My American accent, what Goliath met up with and what happened to the runaway horses

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


Good evening, London. It’s May 1st, 2024. Today’s pin…this one’s a feel-good. Front page it’s not. It’s not likely to have reached you if you didn’t go actively searching for it.

It’s one of those stories that ends up in the Whatever happened to? jar.

Just a few days ago they were worldwide front-page news. But whatever happened to the runaway Household Cavalry horses that were hurt when they bolted through London last week. It’s good news: they’re ‘making significant progress.’ More than significant progress in the case of Quaker, a Cavalry black stallion. He’s made a full recovery. And Vida, the grey seen covered in blood, is on the mend but remains under close observation.

And as long as we’re at it, why don’t we work some London history into the weave.  This one comes under the heading in London there’s nothing new under the sun. There’s an old proverb that England – and you can safely substitute London for England – there’s an old proverb that it’s hell for horses, purgatory for servants and a paradise for women. Upperclass women, needless to say. But the point is that London’s been a scary place for horses from the year dot. And now I’m going to tell you something that’s fun to know, something that very few people know. It’s one of those London factoids that’ll give you a teensy little frisson, a little shudder of pleasure. Something everybody does know is that the musical The Lion King has been on at the Lyceum Theatre forever. Well, for 25 years to be exact. What people don’t know is that 250 years ago there were real lions there. The building that stood there in the 18th century was a bazaar, shops and offices on the ground floor, and in due course, upstairs, a zoo of sorts. A menagerie. A menagerie that included lions, tigers, monkeys, rhinos, an ostriche,  and other exotic species. The roaring of the big cats could be heard down on the Strand and the surrounding streets. And no question about it, it spooked the passing horses. Vida and Grey were spooked by builders moving rubble. As frightening as that was for them I don’t think they would have traded places with Regency horses in central London who had every reason to believe there were lions on the prowl just round the corner.


Moving on, today’s Random. Let’s drop in at the V & A for a minute. We few, we lucky few, will go on the London Walks V & A tour on Friday morning. On it, we’ll see the cast of Michaelangelo’s David. The sculpture from which it’s taken is one of the most famous objects in the history of art.

Famously, David – as well as being beautiful – is sensationally starkers. That certainly draws the eye. But I want you to look closely at his left hand. It’s holding something that’s slung over his left shoulder. It’s David’s sling. Which catapulted the stone that did for Goliath. Let’s do an Instant Action Replay. David will have put a rock in that sling and whipped it round and round, faster and faster. Maybe six or seven revolutions a second. Aiming the thing at Goliath’s forehead. Enter our Instant Action Replay expert, the Dean Blandino of the most famous duel in biblical history.

Namely one Eitan Hirsch, a ballistics expert with the Israeli Defence Forces. Eitan’s run the figures – run a series of calculations – that show that a typical-size stone launched by an expert slinger at a distance of 35 metres would have been travelling at 34 metres per second. That’s about 75 miles an hour. Fast enough – more than fast enough – to whack Goliath when it slammed into his forehead.

That’s whack in the Mafia sense of the word. At that speed the stone would have penetrated the big fella’s skull and dropped him. And it’s worth remember of course that Goliath was wearing over 100 pounds of armour. The only spot where he was vulnerable was his forehead. And needless to say, that’s where David nailed him. So when you’re in the V & A if you can tear your eyes off David’s manhood and his beautiful face, do take a look at his sling. Think of it going round and round and that stone coming out of it like a cannon shot.


And that brings us to today’s Ongoing.  This one’s a bit personal. But only a bit. We’re going to extrapolate from the London personal to the London general. I was going to introduce this by saying, “and that makes two…or maybe three.”

The only two instances of anti-Americanisms that I’ve been on the receiving end of in the half-century that I’ve lived in London. The first instance occurred in October, 1973. Right after I got here. I was walking along a street chatting away with somebody and suddenly, out of the blue, a passerby turned on me. He was an older man. And he was very angry. He shouted at me, “Get out of here, Yank. You don’t belong here. Go back where you came from.” You could say I was taken aback. Anyway, nothing more came of it. We went our separate ways, parted company forever. Though I’ve never forgotten it.Turning it over in mind. It was 1973. He was the right age to have perhaps lost a girlfriend to an American G.I. What was the saying about the only three things that were wrong with the Americans, “they’re overpaid, oversexed and over here.”


