London Diary (April 11) – Sakura, Hanami, Dorothy

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with the London Diary. Your London fix on this fine spring day.

Story time. History time.

It’s the unexpected in London that can make your heart skip a beat, put a catch in your throat.

Especially when the unexpected packs a double punch.

The scene-setter for this bit of London unexpected is yesterday. Finding out that that wonderful, very old lady – 98-year-old-year-old Dorothy Boehm – the famous photographer and for fifty years a brilliant bit of sunshine there in Hampstead’s most beautiful street – finding out that Dorothy Boehm had crossed over.

I was on the 268 bus home after that walk. Thinking about Dorothy. Remembering her. Danni Abse’s famous line ricocheting round in my head: “she is everywhere…and nowhere”

And there we were going past Swiss Cottage and I glanced out of the window and oh my god, what’s that – as far as the eye could see in that instant it was like a million brilliant, tiny white sails, afloat on the air there. Or a long corridor of brilliant white fleece. It was an avenue of cherry trees of course. In full bloom. I’d never noticed them before – even though they’re just a few hundred yards from where I live. Had one of those thought rushes. My God, that’s beautiful. It’s spring. Dorothy would have photographed that. Dorothy’s not dead. Dorothy’s there. Those blossoms, all that life, all that beauty…that’s Dorothy. I know where I’m going to be tomorrow. I’m coming back up here with my camera. And so I did. But here’s the thing. It was thronged with Asians. Hundreds of them. Maybe a thousand or more. Just out walking. Or sitting in the grass. Talking. Enjoying the blossoms. Photographing them. Photographing themselves in front of the blossoms. And I was wondering – stupidly – why are they all here? This huge gathering of Asian people. It was mid-afternoon. It occurred to me, maybe there’s a new Japanese school or something that’s opened here. Maybe they’re collecting their kids.

So – ever obtuse – I asked one of them, “is there a Japanese school or something that’s just opened here, is that why there are so many Asian people here?”

She looked at me ever so kindly – gently, happily, beautifully, really – and said, “oh no, Asian people love spring blossoms. That’s why we’re all here.”

A tiny moment. A tiny London moment. But a tiny moment of perfection for me. That almost ever-present thought came to the fore: “this is London.” The joy of it was that that gathering was spontaneous. It just happened. It wasn’t advertised. It wasn’t arranged or set-up. Nothing had gone out on some sort of community newsletter – “hey everybody, come on up to Swiss Cottage on Monday afternoon  – it’s Sakura up there. It’s Hanami.”

Sakura – I think – is the Japanese word for a flowering cherry tree.

And hanami is the practice or custom of viewing cherry blossoms when they are in full bloom.

And I loved it that I’d happened onto – had caught a bit of hanami purely by chance. Something that London’s capable of serving up. Something that’s beyond the bandwidth of most places in the western world.

Loved it that somehow the word had got out to all those Asian people, that they all knew, had been drawn there almost by some primal instinct.

So that was the double surprise. The one-two punch. First that that avenue of cherry trees was there. 45 years up here and I’d managed to miss it. And then that it was Hanami.

And maybe it was a triple surprise. Because of the timing, the fit with Dorothy. With her passing. And her not passing. Famously, whenever Dorothy went somewhere she took her camera on a walk. Those cherry blossoms in Swiss Cottage, all those Asian people, me with my Iphone, Hanami in NW3 – pretty sure Dorothy was there with us. Taking her camera on a walk.

You’ve been listening to the London Walks Diary. 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 £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, a distinguished diplomat, the former Editor of Independent Television News, a bevy of MVPs (to put it into American sporting parlance), or, as we’ve been known to say in-house, 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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