The Knowledge

Taxi drivers in London are famous for possessing 'The Knowledge', the product of a two-to-three-year course of intensive study and practice during which they memorize streets, places, restaurants, embassies, and the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B. The information they ingest during this period is supposed to be at least equal to that of a degree course at a university (it depends on the university, one would presume). I've wondered for some time whether or not The Knowledge is becoming increasingly irrelevant in the age of GPS devices, or whether the traditional black London cab is being threatened in any way by the proliferation of 'radio taxis', or licenced minicab services which are booked by telephone and who charge by distance. You can't hail them off the street, which is a great joy of the black London cab; the sight of the lit sign above the windshield is one of the happiest images one can lay eyes on when it's freezing and the rain is coming down and you're dead tired (subliminally recalled in the opening titles of the new Doctor Who; the Tardis, after all, is the little box that will take you anywhere). I still swear by the London black cab, even if they're heavy and environmentally unfriendly, especially the old Fairways; and I still think there's a place for The Knowledge, even as I support the licenced minicabs as a more welcoming entrance route for migrants who don't want to invest in several years and the price of a real London cab.

Over the years, though, 'The Knowledge' has come to be a mystical thing, an idea of knowing every nook and cranny of London; even lifelong Londoners are in awe of it, because even they will admit they know a few neighbourhoods very well, but certainly not all of London. Not even the editor of Time Out, I'm sure, knows everything about London, and keeps the knowledge up to date. There's grungy London, glitzy London, historical London; the city as seen by foot, on bicycle, above ground, the Underground; there's New London, the areas recently colonised by immigrants from a particular region and where others would rather not go. I used to think I knew London well enough until a few friends from out of town dropped in and I was showing them around; I realised that outside of the comfort zone of my own borough, I was reaching for the same tools that every tourist uses: the A-Z, the Tube Map, the Transport for London website, and the latest Time Out or the Sunday Times Culture section. I wonder though if there's anyone who doesn't reach for these at some point. The Knowledge, at least in that sense of mastering the city, will always be just out of reach. As for taxi drivers, they just know how to drive. They do it really well, but they don't know London. Nobody does.

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