you hear a variety of accents — South Asian, West African, Caribbean — mingling with the broad vowels and glottal stops of Estuary English.
The students are united by shared suffering, and by a common adversary. For a Knowledge boy, the LTPH examiners have a kind of mythic status, inspiring a mixture of fear, resentment and awe. Appearances are highly ritualized. Candidates heed longstanding Knowledge traditions, wearing suits and ties to appearances and addressing the examiners formally. McCabe said: “It’s: ‘Yes, sir, three bags full, sir.’ You can sit in there and before you’ve even done anything, you’ve said ‘sir’ 15 times.”
Examiners insist that the formality is important, designed to inculcate a professional code and to prepare future cabbies for the ornery London public. But there is also humor, of a sort, in the testing room. For generations, Knowledge examiners have seized on the poetry of London nomenclature to craft cheeky runs: Snowman House to the ICE Train, Hamlet Gardens to the Globe Theatre, the Eye (the giant Ferris wheel on the South Bank of the Thames) to the Nose (a tiny sculpture, reputedly modeled on Lord Nelson’s nose, embedded in Admiralty Arch). One examiner, Tony Swire, likes to quiz candidates about their lives and use that information to concoct runs, off the top of his head, that flaunt his own vast London Knowledge. When Swire learned that Matt McCabe’s wife was a hairdresser and that his children were named Archie and Lulu, he gave McCabe a run from the Mayfair salon of celebrity hairstylist John Frieda, the ex-husband of Scottish pop singer Lulu, to Archie Street, a tiny dead-end road in Bermondsey.
At Knowledge Point, McCabe explained the quirks of various examiners. There was Mr. Gunning, who favors runs with difficult strictures: He likes to impose road closures, or to ask candidates to do runs while steering clear of streets with traffic lights. Ms. Gerald, one of two women examiners, specializes in runs with lots of novel points. “There’s another examiner, Mr. Hall,” McCabe said. “He’s a tricky one. They have a nickname for him. Everyone calls him the Smiling Assassin.”
David Hall is, in fact, quick with a smile. He’s 53 years old and bald-headed. He wears rimless glasses and dark suits and ties. I met him one afternoon at the LTPH office. He was sitting at the desk where he conducts examinations, with a large London map and various notes spread out in front of him. “It isn’t so bad in here, is it?” he said. He nodded slightly toward the area down the hall where Knowledge candidates wait to be called in for appearances. “You can’t believe everything you hear.”
Hall knows what it’s like to sit on the other side of the examiner’s desk. Like all examiners, he is a cabby, a Knowledge graduate with many years of taxi-driving on his CV. He left school at age 16, and got a job in the confectionery department at Harrods before becoming an electronics engineer. At age 27, he decided to try for a career as a cabby. Hall had a keen sense of direction and had always loved maps. He passed the Knowledge in less than two years.
Hall became an examiner in 2008, and soon developed the reputation that earned him the Smiling Assassin moniker: He was a kind man, with a warm, welcoming manner, who asked very difficult runs. It is common knowledge among test-takers that Hall supports Crystal Palace, the football team based in South East London, and that he lives somewhere nearby. He is known, and feared, for giving vexing South London runs. Matt McCabe had Hall in two appearances, when he was on his 28s. McCabe said: “He’s fair, but very hard. He’ll take you from Kensington or Chelsea and he’ll get you to run it down to Peckham or to Dulwich. He’ll put you in the dilemma: Do I take Vauxhall Bridge or Battersea Bridge? He’s very technical. And he’s very into South London.”
Hall is also known for doing his homework. Examiners have to burnish their own Knowledge to keep a step ahead of examinees, reviewing road closures and traffic patterns, and, in their spare time, hitting the streets to pick up new points. Hall is a dedicated pointer. When I told a Knowledge boy that I was planning to interview Mr. Hall, he said: “I heard he went out pointing on Christmas Day.”
One afternoon, I met Hall outside Palestra House, the office tower in Southwark that houses LTPH. He was carrying a digital voice recorder and a clipboard with notes and maps, which he’d drawn himself. We walked north, crossing the Millennium Bridge, which links the South Bank of the Thames with the City of London, and then turned east, following the thrumming traffic along Queen Victoria Street. At a corner, Hall started scribbling notes. “You have to work out: How do the roads go? Is Queen Victoria Street curving there? Is Friday Street going north? At the end of Friday Street — yep, you’ve got a forced left with a blue arrow. A Knowledge candidate needs to take a mental picture of the road or the arrow there.” Hall drew an arrow on his map, indicating the forced left.
