David’s Scoop: Mrs Dalloway’s London – Gotcha Virginia Woolf!

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with yet another taste of London. Your London fix for mid-June, 2023.

Story time. History time.

Ok, I’ve been AWOL for a few weeks. AWOL. American term. American military term. It’s of course an acronym. Absent Without Leave. First pitched up in World War One. In that war they pronounced the initials A. W. O. L.

Come World War II the initials of the acronym become a word: AWOL.

Anyway, yes, I’ve been AWOL for a few weeks. In the interests of a good cause. I’ve been working on that Mrs Dalloway’s London – 100th anniversary walk.

And in the process, spelling out – to myself – just how high I want to set the bar on every London Walk I do. This stuff’s been at the back of my mind for over 40 years – I’m the doyen of London walking tour guides – I’ve been doing this since 1980 – four decades on I’ve crystallised a hallmark of my walking tours. Which is: some of the content of my  walks has to be unique. I’m always going to show my walkers stuff they won’t see anywhere else – show them finds no other guide has dredged up. Indeed, show them things nobody has set eyes on in over a hundred years.

Yes, so that’s how high I’ve set the bar. About as high as you can set it, I’d say.

Now, how to achieve that end. One way is to be privy to things on the route that no other guide has clocked. The other way is know stories that no other guide knows. Basically, dig deeper – know things about London that other people don’t know, even your fellow professionals. The first one – being privy to things on the route that no other guide has clocked – is of course actual physical point-outs. “Look there, it’s an extremely rare example of English bonding – brick bonding – all the other bonding in this neighbourhood is Flemish bonding” – that kind of thing.

The other one – the stories – that’s what people see with their mind’s eye.

And that brings me to the great Virginia Woolf novel, Mrs Dalloway.

We know from internal evidence that Mrs Dalloway takes her walk across London on a Wednesday in mid-June in 1923. The mid-June Wednesdays in 1923 were June 13th and June 20th. So it has to be one of those two dates.

And then there’s the most famous passage in the novel – which gets repeated several times. Each time with a slight variation. I refer of course to the striking of Big Ben. For the record, Virginia Woolf’s original title for the novel was The Hours. And over the course of the day of Clarissa Dalloway’s party Big Ben marks the progress of the hours of that day. It’s a stunning, unforgettable piece of descriptive writing. Its first appearance is in the very beginning of the novel – the fifth paragraph in. The passage goes like this. It’s 10 am on Wednesday, June 13th, 1923. Or – just to complicate things – maybe it’s 10 am on Wednesday, June 20th, 1923.

Here’s the passage.

“For having lived in Westminster – how many years now? over twenty, – one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.”

Having that specificity in front of me – on the page of that famous novel – well, I was like a cobra being charmed by a snake charmer.

Said to myself, “10 am, June 13th, 1923 – I’m going to do a walk that positions us to hear that bell at 10 am on June 13th, 2023. Hear what Mrs Dalloway heard exactly – to the second – one hundred years later.

That thought was the conception moment for the walk.

The big, broad aim was to deepen my walkers’ appreciation for that game-changer of a novel – and part and parcel of that, take them, my walkers, back to Mrs Dalloway’s and Virginia’s Woolf’s London. I was going to achieve that broad goal by moving forward on three fronts. 1. Do a reconstruction of the London of 1923. 2. People the streets and buildings on our route with the characters from the novel. Basically, map or chart Mrs Dalloway’s London. Go over the ground – retrace Clarissa’s steps – and see the characters in the novel – Mrs Dalloway, her daughter Elizabeth, her husband Richard, her her former suitor Peter Walsh, her old friend Sally Seton, the family friend Hugh Whitbread, the poor, wretched former soldier Septimus Warren Smith who’s lost his mind and commits suicide, and the host of other characters, several of them the high and mighty, who people the pages of the novel – see them as Isotopes on our Xray of the London of that June day in 1923.

And then finally, this is number 3. there are several peculiarities about the novel, the depths of which I’ve been able to plumb thanks to repeated readings. This year alone I’ve read the novel three times. Anyway, the third leg of the stool of the walk would be my shedding light on some of those mysterious peculiarities that figure in the novel.