The second instance happened a few years later. And it is a bit of a stretch to say this was anti-American. I was on my bicycle, came across a National Front march. Stopped, got off the bike, stood on the kerb to be a spectator. One of them came boiling out of march, walked right up to me, and started hurling abuse at me. It was completely unprovoked. I hadn’t said anything, hadn’t made any gestures. He just didn’t like the look of me. Well, aside here, that’s perhaps understandable. I say that facetiously in the first instance. But in the second instance, I was happy and contented and I think well adjusted. And probably looked the part. And he and his crew were decidedly not happy and probably not particularly well adjusted. Anyway, he ranted and railed at me for a couple of seconds and then got back to marching. Because it was so out of the blue I was taken aback. I turned to the people who were standing next to me said, “wow, what was that all about?” The man said – again, I’ve never forgotten this – “you’re too civilised, he could smell it.”

Two well and truly minor, isolated incidents over half a century. And we sort of have a third for this day and age.

I wasn’t aware of this but it turns out people who listen to this podcast via Apple can review it. I came across the reviews – there aren’t many of them – the other day. The stand-out negative one – Apple had singled it out – said, first off, “Sound quality well below other podcasts.” And then the killer punch, “Good content but ruined by American accent of narrator.” The counter-balancing favourable one said, “This is also fun. Refreshingly upbeat bite-size London stories. It’s become a daily must-listen for me! And a great advert for their walks. Nothing wrong with the American accent either!”

The sound quality thrust, spot on. I’m putting these out in my study. And I’m a technophobe. I’m way out of the slick league.

Be nice if the audio fairy came along and waved his magic wand over this project – got the sound quality up into the Premiership – but actually I’m not fussed in the least about it. These podcasts are a hobby. Sort of like collecting stamps. I’m doing them first and foremost for myself – almost like keeping a diary – and if they’re of any interest to anyone out there, well, that’s lovely.

And the other thrust – “Good content but ruined by American accent of narration” – well, no problem parrying that one. Certainly not fussed about it. But it definitely interested me.

First of all, the spectrum. There is a spectrum there. And all of us, whether we like it or not, are somewhere on that spectrum. I know exactly where I am on the spectrum. The band where I begin to get a bit ill-at-ease about American accents and Englishness is English Literature, fiction and poetry. If I’m listening to an audiobook version of a Dickens novel or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway or Boswell’s magisterial biography of Dr Johnson, I’d rather it hear it done with an English accent than an American (or Australian or South African, etc.) accent. And the more quintessentially English it is the more important it is to have it conveyed in an English accent. By way of example, I cannot bear to hear a P.G. Wodehouse Bertie Wooster and Jeeves novel in an American accent. But history, politics, essays, medicine, law, philosophy, science, the natural world, etc. that’s another matter entirely. I don’t care in the least what the accent is. All I care about is do they have a good tale to tell and can they tell it well. But it’s a very curious business, this matter of how we’re branded on the tongue. One of my favourite moments – taken from the tens of thousands of hours I’ve done walking tours – came a few years ago. I had an Israeli linguist on a walk. And the subject of my American accent came up. Came up connected with how long I’ve been in this country. When I met the Israeli linguist I was probably about 45 years in to my love affair with London and my shacking up with her, London, I mean. And the Israeli linguist said, and I loved hearing this, she said, “it’s a sign of good character that you’ve held onto your accent. It means you’re comfortable in your own skin.” I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I think she was right. I’m now British but I’ll never be English. And all of that is interesting matter. Immigrants go to America and three months later they’re Americans. Immigrants come here and they’ll never be English, no matter how deeply immersed they are in this country, how dyed in the wool Anglophile they are. And just asking why that is, what that says about those two different countries, different cultures is an interesting matter.

There are huge advantages to being a Londoner who’s a foreigner. To start with, if you’re a foreigner you’ve got that all important double perspective. My sister lost an eye in a childhood accident. With only one eye, Sheri’s depth perception is not as good as the depth perception of someone with two eyes. Ditto of course her peripheral vision on her blind side. And that’s not a bad analogy for being a foreigner who lives here. Your perception is different and in some ways richer because of the perspective that growing up in another culture provided. And provides. For me, everything is refracted through the bank of foreign experience I acquired growing up on the other side of the Atlantic. And that additional perspective is just endlessly fascinating and valuable.

