The Knowledge of London Streets
Photograph by Anthony Cotsifas
Prop stylist: Victoria Petro Conroy
The NYT Magazine
I've spent some time wandering London's streets and getting lost, sometimes with Sun-Ae back in the early 1990s, when we were still getting acquainted and angrily misreading London City maps, and in those days, one of the things we heard about was "The Knowledge," that mental map of London that the drivers of black taxicabs were supposed to know by heart, so I was excited to see an entire article on the subject written by Jody Rosen, "The Knowledge, London's Legendary Taxi-Driver Test, Puts Up a Fight in the Age of GPS" (NYTM, November 10, 2014), in which I learned that these cabdrivers must memorize not only streets but the buildings and history relevant to the streets:
It is said that the Knowledge is as much about learning history as learning your way around. After completing the Knowledge, [David] Hall undertook a years-long course of study to earn the "blue badge" of an official London tour guide. While Hall strolled around the City pointing - logging road works and making notes about new restaurants and bars - he led me on an impromptu walking tour: more Wren churches, medieval livery companies and guild halls marked with elaborate coats of arms, the Worshipful Company of Tallow Chandlers, the Innholders Hall, a carved likeness of Winston Churchill's face in the center of a clock above the doorway of an office building. Toward evening, we made our way back along Queen Victoria Street, passing a massive three-acre building site, the future home of Bloomberg L.P.'s European headquarters. The construction project had revealed further remains of the Temple of Mithras, a Roman ruin first discovered in 1954. The temple once stood on the banks of the Walbrook, a now-buried river that brought fresh water to Roman Londinium. Hall said: "In the religion practiced here, they used to have seven ordeals. If you were a Roman soldier, one of the ordeals was to put you over a fire pit. If you could withstand that particular ordeal, you went to the next stage in that religion."The same could be said about wine expertise. My school friend from elementary school days, Bruce Cochran, is a wine expert who serves as a guide on wine tours around the world, so he has to learn about soils, microclimates, grapes. architecture, art, history, and so on. Some jobs require that sort of learning, and this takes a retentive, inquisitive mind.
Hall said: "The thing about London is, it's forever changing. The old city is preserved, of course, but there's always a new city coming forth. There really is no end to the Knowledge. It's infinite."
I have the curiosity . . . but not the retentiveness.