“Right in the centre and swim of things” – Early August in London

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

Here’s what I learned yesterday. They say everything you experience leaves its mark on your brain – the neurons involved grow new projections and form new connections – sprout like mushrooms – so here are the new kids on this particular brain block.

And I suppose I should say, only one of them is a London mushroom.

But, hey, that’s debateable. Next week’s a Virginia Woolf week for me. I’m doing the Bohemian Bloomsbury – the Literary Bloomsbury Walk on Tuesday and a private Mrs Dalloway’s London Walk on Wednesday. And London for Virginia Woolf was the centre of the universe. In London she felt she was, as she put it, “on the higher crest of the biggest wave – right in the centre and swim of things.” In 1933, looking back across nearly ten years in central London – they’d had a go at suburban London – Richmond – and in 1923 had upped stakes and moved back to Bloomsbury – anyway, taking stock after a decade back in the full stir of life in Bloomsbury, Virginia Woolf said, “we are very happy; life buds and spouts all around us.” Indeed, Mrs Dalloway specifically equates London with life. As do other Virginia Woolf characters. Jinny, Neville and Bernard in The Waves and Mary Datchett in Night and Day all regard London as the centre of the universe and are stimulated almost excessively by it.

So if Virginia Woolf and her characters were right – if The Big Smoke, as London used to be known, is the centre of the universe – pace Paris, Rome, New York and DC –  well, then the three things I learned yesterday all do have to do with London. Everything connects with the centre.

Anyway, here we go. My brain mushrooms that sprouted on August 3rd, 2023.

  1. I find out that Singapore means ‘lion city’. Who knew that. And it was regarded as the Gibraltar of the East. In the days of the Empire, the Lion – the symbol of England – in Lion City.
  2. The fishing’s not so good any more off the pier at Deal, down in Kent. Why is that? Because of the wind farms, all those windmills that you can see a couple of miles out in the channel. Apparently they create tremors in the sea. Which the fish don’t like. So they move on. It’s like having a next-door neighbour who’s blasting out loud music day and night. If you can’t get him to turn it down, maybe you clear out, move on.
  3. And three – this one is smack dab in the centre of the universe – and it’s not good news – one in 50 Londoners are now homeless. Or to put that generally, the capital’s housing crisis is becoming ‘unmanageable.’ Average rents are now up around £2,700 a month. Yes, that’s right. Nearly £100 a day. It’s forcing lots of young adults to go back to the family nest, move back in with their parents. Here’s another neuron mushroom – a vocabulary addition. Those young adults moving back in with mum and dad are known as ‘boomerang kids.’

And everything connects. And they’re not desirable connections. It’s like gangrene. So one negative knock-on effect of the cost-of-living crisis is yet more workforce shortages for businesses in the capital. You drive people out of the city – especially central areas – you’re thinning out the workforce.

And on it goes. It’s a downward slide. And if it compounds, gathers force – well, good luck trying to stop an avalanche.

And that’s all by way of a preamble.

Back to Virginia Woolf for a moment. The part of London she liked least was the London of her childhood. Kensington. She said the move to Gordon Square in Bloomsbury was exchanging the “respectable mummified humbug” of Kensington for “life crude and impertinent but living.” She said she felt herself for the first time, “fully alive.” Life at the Gordon Square house wasn’t stiff, wasn’t stuffy, didn’t operate under anything like the constraints she’d grown up with in the Hyde Park Gate family house in Kensington. Her brothers were able to bring their Cambridge University friends to Gordon Square; that for the most part wasn’t on at Kensington. At Cambridge the young men were all disciples of the philosopher G. E. Moore, who’d written, “by far the most valuable things are the pleasures of human intercourse and the enjoyment of beautiful things…it is they that form the rational ultimate end of social progress.”

Well, thank you very much, Virginia Woolf. And G.E. Moore. I certainly came in for the pleasures of human intercourse on our little getaway to Deal. The bookends of said intercourse were a lively chat on the train down there with a happy bunch of British 20-somethings. They were on their way to a friend’s wedding. And then, yesterday, just before we came back to London, I was out on the pier at Deal and in the way of these things I met Ivan and Gary, a couple of 50-something locals, who were fishing from the pier. They put me in the picture about how the windmills have blown away – ok, sent packing – a lot of the fish. Gary said he was 55.  He’d been fishing from that pier for half a century. His father, a squaddie in the Royal Marines, had first taken him out there when he was four years old.

But here’s the thing. This always jumps out at me when I find myself moving amongst – and interacting with – these people whose country on the shores of which I’ve pitched up and pitched camp.

It’s this. It’s an enormous privilege being an American here. It’s a privilege because they can’t read you. You’re just an American. You get treated almost like you’re a pet. They’re fond of you. You’ve got a sort of access that you would not have if you were British. And here we open the door on – get into the business of class in this country. The class system in this country is fiendishly complicated, it’s nuanced, it’s tricky, it’s a minefield. So there I was on the train down to Deal, able to talk completely freely with a bunch of public school, upper middle or maybe upper-class young people – Emma and Charles and their friends – they all knew each other from their university days at Cambridge. Able to interact with them that the fishermen Gary and Ivan probably wouldn’t have been able to. And vice versa. This happy state of affairs – for me – was borne in upon me years ago. I had an upper-class friend. Very very upper class. His father was in the House of Lords. Toward the end of my first academic year in London I ran out of money. Made ends meet by doing some supply teaching – substitute teaching an American would say – in an East End comprehensive school. Went back to visit them a couple of years later. Some of the staff were still there. As were the dinner ladies. I’d always enjoyed to all of them. But I realised that if my upper-class friend George had gone over and tried to have a natter with the dinner ladies it wouldn’t have washed. They wouldn’t have trusted him. They would have been wary. “What’s he playing at?”