And of course the other thing is they – the Brits – who’ve very generously welcome you aboard – they can’t read you class-wise. You’re just an American. You’re not a toff. Or a “stain”, which is how young toffs refer to someone who’s not upper class. Or…well, I’m not going to get into it but the truism that this country is class-ridden is true. And there are certain advantages to being free-floating, opaque when it comes to the curse of being branded on the tongue class-wise.

And as a guide, being a carrier – I chuckle that that’s the word that came to mind, like a carrier of typhus – anyway, being a carrier, in my case, a carrier of Americanness and its colours, my American accent, being a carrier is a great boon. You notice things your British counterparts take for granted. You’ve got something to judge everything against. Be it British beer against American beer or cricket against baseball or heavily armed, heavily doughnutted American cops against slender, youthful, ever so polite unarmed British cops. Or, well, you name it. It actually makes living here more interesting for you than it probably is for most natives. And if you’re interested, you’re happy and engaged and, well, really, supremely alive. It’s no bad thing.

Because everything is refracted, nothing is routine. Everything’s got an extra dimension. What’s not to like? And this is just a beachhead established on the shores of this question. There’s the matter of London itself and 37 percent of Londoners having been born abroad. And should that meet with disapproval in certain quarters, well, the obvious comeback is “this city was founded by foreigners. And it’s been peopled – more than peopled, built by foreigners. And if you really want to  push back you can say, “how about if we go to Kensington – 51 percent of the Londoners who live in Kensington were born abroad.”

And for one last thrust of the dagger – and to give it a little twist – thrusting it at Matt who wrote the review about the content being ruined by the American accent, we could ask, “why do you feel that way, Matt? I’d be interested to know.” And as long as we’re at it, “if it had been narrated by an English accent that’s a bit supercilious, an English accent that would make you a teensy bit uncomfortable in a social situation, well, who would you rather talk to if you had a choice between talking to me and talking to him. Don’t mean to put you on the spot or anything, just hoping to get you to think a little bit about what you said.”

Last word, though, is from and about my father-in-law, the late Charles Chilton. The Telegraph profiled him a few years ago. They described him as and I’m quoting, “the one true genius the BBC ever produced.” He started as a 14-year-old messenger boy when the BBC was in its infancy. Rose through the ranks to became a legendary, game-changing BBC producer. A Londoner through and through. A King’s Cross Cockney. Orphaned by World War. Brought up by his grandmother, who’d never been as far west as Oxford Circus. His BBC star in the early days of its ascendancy, that would be the 1930s, he talked them into putting on something unheard. A programme that played jazz music. And Charles presented it. In time the high and mighty Director General of the BBC – John Reith – got wind of the programme. Listened to an episode. Was horrified. Not so much by its content as by the accent of its presenter. He carpeted Charles. He said, “this is the BBC, we can’t possibly have somebody with your accent presenting one of its programmes.” Charles stood his ground. He shot back, “what’s wrong with my accent? It’s the accent of the capital city of the British Empire.” It was unanswerable, a knock-out punch. The great John Reith beat a hasty retreat. So, yes, accents – accents and London – the symphony of voices talking about this great city… it makes for a thrilling, a splendid piece of music.

You’ve been listening to This… is London, 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 a 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.

Or take our Ripper Walk. It’s the creation of the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, Donald Rumbelow, the author of the definitive book on the subject.  Britain’s most distinguished crime historian, Donald is, in the words of The Jack the Ripper A to Z,“internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper.” Donald’s emeritus now but he’s still the guiding light on our Ripper Walk. He curates the walk. He trains up and mentors our Ripper Walk guides. Fields any and all questions they throw at him.

The London Walks Aristocracy of Talent – its All-Star team of guides – includes a former London Mayor. It includes the former Chief Music Critic for the Evening Standard. It includes the Chair of the Association of Professional Tour Guides. And the former chair of the Guild of Guides.

It includes barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, a former Museum of London archaeologist, historians,

university professors (one of them a distinguished Cambridge University paleontologist); it includes

criminal defence lawyers,

Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre 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 walking and Good Londoning

one and all. See ya next time.

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