A London Diary (April 10) – the Photographer, the Pit of Shame

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

Connecting with your London fix for April 10th

Story time. History time.

London Walks has a walkers’ pit of shame. Bet you didn’t know that. So sure enough, I’ve just let you in on a secret. But to find out more you’re either going to have to wait until the end of today’s London Diary entry. Or fast forward to the end.

I said ‘Diary entry’ – first time I’ve used that phrase here. I think the London Walks podcast is now back – not every day but quite often. And I’m still not sure of the form it’s going to take going forward. From late December 2021 to mid-February 2023 it was of course the Today in London History show. Consecutive days for over 400 days a what happened on this day in London history offering. Well, if I’d had the stamina I could have continued putting that show out for years to come. That’s how much material there is, how much history London’s got to show for its efforts. But it was like a long-running TV show – the time had come for something different, for me to move on. And it’s really early days for this new rendition – I’m not sure at all what form it’s going to take. So maybe something like a diary – or a commonplace book – London stuff that’s a little bit out of the ordinary, that was maybe unexpected, caught me by surprise. London Walks podcast pieces that ‘fulfil my deep need to stop things from disappearing.’

The other metaphor that came to mind was an old-fashioned general store. A place that stocked just about everything – from ice cream to nails to matches to mittens to clotheslines. A place you could just wander about in and see stuff.

So, diary, general store – well, we’ll see. But let’s get this one properly underway. We’ve got to follow a trail that will eventually lead to the walkers’ ‘pit of shame’.

My Sunday morning Hampstead walk – I get ready for it by going up there very early. A good 45 minutes or so before the walk starts. I always go to St John’s, the very beautiful parish church. St John’s actually bookends my Hampstead walk – because I’m there before the walk and it’s where we end the walk. It’s so beautiful – there are always gasps of delight and appreciation when we go in there.

Anyway, I always roll up at the church 45 minutes or so before I head over to Hampstead Tube Stop to meet my walkers. I go there to catch half an hour or so of the choir rehearsal. I always sit in the last pew – and let the singing roll over me while I – always wide-eyed – drink deep of the visuals of that stunning interior. Wide-eyed, drink deep, how’s that for mixing my metaphors? Anyway, it sets me up so well for the walk. Gets me in the right frame of mind.

Now, on the approach to St John’s – it’s at the far end of Church Row, Hampstead’s most beautiful street – I walk past what I call our sixth and last viewing platform. I introduce that walk by saying 750,000 years ago a glacier pushed down here. That was arguably the most important event in London’s history. And, yes, I know, I’m using the word history pretty loosely there. Strictly speaking that geographical event was pre-history. But its importance can’t be gainsaid. Because the Thames used to flow about ten miles north of us. Through what is today called the Vale of St Albans. And that glacier diverted the Thames down to its present location. That important? Look, no Thames, no London, it’s as simple as that. Anyway, over geological periods of time the Thames carved out the Thames river valley. And it’s useful to think of the Thames river valley as a bowl of hills. And up here in Hampstead – where I’m lucky enough to live – up here in Hampstead on this walk – we’re effectively ridge walking. We’re moving along on part of the northern rim of that bowl of hills. And with the route I’ve fashioned for the walk, at six points I get my walkers to what I call viewing platforms. And on a clear day, from these viewing platforms, you can see all the way across the Thames river valley. On a clear day you can see the southern rim of the bowl of hills 26 miles in the distance.

Anyway, our sixth and last viewing platform is there in Church Row. And just beside it is a very handsome mock Georgian house. A very handsome mock Georgian house that was lived in for many many years by one of the most famous photographers of the 20th century. And indeed on into the 21st century. Dorothy Boehm. Dorothy Boehm was born on June 22, 1924. Born in east Prussia. She was Jewish. For obvious reasons her father sent Dorothy and her brother to Britain in 1939. She was 15. For a going away present her father gave Dorothy a Leica camera. For 25 years Dorothy had no information as to her parents’ fate. Eastern Prussia, where she was a child, was, after the war, annexed by the Soviet Union. Dorothy finally found out that her parents had survived – they’d been deported to different camps in Soviet Gulag. She and her friends made a direct appeal to Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Wilson had a meeting with the Soviet Premier Khrushchev – you have to be pretty old to remember Khruschev. At that meeting Wilson handed Khruschev a letter Dorothy had written, a letter about her parents, a letter seeking their release. It worked. They were released. 25 years on Dorothy was reunited with them in their new home in Riga, in Latvia. That in itself is an extraordinary tale. But remarkable as it is it’s a side dish to the main course of her life – which was her career as one of the doyennes of British photography.

I met Dorothy twice. The first time was a few years ago. It was a fine summer day. I was walking home, walking along Church Row. Over the way I saw a very old lady sitting in a chair on the pavement in front of Dorothy’s house. Said to myself, “I’ll bet anything that’s Dorothy Boehm.” Walked past her, walked down a footpath that leads past the side of her house. Halfway down I stopped. I said to myself, “David, she’s in her 90s. Turn around. Go back up there. Say hello to her.” I did. I said, “are you Dorothy Boehm?” She said, ‘yes.’ I said, “I’ve got books of your photographs. They’re wonderful.” And then said, ‘Dorothy, would it be all right if I took a photograph of you with my phone?” I loved what happened next. Something eternally, essentially female, feminine happened. She shyly said, “oh I don’t look very good today.” I said, “Dorothy, you are very beautiful.” And I meant it. So I got my photographs. And then we talked some more. And she said you must come and see me again – this is a complete American male stranger she’s talking to – “you must come and see me again, we’ll have tea, I’ll show you more of my photographs.”

