In most of the world, taxi drivers aren’t respected or admired. They’re tolerated as a necessary evil. People are just happy if a cab doesn’t smell like urine and they make it to their destination without being mortally wounded. But the taxi profession is a very different animal in London, where “black cabs” have been an esteemed cultural institution since the 17th Century (back in the days of horse-drawn carriages). London cab drivers are part of an intellectually elite social order that’s somewhere between the Bilderberg Club and the Seven Society in terms of exclusivity. Take a trip in one of London’s famous black cabs and every subsequent taxi experience in your life will feel like being pulled around in a rickshaw by an escaped mental patient.
We called Steve McNamara, who’s driven black cabs in London for over 30 years and was recently named General Secretary of the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association — which represents around 10,000 drivers in London and outlying areas — and asked him to spill a few secrets of his trade.
Eric Spitznagel: What exactly is “The Knowledge?”
Steve McNamara: The Knowledge is a test that every London black cab driver has to take before they get their license. They basically need to know, by heart, every street and driving route within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross station. They also have to learn all the places of interest, every hotel, restaurant, theater, hospital, college, church, government building, cemetery, railway station, and club that a passenger might feasibly want to be taken to. There are 26,000 streets in London and approximately 148,000 places of interest. As you might imagine, it’s a complicated test. It can take up to three years just to prepare for it, and the test itself can take six months. It dates back to Oliver Cromwell, who you’ve probably never heard of.
Oliver Cromwell was a guy who led the English Civil War during the mid-17th century. He overthrew the monarch and set himself up as Lord Protector. Depending on which side of history you’re on, he’s either the greatest Englishman ever born or he was a barbarian. Cromwell was very upset by the fact that the cab men at the time weren’t very well behaved, so he introduced formal licensing in I believe 1654. Ever since, being a cab driver has been a profession, not just an occupation.
Is the Knowledge an oral test, or a written one?
The way it works is, they give you a list of runs in what’s called a blue book. But the blue book is actually pink. So that’s your introduction, and it just sums up the entire experience, really. After you’ve studied it for several years, you’re taken into a small office that’s maybe ten foot square, and this guy, the examiner, does an interview with you called an Appearance. The examiner asks you a series of questions, like for example, “Take me from Manor House to Gibson Square.” Then you tell him how you’d do it, street by street and turn by turn. It’s got to be very specific. You even tell him which side of the street your trip begins on. He’s got a little map in front of him, and he’s looking at the map to make sure you’re taking the straightest route. Sometimes he’ll make it tricky by saying, “Take me from there to there but I don’t want to hit any traffic lights.” Or “I don’t want to go over any bridges or through any tunnels.”
London streets can be notoriously complicated. What part of the city confuses even you?
There’s a bit of the Kings Road in Chelsea that goes through several squares. So at different times it stops being the Kings Road, and then it becomes the Kings Road again, and then it’s something else. There are various places in London like that. But for a cab driver, the city isn’t nearly as confusing as some of our passengers. I’ve had people in my cab, people who’ve lived all their lives in London, who can’t tell me with any certainty where they live. I’ve never quite understood that one. People tend to know where they live by lampposts. “I’m on the third lamppost on the left.” Heaven forbid the city ever remove that lamppost, they wouldn’t be able to find their way home.
Can tourists be just as vague? Do they ever ask questions like, “Take me to that famous Beatles place?”
Oh yes, all the time. They want to go to the Abbey Road crosswalk, but they can’t even remember the name of the album. Or they want to go to that museum where Princess Diana’s dress is. Or they’ll get into my cab and say, “Take me to Les Miserables.” They don’t know the name of the theater, just that they want to see the show. Jack the Ripper is still extremely popular, and I get asked all the time to take people to where the murders happened. Never mind that most of the sites were bombed in the second world war or have been redeveloped since. You want to go stand in a car park because 130 years ago somebody was murdered there? Sure, fine, let’s do it. My favorite are the requests to see Sherlock Holmes’ house. That’s kind of difficult because Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character and never actually existed. A lot of Americans come to London with the illusion that we have pea soup fog and we’re all walking around in deerstalker hats. That’s quite a common misconception. I don’t think we’ve had a fog in London since about 1958.
