London Walks connecting.
London Walks here
with your daily London fix.
Story time. History time.
And this one makes one thousand. Exactly.
One thousand London Walks podcasts.
Question is, can I come up with something special for this one? Set it apart? Give it a bit of birthday cake razz ma tazz. I think so.
Let’s start by playing a chord we often hit here: This Day in London History. It’s October 13th. It was on October 13th, 1884 that Greenwich was adopted as the prime meridian. That was at a conference in Washington D.C. Much to the chagrin of the French, who wanted Paris to get the nod. The vote wasn’t quite unanimous. The French were in a funk so they abstained. As did Brazil. The lone vote against Greenwich was cast by the delegate from San Domingo. Be interesting to know what axe he was grinding.
But in the event, Greenwich made the running. And it wasn’t even close. And if you think about it, it sort of made it official: it set the seal on London being the centre of the world, the alpha and omega.
And it sure grooved one for London Walks. We get to play that card on our Greenwich walk, take our walkers to that spot where you can be at the very centre of world time, where you can stand with one foot in the western hemisphere and the other foot in the eastern hemisphere. Where you can, in short, bestride the world like a colossus. How cool is that. No topping that for a selfie moment.
And that’s just the date – October 13th – for this, our one K podcast.
As it happens, today is a Friday. So the one thousandth London Walks podcast lifts off the launch pad and streaks up into orbit on Friday, the 13th.
And sure enough that yields up another out on the ground London Walks connection. The walk is our Inns of Court foray, our stroll through Legal London. One of the seminal stops on that walk is ancient Temple Church. The oldest part of the church – the round church is Norman. It was consecrated in 1185 by the patriarch of Jerusalem. And of course it’s the name – Temple Church – that’s the giveaway. It was the Knights Templars’ church. The Knights Templars being that powerful religious and military order, formed in the 12th century, for the defense of the Holy Land. In due course they came to be seen as a threat by two other powerful institutions: the papacy and the crown. Trumped-up charges were brought against them. They threw the book at them. They were accused of everything from heresy to homosexuality to financial corruption to devil-worshipping to fraud to spitting on the cross and anything else their opponents could toss into what was essentially a witch’s brew. What was really going was that the French King Philip wanted to relieve the Templars of their wealth. Anyway, the crackdown, when it came, was swift. And ruthless. And the day it came was this day, October 13th, 1307. An ill-omened day indeed for the Templar Grand Master Jacques de Molay and his followers. They were arrested. And of course tortured. You can go to the spot in Paris – it’s just to the west of Notre Dame – where the Grand Master was impaled on a red hot stake. Hard to think of a more excruciating form of torture and death.
So there’s our this day in history entree, served up with London Walks and for good measure with some pretty special outriders: Jerusalem, Paris, Washington DC, Brazil and San Domingo.
For a main course, though, I thought we’d do a day in the life of a London Walks guide. If nothing else I’ll have a sort of diary entry for October 13th, 2023 – what I did on the day we put out our one-thousandth podcast.
First thing, break the fast – breakfast – my oatmeal, strawberries, blueberries, nuts and rasberries concoction. And then, Hello Emails. First one in was from a neighbour. His car was stolen last night. Did we see or hear anything? Unfortunately we didn’t. Bad luck indeed. Then two wonderful emails in from American couples who’d gone on my Kensington walk, on, respectively, Saturday and yesterday. Heartwarming notes. So gracious, so kind. Simultaneously humbled and aglow, I fired off replies to both of them. And then fielded Shay’s. Writing from the Philippines, she wanted a brief bio – 60-words or so. Here’s what I sent her.
“The doyen of London walking tour guides, David is the Seigneur of this favoured realm (London Walks). A literary historian and retreaded academic (London University Ph.D. on Dickens) and former television news editor, he broods over words, breeds enthusiasms and is ‘unmanageable.’ For good measure, he’s a balterer, a logophile and a lifelong thanatophobe.”For the record, balterer is a word nobody – except me – has used for hundreds of years. To balter is to dance clumsily. So a balterer is one who dances clumsily. It’s an inside joke because Mary, my little rose, is a professional dancer and needless to say she dances – and indeed moves – beautifully. And that other mystifying word is also a cracker. Thanatophobe. Phobe you know. Phobia. Thanatos you might not know. It’s the Greek word for death. So a loose translation of lifelong thanatophobe would be, a lifelong opponent of death.
