The ‘Appearance’ stage of The Knowledge of London process is a long, drawn-out, nerve-wracking affair.
Unless they are a Knowledge genius, the average candidate will have to go through many appearances before they are considered good enough to drive a taxi, and are awarded with their little green badge.
I personally had to undergo 27 appearances.
When on appearances, there are three stages:
These numbers indicate the number of days between each appearance. So, as you progress and your Knowledge increases, the examiners will test you on a more frequent basis.
For each appearance, you are awarded a mark- an A, B, C or D.
An A is worth 6 points, a B 4 points, and a C 3 points. If you get a D, that’s null point!
As you go along, hopefully scoring, the points add up and, once you’ve accumulated 12 marks, you are moved onto the next stage (“receiving your drop” as it’s known in the trade). C’s and D’s are the most common marks. So, say for example you had four appearances in which you scored a C, that would equal 12 marks, and you’d move on to more frequent exams.
There is an almost mystical ‘Double A’ award, which allows you to pass a stage in one go, but these are ultra-rare, the sort of thing you’d imagine Indiana Jones to covet! I’ve only ever heard of two or three people gaining that score.
As I mentioned a moment ago, you have to accumulate 12 marks in order to progress…. However, there is a potential stumbling block- you only get 7 attempts in which to earn them. If, after 7 appearances you have not scored the required amount, you are ‘red-lined’. This means you have to begin the stage all over again; back to the drawing board, start from scratch.
Red-lining is very common (it happened to me, which I’ll talk about later). As you can imagine, being red-lined is soul destroying. It makes your tenure on the Knowledge even longer, your goal seem even more remote.
A Knowledge student’s worst nightmare!
If you get red-lined twice in a row (which does happen), it’s even worse, as you’re pushed back another stage! So, for example, you could be on 28 days, hoping to have the 21 day stage in your sights soon. However, get two red-lines on 28s, and it’s back to 56’s! If you get red-lined twice on the 56 day stage, then its back to the preliminary written, map test!
Appearances create all manner of feelings and emotions; fear, bafflement, frustration and despair to name but a few.
If you score, they are also capable of producing huge joy.
As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, the majority of my appearances were held at the old PCO offices on Penton Street in Islington. Every visit to that place was a gut-wrenching affair.
Entrance to the old PCO building (Google Street View)
The appearance begins before you even leave home- you have to ensure that you are immaculately groomed and in your smartest suit; every single exam has to be treated as a job interview. Candidates can be refused their appearance if they do not look dapper enough.
Once at Penton Street, you had to go up to the main reception desk and gain permission to go up to the Knowledge department.
I remember once having a very early morning appearance. It was a dark winter morning, with water sluicing down thrown the chilly air. Eager to get into the warmth, I pushed the door open and walked in. I was promptly thrown back out by one of the PCO’s less cheerful employees.
“We’re not open yet; that’s why the sign on the door says closed.”
The sarcasm in her voice was heavier than the rain outside.
“Oh… but the door was open.”
The woman tutted and rolled her eyes… but I didn’t respond further and went back out into the cold. At the PCO, you have to be on your best behaviour; any attempt to question or complain is viewed as trouble making, and can lead to you having an even tougher time on the Knowledge.
Once allowed in, you had to trudge up several floors; often with numb legs and a sick feeling in the stomach. You then reported to the ‘Knowledge booking in’ window, where you presented your little score card.
The reception desks at the PCO all looked rather authoritarian, with their heavy wooden surrounds, and stern, black and white placards. Once booked in, you walked out, around the corner and into the waiting room. On the way, you passed a snack-vending machine, but at this stage food would be the last thing on your mind.
The waiting room was very similar to that of a dentist’s. It was narrow, with chairs on each side and a coat-stand in the corner. The air was always very overpowering; a thick, sickly sweet smell caused by over-zealous air-freshener use.
The wall that ran parallel to the corridor outside was completely covered in a huge map of the Greater London area. This was an awful psychological torment; it made you realise the enormity of your task, and always threw up doubts in your mind. You’d often find yourself glimpsing at it, catching sight of a tiny street or road and thinking… can I turn right out of there? Is that one-way? What’s the name of that hotel near there? And so on. A lot of Knowledge students preferred to sit with their back to this giant chart.
The waiting room was always an intense place, it felt as though the walls had absorbed the accumulated fears of all knowledge boys and girls who’d passed through.
Candidates were often silent; there was very little talk and, even if there were chatter, it was very hushed. Most people sat, growing numb, looking down at the worn carpet, nervously jiggling their knees up and down.
The waiting room at Penton Street (screenshot from BBC’s 1996 ‘Modern Times’ documentary)
I once saw one poor soul clasp his mouth and hurry over towards the toilets, which were thankfully opposite the waiting room’s door. (Even in that circumstance, using the toilet was risky after you’d booked in- if you answered a call or nature, or indeed felt the need to vomit, you’d better hope that your name wasn’t called whilst you were in the lavatory. If you weren’t in the waiting room upon being called, the examiner could refuse to see you that day!)
