Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Knowledge: How to become a London cabbie

Like finding a joke in Flight Of The Conchords, doing The Knowledge is an arduous and utterly unforgiving task which most ordinary folk have little understanding of.

Contradictions lie at the heart of The Knowledge. It often takes as long as a degree to complete but is arguably tougher than most courses which reward students with letters after their names. It leads to a career in a distinctly working class profession where the most dedicated drivers can earn as much as solicitors or accountants. It prepares pupils for a working life which will entail a large amount of tedium caused by sitting in traffic. Yet, for the driver who picks up an interesting fare or for the fare that serendipitously picks the right driver, a London cab journey can provide a life-changing or just amusing experience.

Academics and those who only find value in what Bart Simpson would call “book smarts” may sneer at the suggestion that learning to be a black cab driver could be as demanding as a degree, but a thorough examination of what The Knowledge entails can be revealing.

The Knowledge (and how to get it)

The Knowledge comprises 320 routes which stretch across London. These routes, know in the trade as “runs” can be found in the ‘Guide to Learning the Knowledge of London’ (more commonly known as the ‘Blue Book’), which is issued to anyone who wants to become a cab driver. The runs can start or finish anywhere in a six-mile radius of Charing Cross and must be completed using the straightest route from one end to the other. Along these runs are points of interest (known as “points”) which include, but are not exclusive to: Theatres, cinemas, embassies, professional organisations, sporting venues, hotels, hospitals, places of worship, government buildings and pretty much every other place a resident of or tourist in London has ever wanted to go. The names and locations of these spots must be learnt, as must every street name on every run.

At this juncture, some readers may think, “Wow. That many routes and points would take a long time to learn, I’m happier to pay someone to do this for me.” In which case, you’ve already proved the worth of black cab drivers. Others, more confident in their observation and sense of direction may ponder the size of the task and think, “It’s a lot, but I could handle it.”

There is, of course, more.

Started out (down a dirty road)

When handed the list of runs, wannabe cab drivers tend to buy a scooter and fix a clipboard attachment on to the handlebars. This helps so they can read and memorise individual runs from the Blue Book as they ride around London learning runs, street names and points.

Regardless of their existing knowledge of London, most Knowledge boys (or girls, though these are much less common) spend at least a year, sometimes longer, reinforcing their what they think they know of London and learning the runs as well as they can before taking a mandatory written map test.

During the map test students are given start and finish points of five runs which they must write out in full exact routes of five runs in full. Additionally, a series of five blank sections of Ordnance Survey maps are also given to examinees to plot other road names and points. It is not unusual for wannabe cab drivers to fail the map test, on some occasions more than once.

What really makes the lot of the trainee London cab driver tough is the method of examination after the map test and the accompanying tough and exquisitely torturous journey from novice to expert. Rather than being asked to merely drive the runs for their examiners while naming streets, Knowledge boys have to “call” (ie read out) their routes correctly at a series of “appearances”.

Keeping up appearances

At each appearance a Knowledge student must meet an examiner at a pre-arranged time at the Public Carriage Office (PCO) at 15 Penton Street, N1*. He or she must be dressed as if for a job interview** (ie suit and tie). Once seated in the examiner’s office, the examiner will name a point to start from (eg, the Iranian Embassy) and a point of interest to finish at (eg, the Royal Astronomical Society). After correctly naming the road the starting point is on, the student must call the whole route including all correct directions and street names, taking one-way streets into consideration and always remembering to travel in as straight a line as possible. It is not enough to name a route comprising the main roads (that’s what buses are for).

At each appearance a student must call four runs correctly and score a “C” to pass to the next appearance of the stage. The inner-workings of Knowledge examiners are notoriously secretive and they will only award a “C” if they are happy with all the routes taken. It is not enough to call a route, it must be the route or at least extremely close to the route the examiners had in mind. The route may not be the same as initially learned in the Blue Book. If that sounds rather arbitrary and unfair, that is because it is.

In real life, the average cab driver will deal with thousands of fares. As anyone who has ever worked with or for the public will attest, the world is full of cretins, ignorant fools, violent imbeciles and strange, sexual deviants. Some of whom are actually quite unpleasant. Therefore examiners are keen to test how students respond to pressure by deliberately causing a distraction during exams by tapping on a desk, singing and generally cocking around. The idea is that if you snap under exam conditions, you’re certainly not ready to face the public and represent the PCO and by extension, London, every day.

This is not to say examiners don’t have a sense of humour. When Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy in September 2008 there were reports of examiners asking students, “Take me from Lehman Brothers to the nearest job centre.” In the BBC TV documnetary Modern Times: Streetwise one potential cabbie who had been in prison before attempting the Knowledge is asked to start a run at HMP Pentonville.

If a Knowledge boy has a weak spot, a PCO examiner will exploit it.

How often are appearances and how many are there?