When somebody is trying to hail your cab, do you make snap decisions about them based on the way they’re dressed or their body language?
Never. That’s the first thing you learn when you’re driving a cab. You can never judge a book by its cover, ever. Here’s an example: I stopped for a woman a few months back at 10 o’clock in the evening. She was coming out of a supermarket on Cromwell Road, and she was very scruffily dressed. She didn’t look like she had much money at all. She wanted to go to Weybridge, which is quite a long way outside London. It’d be at least 75, 80 pounds for the ride. I was very dubious about whether I should take her or not. But I took a chance and did it, and when we got to Weybridge, it turned out she lived in probably the most expensive house I’ve ever seen. I’d say it was at least a 50 million pound house. We drove through the electric security gates, past the security guards and two swimming pools and tennis courts and stables, up to the house, and her husband comes out to greet her. It’s Roman Abramovich, who owns the Chelsea Football Club. She took out a wad of money to pay me, and she must have been carrying two or three thousand pounds. If she’d given me that wad of bills, she could’ve kept the cab and the key, and I would’ve walked home.
Can you spot an American before they open their mouths?
Not anymore. With the explosion of American chain clothing stores in London, most of the people who look like Americans are actually Arabs. They spend all day watching American TV shows and devouring American culture, and they’ve become more American than Americans. I was in Dubai a few months ago, and some of the kids I saw, with their t-shirts and jeans and hoodies, if it wasn’t for the beards and dark skin, you could’ve dumped them in any American city and you’d think they were born and raised there. Americans don’t look like Americans anymore. It was easier a few decades ago. In the 1970s and 80s, your fashion sense wasn’t exactly as flattering as you probably thought it was. You all stuck out like sore thumbs, I’m afraid. But you’ve gotten much better at blending in.
If somebody got into your cab and asked to see “the real U.K.,” where would you take them?
I’d take them to a train station and say, “Go somewhere else.” It’s like people who go to New York and think they’ve been to America. No, no, no! You’ve been to New York, you haven’t been to America! It’s the same for London. Taking a trip to London does not mean you’ve been to the U.K.. London is nothing like the U.K. If you got on a train and went 50 miles outside of London, it’s like being on a different planet. In some of these towns, the shops close at 6 o’clock in the evening. It’s a very, very strange place.
There was a study done a decade ago at the University College London, where researchers discovered that —
– cab drivers have bigger brains? Yes, I’m aware of that study. Well, I’ve always felt smarter than most people anyway. I very quickly realized that I was cleverer than the people I was driving about in my cabs, especially the pension fund managers. There are cab drivers who saw this recession coming long before the financiers, which is a bit worrying. I don’t know if it means cab drivers are more fit to run the country, although some people seem to think so. There are guys driving cabs who are incredibly bright and superior in most ways, and they really should be running the country. It’s hard not to think that their talents are being wasted. But that, in a strange way, is why they ended up in this profession. They only drive cabs because it gives them the freedom to do other things, like write books or compose songs.
Is the customer always right?
It depends. Many of them think they’re always right. Or at least they think they know more about the London streets than we do. They’ll tell us exactly what route to take, and even if we know they’re wrong, we’ll oblige. You do sometimes get the immense pleasure of saying to somebody, “Well, I was going to go this way to avoid the traffic,” and they’re like “No, there won’t be any traffic,” and then you sit in traffic for a half an hour and you can look in the rearview mirror and give them that “I told you so” look. That’s quite a nice feeling when it happens.
How do New York cab drivers compare with London drivers? Are they even in the same league?
