The amount of information aspiring black cab drivers have to remember is so huge that it’s been shown to actually increase the size of certain sections of the brain.
Knowledge Point, North London. Being in the Knowledge schools is kind of like being in a monastery; all around you people are calling routes and road names. To the uninitiated it sounds like a mantra.
If you want to drive one of London’s iconic black cabs, you’ll need to take the Knowledge – an exam terrifying in its vastness. Aspiring taxi drivers must learn every street within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross – its name, the direction it runs, any restrictions and any points of interest along the way, such as restaurants, hotels, bars, embassies, hospitals, churches or, really, anywhere a passenger may conceivably ask to go. It typically takes students four years to pass, and they fund their own way through it.
I was interested why, in the age of Uber and Google Maps, people would still put themselves through this process, and what it’s like to do so. London has a bunch of Knowledge schools, and I spent time this summer in the three biggest, photographing the students and interviewing them about their lives as “Knowledge Boys” and “Knowledge Girls”, as those who take the exam are affectionately known. Of course, since I was there, TfL have taken the decision to not renew Uber’s London license – a victory for the cabbies who protested the app-based taxi service, and a massive boon to those I met, a vindication of their choice to tackle the Knowledge in the first place.
This is part of an ongoing photography project that will eventually be released with a long-form essay, but watching the debate that has sprung up in the wake of TfL’s decision, I was struck by how little the Knowledge was mentioned and thought it would be worth sharing a few of the photos now.
The first thing you notice in any of these schools is the fact that a map of London is omnipresent. Students sit in front of laminated maps which are A0 in size (47.6 x 38 inches) and draw routes across them in felt tip pen. There are two main ways that people study for the Knowledge; the first is being out on a bike or in a car “pointing” – travelling along predetermined routes and noting down all the roads, restrictions and points of interest along the way.
The other way is to be in the school alone in front of the map, or working with a partner, calling points; one person will act as the examiner, giving two points, and the other will call out the route they would take, which is then drawn on the map and measured against a straight line drawn between those points as the crow flies. The idea is to be as close to that line as possible.
Kingsley Russell has been studying for the Knowledge for just over three years. He’s a carpenter, and when I asked him why he was studying for the Knowledge he said he was doing it because it was a trade – “My grandfather always told me you have to have a craft.” Where Knowledge Boys and Girls differ from Uber drivers is that, by studying for this exam, they gain a completely unparalleled understanding of the city. A lot of people who pass the Knowledge go on to study for the Blue Badge – the official London Tour Guide permit – because they already have such an intimate connection to the history and flow of the city. The sad thing about the Uber decision is not just that 40,000 people might be out of work, but that they will have little to show for their time working for Uber, except for all hours they put in.
Studying for the Knowledge can be incredibly lonely. Very few people get what goes into it; it’s all consuming. One cabbie I spoke to said it nearly cost him his marriage; for two years, the only thing he could think about was the map. When he’d go on a date with his wife he would just be thinking about every street they passed on the way to the restaurant, and whether or not you could turn left out of them. He said it got so bad he used to watch reruns of The Bill, to see if he could spot how the roads had changed.
- The map of London is everywhere. Yes, here too…. Photo Barclay Bram.