London is widely seen to have the best taxi drivers in the world. This is not an accident.
Before you get a hack license in London, you must memorize all 25,000 streets in central London, as well as all the hotels, theaters, or other landmarks on these streets. It takes years.
I’ve long been fascinated by the subject of memory systems, and in particular about ” The Knowledge ” that London’s cabbies have had since 1884.
Should this arduous system be retained in the age of GPS (Sat Nav ), which supposedly gives anyone the same ” knowledge ” of any city? I know where I stand on this one.
The origins of the Knowledge are unclear — lost in the murk of Victorian municipal history. Some trace the test’s creation to the Great Exhibition of 1851, when London’s Crystal Palace played host to hundreds of thousands of visitors. These tourists, the story goes, inundated the city with complaints about the ineptitude of its cabmen, prompting authorities to institute a more demanding licensing process. The tale may be apocryphal, but it is certain that the Knowledge was in place by 1884: City records for that year contain a reference to 1,931 applicants for the “examination as to the ‘knowledge’ [of]…principal streets and squares and public buildings.”
In 2014, in any case, the Knowledge is steeped in regimens and rituals that have been around as long as anyone can remember. Taxi-driver candidates — known as Knowledge boys and, increasingly today, Knowledge girls — are issued a copy of the so-called “Blue Book.” This guidebook contains a list of 320 “runs,” trips from Point A to Point B: Manor House Station to Gibson Square, Jubilee Gardens to Royal London Hospital, Dryburgh Road to Vicarage Crescent, etc. The candidate embarks on the Knowledge by making these runs — that is, by physically going to Manor House Station and finding the shortest route that can be legally driven to Gibson Square, and then doing the same thing 319 more times, for the other Blue Book runs.