Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Knowledge

In another life, I would be a London cab driver. Always an Anglophile, I went over the edge in 1997, in London. My sister and I were heading to Gatwick to catch a plane to Marseille. The night before our departure, we made arrangements with the hotel desk clerk (an interesting Russian woman who disparaged our complaints about the lack of hot water as "oh, you Americans, you expect instant hot water...this is an old building, it takes time") for an early morning cab to take us to Victoria Station for the train to Gatwick.

So, there we were, the next morning, bright and early, standing in front of our hotel on Norfolk Square, bags at our sides, waiting for our cab. Before long, a cab pulls up, the driver hops out and begins to load our luggage into the trunk. I should say here that the driver was of middle Eastern heritage, and the cab was not a traditional "black cab", which we did not think much the time. We ask him a about the cost of going to Gatwick by cab (too expensive) and generally hang about as he is busily piling our bags into the trunk. About the time he was finishing up, and we were getting into the back of the cab, a traditional black cab pulled up and yelled my last name as a question. I told him "yes" and he started haranguing the other cab driver and telling us he was our driver and this guy was an illegitimate cabbie, unlicensed, an opportunist, and we would be wise to get out and send him on his way. My sister and I, wide-eyed and a bit flustered, got out, asked for our luggage to be removed, and headed for the black cab.

Once safely ensconced in the black cab, and on our way, the driver began giving us what, in retrospect, was a lecture. Here is my best recollection:

"A licensed London cabbie has to pass a number of tests to qualify for a license. To pass these tests, the driver must have an encyclopedic knowledge of London's streets, alleyways, lanes, and bypasses. I spent two years driving around London on a motorbike to learn every street name and landmark. I sectioned the city off into grids and concentrated on one grid at a time. All the while, I was working a regular day job and had family responsibilities. The information required to pass these tests is called "The Knowledge" and it is no mean feat to learn it all. This is why I get very upset when innocent tourists are lured into unlicensed cabs. These cab drivers do not know the city, are uninsured, and they charge exorbitant fares. In general, to be safe, always take a 'black cab'." Or some such...

After that, I became quite fascinated with the geography of London. I bought a London street atlas and keep it by my side when reading anything set in London. Every street name is looked up and located on the various maps. When reading the Pepys Diaries, I trace Sam's movements using the atlas. This has become kind of an obsession.

So, as I said, "in another life"...

1 comment:

  1. London confused the hell out of me! I am definitely not one to be directionally challenged in the least...but London takes the cake for confusing (for me). problem. problem...even with no roads ;)
    London...where am I again?!?!
    Kudos to the cabbbies of London.