10 April 2014

“K” is for the Knowledge – the London Taxi kind

I recall with great fondness being in London in July last year at a great and eventful time – for I arrived in the city the same day that Prince George – the Royal Baby was born.

Unfortunately I was only there for a week – on business - and I left the city sans Royal Baby memorabilia. "Sans" is French for "without". I am unsure why I have just used it now but I have used it before and I will likely use it again.

The House of Windsor had not yet approved any Royal baby memorabilia when I left so I could not get any Royal Baby George tea towels or stubby holders or mugs to bring back to Singapore with me.

I was disappointed.

I was also a tad disgruntled to be leaving London as it is one of the Great cities of the World. I quite like a lot of Englishness and London is full of it. It is only some of the English who annoy me and who I don't like. 

Great Cities have a buzz. New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Sydney Rome, and Paris - and there are others as well.

Buzz cities.

London is one.

It was Summer in London and a Royal Baby born so there was an even bigger buzz than normal.

I originally wrote this when my departure from London was imminent. I hurled these words down when my bag was packed and I had checked out of my hotel and I was sitting in the British Airways Business Class Lounge at Terminal Five in Heathrow Airport. There were a lot of people there and they were all on the move.

We were all of us leaving London.

I remember feeling some sadness at leaving. That is an adequate enough descriptor of the emotion. It was not as deep a feeling of sadness that I experience when I leave Sydney or Melbourne or Kathmandu - but it was a sadness nevertheless. 

It was melancholy. 

I appreciate the architectural and historical glory of London and I love the palaces and the castles and the ancient buildings. I like the beautiful gardens and the well preserved facades and statues and arches and museums.

They are everywhere and I miss them. 

I love Harrods and Marks and Spencers and Sainsbury's and Waitroses. I love the pubs with names like the Lamb and Flag and the Barrow and Bush and the Pig and Whistle. They are classic and are very English. 

In a nice sort of a way.

I like the Monarchy and all of it's pomp and ceremony and I love the drivers of the London Black Cabs.  

I like the word 'pomp.' I enjoy both writing it and saying it. As a general rule I like words that begin and end with the letter 'p'.

Pomp. Pimp. Pump. Poop.

Pomp means splendid and magnificent and London is full of it.

I caught many a Black Cab during my brief week in London. The Black Cabs of London are no longer just black though. The Black Cabs I caught were grey and white and only two were black. Canary Wharf is a fairly isolated place to stay and I had social meetings with friends one night in Shepherds Bush Green and another in Covent Garden.

I caught Black Cabs to and fro.

The drivers of all Black Cabs in London are still required to do the Knowledge. This is the test for getting a London Taxi license. Passing the Knowledge is required no matter what color the Black Cab you drive is. It is mandatory and you get a badge and a license to drive when you have completed it.

The Knowledge is regarded as being the most difficult taxi-licensing test in the world.

The taxi license test that is required in my hometown of Sydney is far simpler. All that is needed to drive a taxi in Sydney is proof that you can not speak English, you do not know your way around the city, you are a very dangerous driver and you will scream into your mobile telephone the whole time that you will be driving. 

It is that easy.

The process of "Taking the Knowledge" was initiated in London in the year 1865 and it has changed little since. The very best can complete it in two years but for others it may take up to a decade. The Knowledge requires that all drivers be able to navigate their way around all of Greater London without consulting a map or using a GPS. It is the ability to recall the location of every street, lane, road, avenue, motorway, expressway, circle and boulevard in London. The Black Cab Drivers of London must be able to know their way around London intimately. 

This is the Knowledge.

The sixth century Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote that:

"To attain knowledge add things every day.  To attain wisdom remove things every day"

I just thought that I would throw that one in there.

It was written long before motor vehicles or Black Cabs were invented.

One of the Black Cab drivers I used in London told me that acquiring the Knowledge was the hardest thing that he had ever done. His name was Stan. I guessed that Stan and I were about the same age. I told Stan that I was not surprised that it was very hard.

Stan - the driver of my Black Cab driver was not black and nor was his taxi - the taxi was grey and he was white. Stan was a Londoner. When I asked him about doing the Knowledge he told me:

'It wuz 'arder than dooin' me schoolin' 

"What exactly is involved in doing the Knowledge then Stan?" I put to him.

"Appearances guvnor" he replied gravely.

"Twelve bleedin' Appearances"

Stan was speaking cockney English. 'Guvnor' is a term used by some of the cockney English in a way we might use the word "Sir". It must go back to days when there were a lot more actual Governors around. 

I like it. 

"Bleedin'" you can substitute for "Bloody" or "Fucking" if you want. It is a bit of harmless swearing. The London cockney English who speak this way tend to drop off their "h's" at the beginnings of words and "g's" off the end and "t's'' sometimes also disappear.

I had some very good banter with Stan and I learned quite a bit. Stan told me that "Appearances" were the twelve tests someone doing the Knowledge had to take to prove that they knew their way around London. He told me that they are very tough.

When I asked Stan what - as an Englishman - he thought about the birth of the Royal baby he told me,

"I's bewaful en et?"

Writing cockney English phonetically is sending my auto spell-check on my laptop computer into a frenzy.

It does not like it.

"I's bewaful en et?" is normal English for "It is beautiful isn't it?

I agreed with Stan that it was and I told him that I thought that it would probably be a pretty tough life though growing up in the Royal Family.