But the word I want to step forward and take a bow here is logophile. A logophile is someone who loves words. And as it happens, today being Friday, the 13th, I’ve learned a new word. Friday the 13th with all of its bad luck associations – look them up, it makes for an interesting and enlightening read. Forget Friday for a minute, the number 13 all by itself has longstanding negative associations. So much so it’s earned a psychological term. Triskaidekaphobia. It means fear of the number 13.
Anyway, moving on. More London Walks stuff. I created guide posters for guides Charlie and Mary Brooks. Well, I didn’t create the art work, Steve the designer will do that. I did the editorial work, sifted and winnowed the quotes.
And I put up a new Christmas walk. It’s a Claire creation: The London Christmas Trees Walk. Sounds fun. And it’ll certainly be visually appealing. And more programme orchestration. Sort out some of Charlie’s walks that aren’t showing up under his guide profile. And put up Richard IV’s Charles Dickens Lost and Found Virtual Tour and Kevin’s shoe leather on pavement Roman London – A Literary & Archaeological Walk.
And jot down some ideas for the November London Walks newsletter, which will go out on Thursday, October 26th. Floored to think it’s now got well over 11,000 subscribers.
That gets us elevenses and a break. A cup of tea and what I like most. Some reading. I’ve usually got four on the go. Three are history, always London-related. The fourth is a wild card.
My current wild card is an eye-opener by Justin Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of Science at the City University of Paris. The book is titled The Internet is Not What We Think It Is A History A Philosophy A Warning.
And sure enough, it makes a contribution to my vocabulary. I learn that I’m a data cow. Or as Professor Smith puts it, “One vivid and disconcerting term that has begun circulating in social media to describe anyone who spends time online is ‘data cow.’”
The professor pushes his boat off by quoting Mark Zuckerberg. “To strengthen our social fabric and bring the world closer together.” Cue the professor to take up his cudgel. Professor Smith says, “this, maintains Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook Corporation, is his enterprise’s reason for being. Yet it would not take a particularly critical mind to notice that strengthening the social fabric and bringing the world closer together are not, in fact, what Facebook is doing. No, Facebook and the other big tech companies are, plainly, tearing the social fabric to threads, and pulling people apart. That’s the opening salvo of the book. Justin Smith closes that first chapter with this equally telling observation. “By treating the internet as a short-term problem-solver, we created for ourselves some new, very big problems; by allowing the internet to compel us to attend to a constant stream of different, trivial things, we have become unable to focus on the monolithically important thing that it is.” Two other nuggets from my wild card read: “The earth has moved under our feet in just the past few decades. The largest industry in the world now is quite literally the attention-seeking industry.” And “Information abundance produces attention scarcity when the information is being processed through an engine that is explicitly designed to prod the would-be attender ever onward from one monetizable object to the next.” And that brings me to Piers Brendon. This year is the year I read every book Piers Brendon has written. I’m not sure whether he’s a historian or a biographer. What I am sure about is every page he’s ever written is an education in itself. I’m currently halfway through his book The Windsors A Dynasty Revealed. Was ever historian more nourishing, more quotable? By way of example, this soupcon about Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII. “The cognoscenti indulged in fascinated conjecture. What was the chemistry between an effeminate man wildly attractive to homosexuals and a mannish woman whom lesbians adored?” I learn also that Lloyd George regarded George VI as a nitwit. And that Sir Robert Vansittart, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office counted a hundred jewelled cigarette cases in George VI’s bedroom. This was 15 years before lung cancer tipped the king into an early grave. And the relish with which I read Brendon’s description of Lord Reith, the first Director General of the BBC. Brendon says Reith was the original Gold Microphone Pursuivant. And add, “as one of his conversations with the King reveals, both men took it for granted that the BBC was a propaganda agency designed to defeat left-wing influences.” And one more petit four: Hyde Park Corner was the code for the death of George VI.
