When Lisa Banks arrives at 'work she takes off her bright yellow motorbike boots and slips on some silver sandals. Then she sits down with the five or six men sprawling round a table and lights a fag.

They don't appear to notice this curvaceous blonde with the spiky lashes; they're too busy gazing at another colleague. This one has stubble and can't have put a comb to his head for a month. 'Left down Eden Park, left into Birchwood Avenue, he is reciting, squinting with concentration. 'Then right into Beck Way, left again into Village Way, then straight on.

But then Lisa doesn't ask for any favours. Nor does she court attention. She is one of just seven women at the Mann and Overton Knowledge school in Goswell Street, Islington. She gets enough (unwanted) attention as it is.

This week 26-year-old Lisa is the envy of the men: after three years of what seemed to be a 'never-ending slog, she graduates in the Knowledge - the course that every cab driver must take before being awarded the much-coveted Green Badge.

Lisa is ecstatic. She'd always wanted to do the Knowledge, she says. Her dad had tried it but never completed it. This is her happiest day ever. A couple of the men were ecstatic too - in their own way. 'Shit] says one, admiringly.

Lisa is one of 900 students to have passed the Knowledge in the past year. Two per cent are women. The drop-out rate is high: of the 4,000 in the system, only 8 per cent make it through to the end. At least 70 per cent drop out in the first 12 months.

A good many can't cope with the loneliness - hours and hours spent learning the name and location of every London street within a six-mile radius. Still more find the monotony of route-learning too tedious. But for the few who get there the benefits can be great: 'I meet people, my hours are flexible and I can see parts of London that I never knew existed, Lisa enthuses.

She spent the first two years learning the 468 routes specified by the Carriage Office. Not only did she have to know the main roads; the side roads around them had to be memorised too. The work was lonely, the rewards minimal. Social security paid her 'wage - in the form of a dole cheque and housing benefit.

Once confident that she knew the routes, Lisa applied to Knowledge school. She spent mornings trawling the streets over and over again, and early afternoons sitting round a table in the 'classroom chanting routes. Late afternoon it was back on the bike again and then to her mother for dinner, and more revision. By 9pm the work day was usually over. By then she was usually so tired, she would go back to her rented flat (in the same block) for an early night with her boyfriend.

'It's a six-day week. I only get Sundays off, she says. 'Even then I work. I sell flowers at the market.

The weeks of gruelling slog are only lightened by the 18 Appearances (exams) that 'Knowledge boys and girls - as trainees are known - are expected to pass. At each one, candidates are expected to reel off up to 14 random routes, 'the way the crow flies. The experience can only be described as 'traumatic: not only is the candidate's knowledge put to the test, but examiners (some of whom are former cab drivers) also give attitude, appearance and approach the once-over.

'They try and make you lose your temper, complains a group of three men sitting at the Goswell Road centre, hugging mugs of tea. 'They criticise the way you dress, tell you to take your earrings out, insult you, and tell you to chop of your ponytail.

'One examiner started mumbling when he spoke to me, says one of the three drivers, who that day was sporting an earring. 'I said: 'Pardon, sir?' He said: 'You've passed your medical. I assume you've got your hearing'.

'I had another one ask me how to get from A to B. I gave him the correct route. He told me I was wrong. Gritting my teeth I said: 'You're quite right sir. I did get it wrong'. It was the only way I could have got through.

'Yes sir, no sir, so sorry to trouble you sir. The three men fall about, laughing. Some of the examiners turn hardened men into gibbering wrecks, they explain. Under no other circumstances would they dream of addressing another man as 'Sir.

Lisa, on the other hand, refuses to say a word against the examiners. Instead, she gushes sweetly about their 'fairness - she has not yet got her badge. 'Everyone has been very helpful, she says. 'Really nice.

Too nice, according to three of her colleagues. 'I don't mind the idea of having women working as taxi drivers, says a large Irishman. 'What I don't like is the easy time they get. In theory women should qualify for the Green Badge once they have reached the same standared as other male drivers. In practice they don't.

The speaker, who, like his colleagues, did not want to be named, was a builder before he was made redundant 'along with many others two years ago. He decided to do the Knowledge, he says, because 'I am too young and too poor to retire, and too old to get another job. The most humiliating aspect of the Knowledge is having to rely on his wife to support him. Ideally their roles would be reversed. He would be the one with the juicy income, she the dependent.

'If a lady has a couple of kids the examiners will take that into consideration, says one of his colleagues. 'They'll say to themselves: 'Well, this girl will only be working from 9am to 3pm. That means she will have to stay in her local area.' Then they say to themselves: 'Well, there's no point making sure that she knows all the roads in London, particularly when we have to increase our quota of women working here. Let's make the Knowledge as easy as possible for her'.

A spokesman for the Carriage Office in Islington denied that this was the case. 'We do not have a fixed quota. We just operate a policy of equal opportunity. This, asserted our speaker, was fair enough. 'But let them get a restricted badge.

Shelagh Grayber, 40, mother of three children (8, 10 and 14) has been doing her Knowledge for the past two years. She hopes to be finished by Christmas, otherwise she might commit 'hurry-curry. Shelagh is also Lisa's closest workmate Whenever either of them has an Appearance the other turns up to offer pre-exam encouragment and post-exam shrieks and hugs.

Shelagh chose taxi-driving because she likes the flexible hours and wants to be with her children as much as possible. Money is also an incentive: 'I want to be able to send my children on school skiing trips. My husband's wage is not enough (he is a printer).

She is hurt when I relay a summed-up version of what her colleagues had said. She falls silent, then says: 'They don't realise how hard it is with three kids. I have to keep the house clean, do the washing and send the children to school. I have to make sure there is always food on the table and that clothes are neatly ironed - and that's before I've even started with the Knowledge.

'These men go home to find their wives or mothers have done this for them. She tails off, still bewildered at the criticism. They'd never said all that to her, she says. They'd always been very helpful. She thinks some more. Then: 'It feels bad enough already. My whole life is this Knowledge. I have no social life. No time with the children. I feel guilty not being with them. They are being neglected.

Her husband doesn't help. He never asks her about her day or shows any interest in how her Appearances went. In fact he refuses to mention the Knowledge at all.

The examiners do give her an easy time, she admits. At her last Appearance, she was asked where 12 fringe theatres were. She was only able to place four, but still she was waved through to the next stage.

The number of routes she is usually asked to call during Appearances number four, or maybe six at a push. The men can get up to 14 'runs.

'They know I've got three children. They take your nerves into consideration too, Shelagh explains.

Fresh out of her 'final exam, still dressed in the transparent, frilly blouse she likes to wear to every Appearance, Lisa hotly denies that women get an easier time. 'That's a load of bollocks. These examiners have got no pity for you. The questions are just the same as men get.

Then as an after-thought: 'They are just jealous. That is all. I knew they'd say that anyway.


Yellow Brick Road - main road

Cut-through - route via little streets

Woosher - a straight run from A to B

Bilker - a passenger who 'does a runner

Butter Boy - novice driver

Musher - owner-driver of a black cab

Journey Man - person who rents his black cab

Scab/Ragged Aerial - mini-cab driver

Green Badge Valley/Diesel Island -

nicknames for Redbridge because so many black cab drivers live there.

(Photographs omitted)