In 230 days London Walks guides have created 232 Virtual Tours and 213 podcasts. ‘If this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.” This podcast takes stock of where London Walks stands eight months into the pandemic. This report is facts and figures and extrapolations from those facts and figures and some personal matters (from David).
Nobody out-Londons, London Walks.
Another way of putting that, nobody out guides London Walks guides.
Nobody even comes close.
And that’s what this podcast’s about. 75 brilliant guides in these stricken times.
Ok, that’s enough overture.
It’s mid-November. 2020.
We’ve been taking stock at London Walks.
And, frankly, have been astonished at the result. At what we’ve uncovered. At the story the figures tell.
So this “bulletin”… some of it’s hard facts and figures, some of it’s extrapolations from those hard facts and figures, and some of it, yes, is personal.
Facts and figures first. An inventory, really.
An inventory – facts and figures – about London Walks’ and London Walks guides’ response to the pandemic.
And putting on hold here – for the most part – a consideration of the shoe-leather-on-pavement London Walks we ran from July (when the first Lockdown was lifted) to early in December when the current Lockdown, the second Lockdown, will, we hope, be lifted.
So this inventory is about the Virtual Tours and the podcasts. The two completely new arms of the London Walks programme. That extraordinary – yes, heroic – response by this group of guides – London Walks guides – to the Pandemic.
The first House Arrest – the first Lockdown – came on March 23rd.
The last shoe-leather-on-pavement London Walks – prior to that first Lockdown – were on Tuesday, March 17th. Mary did a St. Paul’s Cathedral tour for one person. And Andy that night did a Ripper walk for one person. That was it for shoe-leather-on-pavement London Walks until the first Lockdown was lifted in early July.
The first London Walks podcast was aired on March 20th. Three days before the Lockdown overran our position. But ours was a tactical advance away from the enemy. We were shooting as we withdrew. And have gone on shooting. Gone on shooting with a whole lot more firepower than we had six months ago.
Surrender? In the immortal words – well, word – of the American General McAuliffe’s 1944 Christmas message to his troops at the Battle of the Bulge, “Surrender, Nuts!”
And that’s by way of saying, it’s been about 230 days since that first Lockdown.
In that time London Walks guides have produced 213 podcasts.
And that’s just the podcasts.
The Virtual Tours took a little longer to get off the drawing board, off the production line, onto and off the launch pad.
The trailblazer was Adam. He did the very first one on April 28th.
That’s just over 200 days ago.
There are now 232 London Walks Virtual Tours. And more on their way.
Add ‘em together – 213 podcasts and 232 Virtual Tours – well, you can do the maths – that’s 445 “creations” from these “creatives” – London Walks guides – in 230 days.
I’m just lost in admiration.
A personal aside here. I came to London in 1973. From Wisconsin, where I grew up. Came over to do a PhD. – on Dickens – at University College London. I wanted to be – or thought I wanted to be – a university professor. Wanted to spend my life reading and talking about books. I’d done my BA and MA at the University of Wisconsin. Wasn’t particularly ambitious. Just wanted a lectureship in a pretty little college town in some agreeable spot in my native land. Wasn’t after academic glory, had zero interest in climbing the greasy pole. And when I started my MA you could get the kind of job I wanted on the strength of a Master’s degree from a Big Ten school like the University of Wisconsin. And then the job market for new M.A.s in Eng lit went south. Almost overnight. There were suddenly 800 applicants for every advertised English Lit position.
The move to London – well, to be perfectly honest, I was trying to get a more prestigious PhD, whip up a more impressive CV. I wanted to be the 1 out of 800 who landed one of those positions. My “read” of the situation was that a University of Wisconsin PhD wasn’t going to do it for me. I knew damn well I wouldn’t be able to get into Harvard or Yale but for some reason – it was the serene, unbounded, unfounded confidence of youth – I thought I’d be able to talk my way into Oxford or Cambridge or London or Trinity in Dublin. I actually applied to five: Oxford, Cambridge, London, Trinity and Edinborough. In the event, London was the only one that offered me a place. Nearly half a century later I remember very well opening the acceptance letter, with that funny stamp on it, there on West Mifflin Street in Madison Wisconsin. I of course wrote back and told ‘em, “lookout, I’m on my way, see you in September.” But to be perfectly honest, I was a teensy bit disappointed. I kind of had my heart set on Oxford or Cambridge.