And I think similarly with Charles and Emma and their pals on the train, bound for the wedding somewhere down there in the home counties, if they’d gone onto the pier at Deal with their cut-glass English accents their interaction with Gary and Ivan, had they essayed one, would have been in a completely different register from the one I was privileged to receive.

Gary and Ivan were talking to an American. He doesn’t have any class baggage. We can be ourselves, have some fun with him. And they did. To my delight. Way off in the distance, far out to sea, I could see a land mass. I ask them about it, “Is that an island way out there?” They were full of banter.

They said, ‘that’s the Isle of Wight.’ Taking the mickey of course. They quickly put me out my ignorance. They said, ‘it’s France.’ And then they were off. To my delight. They said, ‘Not our favourite people. Good thing they’re so close because they can see us over here doing this to them.” Here Gary held up both hands, index and middle fingers raised in the old ‘up yours’ signal. Which I’ll come back to in a minute. And Gary was well away. He said, “they make good soldiers. You know they’re always behind you. Way behind you.” He said about the Chunnel, “we wanted them to spend the money building a high fence right down the middle of the Channel. So we could throw our dog poo over onto their side.” And then a final reflection, “we’re grateful for that stretch of water. If we didn’t have it we’d be goose-stepping and speaking German.” Well, between you and me, Gary and Ivan could have poster boys for the genus salad dodgers – so the idea of those two goose-stepping, that’s pure Monty Python.

But it was their last call that I liked best, they said, “they’re all right, really.” Meaning the neighbours over the way. The French. It was said affectionately. They say about travel, you don’t just learn about the foreign countries you visit, you also learn about. your own country. And thinking about Gary and Ivan, bantering away about the French that way, all of it good-natured and witty, I thought, ‘the English – well, some of the English anyway, do this sort of thing with style and wit – where I grew up it was pretty much straight up dislike of foreigners, especially those south of the Rio Grande. It wasn’t a coating, wasn’t softened, wasn’t tempered, wasn’t affectionate bantering.

I’ll take the English version every time.

Finally, back to that two-fingered up yours gesture. There I was on a pier down in Kent in high summer in the year 2023 and a couple of grizzled, one of them snaggled-toothed, well-fed old English chaps – the English equivalent of what in the deep south are called good ole boys – a couple of English good ole boys are affectionately giving the French the old two fingers and I wondered if Gary and Ivan knew what they were doing. Knew what they were doing in a historical sense. That gesture’s got a very rich historical lineage. I got this from Stephen, one of our Royal Shakespeare Company actor guides. Apparently years ago the RSC used to call in an Oxbridge historian to sit in on the early blocking and rehearsal stages when they mounted a new production of one of Shakespeare’s history plays. The historian would advise them about the real history, keep their history trued up, help them avoid anachronisms, etc.

Anyway, at one of the blocking stages of a production of Henry V one of the actors had suggested, “why don’t we have the yeoman archers taunt the French prisoners, give the captured French knights, the old two-fingered gesture.” There were howls of protest from other members of the company. No, we can’t do that. That’s 20th century. Agincourt was 1415. The Cambridge don looked on amused. Finally took the pipe out of his mouth and said, “you can safely use that gesture, don’t you know where that came from? Well, the actors were all ears. They knew they were about to be put in possession of a fascinating tidbit of history.

The don said a set of armour and a couple of war horses and the saddles and harnesses and caparisons for the horses would have cost a fortune in the 15th century. What you’d have to lay out for armour and a war horse – you could buy a farm for what that would cost.

It was a class thing. The knights were nobility. They were extremely wealthy. The archers were yeoman. They couldn’t begin to afford a suit of armour and a horse. All they had were the clothes on their back and their longbows. Before the battle the French knights had taunted the English yeoman archers. The French knights rode up close to the English and held up their first two fingers – those are the fingers that pull the bow string. They held up those two fingers and made a sawing or scissoring motion with their other hand. The message was clear. “You English peasant scum are toast, when we get a hold of you we’re going to cut off those two fingers.”

The French were supremely confident. There were 30,000 French knights. Against 5,000 English knights. It was going to be a cakewalk.

There was just one miscalculation. The French didn’t get it about the long bow. Those English yeoman could get an arrow off every five seconds. It was a supremely accurate weapon. It could wound at 250 yards, kill at 100 yards, penetrate armour at 60 yards. At Agincourt those English yeoman – who the French knights had mocked – those English yeoman fired 1,000 arrows every second. 

And the rest is history.

Along with the Battle of Britain that victory – against France’s overwhelming numerical superiority – was the greatest feat of arms in British military history.

It almost goes without saying, when the battle was over the English peasant scum had a score to settle. They returned the favour. The English yeoman archers strode up to the beaten, demoralised French knights who’d been taken prisoner, thrust their bowstring fingers – their index and middle fingers – thrust them up in the face of the captured French knights and said, “hey Frenchie, see these, what was that all about, you said you were going to cut these off, we’ve still got ‘em, mate.”

Closing, the Cambridge don said to the delighted actors, “so if you want to use that gesture in this production, you go right ahead, you don’t need to worry about its historical validity.”

So there I was, on a pier in Deal, six centuries later, hanging with a couple of 21st-century English yeomen, who were doing exactly what their forefathers had done 25 generations ago.

In the immortal word of the Fiddler on the Roof, “Tradition”

I’ll take it. Every time.

You’ve been listening to the Today in 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 accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: 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.

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