Being a London Walks guide – or for that matter – just a London obsessive – what you’re doing is painting your own personal portrait of London. It’s a painting that’s never finished. Every fascinating tidbit you learn is another brushstroke. From my third on-the-boil book, The Secret Royals – Spying and the Crown from Victoria to Diana, I learn that refugees turned nineteenth-century Britain into a petri dish of radical political ideas and that there were six assassination attempts made on Queen Victoria. In my innocence I thought there were just two. And speaking of Hyde Park Corner, Constitution Hill leads up to Hyde Park Corner. I learn from The Secret Royals that Constitution Hill was assassination alley for the royal family. No question but those two brushstrokes – Hyde Park Corner the code name for the death of George VI and Constitution Hill becoming assassination alley for the royal family – those two brushstrokes will be putting in an appearance in one of my walks. And then we come to The Thieves’ Opera, Lucy Moore’s fine study of the criminal history of Georgian London. How does this passage grab you? And surely there’s a big, overarching connection to be made here. The Templars’ being whacked in the 14th century because the French king wanted their wealth and George VI having a hundred jeweled cigarette cases and the BBC being a shield and weapon against radical ideas – redistribution ideas, in other words – and Zuckerberg and the rest of them whacking society – wasn’t it Margaret Thatcher who said there’s no such thing as society – by monetising and crippling attention. Mammon doing its thing across seven centuries. And fitting right into that pattern, what Lucy Moore has unearthed about Georgian London.
Here’s a taste. “‘Mankind are happier in a state of inequality and subordination,’ wrote Dr Johnson. This philosophy eased the consciences of the rich, justifying their view that the lower classes existed only to supply their needs and desires. The harder the poor worked, the better the wheels and cogs of daily life would turn, and the more assured the sense of social stability would be. Henry Fielding summed up this school of thought in 1751 – Henry Fielding remember was the author of one of the greatest novels in English Literature, Tom Jones – Henry Fielding wrote, ‘To be born for no other purpose than to consume the fruits of the earth is the privilege of very few. The greater part of mankind must sweat hard to produce them, or society will no longer answer the purpose for which it was ordained. [Aside here, that word ‘society’ again – and, just curious, who ordained it?] Back to Fielding, “Pleasure always hath been, and always will be, the principal business of persons of fashion and fortune’. Lucy Moore then pushes the argument further along, “In order to ensure that the privilege of pleasure was unattainable to the rest of society, political and economic thinkers stressed the undesirability of allowing the poor to better themselves.”
Ok, that’s my four on the go. While I’m at it I might as well mention my grazing. I spend a fair bit of time looking foraging, grazing across that great reference book, Who’s Who? I want to find out where the difference makers lived. So for example, Mrs Patrick Campbell, the famous actress, figures in my Kensington walk. She lived in Kensington Square for a time. But it was agreeable to learn that she for a while she lived in Pont Street. And that the first journalist to be a member of the Carlton Club was born in – wait for it – Watertown, Wisconsin. Yes, an American, David Blumenfeld. It also appeals to me that he turned down the knighthood the Conservative Party offered him for political services. And that single-handedly he changed the face of British journalism by using the American system of putting news, not advertisements on the front page. That’s going to get a cameo role on the two walks of mine in which I pull out of my bag of tricks the front page of a 1936 issue of the Times. And indeed on my Old Palace Quarter Walk, during which we take a good look at the Carlton Club, founded in 1832 and the original home of the Conservative Party.
And finally, just for fun I looked my thesis supervisor, the distinguished critic and emeritus Lord Northcliffe Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London. John was born in 1938. And under the Recreations heading in Who’s Who, a two-word entry: Still Walking.
What’s not to like?
And that’s how this Friday the 13th, this day in the life of a London Walks guide has gone thus far.
You’ve been listening
to the London Walks podcast. Emanating from www.walks.com – home of London Walks,
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.
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
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 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, archaeologists, historians,
criminal defence lawyers,
Royal Shakespeare Company 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.