The Friday Special – “the protean, evanescent, indefinable essence of London”


London calling. London Walks here with the Friday Special.

Yes, Friday’s the day we double down – put out two podcasts. The daily Today in London History podcast. And a special, a wild card.

The last few weeks the Friday Special has been a series of talks by art historian Helena Jones about the two undeniable masterpieces in the Wallace Collection. 

And Helena will be back – you’ll be glad to hear – in a couple of weeks. It looks like her art history/art appreciation podcasts are going to get into a regular routine of one a month. She thinks the next one will be coming out in a fortnight. 

So that means the other three – sometimes four – Friday specials will be the usual London Walks potpourri. Interviews with guides, interviews with Londoners, excerpts from walks, breaking stories, reviews, historical vignettes, whatever strikes my London roving eye, really. 

I had thought for this first Friday special since Helena wound up her most recent short series of talks – I had thought to do a piece about Barts Hospital. Not least because there’s a fine connection there with a subject that was touched on in a recent Today in London History podcast. But I’ve decided to postpone that. The course adjustment brought about – as is so often the case – by a last-minute chance encounter. On my Old Westminster walk yesterday afternoon was a lovely Ukrainian lady. She’s lived here for 30 years. And in the way of these things, at walk’s end, the two of us – both immigrants, both deeply in love with our adopted city – got into a chat, compared notes, talked about London and Londoners and, yes, the English and the unique cultural brew of this city, the feel of the place, what it’s like to live here.

Anyway, our chat summoned up from the well of memory, a passage from one of the greatest books ever written about London: V.S. Pritchett’s London Perceived. The book is now 60 years old. London has changed tremendously of course in those intervening years. But the London Perceived has stood up. In it, Pritchett’s done what I wouldn’t have thought was possible: he’s captured, in words on the page, what I thought could only be sensed, felt, guessed at. Namely the protean, evanescent, indefinable essence of London. Notes that high – it’s the music of the spheres. It shouldn’t be possible to actually hear the music of the spheres – set it out in prose. It’s a kind of miracle, really. An accomplishment beyond estimable. 

And remembering one passage in particular – memories make us rich – I decided on a course correction for this podcast. I decided to put us down on a different airstrip altogether. Decided to introduce you to Pritchett’s book – do a short reading from it. (For anyone who doesn’t know him V. S. Pritchett was a 20th century master of the art of English prose. He was a brilliant, novelist, short story writer, literary critic, travel writer and essayist. London Perceived is really a book-length essay about the wonders of this city.

And 20th-century is a really an appropriate adjectival phrase to put in front of V.S. Pritchett’s name: because he was born in 1900 – Queen Victoria was still on the throne – and he died in 1997, when Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II, was just a few years away from the Golden Jubilee of her reign. 

Ok, here’s the passage. It comes very near the beginning of the book.

It opens with Pritchett quoting another great writer, the American novelist Henry James. It’s Henry James’ first impressions of London. 

Those – Henry James’s impressions – are Pritchett’s springboard for his (Pritchett’s) observations about foreigners and London – what they make of London. And indeed about Londoners. And how they see us, foreigners who’ve thrown in our lot with them. Made their city our city. And in time become – like the Ukrainian lady, like me, American-born but London-marinated – in time become Londoners. In the last analysis, though, the passage is a paean to London, a love letter to this unique, magical city. A love letter written with the lightest of touches.

Here’s the passage.

You’ve been listening to the Friday Special London Walks podcast. Emanating from – home of London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

As they so kindly put it a few years ago at that American convention of walking tour guides: 

 “London Walks is the premier walking tour company in the entire world.” The secret? It’s pretty obvious, really. The muzzle-loading velocity of the guiding. In the words of that American filmmaker, “if this were a golf tournament every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

At no little risk of belabouring the obvious, with London Walks, uniquely, you 

get walking tours fronted by accomplished professionals: barristers, doctors, historians, the former Editor of Independent Television News, 

Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Museum of London archaeologists, the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, distinguished academics – a Cambridge University palaeontologist, a University College London geologist, elite, award-winning professionally qualified Blue Badge guides, etc. 

Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

See ya every day with the Today in London History podcast. And see ya next Friday with the Friday special. 

Good Londoning, one and all. And glad you’re back. You were sorely missed.

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