Many appearances, especially the early ones, were rather bizarre affairs.
Each appearance lasts for around 10-15 minutes, but that is more than enough time to give your brain a thorough sauté.
Appearance in progress… (photo from BBC, ‘Modern Times’)
On my second appearance, I was in the waiting room as usual, when my name was called. If anything, I was even more nervous than the first time, as I now had an idea of what to expect and had been warned by the examiner on that occasion that the process would only get tougher.
“Mr Lordan, please.”
At this point of course, having little experience of the PCO, I had no idea whom each examiner was.
Which is why I was rather puzzled by the examiner’s first question…
After taking our seats, the examiner ignored me for a considerable length of time. At first, he shuffled and arranged several piles of paperwork for no apparent reason. He then proceeded to gaze idly at his computer screen, slowly gliding and clicking his mouse. For all I knew, he was looking at a price comparison website.
I sat there feeling awkward, not saying anything- another unwritten rule whilst on an appearance is that you do not speak unless spoken to. A small, framed photograph of the examiner’s wife, taken in soft-focus, stared back at me from the desk.
Suddenly, the examiner decided to speak.
“What’s my name?”
It took me a moment to register this question. I had no idea what the examiner’s name was; I’d never met him before. All I could do was apologise.
“I’m sorry, Sir… I don’t know.”
“Ok” replied the examiner with a smile, “rule number one on The Knowledge- I’ll never ask you anything you don’t know.”
I nodded eagerly.
“So,” he continued, “what’s my name?”
Now I was truly baffled. I stuttered and apologised again.
But the examiner had already moved on.
“Highgate Private Hospital?”
I rejoiced; it was a nice, straight-forward point.
“View Road, Sir.”
Highgate Private Hospital… can you see it?!
The examiner made no reply. He stared at me whilst tapping a pen up and down in his hand. His silence and failure to confirm my answer quickly led me to believe I’d given the wrong address. Squeezing my eyes, I began to cycle through the other roads in the area.
“Not View Road….” I muttered…. “erm… Denewood road? North Hill?”
“Highgate…Private…Hospital…” the examiner repeated, slowly putting emphasis on each word.
By now, my brain was in a real fluster. I had no idea where the hospital was.
“Sorry Sir…. I don’t know.“
“You just said it…” my interrogator stated, “View Road.”
Despite this surreal appearance, I somehow managed to score a second ‘C’.
Something similar occurred on my third appearance.
As I followed the examiner into his office and before I’d even had a chance to take a seat, he was already barking out my first run.
“Right. Elephant and Castle Station, and from there we’ll run it to St Martin’s Theatre.”
“Elephant and Castle Station is on London Road, Sir.”
As I sat down, the examiner walked to his desk and, still standing, leant over his desk with a puzzled look, carefully scrutinizing a map, his eyes bunched up like a short-sighted person who’d lost their spectacles.
“No… that’s the tube station.”
(Just to clarify, there are TWO Elephant and Castle Stations- an Underground one and a British Rail one, more or less opposite each other!)
“Oh, sorry Sir. It’s Elephant Road then.”
Still looking at his map and not at me, the examiner simply replied,
“No, not that one.”
Elephant and Castle Station.. or Elephant and Castle Station… take your pick!
Once again, my brain began to scramble. These were two major points and, as far as I knew, I’d given the correct roads no problem. But the examiner was saying I hadn’t. With a mixture of dismay and bewilderment, I began to name other roads in the area, hoping to stumble across the correct one.
“St George’s Road, Sir?”
“Erm…Elephant and Castle Circus?”
“No, no… you’ve already said it- London Road. I wanted the tube station. Come on; let’s get going- St Martin’s Theatre.”
On this appearance, I made a number of mistakes; the biggest occuring on a run in which I chose the wrong route to traverse around Hyde Park.
Once my runs were complete, the examiner wrote at length in my file. He then gave me a brief lecture, telling me that he’d given me a ‘D’; so no score.
“You can’t be making mistakes like that,” he explained, waving his hands around animatedly. “If I gave you a ‘C’ today and you get another one next time, then you’d be on 28 days wouldn’t you? And you’re not good enough for that yet. Anyway, take it on the chin. Learn from it.”
As he handed back the scorecard, the examiner gave me a quick wink.
Whilst these appearances were odd and threw my mind off track, the examiners themselves were perfectly hospitable.
However, in some cases, they could be pretty hostile!
On one particular appearance, the examiner took great pride in ignoring me. He asked me the runs and, as I called, he immersed himself in paperwork, neither looking at nor listening to me.
At one point, however, he picked up a book… which he proceeded to hurl across the room. Smacking a wall, the book dropped to the floor, clanging a metal waste-paper basket as it did so. I did by best to ignore the disturbance, and continued to recite my given route.
After this agitated display, the examiner then pinched the point where his nose joined his forehead and, with great weariness in his voice said;
“You’re not very good are you, Mr Lordan?”