When I got here, though – in no time at all – I realised I’d landed with my bum in the butter – caught the break of a lifetime.
I mean first of all, UCL’s English Department at that time could lay a fair claim to being the best English Department in the world. Frank Kermode, the most esteemed critic and scholar of his era was the Department Chair. The professors – as I called them all at the time – included Stephen Spender, the famous poet. I mean Stephen Spender knew T.S. Eliot and Auden and Yeats and Larkin, knew them all, had hung out with them. Then there was A.S. Byatt the novelist. And Dan Jacobson the South African novelist. And Karl Miller, the first editor of the London Review of Books. And my supervisor, John Sutherland, the very distinguished scholar and critic. Guardian columnist. Became the Lord Northcliffe Professor of English Lit – the Chair in other words – at UCL. It was a dream team as English Lit faculties go.
But as high-powered, as prestigious, as special as all that was, there was a factor that was much bigger, much more important. That factor was that six-letter word: London.
UCL was great. But you know something, my real university was London itself. I realised early on – well, I found out – that beautiful and time-honoured as they were Oxford and Cambridge were really geared more to undergraduates. Sure they had a graduate programme but in all honesty the main show there was the undergraduate experience.
Oxford and Cambridge did me a favour by not accepting me.
I got UCL. Which meant I got London. It doesn’t get any better than that.
I came here that September. And was smitten. Fell in love with this city.
So in love. I knew after about six weeks that I’d found the place where I wanted to spend the rest of my life.
How in love with London was I? I remember saying telling people, “I’d rather wash dishes in a Chinese restaurant in Soho than be the Chair of the English Department at Harvard.” That’s how smitten I was. Now of course I never had to be the Chair of the English Department at Harvard. Or wash dishes at the unfortunately named Wong Kei in Soho.
But the point stands. I got to live in London.
And of course the game plan went out the window. The game plan being to get the Ph.D. – and, yes, I did get it, sure enough, I’m Dr. Tucker – get it and go back to the land of my birth and profess away.
Yet another instance of the truth of the old saw, “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”
Not only did I not want to go back, I didn’t want to profess away. As it happens, I did some professing. Kept my hand in, I suppose you could say, with that stint – it was a long stint, 33 years – of teaching, Shakespeare as it happens, and then, latterly, the History of London, at a University Summer School programme here in London. But that was just for fun.
Fact of the matter is I got over the wall, got out, became a television journalist.
And a London Walks guide. And today – and for the last 30 years – the London Walks capo.
Now here comes the connection back to all those Virtual Tours and my London Walks colleagues who created them.
A friend who knew about my youthful aspirations – be a university professor – once said to me, very generously, “you know something, with London Walks you’ve created your own university, your own university faculty. Surrounded yourself with the most amazing bunch of experts. You’ve had the best university experience of anybody in your generation – created for yourself a university experience that doesn’t have any of the downsides: no committee meetings, no marking, no nasty departmental politics. And the students – your walkers – are all interested. And best of all you’re in London, you’ve done it in London, you get to live in London.”
Very very generous of David to say that. And yes, he’s right – there’s some truth to it. Why not think of London Walks as a university? A university with the most amazing faculty. All the departments are there. Medicine headed up by a Public Health Physician. Three solicitors and a barrister on the Law faculty. A UCL geologist on the London Walks team heading up our Urban Geology Walks programme. A Drama faculty that includes a Royal Shakespeare Company actor, a Royal National Theatre actor, West End and film actors, etc. etc. A Cambridge University palaeontologist doing our Natural History Museum tours. And as for a History Department – well, I go weak-kneed when I take survey. Britain’s most distinguished crime historian guiding our Ripper walk, The author of Jewish London and Whitechapel in 50 Buildings guiding our Jewish London Walk, the leading authority on London’s Squares guiding that walk, etc. And on it goes: a former Museum of London archaeologist guiding our archaeology walks. The former Curator of the Brunel Museum guiding Brunel’s London. A national journalist – a theatre critic – guiding our Fleet Street walk. And then all those elite, professional Guide of the Year Award winners. The list just goes on and on.