Just west of the intersection, on the north side of Queen Victoria Street, stood an elegant old church, with a spire that jutted above the surrounding buildings. Hall said: “That’s St. Nicholas Cole Abbey. It’s a Wren church. In fact, the church predated Wren by several centuries, but it was destroyed in the Great Fire, and Wren rebuilt it. That’s a point I’ll ask occasionally— I have done before. I’m very fond of City of London churches.”
It is said that the Knowledge is as much about learning history as learning your way around. After completing the Knowledge, Hall undertook a years-long course of study to earn the “blue badge” of an official London tour guide. While Hall strolled around the City pointing — logging road works and making notes about new restaurants and bars — he led me on an impromptu walking tour: more Wren churches, medieval livery companies and guild halls marked with elaborate coats of arms, the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers, the Innholders Hall, a carved likeness of Winston Churchill’s face in the center of a clock above the doorway of an office building. Toward evening, we made our way back along Queen Victoria Street, passing a massive three-acre building site, the future home of Bloomberg L.P.’s European headquarters. The construction project had revealed further remains of the Temple of Mithras, a Roman ruin first discovered in 1954. The temple once stood on the banks of the Walbrook, a now-buried river that brought fresh water to Roman Londinium. Hall said: “In the religion practiced here, they used to have seven ordeals. If you were a Roman soldier, one of the ordeals was to put you over a fire pit. If you could withstand that particular ordeal, you went to the next stage in that religion.”
Hall said: “The thing about London is, it’s forever changing. The old city is preserved, of course, but there’s always a new city coming forth. There really is no end to the Knowledge. It’s infinite.”
The test-takers of a century ago who tottered their way to the Knowledge on bicycles earned a heady reward: not just a green badge, but something close to a guaranteed living. Today’s Knowledge candidates are banking on that pattern holding, but history seems to be veering in a different direction. These days, a person can walk into the LTPH office and, with relatively minimal effort, acquire a license to drive one of London’s nearly 60,000 minicabs, a fleet that vastly outnumbers the approximately 25,000 black taxis. Minicab drivers do not have to demonstrate familiarity with London; an applicant is merely required to pass a background check and take a “topographical test.” Minicabs can also offer cheaper fares than taxis, whose metered pricing schemes are strictly regulated.
For years, the black taxi industry has decried minicabs as an inferior service that poaches business rightfully belonging to Knowledge graduates. But many consumer advocates regard minicabs as a welcome corrective — a reasonably priced alternative to black taxis, whose hefty fares are beyond the reach of most Londoners. (A 2013 survey by the travel website TripAdvisor deemed London’s taxis the world’s most expensive, with an average cost per trip of £27, about $43.)
In theory, there are rules in place that offer advantages to traditional London cabbies: Theirs are the only rides that can legally be hailed on the street. But times are changing, and curbside hailing may soon be as quaint a relic of old London as the clubman striding through Mayfair in his bowler hat and boutonniere. Recently, the London taxi trade has been roiled by the rise of Uber, the smartphone app-based ride-sharing company. On June 11, thousands of drivers staged a one-hour-long “strike,” gridlocking streets to protest what they view as Uber’s illegal evasion of London’s metering laws. The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, a black-cab advocacy group, has brought series of lawsuits against Uber drivers. But at the demonstration, the cabbies’ anger was directed less at Uber, per se, than at Transport for London and Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, whom taxi drivers regard as a zealous deregulator, friendly to big business at their expense. (At the rally, cabbies held placards that read: “Uber: Under Boris Exempt from Regulation.”)
In his public statements on the matter, the mayor has walked a fine line. “London’s black-cab trade is crucial to the fabric of the city,” Johnson said. “There must, however, be a place for new technology to work in harmony with the black cab, and we shouldn’t unnecessarily restrict new ideas that are of genuine benefit to Londoners.” Others are less hedging. In July, Forbes ran an editorial by staff writer John Tamny, extolling Uber as a “disrupter” of the taxi business and casting London’s cabbies as passé: “Just as automation, free trade and general economic progress have allowed us to shed previously important skills such as sewing, farming, and yes, addition/subtraction, so does it allow us — indeed, it requires us — to shed once-relevant knowledge. . . . As for London, the GPS has, much to the chagrin of some cabdrivers with telegraphic memory, rendered their knowledge of one of the world’s great cities largely irrelevant.”
