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DR MIKE GALVIN: ‘Ethnography’ and the black taxi

Taxi industry expert Dr Mike Galvin is a former London Green Badge Taxi Driver and now consultant within the taxi and private hire industry. Here he writes about his journey studying for a doctorate.


Having completed an MBA I decided that the next step for me was to study for a doctorate. Studying for a doctorate is a wide canvas, there are few rules other than your research must be your own (no plagiarism) and you must make a contribution to original knowledge. So, what areas of the world or the universe should I spend the next seven years studying? Well, being that I had completed the knowledge of London, driven a cab, managed a taxi company (ComCab) and then worked for TfL, the choice seemed to be a simple one; I would study Knowledge boys, taxi drivers and try to establish how the industry relates to itself, its members, its foes, its regulator and the travelling public. I chose a framework through which to carry out my research known as Ethnography; the study of tribes.

As you read this series of articles, I am hoping that much will resonate with your thoughts and experiences in what is a hugely interesting, responsible, impressive and unique industry. I write from the perspective of a fast disappearing group of people, of service and of reliability and of generosity. As the framework of my approach to research featured at looking at the industry as a ‘tribe’ I was seeking the common traits, the generalities, the accepted and rejected behaviours, the memes and norms of the participants based on my experiences and the experiences of others including taxi drivers and the trade and general press. How did a community of individuals present themselves as a homogenous group – are ‘all cab drivers the same’?

Starting at the Beginning

My research began by my recollections (auto ethnography) of taxis as a child, a teenager and went through my entry to the Knowledge, the Knowledge itself, taxi driving and then attempting to engineer business process change as part of the management team at ComCab. From the beginning I saw taxis in London as a treat, we took a cab on special occasions and it was always an experience. As I grew older and travelled alone or with friends the cabby was a font of knowledge on many levels, entertaining and wholesome. The drivers appeared to be older, well dressed, probably ex-servicemen as most older men were when I was growing up. When I started to think about joining the industry I got to know more about the trade through conversations with family, and friends of the family, and during taxi journeys. It seemed a good living, you were your own boss, the regulations and Knowledge of London appeared onerous but hey there were lots of black cabs and therefore it must be possible to complete it. So, I signed up.

Every Step Was Rich With Symbolism

Public Institutions in post war Britain had an inherent authority, they were quite literally a law unto themselves and in those days that authority and self-manufactured authority was rarely questioned and even more rarely challenged. The extent of these institutions’ legal authority never seemed to feature in any discussion. Such was the Public Carriage Office (PCO) a deific, self-assured, and almost peremptory entity. It did not consider its own failings, it did not have clients and it gave out all of the signals necessary to successfully ensure that any oik crossing its hallowed threshold to try to become a taxi driver was no longer a member of the public. They certainly did not embrace the modern-day culture of ‘clients’. By even applying for the Knowledge it appeared that you were wasting your own time and more importantly the PCO Officers’ time. PCO Officers routinely gave off the clear signal that they had much more important things to deal with. Although the Public Carriage existed totally to process applications from would-be taxi drivers (as well as managing taxi driver licensing and taxi testing and licensing), the institution managed to portray an aura of it all being a bit below what they really existed for… what that actually was who knows.

Not So Much A Warm Welcome As A Gleeful Goodbye

What objectives the PCO Officer hoped to achieve with his welcome or introductory speech were hard to decipher. They certainly were not to make anyone feel confident, pleased they had decided to become a taxi driver or in any way the most important people in the room. No Sir!

The thirty or so Knowledge boys, scrubbed, suited and booted sitting in front of this middle aged, middle class, relatively well spoken, probably ex policeman were there to find out that they were never likely to succeed in their aspiration of becoming a London taxi driver. With some unashamed glee he pulled stats from the air and threw them at this young, keen crowd who had probably agonised before making important career decisions and for some life-changing decisions. Without the slightest introspection he gleefully announced that ‘90% of you will never become taxi drivers’. He spoke about the public reverently and as a different species which we, the aspirant taxi drivers were clearly to no longer feel part of, but presumably he firmly remained a member of that hallowed group. Us and them was used as a powerful device to position us, decent folk with no criminal records as a lower order. We, because we all wanted to become taxi drivers, swallowed our pride and normal conventions in exchange for a chance to realise our ambition. Was that true? In my case it certainly was and I expect my cohort were much the same.

He spoke about passengers in reverential terms, restaurants I’d never heard of, synagogues, cemeteries and mansion blocks by name with a familiarity which was impressive – here was a world of which I knew little. At the end he enquired if anyone had any questions – no one did. They had all been briefed beforehand, go suited and booted, yes sir/no sir and say nothing! A weak smile flashed across his inscrutable face as he closed with what was obviously a well-worn line delivered with withering and resigned dismissal… nice to meet you all and sorry that we will probably never meet again!

The group headed out quietly and briskly but very orderly, there was no eye contact, no knowing winks or eyes to heaven – everyone knew better.

There was a feeling that we had all played our part in a ritual – we knew our parts and he knew his. This would not be the first time that I had the feeling of being expected to play my part as a butler, pantry maid or gardener played theirs in a big house. Whilst the PCO Officer may not have been the Lord or Squire he was certainly on first name terms with them!

In some respects, his pseudo head masterly tone, his attempts to silo us all socially and the arrogance that permeates the British aspiring middle classes that he communicated so effectively had perhaps the opposite effect on me than he might have expected. I actually saw it as a challenge – I would be back and I would be within the 10%.

The Knowledge – An Endurance Like No Other

Without any of the patronising comments about the Knowledge of London being harder than a degree I can honestly say that only someone who has never done both could compare the two in that way! It is a huge understatement. I have completed a degree, Masters and I have survived a Doctorate and I can honestly say the Knowledge was harder. The deprivations, the cold, the wet, the sheer volume of data that not only had to be absorbed but had to be recalled in a vast variety of scenarios. Journeys from every different direction from everywhere to anywhere. The human mind, the brain, is truly the most remarkable device on the planet. And stimulating it to enable the level of learning needed and the instant recall that every London taxi driver has is truly amazing.

The Knowledge to me is one of Britain’s most valuable experiences. It adds a value to the licence which the survivors gain that is above anything else (save family and friends). The importance of that badge is encapsulated in the sheer will power, the grit and guts, the blood, sweat and tears and enormous effort that every single taxi driver has expended on gaining it. Yes, you know every street, building and frankly crack in the pavement by the end but it is more than a training and testing programme. It is life-changing and I believe life-enhancing for many people. I interviewed tough, street wise men who became tearful talking about the day they got their badge. A blessed relief maybe but also an important, probably one of the most important, milestones in their life. I have spoken to people who left school at 15 with a swimming certificate and who did the Knowledge and felt after that they could achieve anything. People’s confidence grew on the Knowledge – you could evidence this at Knowledge schools, the quiet guy who never knew many of the points grew in stature, in confidence and in self-belief as he studied hard and gradually led the pack by knowing every point, every restricted turn and the idiosyncratic questions such as Isherwood House (It was Fisherwood House but the F had fallen of the building). Amongst the working class, a breed that our friend sneered at as explained at the beginning of this piece, undertaking the Knowledge of London was recognised as what it was an incredible task and amongst our non-taxi driver peers there is great respect for this undertaking.

Verbal Competence Tests – Appearances

No psychologist could have invented a system more likely to reduce grown men to quivering wrecks. The most confident, bombastic, boxers, barrow boys, ex-servicemen of our cohort shrunk almost physically on his (they were almost 100% men) way into Penton Street and visibly shook entering the grey anonymous PCO Building. The smell of polish on shiny floors, the clatter of typewriters behind frosted glass – those were the sounds and smells of the PCO which always felt cold. Then you arrived at the counter and the receptionist who was always busy, too busy to deal with aspirant cab drivers, which was actually her only job! When she deigned to be ready snapped ‘card’! You were told, not invited or asked, to go the waiting room. A small smoke-filled room with those civil service chairs – tubular steel and plastic shaped seats. No one spoke, everyone looked nervous, many smoked.

Some examiners appeared at the door and asked for Mr Smith, others barked a hardly audible name from their office, some arrived and called a surname. On entry to the bleak offices the only noise was ‘card’! You were expected to hand over your card, wait to be told to be seated and then asked in fairly rapid succession 6/7 questions. No ‘well done’, in fairness no ‘try harder’s’, just your card handed back and the examiner looked at the door – your cue to go.

Did the examiners know the route? Who knows? Why no welcome, attempts to put candidates at their ease? Was the plan to make you ill at ease? If so why? Who knows? All I do know is that the harder you worked the quicker you received reductions. The system as archaic, as weird and as inscrutable as it was worked. When you eventually left Penton Street with a shiny badge, my goodness you had earned it. I say with absolute conviction – no one slipped through, no one was lucky, no one got the benefit of the doubt. You had all suffered, struggled, called over, gone ‘to see points’ and become an expert in London’s topography, its landmarks, its vagaries and even some of its history and you were able to recall it from memory and rattle off those runs with growing confidence and precision.

Did it Work?

It is hard to measure success if you don’t know what the objective was to start with. However, if what the whole process was meant to do was to take rude matter and fashion it into a topographical expert – it worked. If it was to make sure that however tough, streetwise or clever you thought you were that it ensured that you were going to act like a sycophant within those sacred walls – it worked. If when you received your badge you swore a secret oath that you would never do anything to endanger it – it worked.

I suppose one important question is could it have been done another way? Could the welcome meeting actually have been made a pleasant experience, could our head masterly friend have welcomed you, praised you for a great career choice and genuinely wished you well? Could the lady on reception actually say good morning? Could the examiners have adopted a more communicative approach? And if all of these things changed would the outcome have been the same? We shall never know. Likewise, the aspirant taxi drivers could have asked questions at the meeting, could have dressed more casually, could have expected to be treated with courtesy at reception but did not demand it. No, both sides played their part in the ritual, the aspirant cab drivers had their motivation… that badge, but what of the PCO? Were they simply products of national service, middle class pretensions or something else?


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