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Let's start with what the knowledge is. The knowledge is something unique to black cab drivers in London. They must know the streets of London better than they know the layout of their own home. Ask them where the baked beans are kept in the kitchen and they might not be able to tell you but when it comes to spaghetti junctions, they know everything there is to be known. They can tell you exactly where every street lies within London. Now that is impressive. Ask them the quickest route through the house to the store cupboard where those baked bean tins are and you might have a problem.
Ask a black cabbie (taxi driver) how to get to a particular street in the quickest time, or along the easiest routes, and they'll roll off street names and directions whilst the meter's running. They can't be taxi drivers in London if they haven't passed the extensive test on their road knowledge. Once qualified, the men and women, can proudly state that they have passed the hardest taxi driver exam in the world. If you admire the London black cabbie for the knowledge, which beats a sat nav, then this, BBC, 2011, audio book combined with the witty and highly intelligent Stephen Fry ought to make for a thoroughly enjoyable hour.
Stephen Fry's recognisable and resonating voice introduces us to the knowledge. He owns his own black cab though he assures us he is no professional cab driver. He explains how the knowledge came about and we hear the words of a London cabbie too. The material all comes from BBC radio 4 archives.
Fry then moves on to reflections about the concept of 'knowledge' in general. He refers to trivia and the news, amongst other areas to consider how knowledge is used and understood in our world both past and present. Stephen Fry's witticisms are interspersed with radio archive interviews.
I thought this might be quite fascinating, trail-blazing with Stephen Fry, through the streets of London, whilst discussing various landmarks and street names. I believed we'd learn more about the test for taxi drivers and a bit about the characters they meet etc, but alas the expected details are too brief and serve merely as an introduction to the concept of knowledge. The blurb had promised an exploration of knowledge through the unique perspective of taxi drivers but shockingly this is only mentioned in a tiny proportion of the audio.
To be fair Fry is as witty as ever. I admire the man very much for his intellect and ability to communicate smoothly through the medium of the radio. He is a pleasure to the ears. He does make some fascinating points and looks at the value involved in different types of knowledge. If you pay a token amount of money - using small change - it's worth having one listen. However, the content drifts away from the story of the taxi drivers. We're taken down winding country lanes which is somewhat misleading. The concept of 'knowledge' is explored. This in itself is quite interesting but not when the front cover picture would suggest that we are going on an A-B route. If I wanted to be driven down back streets and out into the country I would have bought a different audio book. The marketing makes us believe this is about taxi cabs not about the word and meanings of 'knowledge'. The London cabbies are left behind and we have an extortionate fare from the BBC for something not promised to us. My copy, which cost nearly ten pounds, is going to be donated to charity as I don't need to listen to it a second time. I feel I've been taken through too many diversions and not got value for money. The BBC are generally excellent in their audio books but I feel like they are trying to make a quick pound(s) out of an audio book that holds so much potential and promise for an exploration into the life of a London cabbie. I'm still left hungry for knowledge.
I've been taken for a ride.
Stephen Fry has established himself as the man who made brains cool. The success of the celebrity comedy quiz show "Q.I.", which Fry hosts, has shown that we are as keen as ever to gain knowledge. Therefore, he was the obvious choice to narrate BBC Radio's "The Knowledge", where he explores the nature of knowledge and our fascination with its acquisition. Using the fact that a taxi driver once won Mastermind and the extraordinary amount of knowledge people in that profession often possess, Fry takes us through a veritable archive of BBC programmes and interviews with individuals, focusing on our love of knowledge.
Fry addresses the issue of defining knowledge and our changing values of it. After the nation was shocked at the success of a London cab-driver, Fred Houesgo, winning "Mastermind" back in 1980, many have pondered whether cabbies generally have a large capacity for retaining knowledge. Housego had left school aged 16 with one "O" level, but self-educated himself during his time working as a postman and driving his taxi. He read vociferously and indiscriminately, building up the perfect resources for expertise in general knowledge. Cab drivers typically engage in conversation with a huge variety of people all day and all week long, memorizing complex routes and traffic information as well. It's not difficult to see why one would ponder the possible correlation. Therefore, the entire programme takes it from this perspective. Housego, who is now conveniently a BBC radio personality, is interviewed for the programme. There is another rather twee connection to taxi driving, Fry owns a London cab!
The problem with "The Knowledge" is that it isn't so much as an investigation into knowledge and what it means, but more an articulate negotiation around BBC archive material. Aside from some interviews there is nothing particularly fresh. We don't go much into the history of knowledge; only as far the BBC archives takes us. This is rather limiting and really just leaves Fry to try to draw his answers from the way entertainment uses knowledge, which isn't really what the programme is all about. Fry is entertaining enough, as always is, but for a topic that demands a bit of depth it all comes off as rather whimsical and unenlightening.
In conclusion, if you are looking for a trip down memory lane of broadcasting history and the topic of knowledge, then this is a fun programme. It is well-produced and Fry is always a joy to listen to. However, if you are looking for a serious discussion on the way we value knowledge then you may be a little disappointed.