Taxi drivers counter such claims by pointing out that black cabs have triumphed in staged races against cars using GPS, or as the British call it, Sat-Nav. Cabbies contend that in dense and dynamic urban terrain like London’s, the brain of a cabby is a superior navigation tool — that Sat-Nav doesn’t know about the construction that has sprung up on Regent Street, and that a driver who is hailed in heavily-trafficked Piccadilly Circus doesn’t have time to enter an address and wait for his dashboard-mounted robot to tell him where to steer his car.
Such arguments may hold for a while. But given the pace of technological refinement, how long will it be before the development of a Sat-Nav algorithm that works better than the most ingenious cabby, before a voice-activated GPS, or a driverless car, can zip a passenger from Piccadilly to Putney more efficiently than any Knowledge graduate? Ultimately, the case to make for the Knowledge may not be practical-economic (the Knowledge works better than Sat-Nav), or moral-political (the little man must be protected against rapacious global capitalism), but philosophical, spiritual, sentimental: The Knowledge should be maintained because it is good for London’s soul, and for the souls of Londoners. The Knowledge stands for, well, knowledge — for the Enlightenment ideal of encyclopedic learning, for the humanist notion that diligent intellectual endeavor is ennobling, an end in itself. To support the Knowledge is to make the unfashionable argument that expertise cannot be reduced to data, that there’s something dystopian, or at least depressing, about the outsourcing of humanity’s hard-won erudition to gizmos, even to portable handheld gizmos that themselves are miracles of human imagination and ingenuity. London’s taxi driver test enshrines knowledge as — to use the au courant term — an artisanal commodity, a thing that’s local and homespun, thriving ideally in the individual hippocampus, not the digital hivemind.
You could also call the Knowledge the greatest tribute a city has ever paid to itself, a love letter more ardent than “I ❤ N.Y.” or anything else a Chamber of Commerce might cook up. The Knowledge says that London is Holy Writ, a great mystery to be pored over, and that a corps of municipal Talmudists must be delegated to that task. To the extent that the mystifying clichés hold — that taxi drivers are London’s singers of songlines and fonts of folk wisdom, carrying not just the secrets of London navigation but the deep history of the city and its streets — the disappearance of the Knowledge would be an assault on civic memory, a blow, if you will, to historic preservation. Smartphone apps and Google Maps may ensure that Londoners will never again be lost in their own city, but if the Knowledge disappears, will something of London itself be lost — will some essence of the place vanish along with all those guys on mopeds, learning the town’s roads and plumbing its depths?
Like most cabbies and Knowledge boys, Matt McCabe worries about the future of the taxi business. But in January 2013, he had more pressing concerns. A few days after his visit to Fish Island, McCabe went on an appearance and scored a B, leaving him with 10 points, just two shy of his goal. Barring a calamity, a brain-freeze, it seemed a foregone conclusion that his next appearance would be his last.
Three weeks later, on a Friday, McCabe rose, as usual, early, with his children, and went through a routine he’d established over many months. He made sure he was cleanly shaven, that his shoes were polished, his suit pristine. He took the train into London, disembarked at London Bridge station, and walked to the LTPH office at a measured pace, trying to keep his heart-rate steady. He arrived with time to spare and took his seat in the waiting area with a dozen or so other Knowledge candidates.
At around 2 p.m., McCabe’s name was called, and he was ushered into the office of a man he’d never met before. David O’Connor is a veteran examiner with a reputation as a hard marker. McCabe knew that O’Connor liked to test whether candidates had been getting around on the bike, and liked to give runs that worked the center of the map.
McCabe sat down and breezed through his first three runs. He was nervous, but his calls, he thought, were solid. Surely it was a done deed now? For the session’s final run, O’Connor asked McCabe to take him from the Sun and Doves to Emirates Stadium. McCabe closed his eyes. He could see the Sun and Doves: It was a pub on the corner of Coldharbour Lane and Caldecot Road, down in Camberwell. Of course he knew Emirates Stadium, the home of Arsenal, the Premier League football team. McCabe said: “Sun and Doves, Coldharbour Lane. Emirates Stadium, it’s Drayton Park. That’s the North Bank entrance.” O’Connor nodded: the Knowledge boy had identified the points correctly. McCabe closed his eyes again, to make sure he saw the line clearly. Then he called the run:
Leave on the right, Coldharbour Lane
Left into Denmark Hill
Forward Camberwell Road
Forward Walworth Road
Comply Elephant and Castle
Leave by Newington Causeway
Forward Borough High Street
Forward over London Bridge
Forward into King William Street
Forward Lombard Street
Forward Bank Junction
Forward Prince’s Street
Forward Finsbury Pavement
Forward Finsbury Square
Forward City Road
Comply Old Street roundabout
Leave by City Road continued
Right Provost Street
Right Vestry Street
Left into East Road
Forward New North Road
Forward Canonbury Road
Comply Highbury Corner
Leave by Holloway Road
Right Drayton Park
Set down on the left
It was a nearly seven-mile-long journey, due north, from Camberwell to Holloway, in Islington, north-central London. When McCabe finished the call, he and O’Connor sat in silence for what seemed to McCabe an eternity. Finally, O’Connor stood up and extended his hand. He said: “Well done, Matt. Welcome to the club. I’m pleased to say that you’re now one of London’s finest.” It was the first time in the more than three years McCabe had been coming to LTPH that an examiner had called him by his first name.