“No, Sir… sorry, I’m having a rather bad day today.”
The examiner let out an exasperated, weight of the world on his shoulders kind of sigh.
“If I were a passenger in your cab, I’d be pretty, damn dizzy by now wouldn’t I? You’re going around in circles.”
“Yes Sir… sorry.”
On another occasion, the same examiner pretended to fall asleep!
Mr Ormes, a formidable, former PCO examiner (photo: BBC Modern Times)
Some of the worst appearances were the ones when you couldn’t answer any of the posed questions. Quite a few times, I can remember sitting there, being bombarded with obscure points, none of which I’d seen, heard of or remembered.
“Santa Maria del Sur Restaurant?”
“Abu Dhabi House?”
“Ok, how about the Azerbaijan Embassy?”
“Prince of Knowledge Apartments?”
“Hmmm…. Haverstock Street?”
“No? Haberdasher Street?”
“The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy?”
“*Sigh* Mortons Hotel?”
“Where’s the smallest police station in London?”
Luckily that one I did know, as my Grandmother had mentioned it a week or so before!
“Trafalgar Square, Sir- on the south-east corner.” (It’s a hollow pillar with a door and window, now mainly used as a broom cupboard, but there is still a police phone in there!)
London’s smallest police station… the knowledge of which once saved my bacon!
Although on the appearance stage, that does not mean your exploration of London stops. If anything, it intensifies.
Yes, you’ve completed the Blue Book but, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, that is merely the basis; the bare bones of what you need to know. Right up until the day you pass, you have to keep out there, driving around the metropolis; looking for points, checking roads, brushing up on your weaker areas.
The way I see it, the learning never really stops- even now, as a fully qualified cabbie, I’m always spotting new places and picking up on nifty little shortcuts.
There are even a number of Knowledge schools in London, where you can attend lessons and revise with fellow students. The main schools employ ‘point collectors’; Knowledge students who stand outside the test centre (now at the Palestra Building in Southwark) in all weathers.
The point collectors are vital. When you’ve finished your appearance, you go up to the collectors and- provided you can remember- tell them what places and routes you were asked. Armed with this information, the schools produce a sheet, usually published everyday around lunchtime, listing as many questions as possible. These sheets can be collected in person, sent by post, or emailed to Knowledge students (for a small fee of course), and are a vital revision tool.
The most important accessory owned by every Knowledge Boy or Girl is a large, laminated A-Z map of London. This, along with the constant driving and scouring, enables you to really get familiar with London’s roads and layout. As time goes by, the image of this map slowly engraves itself upon your psyche.
It may sound corny, but with such deep immersion, it feels like London really does become a part of you. Most students become very attached to their map, spending many long hours with it. I’ve still got mine; here’s a pic:
When not driving, you spend the majority of your time with the map. If you have a call over partner (a fellow Knowledge student with whom you revise), you meet up and, using the recently collected point sheets, take it in turns to call runs whilst your friend draws your route on the laminate map with a chunky whiteboard marker.
Once the route is recorded, you spend time discussing it; “you could have tried this”, “do you think this street is more direct?”, “you wouldn’t use that route in rush hour,” and so on.
I was lucky enough to have two call over partners but, when alone, I would call over solo; recording my runs into a Dictaphone, then playing it back, listening to my strangely unfamiliar voice, drawing the route I’d described onto the map- before promptly tearing my hair out when I’d discovered I’d gone the wrong way!
When you study the Knowledge, it consumes your life.
You eat, breath and sleep it. I’d frequently have dreams (or nightmares?) about roads and maps, dreams about being in a taxi, driving passengers around .
So intense is the Knowledge process, that it actually makes your brain grow (although I hasten to add, that is not in the style of the bulging head as sported by the ‘Mekon’ in the ‘Dan Dare’ comic strip. The growth is cellular and microscopic!)
The part of the brain in question is known as the ‘Hippocampus.’ This name comes from the ancient Greek phrase for ‘sea monster'; something which, with its curved, sea-horse like shape, this area of the brain somewhat resembles.
Two Hipocampii; legendary creatures of Ancient Greece who today lend their name to a part of our brain
The Hippocampus deals with navigation and, when you plunge yourself into studying London’s streets, this section of grey matter is exercised like a muscle.
Whilst studying the Knowledge, I actually took part in a study related to this.
Responding to an appeal for volunteers, I went along to the National Hospital for Neurology in Bloomsbury. After taking part in a series of memory and navigation exercises, I was slid into a brain scanner; a long, narrow tube, bathed in a dark, purplish-blue light.
As I lay there with my feet poking out, huge magnets rotated around my head, mapping my brain. The magnets created such a loud, grating roar, that I was required to wear ear-plugs.
It was a claustrophobic experience, but having the opportunity to view snapshots of my brain was utterly fascinating!
A scan of my brain! Taken in a scanner belonging to the Hospital of Neurology, Queen Square Bloomsbury
You can read more about the study of cabbie’s brains at the following link: