Londoners call it ``the knowledge.'' Men burn the midnight oil and toil in the midday sun to obtain it. They study the rules of night navigation and memorize miles of geography. Like fledgling diplomats, they cultivate impassiveness and unflappability; like pilots they develop steady hands and quick reflexes.
Twenty-four moons wax and 24 moons wane before most apprentices attain ``the knowledge.'' Their quest drives them down roads few men dare to tread. They study full-time, without pay; and more than half the novices fail the final test. But at the end of the course, a novice is licensed to do what few people ever dream of: He has the right to drive an Austin cab in London.
London is a tangle of some 6,000 medieval back roads, most of which twist like serpents and appear to go nowhere. There are few central arteries, and even these change their names at each intersection.
A cab driver in London needs an encyclopedic knowledge of the city in order to get from point to point. So the licensed cabbies - the ones who drive Austins - study the routes for two years on average and are considered the cream of the crop.
Take London's Poultry road, for instance. It's only Poultry for a few hundred yards. It soon becomes Cheapside, which in turn becomes Newgate Street. Then the street signs flash past you in rapid succession, as the road becomes Holborn Viaduct, High Holborn, New Oxford Street, Oxford Street, Bayswater Road, Notting Hill Gate, and Holland Park Avenue. It's one road with a dozen aliases - a riddle of identity that would make even Sherlock Holmes's head spin.
If you get lost while driving in London, there's no ``block'' to go around to get back where you started. The traffic surges and eddies around you like a river flooding its banks. Then at rush hour all the double-decker buses and cars jam together. It's gridlock without the grid.
But the Austin cabs sail through this clogged labyrinth as though they were schooners tacking across open sea. That's ``the knowledge.''
The government tightly regulates the Austins that cabbies drive. They are specially built for sturdiness and maneuverability; they must be kept dirt- and dent-free; and they must be inspected four times a year. The standards set for approval of both cab and driver make some Londoners doubly cautious of using the unlicensed ``gypsy'' cabs that come their way.
To get their licenses, the cab drivers must pass a rigorous set of examinations administered by the London County Council. (New York City cabbies, by way of contrast, must pass a 20-hour course.) The London police examiners also catechize the cabbies on the shortest routes from point to point.
``How do you get from St. Anne's Court to the Mall?'' an examiner asks. ``Which Mall?'' the examinee replies wisely, knowing at least three streets bear that name.
It took cab driver Bob Rawlings 14 months to get ``the knowledge.'' He still seems stunned that it didn't take him longer. ``I got lucky, see? It takes most of the guys two years.''
How was he able to reach this high goal in such a short time?
``Well, the examiner asked me questions I knew the answers to. Some of the streets [that he asked about] were in a neighborhood where I grew up.'' Had the questions been different, he said, he would have faced another long stint of study.
As if the exams were not hard enough, the inscrutable instructors push the novices to the limits of their endurance.
``Some of the instructors are very hard,'' Mr. Rawlings shouted as he steered his cab toward Heathrow Airport, cutting a neat swath through the morning traffic. ``One - the hardest - is Scottish, from Aberdeen. He liked to confuse the guys.... He'd ask the questions in his thickest Scottish accent, and they wouldn't understand what he was asking.
``He used to like to ask how to get from `Yeo Street to Fulham Road.' [Because of the way he pronounced `Yeo'] he'd have you trying to figure out how to get from your street to Fulham Road. He'd have you so confused that you didn't know where your own house was!
``And then he'd say: `Don't you understand English?'''