The biggest difference between New York and London cab drivers is that in London it’s a profession. In New York it’s a transient occupation. You come into it if you’re a first generation immigrant, or if you don’t have the skill set for another, better-paying job. They just don’t treat it with the same respect. In London we find it amazing that somebody could drive a cab and not know their way around. Last time I was in New York, I felt like I knew more about the city than my cab driver. And I’ve only been to your city three times. If you can’t learn your way around Manhattan in a week, there’s something very wrong with you. It’s not that difficult. Wall Street is at the bottom and the street numbers go up. How could anybody be confused by that? And none of them seem to have a command of the English language. I realize I have a British accent, but they understand me if I go in a hotel, they understand me if I go in the bank, they understand me in restaurants and everywhere else in New York. Why can’t cab drivers understand me? Do they have an aversion to British accents?
Some cabbies seem less than trustworthy, and it’s hard not to wonder if they’re taking elaborate routes or driving slower than necessary to hike up fares. Is there a way to know for sure if a cab driver is trying to rip you off?
That doesn’t happen in London. It just doesn’t happen. London cab drivers make a living by taking you where you want to go as quickly as possible so they can pick somebody else up. It’s all about volume in London. I’ve never heard of a passenger accusing a cab driver of trying to rip them off. It just doesn’t make sense. I mean, think about it. It takes three to four years to get a license, countless hours of studying and learning the streets. The number for filing a complaint is written all over the cab, and complaints are dealt with very harshly. Why would anybody risk losing everything just to make an extra tenner? That hardly seems worth it.
Is it true you’re not legally obligated to take a passenger more than 12 miles in a single journey?
That’s correct. They can go anywhere up to 12 miles, and unless I have a reasonable excuse for why I’m unable or unwilling to do so, I can’t refuse to take you. But that isn’t a hard and fast rule. I’ve taken people further than that. I’ve had mates who took people to Cornhill, which is about 400 miles away from London. The longest distance I’ve taken somebody is probably Cambridge, which is a couple hundred miles away. I’ve taken somebody to Oxford, and to Bristol, which is a two hour trip. It sounds insane, I know, but there are all sorts of reasons why somebody would take a cab rather than a less expensive alternative like a train. It doesn’t take very much for public transportation to collapse in this country. Every time it snows, if it’s half an inch or more, everything closes down. We’re not very good at dealing with snow.
Oil tycoon Nubar Gulbenkian owned a vintage London taxi in the 60s, and he once claimed that he preferred the car because “it can turn on a sixpence — whatever that is.” Do black cabs really have more maneuverability than civilian cars?
They do. They can turn in 24 feet, which is quite a narrow turning circle. The reason for that is many streets in London are small and you have to be able to do a U-turn to get out of them. Interestingly, Mercedes now makes a cab for the London market, and in order to get it to qualify they had to give it rear-wheel steering. You push a button and the rear wheels turn in the opposite direction of the front wheels, which allows it to make the same sort of turn as a regular black cab. Even with all the changes that have happened to black cabs over the years — like the new fuel cell powered cabs — there’s so much that’s stayed the same. You’re still required to have a certain amount of space in the back seat so that a gentleman of 5 foot 8 can sit comfortably while wearing a top hat. That’s been a London Public Carriage Office rule for several centuries, and it’s still enforced to this day. There aren’t many people in top hats on the streets of London anymore, but if one of them gets into your cab, you’re required to have enough head room back there so they don’t have to remove their hat.
You’ve probably picked up plenty of bizarre, interesting characters in your career. Who was the most memorable?
Well, I picked up a guy in my cab one night who was a thalidomide victim. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but during the 60s and 70s there were a lot of birth defects because of a drug called thalidomide, which was used for morning sickness. Babies were being born without arms. Their hands literally stuck out of their bodies without any arms whatsoever. So I’m taking this armless man into east London, and as we turn the corner some guy on the street gets knocked over. I pull over and we get out of the cab and call the police. The guy who’s been knocked over, he’s lying on the pavement and a crowd is gathered around him. He starts to regain consciousness and a woman asks him, “Are you okay?” He says, “Yeah yeah,” and then he looks up and he sees the guy who was in my cab, and he’s like, “Fucking ‘ell, where’s your arms gone?” (Laughs.) And of course, being polite Englishmen and ladies, we’re all pretending we didn’t hear him. It was quite mortifying… and hilarious.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the March 1st, 2012 issue of the New York Times Magazine.)