Pickpockets & Partygate, Cats & Cafes

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

Story time. History time.


Mixed bag today. A Tale of Two Cities. Some mewsic. That’s mewsic spelled mew-sic. Mew-sic. And inevitably I suppose, some politics. What’s that old Chinese curse, May you live in interesting times. Well, politically, that curse has certainly come calling us of late.

But first our mew-sic. Ann’s out doing her Cat Tails Walk this morning. Full title: Cat Tails – A Feline Take on London History. Arcane, you say? Rarefied? Exotic? Well, not if the number of bookings it’s attracted is anything to go by. Ann does restrict the numbers on the walk – keeps it to sixteen people – but, hey, once again it’s sold out. A full house. Anyway, in keeping with the occasion let’s purr away here on this podcast. Howzabout a cracking cat poem to get us started. Poem’s titled, Wanted – A Witch’s Cat. It’s by Sheelagh McGee. Goes like this.

Wanted – a witch’s cat.

Must have vigour and spite,

Be expert at hissing,

And good in a fight,

And have balance and poise

On a broomstick at night.

Wanted – a witch’s cat.

Must have hypnotic eyes

To tantalize victims

And mesmerize spies,

And be an adept

At scanning the skies.

Wanted – a witch’s cat,

With a sly, cunning smile,

A knowledge of spells

And a good deal of guile,

With a fairly hot temper

And plenty of bile.

Wanted – a witch’s cat,

Who’s not afraid to fly,

For a cat with strong nerves

The salary’s high.

Wanted – a witch’s cat;

Only the best need apply.

Well, I’m not sure any of the cats on Ann’s catwalk this morning are witches’ cats – but I guarantee you only the best will have applied. And made the cut. As the rave reviews the walk’s attracted bear out.

Ok, moving on. The A Tale of Two Cities segment. Eight of us spent a long weekend in Paris. Great time. Several Paris Walks. And lots of solo-ing – flaneuring – in the world’s most beautiful city. Two exhibitions. A musical. And of course a cornucopia of vitamin C – cafes, coffee, conversation, cuisine, creature comforts and contemplation.

And then, right at the end, alas, it went pear-shaped. Heading home – on the Metro to Gare du Nord to catch Eurostar – one of our friends was dipped. A pick-pocket – a team of them – went to work on Celia and scored. Got what they wanted. Got her purse. They’re very good at what they do – smooth as cream – and world-renowned. So I’m going to tell the story in hopes that it’ll stand a few of you in good stead. Help you to head off what happened to Celia. Here’s how they did it. Celia’s carry-all bag is a small, stylish number with straps. And a flap. In it she had a small purse into which she’d put her credit cards, her cash, her keys – all the important stuff. The Metro was crowded, but not sardine-packed. One of the thieves leaned against her from behind. Could have been a movement that went with the territory – the carriage rocking a bit from side to side as it moves along. But it wasn’t. That push from behind threw Celia off-balance. Catching herself, maybe reaching for a strap – that was the distraction – and just like that the other one was in her bag and removed the purse. It couldn’t have been smoother. Celia was none the wiser. She only found out when she got to Gare du Nord and the credit card company rang her and asked her about a transaction that had just been made. They’d smelled a rat. So, in some ways she was fortunate. The credit card company’s pretty sophisticated defences kicked in and did their job. Instanta the cards went all Salvador Dali on thieves. Visions of riches beyond the dreams of Midas melting before their eyes. That was satisfying. But of course they did get a wad of cash. And the inconvenience – the botheration – of it all. The wait for the new cards, having to get another set of keys cut. And the psychological downer. The thought that some lowlife preyed upon you. That you were their prey.

I think we’ve probably been to Paris upwards of a hundred times. And yesterday’s incident was our third brush with a Paris pickpocketing incident.

Years ago we were travelling with our best American friends. Mary foiled an attempt on that occasion. She’s tack sharp of course. Her friends don’t call her Beady for nothing. She noticed that a guy on the Metro was running his knee up our American friend’s leg. She thought, ‘what’s that all about, what’s he doing?’ What he was doing was feeling – with his knee – feeling for the pocket where our friend kept his wallet. Then came the diversion. The accomplice dropped his phone. Everybody in that little space – that six-foot radius – looked down. Well, not everybody. Beady didn’t. She saw the hand make its pass and batted it away. And for good measure gave him a good verbal slash: ‘I wouldn’t if I were you.’ That incident was all’s well that ends well. In fact, we joked, the Parisian running his leg up our friend’s leg, it could have been the start of a very special friendship.

Third time was just outside a Metro Station. A burly American tourist came huffing and puffing up the steps, spotted a policeman, ran up to him and shouted, “I’ve just had my pocket picked.” Somehow you just knew that was a lost cause moment.

But three incidents in a hundred or so trips – my every instinct says that needle’s way over in the red zone. By way of comparison, tens of thousands of trips on the London Underground in the 50 years I’ve been here and not so much as a single pickpocket encounter. It is anecdotal evidence but it’s a pretty safe bet I’d say that it’s rife on the Paris Metro and they’re targetting tourists.

The takeaway is, don’t make it easy for them. Be aware. Be alert. No shoulder bags with flaps. Keep your valuables in pockets that you can snap shut or button up. Or maybe a crossbody bag that’s worn in front and under your coat.