As you sat waiting, an examiner would appear at the door every so often and call a name…
There are around 12 examiners at any one time, and they are a very varied bunch. Some are cold, calculated and down-right scary! Others are extremely friendly and helpful (although, strangely enough, they’re the ones who seem to ask the toughest questions!) One or two seem to enjoy playing the odd practical joke.
Hearing your name called was always guaranteed to get the adrenalin going.
Upon being summoned, you’d answer “yes Sir/Madam”, and be up like an automaton. You’d then follow the examiner down the corridor…. aptly nicknamed ‘The Corridor of Fear‘ by Knowledge students, due to the inevitable feeling one felt whilst walking along it.
The Corridor of Fear… (image: BBC Modern Times)
Some examiners would use the journey along the Corridor of Fear to create intimidation.
I remember on one of my early appearances trying to keep up with the examiner as he briskly hurried all the way to the end of the stretch. Along the way, there were several fire doors, which he took great delight in letting swing back in my face as he breezed through them.
On another Corridor of Fear walk, an examiner asked me for my scorecard as I stood up in the waiting room. In order to keep the precious card clean and tidy, I’d made a small plastic wallet in which to keep it. Having seen that I’d taken this precaution and clearly cared about the scorecard’s condition, the examiner proceeded to grip the card in his hand and scrape it along the wall, all the way to his office.
On another walk, the examiner in front of me decided to take his time ambling very slowly. His lethargic pace threw me, and I ended up treading on the back of his leg! I was horrified, and mumbled apologies all the way to his office. Needless to say I was awarded with a ‘D’ that day!
The examiners’ offices were, unsurprisingly, foreboding places.
Each one contained a large, dark wooden desk behind which the examiner sat, emulating the sort of feeling you’d have if you were a badly behaved schoolchild, and had been sent before the Headmaster. The desks contained an upright board; a sort of book stand, upon which the examiner would often have a London map book perched.
I’ve drawn the sketch below in order to give you some idea of what the Knowledge student’s view is like when on an appearance (please note, the examiner in the drawing is not based upon anyone in particular!)
As the Knowledge candidate, you had to perch on a small, uncomfortable chair. Moving or re-arranging the chair is forbidden. On one particular appearance I experienced, the examiner had placed the chair about three times further from its usual spot; right at the other end of the room. This ensured that I struggled to hear him, and I had to crane forward and raise my voice when speaking; very awkward indeed.
Several painful appearances were included in Jack Rosenthal’s 1979 play and, although they may seem exaggerated, ‘Mr Burgess’ the PCO interrogator was in fact based upon a real Knowledge examiner!
On my very first appearance, I struck lucky. Naturally, I won’t mention any names, but this particular examiner was very popular with the Knowledge students. She was fair, friendly and good at putting you at ease. After an informative, introductory talk, the examiner said:
“As it’s your first one, we’ll go easy on you. Be warned though, it will become tougher… OK, let’s see how you get on.”
I watched as the examiner slowly leafed through a book of points. The anticipation was unbearable and my mouth had quickly turned dry. Suddenly, the examiner said:
“We’ll start at Grafton Square.”
I froze…. And my spirits sunk.
For the life of me, I could not place Grafton Square (I kick myself now every time I pass Grafton Square- it’s just north of Clapham Common).
I looked down, shaking my head…suddenly realising that perhaps I wasn’t cut out to pass the Knowledge.
“No… sorry, Ma’am.”
“How about Maritime House?”
Again I froze… my brain became fuddled. An image presented itself to me… ‘Sea Container House’; the one that overlooks the Thames… no, that’s the wrong one. Then, amazingly, something clicked.
“Maritime House is on Old Town, Clapham Common, Ma’am.”
“Yes. And from there, let’s run it to the Caesar Hotel.”
“That’s Paddington, Ma’am… Queens Gardens.”
“Ok, off you go.”
So that was my first appearance run; Maritime House to one of Paddington’s many hotels. As I called the run, I felt light headed, and wasn’t even sure if the words were coming out of my mouth…
“Leave Maritime House on the right Old Town, forward the Pavement, forward North Street, forward Silverthorne Road, left Broughton Street, right Queens Town Road, comply Queen’s Circus, leave by Queenstown Road continued, forward Chelsea Bridge…. “ And so on.
As I called the run, the examiner peered over the top of her glasses at the map in front of her. As she did so, she picked up a piece of string, stretching it over the map, checking I was taking the straightest, most direct route possible. At other points, she would jot down notes in my file especially, I imagine, to record my weaknesses and places which I did not know.
After stumbling through another few runs, I was amazed to be awarded a ‘C’. I was over the moon. The examiner gave me some very kind words of advice and support; words which stuck with me throughout my time on The Knowledge.
However, not all of the appearances I had would prove to be so pleasant!
To be continued…