So that was the plan – and if the two reviews that came in this morning are anything to go by – I got there. The walk worked – it was a success.

Now, full disclosure here, as much as I love and admire the novel, I am even more interested in its setting, the London of 1923. And it’s worth bearing in mind that Virginia Woolf once said, “the charm of modern London is that it is not built to last; it is built to pass.” For the record, Mrs Dalloway chimed in, “I love walking in London. Really, it’s better than walking in the country.”

Anyway, I was well aware that some of the landmarks of the London of the novel are no longer there for us to see. But representations – paintings, illustrations, photographs of them do exist – and I wanted my walkers to see them. To see Devonshire House for example. It’s no longer there. It was demolished shortly after the novel was published. To see the Royal wedding that took place in the spring of 1922 – the photographs show huge crowds gathered round the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. And that memorial is of course a focal point for the novel. Well, we – myself and my walkers – saw it as Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dallway saw it. We saw it because I went to the well and brought up those 101 year-old-photographs. Or see the Duke and Duchess York on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on their wedding day less than two months before Mrs Dalloway went on her walk. By unearthing those long forgotten – unseen for decades – images, I’d be able to show my walkers the London that Mrs Dalloway noted on her walk but that is not there for us to physically see today.

So that was a good start. But I wanted more, I wanted to go further, dig deeper.

So sure enough, I went to the London newspapers for June 13th and June 14th. June 13th because that was our day and I wanted the weather forecast for example. And I wanted the court circular because it told us where the king and queen and the prince of Wales and the prime minister would be on our day, June 13th. And they all figure in the novel.

And I looked at the newspapers for June 14th to find out what hadn’t been foreseen on June 13th. Found out what happened in London on the day Mrs Dalloway went for her walk. And it wasn’t just events, happenings I was after. I knew those newspapers would give me a really good feel for what London was like at that moment in time. I knew they’d mainline me – and my walkers – straight back to that Wednesday in mid June 100 years ago. Newspapers – and we live in fallen times, newspapers, I’m afraid, are on their way out, and what a loss that is – anyway, the newspaper’s role as historian of the present is a journalistic miracle. They give us a faithful record of each day’s events.

And for us on that walk on June 13th, 2023 the present was June 13th, 1923. As well as June 13th, 2023. And the newspapers I went back to, took us there. Did it for us.

And I didn’t just tell my walkers about what was in those papers. I had our printer do laminated reproductions of them. So my walkers could hold them in their hands – hold and read The Times for June 13th, 1923 just as Richard Dalloway read the Times that day, 100 years ago, when it was freshly delivered to his breakfast table.

And it’s not just The Times, there’s a mention in the novel of the latest issue of The Tatler on a side table in White’s, the exclusive gentlemen’s club. That too I had reproduced. White’s members were holding and reading the Tatler on June 13th, 1923. That was its publication date. My walkers were holding that same issue – well an exact reproduction of that issue – on June 13th, 2023.

I don’t mind saying this. That was satisfying. I’d set the bar high – and I’d cleared it with ease. I showed people what they wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

And that’s before we get to the payoff. Drum roll time. Here it comes. On page 9 of The Times for May 13, 1923, there’s a feature headlined, News in Brief. The second item down – it’s just four lines long – reads as follows: “Big Ben has stopped again, the hands pointing to 12 o’clock, as before the Derby, when some people accepted the circumstance as a ‘tip’ for Twelve Pointer.” In the event, it wasn’t a very good tip. Twelve Pointer, owned by the Duke of Westminster, came 5th. Had Big Ben reliably delivered the goods it would have been a handsome pay day for punters who acted on the tip: a wager on Twelve Pointer was a 20 to one venture.

It gets better. Another publication, The Sketch, also published on June 13th, 1923, led its full-page, gossipy diary entry with the following tale, headlined Big Ben and Mr Bonar Law (Bonar Law was a former prime minister).