And as for that old Chinese curse – it’s well and truly rounded us up, hasn’t it. Well and truly taken hold. Fit topic for a walking tour company? I think so. Sure, we do London history. But what’s been happening the last few days is just the latest installment of London history. And there’s the further thought that the past shaped the present, to understand the present you have to know something about the past. So how in the world did the past get us to this pass? I don’t just want to know about 1587 – the year we think Shakespeare came to London – or 1836, the year Dickens sets sail with his first novel, The Pickwick Papers. Or 1923, the year Mrs Dalloway goes on her walk.I also want to know about 2023, want to know about the times I’m living in. Want to know about today’s London. What’s going on today – and how all this came to pass. So, that means, yes, listening to the news, trying to decipher it, trying to get the measure of it. And reading newspapers, magazines and books about – to use that old-fashioned term – current affairs.

Just finished a wonderful polemic called How They Broke Britain. Some books are like major news stories. You remember where you were when you heard about 911 or Princess Diana’s Death or whatever. Well, I’m going to remember where I was – in a Cafe in Paris – when author James O’Brian served up his Mangos Diablo. Or to mix my metaphors: drove the wooden stake through the black heart of the most disgraceful and disgraced prime minister in British history.

This passage – another metaphor shift – it’s like the last few steps up to the summit of K9.

“First, there were no parties. Then, there had been parties but he had been unaware of them. Then, there had been parties and he had been aware of them but he definitely did not attend any. Finally, there had been parties, and he had been aware of them, and he had in fact attended some of them, but he had not realised at the time that they were parties.”

And for a coda, The Economist’s 30-word summation of the sequel to Partygate. The shooting star of Liz Truss’s premiership.

“Take away the ten days of mourning after the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and she had seven days in control. That is roughly the shelf-life of a lettuce.”

I’m guiding our Old Westminster Walk tomorrow. The walk starts by taking a good look at the public face of Westminster. Parliament Square and its immediate environs: the House of Commons and the House of Lords, Victoria Tower, Westminster Hall, the Supreme Court, Westminster Abbey, the Old Jewel Tower, Westminster Bridge, the parish church of the House of Commons, ’Government Street’, etc.  And then we leave all that, we dive into the private face of Westminster. That wonderful, completely hidden little nest of Georgian back streets where all the political salons are. It’s the nearest UK equivalent Georgetown in the DC area. We’ll look at the £3.6 million pound townhouse that was the campaign headquarters for Boris Johnson’s ‘government in exile,’ and ditto for his successor Liz Truss. I might do a little number back in there about entitlement, staying power – being to the manor born. Because the property is the townhouse of a Tory peer and donor who traces his ancestry back to a Norman overlord, the first Baron Arundel, who built Castle Rising in 1138. And no prizes for guessing who owns Castle Rising today, nearly 900 years later. Yes, you got it in one, the Tory peer and donor in question, who is of course a Baron himself.

And since back in there we also take a good look at one of the great public schools in this country – Westminster School – I’ll probably also mention that 22 prime ministers – including Boris Johnson – attended the most famous public school of them all. Eton College, founded in 1440.

That’s very nearly one out of every three prime minsters went to Eton. And for the record, one out of every two went to Oxford University.

Harvard University lags way behind. Only sixteen percent of American presidents went to Harvard.

It all coheres, doesn’t it. It all comes together, hangs together, takes shape.


You’ve been listening to This… is London, the London Walks podcast. Emanating from www.walks.com –

home of London Walks,

London’s signature

walking tour company.

London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size

walking tour company.

And as long as we’re at it,

London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything.

It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science:

you get what you pay for.

And just as surely,

you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started

we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question:

Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world?

You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world

you do whatever you have to do

to attract and keep

the best guides in London –

you want them guiding for you,

not for somebody else.

Bears repeating:

the way we’re structured –

a guides’ cooperative –

is the key to the whole thing.

It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following,

a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases

distinguished professionals:

By way of example, Stewart Purvis, the former Editor

(and subsequently CEO) of Independent Television News.

And Lisa Honan, who had a distinguished career as a diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of St Helena, the island where Napoleon breathed his last and, some say, had his penis amputated –

Napoleon didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa –

both of them CBEs –

are just a couple of our headline acts.

Or take our Ripper Walk. It’s the creation of  the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, Donald Rumbelow, the author of the definitive book on the subject.  Britain’s most distinguished crime historian, Donald is, in the words of The Jack the Ripper A to Z,“internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper.” Donald’s emeritus now but he’s still the guiding light on our Ripper Walk. He curates the walk. He trains up and mentors our Ripper Walk guides. Fields any and all questions they throw at him.

The London Walks All-Star team of guides includes a former London Mayor. It includes the former Chief Music Critic for the Evening Standard. It includes the Chair of the Association of Professional Tour Guides. And the former chair of the Guild of Guides.

It includes barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians,

university professors,

criminal defence lawyers,

Royal Shakespeare Company actors,

a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the big one, the Guide of the Year Award)…

well, you get the idea.

As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament,

every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar

and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…

come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks.

And that’s by way of saying, Good walking and Good Londoning

one and all. See ya next time.

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