To my everlasting regret I didn’t take her up on her offer. I couldn’t. What would I have said to her carer, “Dorothy invited me to come round for tea and look at some of her photographs.” I just couldn’t do it. Though I dearly wish I had.

Then I saw her again a few weeks ago. Her carer was helping her – ever so slowly – walk along Church Row. Dorothy was 98. But she might have been 28. I asked her where things were with her photographs. She brightly said, “I’ve got three exhibitions on the continent this summer.” So full of life. More life than most 28-year-olds are packing.

We said goodbye. That was the last time I saw Dorothy. Walking to my Sunday morning rendezvous with the church choir a couple of Sundays ago someone came out of Dorothy’s house just as I was passing. I asked her about Dorothy. She started. Just for a micro-second. And I knew. And then she said, “Dorothy died two weeks ago.” Ave atque vale, Dorothy.

What I said up above about podcasts or diary entries that ‘fulfil my deep need to stop things from disappearing’ – those were Dorothy’s words. She said, “the photograph fulfils my deep need to stop things from disappearing. It makes transience less painful … I have tried to create order out of chaos, to find stability in flux and beauty in the most unlikely places.”

And that’s really why I’ve penned – and will soon record – this diary entry. I want to hold on to Dorothy, don’t want her to disappear. I so want those three exhibitions to take place this summer. Because she’ll be there. Just as she’s there at the beginning and at the end of my Hampstead Walk. There in Church Row. Beside our sixth and final viewing platform. Where we can look out across London. And see forever.

Now that’s a really good memory. And memories make us rich.

I’m not sure about the walkers’ pit of shame pit, though. Does it make us rich? Well, if I share the story it might increase understanding a bit. And that’s surely a good thing.

It’s a wild guess but we think in the half-century – more than half-century – London Walks has been going – we must have taken 10,000,000 people on London Walks. And 9,999,995 of them have been wonderful. Five of them – four before Friday last – have been vile. All of them are in the London Walks pit of shame. They don’t know it, but they are. You know those signs that you sometimes see in the London Underground…signs that read: “Don’t take it out on our staff, don’t abuse our staff” – well, thank heavens it’s extremely rare – four or five instances out of ten million – but, yes, I’m afraid it’s true, we’ve been monstered a few times. Five times to be exact. I can remember years ago when I found out that a publican had complete control over who got to be under the roof of his pub. If he didn’t like someone – if someone was abusive or obnoxious or threatening or worse – he could throw them out and keep them out. I was jealous. I thought, “oh, if only we could do that at London Walks.”

And I got even more jealous when I heard about the No Fly list airlines have. A passenger is really impossible their name goes on that No Fly list and they don’t ever get to fly on that airline again. And – word on that street has it – airlines share their list with other airlines.

But how do you have a No Fly list if you’re a walking tour company that doesn’t operate a booking scheme?

Well, the thing is, we now do have a booking scheme – and the woman who hurled abuse down the phone at Mary – left her in tears – won’t be going on any more London Walks. Not under her real name at any rate.

She savaged us because she was 20 minutes late. Let that sink in. It was our fault that she was 20 minutes late. It was Good Friday. A holiday. No one was in our office to take her phone call. That was our fault as well. And that it was Good Friday, that was also our fault. And she kept ringing and ringing and ringing. Ten times, she said. That was also our fault. And in fact, communication was possible. The recorded message here said, “if it’s an emergency, ring this number.”

She didn’t ring the emergency number until she’d made those ten calls expecting somebody to be in the office, at the end of the landline. It was also our fault that she’d chosen not to follow that clear instruction until she’d made those ten calls. And it was our fault that we’d not let her know that there probably wouldn’t be a live person to answer for a couple of hours on Good Friday afternoon. Apparently we should have spelled that out on the confirmation email we sent her. Meanwhile, out on the ground, the guide, Jan, did not move off from the meeting point until nearly fifteen minutes after the listed starting time for the walk. There were 30 people on the walk. So if someone had been here to take her call, what would have ensued – did the woman seriously think that 30 people should be kept waiting for what, another ten minutes, fifteen minutes – until she pitches up and then the walk can go ahead. When my turn on the hot seat came she admitted that they’d gone to the other side of the street to get some food and apparently they’d got the timing wrong, it took longer than they thought. But that was also our fault. And the fault of the 30 people on the walk who’d got there on time and not pushed off with Jan until nearly 15 minutes past the listed start time. Ok, it wasn’t all dead time – because Jan guided right there, at the meeting point, for six or seven minutes – but still, the point surely stands. How could those 30 fellow London Walkers be so selfish, set out when Jan set out close enough to fifteen minutes after the listed starting time.

Well, you get the idea. She reduced Mary to tears. My turn came, I didn’t weep. I wound up the conversation – it’s a travesty to call it a conversation – I wound up the conversation by saying, “you were very late – it was our fault that you were late – we apologise; it’s Good Friday – it’s our fault that it’s Good Friday – we apologise; you didn’t follow the clear instructions about ringing the emergency number – that was also our fault – we apologise. You kept ringing the landline – that was also our fault – we apologise; Jan and her 30 walkers didn’t wait more than 15 minutes for you – even though they had no idea that you might be making a grand entrance if they waited long enough. That was also our fault and the fault of those 30 walkers. We apologise.

And then I said, “we’re clearly not right for you, and you’re not right for us – please give us a miss in the future. And you have my word, we’re going do everything in our power to assist you in that endeavour.”

And hey presto – just like that there were five names on the London Walks No Fly list.

Ok, got that off my chest. Perhaps a measure in itself what that encounter was like.

You’ve been listening to 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: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, the former Editor of Independent Television News, a distinguished diplomat, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won 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 Londoning one and all. See ya next time.

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