I remember my friend’s reaction when I told him we’d “signed” Stewart Purvis – talked him into guiding a Hampstead Spies walk. Stewart’s the former Editor and then CEO of Independent Television News. When he retired from ITN he wrote a ground-breaking book on that subject – those nests of spies in Hampstead. Anyway, my friend David is an American but he knows this country well. He lived over here, in London, for several years. Comes over once or twice every year to visit. So David knows very well who Stewart Purvis is. David’s reaction when I told him “hey get this, I’ve got Stewart Purvis on the team, he’s going to guide a Spies of Hampstead walk for us” – David’s reaction – this puts it perfectly – “you got Stewart Purvis to guide a Spies of Hampstead Walk for London Walks, that’s like getting Dan Rather to guide a Dealey Plaza walk.” (Note here for any listeners who are too young to get the reference: Dan Rather was of course the legendary CBS Newsman whose career was made because he was CBS’s man in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated. In Dealey Plaza.)
And if you want all of the above distilled into 18 words, let’s go with the lapidary phrasing of that journalist – writing about this Dream Team of guides – who said, “If this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”
When you look at it that way – consider who these guides are – maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise after all that they’ve done what they’ve done, created over 400 virtual tours and podcasts in 200 days.
These people – these elite guides – are gifted, experienced “creatives” And creatives create.
You can push this boat out further. People of this calibre being prevented from doing what they do – they find another way of doing it.
For any number of reasons. For some of the younger guides with mortgages and mouths to feed, sure, the income strand, it’s not been much but it is something, it’s been welcome.
Other guides, older guides, have pensions and savings. So there’s not been any financial need there. But they’ve still done what they’ve done. Created stunning, brilliant virtual tours. They’ve done it because it comes from something deep in them. And in every case they’ve been fascinated by the possibilities and the challenge. It’s like an artist getting to know, exploring a different medium.
It’s also interesting to step back, take a wider view. Ask – and answer – who hasn’t answered the trumpet?
And, yes, sure, I’m talking about most of our competitors now. Several of whom I’ve been doing a slow burn about for a few years now.
A lot of them have sat this one out.
It’s that old question, that What did you do in the war, daddy? Question.
That old question reshaped just a little bit, “you say you’re a guide – what did you do in the pandemic? Oh, you sat it out, did you? Hmmmm.” And is your carpet bag packed for when things get back to normal.
Well, that’s a follow-up podcast. And I’m going to get to it, one of these days. By way of settling some scores.
By way of a trailer to that forthcoming podcast, there haven’t been many plusses to this pandemic – this surreal episode in all our lives – but one of them is it’s brought into sharp focus the wheat from the weeds question in the matter of London Walking tour companies.
But don’t just take it from me. Let’s give the last word to four walkers.
First, Joanne and Mark in Yorkshire. You’ll see that I purloined that adjective “surreal” from them. I loved what they said. It popped up on Facebook a couple of hours ago. One of their observations – you’ll get it immediately – made me roar with laughter. Here’s what they say:
“Our thanks go to the fabulous London Walks team who have provided us with great entertainment during surreal times. Being able to look at the calendar and see various walks booked in has been our highlight, and it’s also helped us keep track of what day it actually is!!!
And then Carl in Pennsylvania says: “I have been on many London Walks tours and they all are fantastic. I’ve taken Adam’s tours in person and virtually and would recommend every single one! Adam’s music knowledge and sense of fun always make for a top-notch tour!”
Finally, Pamela in Toronto: “London Walks has shown what high quality looks like with experts who are passionate! I’m so impressed with how all the guides have been so nimble and have embraced the creative opportunity the pandemic restrictions have presented. I so enjoy these tours. Bravo!”
Good night one and all. Catch you tomorrow. Keep well. Stay safe. Keep smiling through. And here’s a chunk of comfort: you’ll be back. In London. We’ll meet again. Don’t know where, don’t know when, But I know we’ll meet again Some sunny day…in London.