At the first stage appearances are 56 days apart. To move on to the next stage a Knowledge student must get four Cs. Those keen on maths will immediately work out this means the quickest any student can pass the first stage is more than seven months (ie four appearances x 56 days apart).

However, the likelihood of getting four straight Cs in a row is extremely low. Getting a D at an appearance during the 56 days stage is allowed up to three times before a student has to return to the map test and start again.

Therefore the longest that can be spent on the first stage of appearances before returning to the map test is just over a year (seven x 56 days , based on a student scoring three Cs and three Ds before getting the final D which sends him back to the start).

It is not uncommon for Knowledge boys to have to return to the map test. At this point some will inevitably drop out.

After more than a year on a scooter learning runs before even starting appearances and another year learning while attending appearances, to be told to return to the map test means a minimum of another seven months before you can even move on to the next stage.

Eventually, those that haven’t given up (and plenty do) will pass the 56 day stage. This is the hardest and longest stage, because, well, trying to learn the names, locations and interconnections of thousands of streets takes a long time. The more you learn, the easier it gets.

Rather obviously, the more time Knowledge Boy puts in to studying the A-Z and driving around looking at streets and points, the quicker he can learn and the quicker he can pass each stage.

This is why, like everything else in life, the Knowledge favours the rich or at least financially secure. If you can afford to give up work and have spare time, you can spend more time on the roads and pass the Knowledge quicker.

Once four Cs have been passed at the 56-day stage, appearances are 28 days apart. Same rules as before, except now a rudimentary driving test also has to be taken. This is to test overall ability and temperament of a student. Observant readers will work out this stage can be passed in a little under four months at best (ie four Cs – four x 28 days) and a little under seven at worst (ie four x C, three x D – seven x 28 days).

Those who get four Ds again have to return to the map test, but by this point, it’s pretty unlikely a Knowledge student will get four Ds unless he drinks a bottle of absinth every night and rots his mind and memory away. Admittedly, many may consider this a sane and reasonable reaction to living in London but it won’t help you pass the Knowledge.

This stage also sees the introduction of examiners posing hypothetical routes, eg, “Take me from Trellick Tower to Camberwell Green but avoid X bridge, closed because of road works or Y street, which closed due to a bomb scare/protest/impromptu rave.” This makes a run tougher to call, but is entirely fair. London is perpetually beset by road closures and road works, so this sort of query is akin to a cab driver's real experience.

The penultimate appearance stage involves appearances 21 days apart, with the same rules as before. Four Cs here will take just under three months, with the lengthiest possible time just under four months.

Upon gaining the final C, drivers get their Requirement or “Req,” perhaps appropriately pronounced “wreck,” given the amount of time and effort it has taken to achieve and the effect such studies would have on most ordinary people.

Finally comes the suburb test. This involves calling runs as before, but on routes from central London far into the suburbs. These are generally concerned with main roads and don’t cause many problems to the now-confident and able Knowledge boy. When the suburb test is passed, a Green Badge is handed over by the examiner unceremoniously to the Knowledge boy, who has earned the right to drive a Black Cab in the world’s greatest city.

What happens next?

Aside from saying things like, “I had that Bob Holness in the back of my cab,” the lot of a cab driver is an odd mix of restriction and freedom. How many days, nights, weeks and months each year are worked are at the cabbie’s discretion. There are apocryphal stories of cab drivers who live in Spain as men of leisure for three weeks a month only to return to London for one week in four to work enough hours to earn a month’s wages. Tales also abound of those who only work three days a week. On the flipside, cabs themselves cost upwards of £20,000 or have to be rented at £250 a week, so anyone that thinks an hour a day can earn is sorely mistaken.

For most of us, who could never be bothered to undertake the Knowledge, we're just grateful the 20,000 London cab drivers have made the effort.

After all, as anyone who's ever stood freezing on a moody midnight street corner can attest - at the right time and in the right weather, cab drivers can be more sought after than choir boys in the Vatican.

*For drivers that fancy a pint or several after their appearance, The Lexington, an excellent bar formerly known as Clockwork Orange is just around the corner on busy Pentonville Road, while Islington’s Upper Street and Essex Road have perhaps the highest concentration of pubs in London. In this drinker’s opinion, Slim Jim’s Liquor Store is the greatest of these for its selection of whiskeys and jukebox.

**Note to journalists not in the financial, political sector or business sector, musicians and general media types, this means how we’d have to dress for a
proper job interview.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Banksy film neither turd nor triumph

It’s not often a film review pays attention to the actual environs of the cinema the screening has been viewed in. Yet in the case of preview showings of Banksy’s Exit Through The Gift Shop, a few words are necessary.

Press screenings have already taken place at Sundance Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival and in London, with the city hosting the former event also becoming a victim - or beneficiary - of the street artist’s prolific stencilling. Ten pieces were thrown up around Utah’s Park City while Sundance took place.

