London Life, Language, Witches & a Wunderbar London Tip

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one, for once, is mostly about London Walks. But I do have one historical bone to throw you.

About London Walks. And about words. And about life in London generally.

First, that bit of London history for you to chomp on. Not just London history but England and Scotland history. Yesterday, September 29th, was the 419th anniversary of the act of King James against witches going into operation. The timing was entirely appropriate because yesterday we sent out the October London Walks newsletter and the lead story was about this year’s Halloween walks. We illustrated the story with a lovely image of a witch on her broomstick silhouetted against a huge, yellow Harvest moon.

Aside here. Did you know that London Walks has in its entourage of guides a witch. A white witch but a witch all the same. That’s of course the wonderfully dotty Delianne, she of the blonde hair, red coat, red nails, red jewelry, red thigh-high boots. And her broomstick of course is her red convertible.

Anyway, be that as it may the combination – the 1604 anniversary and the newsletter and our resident witch – sent me, this often happens, given my personal obsessions – to the Oxford English dictionary. I wanted to find out a bit more about the word “witch.” It’s got world-class lineage, the word “witch.” Interestingly it looks as though it had some unisex usage a long time ago. But the OED says the feminine form was so dominant by 1601 – just about the time, remember that James I’s law came into effect – that you get hybrid words like he-witch and men-witches appearing on the scene then. And in fact in the Laws of Alfred the Great – which were rolled out over 1100 years ago – witchcraft was specifically singled out as a woman’s craft. And its practitioners were not to be suffered to live among the West Saxons. Peering into the seeds of time of the word witch – it’s like looking at a drop of water under a microscope – you can also see, rolled up into it, cognates like pythoness, poisoner, female magician, phantom, evil spirit, and, point-counterpoint here, holy and consecrate. And of course wizard and sorcerer. But also, charmingly, “skill with horses.” That one put me in mind of our witch Delianne, and all that horsepower under the bonnet of her red convertible. Drill all the way down, you get a proto-IndoEuropean root meaning “to be strong, be lively.” I think it’s often the case – there are probably body time clock and social, familial reasons for this – women come into their own, come on strong, just at the point when men begin to physically decline. Wonder if that proto-Indo-European root “be strong, be lively” is a reflection of that fact of our gender existences. Interestingly enough, the extended sense of an old, ugly, and crabbed or malignant woman pitches up in the early 15th century, so that meaning had been stirred into the brew for about a century when James I decided it was time for a legal crackdown.

Anyway, there’s some history and etymology for you. Call it the entrée for this podcast.

I wanted to serve up two dishes for the main course. One, a bit of quotidian London life. We’ve had Peter the builder around for the last month or so. Doing lots of stuff to the house, inside and out. Having a wonderful builder and carpenter in London is like winning the lottery. Good ones are hard to come by. There’s lots of cowboy builders but they’re bad news. Now there’s a great London word for you, cowboy builders. I remember years ago being on the motorcycle over in the East End. Pulled up to a like. The vehicle to my left was a builder’s van. Barely paying attention I just about clocked the name of the firm written on the side of the van. It was something like “Patel Builders.” And then I looked closely at the driver and his co-pilot. And sure enough they Sikhs. And then – to my undying delight – the legend under the name of the firm on the side of the van came into focus: “You’ve tried the cowboys, now try the Indians.” Magic. So many things come together there. That wit, it’s so London. But of course it’s also this country’s imperial history. It’s the social history of the East End of London. It’s everything that’s right about London.

But back to Peter, our builder. It occurred to me one day that, regrettably, visitors to London never get a full London experience. They never get a chance, for example, to meet – and banter with – a London builder. That kind of thing is a rewarding and important facet to London life. But it’s the dark side of the moon to a visitor. More’s the pity. If I’d had my wits about me I would have invited one of my groups home one day and introduced them to Peter, got him to tell them a little bit about himself and what he does and his take on scaffolders and share a bit of his argot with them. Would have been fun. We all could have tea in the back garden and those walkers would have had an experience that no foreign visitor ever has.

Well, I can share a bit of builder argot with you. Yes, this is me again indulging my obsession with language. Turns out that one of the tools Peter uses when he’s brick pointing is called “a Frenchman.” And I also warmed tremendously to the word for the bit of cement that hangs down when he first slaps on the fresh cement when he’s repointing. It’s called – makes perfect sense of course – a snot.

And our other main course, the monthly London Walks newsletter. Astonishingly, it’s now got over 11,000 subscribers. Which isn’t bad considering it’s only been going for just over a year. But what’s really excited me about the one we sent out yesterday – it carried a brand new feature that’s going to be a permanent addition to the contents. A Guest Star. By that I mean, up until yesterday every London Walks newsletter was exclusively about London Walks and London Walks guides. But this time around, I thought, there are nearly 80 London Walks. They’re so switched on. They know London better than anyone else. They’re from all over London. They’re like members of an orchestra. They’re all playing different instruments when it comes to their personal interests and passions and where they go and what they do with their spare time.

And I thought, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to put out an APB – All Points Bulletin – to the London Walks team of guides and ask them to make a suggestion for something that’s temporarily here in October and is super special, something you’ll be going to, something you’d sooner die than miss. Send your suggestion into me. I’ll collate them. We’ll have a beauty contest. I’ll pick a winner. And it’ll go into the Newsletter. A London Walks recommendation for something to do in London this month that has nothing to do with London Walks. I was confident – and my confidence wasn’t misplaced – this measure would open up to view all kinds of goodies that people otherwise wouldn’t be aware of.

So there you go. This month’s winner – the recommendation that went into the October Newsletter – was the Imperial War Museum’s new, it opened yesterday, world-class exhibition on espionage. It’s called Spies, Lies and Deception. And is subject-lined “Discover over 100 years of intrigue, deceit and real-life secret agents.” And we’re really proud of the fact that a few thousand London Walks aficionados – our newsletter subscribers – know about it, many of whom wouldn’t have known about it had it not been for London Walks. We’re holding our heads up proudly about that one. Oh and for the record it was our Espionage expert, Dan Parry, the former BBC man, who tipped us off about the new exhibition. Stands to reason that it would have been on Dan’s radar because that’s his area of expertise, he guides that wonderful monthly walk, London’s Spymasters. And generally, the dam has burst: the recommendations are flowing in. I’ve already picked the winners for the November and January newsletter. Both of them really exciting events that I wouldn’t have known about had the two London Walks guides in question not stepped forward and said, ‘a really good thing to do in November…and, the other one, in January…is. Well, you’ll have to wait on the November and January Newsletters to see for yourself what those two recommendations are.

You’ve been listening to the London Walks 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 £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 diplomat (Lisa was the Governor ofSt 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 was created and was guided for many years by Britain’s most distinguished crime historian, Donald Rumbelow. In the words of the Jack the Ripper A to Z, Donald is “internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper.” He’s emeritus now but he’s still the guiding light on our Ripper walk. He curates it; he mentors our Ripper Walk guides.

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 barristers, 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *