The London cabbie's long road

London taxi drivers have the kind of rigorous training that you might think is reserved for a Tibetan monk or a medieval goldsmith. The job is virtually a calling. The drivers, all 23,000 of them, are in this and other respects a breed apart. To visit London and not take at least one ride in a London cab is to miss one of the city's quintessential experiences.

Much as I like cabbies anywhere, there is little comparison between the London ones and those plying a similar trade in Barcelona, Athens, or New York. You'll never encounter in London what we once encountered in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. We asked to be taken to Times Square. "Ye-es.... Where is that please? You - er - tell me how to get there?"

We explained 42nd Street was just after 41st, going north. Our driver looked blank. "You tell me," he said.

According to the book "Taxi!" from which these photographs are taken, the trainee London taxi driver's acquisition of "The Knowledge" - as it is colloquially known - is exhaustively demanding. "The Knowledge," according to "TAXI!" "requires one to have a detailed recall of the 25,000 streets within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross Station.... [Not] just the streets ... [but] the location of all clubs, hotels, hospitals, railway stations, parks, theatres, restaurants, courts, colleges, government buildings, places of worship, and other destinations a passenger might require, as well as an understanding of the major routes outside the central area."

This knowledge is not acquired by driving around in a taxi, however. It is done on a scooter or moped, in all kinds of weather. It's a matter of years, not weeks or months.

The prospective driver is examined mercilessly, and then he undergoes a terribly strict driving test. "They test your temperament too," one driver is quoted as saying, "they insult you to see what reaction they get."

But where does the London cabbie get his wit? That's what I'd like to know.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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