Circumcision, Moustaches, Premature Burial & the British Empire – Go Figure

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

Fifty years. That’s how long I’ve lived amongst them. The English, I mean. And do I understand them, even after 50 years? No chance. Mind you, the block I’m a chip off of I understand even less. My fellow Americans, I mean. Most of ‘em, that is. That’s what flying the coop – crossing the Atlantic, for good – will do for you. It unfits you for life in in either place. Make the move I made in 1973 – move to London from the Middle West – not only are you a stranger in a strange land. You’re also – in no time – and by definition – deracinated. Uprooted from the place you grew up. You change and it changes. And not in tandem. Where you got started, where you grew up becomes a strange land. Welcome to being a stranger in a strange land whichever side of the Atlantic you’re on.

Idiomatic English – American English and English English – has got a word or two to say about this matter. I think it was Winston Churchill who said, “Americans and British are one people separated by a common language.” Having an American mother and a British father he of course would have been perfectly tuned into that wavelength.

Anyway, a classic instance of that, the British expression “rum lot.” And its American counterpart: “Go figure.”

Essentially, they both mean the same thing. “Go figure” – that quintessential American phrase – expresses perplexity or puzzlement. You use it when you’re saying something is surprising or hard to understand.

And when that most English of authors P.G. Wodehouse has Bertie Wooster say, “And here’s rather a rummy thing, Jeeves” what he means is, “this is odd, peculiar, strange, unusual, weird.” They’re just about synonymous. “Rum” or “rummy” is a now slightly old fashioned English way of saying, “Go figure.”

Ok, time for the drum roll. They’re a rum lot these English. Or if you prefer, “I’m going to tell you something now about these English. And you better strap yourself in because I guarantee you this is ‘Go figure’ territory.”

And to tee the ball up, it needs must be said that the London Walk I’ve learned the most from this past year is the East India Company Walk created and guided by the distinguished former diplomat Lisa Honan. And it’s not just me saying that. We hear it again and again. “I learned so much from that walk.” “Lisa’s East India Company Walk was a huge eye opener.” “More than any other that walk really got me thinking.”

I’m in full agreement. I was pretty much in blissful ignorance about the British empire until I went on Lisa’s walk. It was over there, I was here. It was back then, this was today. It held next to no interest for me. I say that with my head now hanging down in shame. The extent of my knowledge about it was I knew it was really big and I was fond of that stale old joke that the reason the sun never set on the British empire was even God wouldn’t trust an Englishman in the dark. And that was about it.

And then came Lisa’s walk. She was like Cinderella with a magic wand. Thanks to those two hours – where she took us, what she showed us, what she told us…well, transformed I was. I’m now making up for lost time. Reading about the British empire widely and deeply. Reading voraciously. Can’t get enough of it. Spell bound by what I’m finding out.

And that brings me to what a rum lot these Brits are. Yes, I know, I said “these English” when I started swinging this machete. But in the circumstances “these British” is more accurate. So, yes, what a rum lot these Brits are. I suppose you could say that running an empire doesn’t build character, it reveals character. Which is by way of saying, when they summited with their empire building they started doing some really weird stuff. This will be about the 1880s. Chapter and verse. They developed an obsession with premature burial. It was a kind of craze that swept right through Victorian Britain. It gave rise, for example, to the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial. They thrilled and chilled themselves with reports of 2700 people annually consigned to a living death and scratch marks on coffin lids and rent garments and contorted skeletons and sounds of knocking from new graves.

Weird indeed. And that’s just for starters. The empire reaches its apex and the Brits – well, the male Brits – develop some personal adornment crazes. Moustaches. World class moustaches. Some of them as lecherous as the ones you see on old black-and-white 1920s movie villains. And the moustaches were just the warm-up act. The cartoon as it were. For the main show – wait for it – circumcision. You heard right. They’re getting shot of their foreskins. And they’re growing amazing moustaches. You can’t help but wonder, did Victorian women when they saw one of those big moustaches coming their way think, “I’ll bet he’s had the chop.”