“It was an emotional moment,” McCabe said. “It was hard to hold back the tears. Three years of complete financial stress, family stress — studying for 13 hours a day, seven days a week. Suddenly, the whole thing was very casual. It was quite, you know, ‘Sit back, relax, loosen your tie.’ And then Mr. O’Connor was telling me what to expect doing the job. He was giving me his inside knowledge after being a London cabby for, like, 20-odd years.” McCabe went home to his family. He and his wife, Katie, ordered take-out from a Thai restaurant, put on loud music, and danced around the house with their children. When the kids went to bed, the McCabes drank a few beers and dismantled the Knowledge library: stored the flashcards and pages of notes, took the maps off the wall. Katie, McCabe said, “cried for about two days solid.”
McCabe has been driving a taxi for just over a year and a half. He is still new at the job, relatively speaking; in London cabby lingo, he’s a “Butter Boy” — but a boy, a recent Knowledge graduate. He has the leanings of a traditionalist, though. Many cabbies today are opting for new minivan-style Mercedes taxis, or cabs decorated with “full wrap-liveries,” advertisements in eye-popping hues. McCabe owns a TX4 Elegance, a car with the classic London black cab look. “I like the iconic shape,” he said. “To me, if you’re gonna be a London cabby, that’s what you should be driving.”
In June, McCabe took part in the demonstration against Uber. He said, “We’re trying to be the best in the world, and trying to stay competitive as well. And, you know, the way Uber seems to operate in London — when it’s quiet, they do the work for next to nothing, when it’s busy, the rates are three times dearer than a London cab.” For now, McCabe is making a good living. “The rewards are there. You have to do the hours. I mean, a normal day for me is a 12-hour day.”
He said: “What I’ve done is a trade. A minicab driver, an Uber driver — they won’t do the undertaking I done. They won’t put in the three years.”
“I had a gentleman in the cab recently,” McCabe said. “He told me that a couple of nights earlier he’d been eating in a restaurant in Chelsea, and the Uber car turned up. He said, ‘We want to go to Wapping.’ And the driver said, ‘Where’s Wapping? Is it in London?’ And it’s, like, a massive borough. He’s never heard of it! So, I picked this guy up. He said, ‘Wapping.’ I went, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he said, ‘Kennet Street.’ I went, ‘Yes, sir.’ He got in the back, and we were off. And he told me, ‘That’s why I’m reverting back to London cabs.’ ”
McCabe said, “The moment a person tells me at the window where they want to go, we’re going. There’s no mucking about. I want to get you from A to B as quickly as possible. Because as nice as the person may be, I want to get them in and out. So I can get the next person in the back of the cab, and I’m earning more money.”
McCabe is still doing the Knowledge, after a fashion. He’s embarked on the three-year course to become a licensed London historian — an official tour guide, like David Hall. “I’m fascinated with the quirky little bits of London history,” McCabe said. “The famous lamps at the Savoy. The secret tunnels that link up to St. James’s Palace.”
When he’s in his cab, McCabe keeps his eyes peeled for another London curiosity: the Knowledge examiners, his erstwhile tormentors, now colleagues, who may be out driving their own taxis, or gathering new points. Each workday, McCabe makes his way into the city’s center via South London, guiding his taxi through the streets that have flummoxed many a Knowledge boy attempting to call one of Mr. Hall’s runs. McCabe hasn’t spotted Hall yet, but he hopes he will sometime. It would be nice, he says, to have a beer with the Smiling Assassin.
Back in the winter of 2013, shortly before McCabe’s final appearance, I asked him how he was handling the pressure. He said: “If you overcome the nerves, your training will take over. When I get into that room, I try to think: ‘This guy is an examiner, but when he’s not sitting here, he’s behind the wheel, driving a cab.’ He could pick me up tomorrow, you know, or pick my wife up. That calms me down. I think to myself, ‘This guy is just a cab driver, same as what I want to be. He’s just a London cab driver. He doesn’t know everything.’ ”