Back in London two advance screenings a day at pop-up cinema The Lambeth Palace have sold out (the last is Thursday March 4). Skim readers who read that last sentence and wondered why Banksy is showing his movie at the Archbishop of Canterbury's gaff should heed the definite article.

The Lambeth Palace is actually a network of rooms on the right-hand side of Leake Street Tunnel. The tunnel was used as a short cut by cab drivers when the Eurostar used to leave from Waterloo, back in the days before the cross-channel service left from St Pancras. In the years since, Leake Street has been covered in graffiti, much of it of a high standard if you like that sort of thing. Banksy himself has organised events down there.

At The Lambeth Palace refreshments are sold from a burnt-out ice cream van, while other Banksy pieces adorn the foyer and walls (see accompanying photos). The actual screening room is small (150 capacity), but has a certain sort of grim charm. During the screening occasional train rumbles could be felt and heard from above. A vault under the train tracks near Waterloo is an ideal spot for a guerrilla-ish event like this. For that and child abduction from the look of things.

The film itself is something of a slippery beast, as one might expect from a man who manages to evade the law and stay almost completely anonymous while simultaneously earning hundreds of thousands of pounds selling his work to patrons like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. There is obviously a question over what his work is really worth but that’s a debate for pub nights and broadsheet weekend magazine section editors. What interests London Liked is the man’s wit and audacity as much as his ideas. In many respects, once you get past the scale of his ambition and the detail in his stencilled image, he’s just like any other pleb with a marker looking for a white toilet wall.

Banksy himself would probably be the first to admit to this. The one thing the pseudo-documentary does impress upon viewers is the man’s humility and courage. Of course, any impression can be faked and any emotion manipulated in the edit, but regardless of any graffiti writer’s effrontery, it takes a special sort of nerve to paint nine separate pieces on the Israeli’s security wall and vandalise a Disneyland ride with an inflatable Guantanamo Bay detainee.

Exit Through The Gift Shop has a particularly tricky narrative. It purports to be a documentary about Thierry Guetta, an eccentric Vintage clothing store owner who lives in Los Angeles and is obsessed by documenting his life and that of everyone he meets with his video camera.

Of course, Guetta happens to be the cousin of mosaic tile-wielding street artist (Space)Invader. Guetta sees this as some sort of sign and decides to make a full-blown documentary about street art (or graffiti, to people who don’t do it, or at least don’t cock about on train hoardings at 4am doing it).

Guetta tracks down a number of venerated street artists and gets tight access through his relationship with Invader. Guetta is alleged to have met Invader in 1999 but it isn’t until 2006 he finally links up with Banksy. By this point the Bristolian is arguably the world’s biggest street art name, so the documentary has a new focus. Now Guetta follows Banksy to Disneyland, the West Bank and everywhere else worth tagging.

Eventually Banksy tells ridiculous Guetta to deliver a finished piece because Guetta has spent so much time on the film. Of course, Banksy ridicules Guetta’s finished documentary and suggests Guetta become a street artist, which he does in a matter of months, with huge success.

If this all sounds a bit thin for a feature-length documentary, even a spoof, that’s because it is. There are quite a few moments of hilarity, mostly due to Guetta’s incompetence and inarticulacy or Banksy’s wry observations. There is also impressive footage of street artists in the act.

At the end of the brilliant, high velocity pre-credit sequence one graf artist leaps up a wall and away from security guards just in time to escape. Any viewer with a pulse will want to raise a fist in appreciation and solidarity. Wherever you sit on the art/vandalism debate, it’s impossible not to watch the lengths some of these people go to and admire their efforts.

But it’s equally true, as Conservatives and cynics may suggest, that if the global mob of street artists put as much effort into, well, anything as they did scribbling on walls, they could soon come up with something worthwhile like a cure for cancer, a new version of Pet Sounds or some kind of universal torture device that only affected recruitment agents.

The film itself is worth seeing, even if it would have made a better hour-length Channel 4 documentary than a feature film. On the plus side, a knowing voiceover from Rhys Ifans throughout seems to poke more fun. It could be his Welsh accent, but Ifans does appear to be calling Thierry, “Terry,” deliberately. Ifans used to be big mates with Super Furry Animals so is no stranger to a bit of mischief. Also, while we're not really on the subject, Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Roni Size contribute fitting work on the soundtrack.

The jury is out on Banksy’s directorial skills for now, but that’s partly because so little of what he presents here seems real. By all means give viewers a spoof or play with preconceptions but no one likes an out and out cheat unless they’re in on the joke.

It seems massively unlikely Thierry Guetta is for real. He could even be Banksy. After all, Guetta doesn't look too disimiliar to a man The Daily Mail claimed was him in 2008, while many of the other scenes in Exit Through The Gift Shop could have been faked and the smartness of that title alone gives an indication of the tone. Art, street art, multinational corporations and business in general are all ripe for parody and out and out piss-taking so Banksy obliges. Just don’t expect a revolution in cinema.