The Sketch piece reads: “It seems to have escaped notice – and yet what a number of people take an interest in such things – that Big Ben stopped just before Mr Bonar Law’s resignation was announced, exactly as the great clock stopped before Mr Lloyd George resigned. I am quite certain about this because, hearing that such had been the case and happening to be going by the Houses of Parliament, I stopped to inquire. And I was told, yes, it was so; and that I was only a few minutes behind a distinguished soldier and administrator who had called to ask a similar question.”

A couple of extraordinary coincidences, wouldn’t you say.

But our main point here is, despite Virginia Woolf’s claims to the contrary, Mrs Dalloway could not have heard Big Ben on June 13th, 1923. Those leaden circles did not boom out and then dissolve in the air.

How many thousands of scholarly articles have academics churned out about that great novel and none of them went to the Times and found that News in Brief item about the clock and thus the bell being stopped on June 13th, 1923. Yeah, you could say I’m a little proud of this one. London Walks found it. And shared it with our walkers – showed them the June 13th, 1923 issue of the Times that carried the story.

Let alone The Sketch piece adumbrating those other curious Big Ben coincidences.

And, sure enough, this story’s got legs. I also looked at the Pall Mall Gazette for June 21st, 1923. Frontpage, front and centre, we get this headline: “Big Ben Tries Again.”

Subheading one: “Little Effort that Misled People.” Subheading two: “Put Back.” Sub heading three: “Mechanics to take him in hand.”

The body of the story opens as follows: “Big Ben is becoming temperamental. After all these years of placid, unquestioning service, he has developed the modern artistic craze of ‘expressing his individuality.’ For three whole days Big Ben has smiled cynically at the trusting passers-by, who have looked up at him, not noticing his expression, and set their watches demoralisingly wrong.” And so on… Our payoff being the line further down the story, “At the moment his hands stand repentantly at 12. Nor will they move until minor operations have been performed on his mechanism.”

That story, I repeat, is dated Thursday, June 21st, 1923.

Mrs Dalloway, remember, goes on her walk on a Wednesday in mid-June in 1923. She goes on her walk and she hears Big Ben booming out, the leaden circles dissolving in the air. Bears repeating, the two Wednesday in mid-June in 1923 were June 13th and June 20th. This Pall Mall Gazette story about Big Ben becoming temperamental and the hands locked at 12 ran on June 21st.

Case closed: Mrs Dalloway did not hear Big Ben on either June 13th or June 20th.

Virginia Woolf has told us a porkie. (Translation, porkie is a bit of cockney rhyming slang: the full term is porkie pies – it always gets shortened to porkie – pies rhymes with lies. Virginia Woolf tells us a little porkie – a little pink lie – about what Mrs Dalloway heard from the most famous clock in the world, be it June 13th or June 20th.)

But let’s not be too hard on our genius novelist. She does say, after all, “we run the risk of disillusionment if we try to turn such phantom cities into tangible bricks and mortar.”

But what a lot of fun that moment – and it came early in the walk – what a lot of fun that moment was. I loved showing the group those newspapers, seeing their eyes light up, seeing the penny drop.

And I even had a cherry on the sundae for them. An amazing reproduction of a brilliant, recent colour photograph of four workers, suspended by cables, hanging in front of the clock face. Cleaning it. It instantly put it into perspective – just like that you could see how huge that clock face is. And best of all, the hands are stopped at twelve o’clock.

Now here’s the unashamed plug. Yes, the walk is going to get a second centenary outing. On June 20th, 2023. At 9.45 am from just outside exit four of Westminster Tube. And I will of course be showing those amazing pieces of history. Good, solid, hard documentary evidence. History that nobody – except my walkers – has seen for a century now.

And I’ve got another face card in my hand for the June 20th walk. Another extraordinary discovery I’ve made that has a tremendous bearing on Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway on that summer day in 1923. But I’m keeping schtum about that one until the walk. I’ll roll it out then. Illustrated with that 100-year-old piece of newsprint. What fun.

You’ve been listening to the London Walks London History 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 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

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, Royal Shakespeare

Company actors, 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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