Now, the question is, “why?” “What in the world was going on?” I don’t think anybody knows. The premature burial obsession, was that distantly, subliminally  connected to some deep-seated recognition – and anxiety – that this house of cards is all going to come tumbling down? We can’t stay on top, we’re just a little island, there aren’t enough of us, we can’t be lording it over 400 million people over 14 million square miles  – seven times larger than the territories of Rome at their greatest extent. That, in short, the British empire was an oak planted in a flower pot.

Well, who knows? Ditto the moustaches and the foreskin snipping. Were the moustaches the facial equivalent of British pageantry? In Shakespeare’s phrase, “pluming up?”  The facial equivalent of a martial drumbeat sounding louder as the Empire grew more hollow.

And the foreskins? It’s almost too bizarre for words. I see those Victorian foreskins as so many lemmings going off the edge of a cliff. A covenant with God is one thing. But a covenant with the British empire in exchange for some of your penile sensitivity? Go figure. Or, if you prefer, that’s a rum thing to do, mate.

And how did it all end? Well, patient-doctor confidentiality prevents us from knowing whether the circumcision craze was for the chop. And wives and girlfriends were also probably going to keep schtum. That leaves ladies of surpassing congeniality but even with them discretion was probably the better part of value.

Moustaches, though, we do know about. It was almost a Custer’s last stand for the moustache craze. They vanished as fast as the empire. The first position to be overrun was the army, where moustaches had been compulsory. That ended in 1916. The so-called Kings Regulations were altered. Shaving the upper lip was permitted. Word had it that the change came in as a sop to the Prince of Wales, who was ill-equipped with the manly growth. Another story was that the executioner was the Prince of Wales Secretary, General Sir Neville Macready, who loathed his own moustache because it was ‘a bristly affair resembling the small brushes with which kitchen maids and others clean saucepans.’ You pays your money and takes your choice but whoever it was who got the ball rolling the moustache was dead on arrival by the time the 1950s pitched up. Charlie Chaplin and Groucho Marx had turned it into a joke. As did P.G. Wodehouse. His feeble-minded, preposterous upper class character Bertram Wooster was convinced the ‘delicate wisp of vegetation’ gave him an air of diablerie but his man Jeeves, always an infallible arbiter of fashion, was having none of that foolishness. Jeeves described Bertie’s moustache as ‘a dark stain, like mulligatawny soup.’

And finally of course thanks to Hitler’s toothbrush and the huge laughing cockroaches under Stalin’s nose the moustache had become an international symbol of villainy.

And that’s the story. These Brits. Empire peaks. They get in a blind panic about premature burial, start growing moustaches and chop off their foreskins. Go figure.

Tough act to follow, but I’ve got some garnish for this one. Three specials hoving into view. Later this morning, the walking tour that set all this in motion: the former diplomat Lisa Honan’s East India Company Walk. It goes at 10.45 am on Thursday, September 14th from Monument Tube, the Fish Street Hill exit. And Lisa will be doing it again on October 8th and October 12th. Both at 10.45 am.

Then this Sunday, Stewart Purvis, the former Editor of Independent Television News, will be doing his Spies of Hampstead Walk. It’ll go at 10.30 am on September 17th from Belsize Park Tube Stop. Stewart’s Hampstead Spies Walk – its alias is the KGB in NW3 – is a seasonal delicacy. After this Sunday it’ll run again on October 15th and November 19th and then that’ll be it until next spring. So catch it while you can.

And finally, our newest signing, David H., the former Deutsche Bank vice president who’s become a magician, will be making his London Walks on debut on Saturday, September 23rd. And the walk? Well, you will have guessed. David will be wizarding away on our Saturday morning Harry Potter. Goes at 11 am from just outside exit 3 of Bank Underground Station. We all say to David – taking the words right out of Ron Weasley’s mouth – “you’re a little scary sometimes, you know that? Brilliant – but scary.” Or as Harry himself says, David’s walk is “Mischief Managed.”

See ya there.

You’ve been listening to the London Calling podcast. Emanating from – 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 peanuts – for McDonald’s wages. 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 distinguished


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

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.

The London Walks All-Star team of

guides includes a former London

Mayor, it includes barristers (one of

them an MBE); it includes doctors,

geologists, museum curators,

archaeologists, historians, criminal

defence lawyers, university professors,

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 Londoning one and all. See ya next time.

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