"Poor lil bligh'er. Is ol man is a right good geezer an all. bu I wouldn't swap me life for is few love or money"

OK my spell check does not like this at all and manually re-correcting is annoying. 

Fuck I will have to do it again to explain what Stan said.

"Poor lil bligh'er. Is ol man is a right good geezer an' all. bu I wouldn't swap me life for is few love or money" 

....... is cockney English for: 

"Poor little fellow. His Father is a nice man but I would not swap my life as a Black Taxi driver for the life of a just-born baby who is now third in line to the English throne"

A "geezer" is a word some of the English use as a substitute for 'man' or 'bloke'.  

A geyser is also a natural phenomenon that sometimes occurs in seismic areas of the world. It occurs when a lava flow deep under the earth heats up below-surface water which is then periodically released through a fissure on the earth's surface in a high pressure gush. These are geysers. Their gushes are called "blows'. There is a very famous geyser in Yellowstone Park in the US. The Americans named it 'Old Faithful'. It gushes regularly. I have visited the Yellowstone National Park and I have seen “Old Faithful".

I have seen it blow. 

The English word 'geezer' emerged amongst the cockneys in London in the early part of the nineteenth century. It was thought to have been originally used to describe 'odd or unusual' people - however in modern times it is just used to describe anyone male and it is mostly used by the cockney English.

Strange characters lurked the streets of London in the 1820's. They lurk there still. In the 1820's they wore unusual costumes and the fashion of the day was peculiar. Some would argue that the fashion of this day is peculiar. Such opinions are subjective - and I digress. I am referring to the early part of the nineteenth century - think Sherlock Holmes. Some people were thought to be in disguises and they came to be known as "Guisors". These people who were dressed in disguises were perhaps the odd people seen by the London cocknies and they adulterated the word to "Geezers"? 

This is one theory on the origins of the word and it is the one that I like the best.

I like the sound and use of both words "Guvnor" and "Geezer". When I returned to work back amongst the English in my office in Singapore I used both words and I used them liberally.

It was not appreciated. 

The English with whom I work are not a very grateful or gracious lot.

I told Stan that I also thought that the life of the Royal Baby George would not be an easy one. I told Stan that I thought that he was going to be watched by the world media for his entire life and he was going to be scrutinized. I also told Stan that I hoped that the Royal Baby George ended up being like his uncle – the ginger Prince Harry. 

Stan told me that he hoped so too. He told me that he liked Prince Harry as well.

My driver to the airport for my departure and return back to Singapore had not done the Knowledge. He told me that he had tried and failed on numerous occasions.

This drivers name was Jack. 

Jack was not driving a Black Cab. He was driving a normal type of car. Jack worked for a company named Addison Lee. The English for whom I work use Addison Lee to drive us in London. They have an Account. Addison Lee a very big Company. They have many cars all over London and they are a major competitor of English Black cabs.

Jack - my Addison Lee driver to the airport was a geezer.

“Yorright” he said to me when he picked me up at the Marriott hotel.

“Yorright” I replied to him.

Eefrow or Gatwick son?”

Heathrow please” I replied. “Terminal Five”

“Awright me old mucker”

“Good one”

“’Edding ‘ome to Oz are we?

“Nah back to Singapore”

“Nice place to’ ide out until youze fellas learn ‘ow ta play cricket again' me lad. Maybe learn' ‘ow ta play rugby as well”

England had been giving Australia a hiding in the Cricket Ashes Test Series that was going on when I was in the UK. We were embarrassingly destroyed by the English in the first two games. The British Lions rugby team had also recently beat Australia. I copped a lot of shit from the English for whom I work in London that week but in the return Ashes back in Australia we kicked their asses.  

Australia being bested by the English in any field of sport is as rare as it is difficult to swallow. At the time however I remained stoic. I maintained my dignity.

“I am not talking about sport today Jack” 

“I am also a Kiwi” I added.

“You ain’t?” the driver asked.

“No I am not really” I confessed.

Pretending to be a Kiwi is not a very bright idea.  They have done very little in the world sports arena and less than the English in fact. The accents with which New Zealanders speak are also grating.

They are an abomination. 

Jack and I mostly chatted about the cost of living in London and Singapore and politics and wars on our drive to Heathrow airport. We talked about the weather and the monarchs as well. When I asked Jack whether there was a man named "Addison Lee' he told me there was not. Jack told me that the Company was started by a geezer called John Griffin in the 1970's and he started the business with a single car. He told me that the first job John Griffin got was a pick up on Addison street and the passenger's name was Lee - and that was the origin of the name.

When I asked Jack whether he knew if Lee was the surname or the first name of the first passenger John Griffin picked up - he told me that he didn't know.

We agreed that the name could be male or female or a first or a last name. Jack laughed when I suggested that the person could have been Chinese or English. He told me that he was going to look it up when he got off his shift and I went to look it up myself. 

Not knowing would otherwise have gnawed away at me. 

It would have driven me mad.

Look it up yourself.

The drive to the Airport from Canary Wharf took less than an hour and the conversation Jack and I had was pleasant and comfortable and we had a laugh or two.

My flight was then called when I just about finished this - and then it was time for me to board the plane and leave.

So I said to myself “until next time London”. 

I said “Adieu”. Yes French again. 

I have a Royal Baby tea towel now - and a beautiful Royal Baby mug and a ceramic Royal Baby pill box. The nice and kind English-with-whom-I-work bought them for me for my birthday.

I like them a lot - the Royal Baby stuff and my English colleagues.

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