London Walks connecting.
London Walks here with today’s London fix.
Story time. History time.
It’s August 21st. This one’s a London smorgasbord. The table is groaning with London goodies.
First of all, an anniversary. It was on August 21st, 1936 that Senate House opened. Senate House is the administrative centre of the University of London. It covers a ten and a half acre site just north of, just across the street from the back of the British Museum.
And it’s got some kind of history. As one of our best guides says, “it’s all about making connections.” So let’s make some Senate House connections. Design-wise, the thinking was Senate House would be to Bloomsbury what St Paul’s is the City of London. It would be a focal point. It would dominate the skyline. Eyes would be drawn to it. The architect was Charles Holden, who’s perhaps best known for designing a good few London Underground Stations. Including Piccadilly Circus. To that list you can add what is today Zimbabwe House toward the western end of the Strand, and 55 Broadway, the old headquarters of Transport for London. They’re maybe not as eye-catching today, nearly a century later, but they were sensational in their day. The pre-war (World War II) equivalent of the Shard today. Or the Gherkin.
Senate House really put the cat amongst the pigeons.
The grand old man of 20th-century architecture criticism, Nikolaus Pevsner, described its style as “strangely semi-traditional, undecided modernism.” He said, ”The design certainly does not possess the vigour and directness of Charles Holden’s smaller Underground stations.” Others have described it as Stalinist, or as totalitarian due to its great scale. Functionalist architect Erich Mendelsohn wrote to Holden in 1938 that he was “very much taken and … convinced that there is no finer building in London.” Historian Arnold Whittick described the building as a “static massive pyramid … obviously designed to last for a thousand years”, but thought “the interior is more pleasing than the exterior. There is essentially the atmosphere of dignity, serenity and repose that one associates with the architecture of ancient Greece.”
And make no mistake, Senate House figures in our Tuesday afternoon Literary London – Bohemian Bloomsbury walk because George Orwell used it as the inspiration for the Ministry of Truth, the most significant landmark in his great dystopian novel, 1984.
Remember, the hero of the novel, Winston Smith, works in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth.
His job is to rewrite historical documents so they match the constantly changing current party line. Practically speaking that meant revising newspaper articles and doctoring photographs. Winston and his colleagues would have been right at home with the 21st-century hocus pocus of Photoshop and AI photo generators —because doctoring photos in the dystopian world of 1984 mostly meant removing “unpersons” from any given photo. Unpersons being people who had fallen afoul of the party. Orwell was prescient of course, way ahead of his time: he would have completely got it about our post-truth world. Bending, twisting, reshaping facts so reality isn’t something that’s objective, it’s what the high and mighty say it is.
Most famously, the official slogans of the Party. They were inscribed in massive letters on the outside of the Ministry of Truth building. When I guide our Literary Bloomsbury Walk and we look at Senate House I urge my walkers to see, in their mind’s eye, those three slogans inscribed on the building. Let’s recite them.
War is peace.
Freedom is slavery
Ignorance is strength.
Now, why Senate House? And here’s a much less well-known but really fun connection. During World War II Senate House was the Ministry of Information’s headquarters in London. And make no mistake, the Ministry of Information was Britain’s wartime propaganda department.
In 1939, just two months before the war broke out, in anticipation that it was coming, the Ministry of Information came up with three slogans of its own. The idea was millions of posters carrying the slogans would go up all over the country. The aim was social cohesion and, yes, mind control. The three slogans were: “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution; Will Bring us Victory.
And “Freedom is in Peril, Defend it with All Your Might.”
And “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
That last one you recognise for sure, don’t you.
It’s everywhere today.
But here’s the thing. It came that close to going down the rabbit hole. They printed two and a half million posters carrying that slogan. But they never saw the light of day. A year later there was a paper shortage and virtually all of them got pulped. Just a handful of the originals survived. One of those rare survivals was discovered 23 years ago in a bookshop in Northumberland. Copies were made. And sold. And it just took off. That slogan – regarded as being so English – is ubiquitous now. But that’s the connection. Well, the other connection. That’s what I want my walkers to see, “when you’re looking at Senate House you’re looking at the birthplace of the Keep Calm and Carry On slogan. That’s one of that’s just cool to know.
There’s more of course. In terms of its architectural lines – its brooding power, the statement it makes – Senate House is probably the most fascist building in London. So how appropriate is it that the Gestapo had earmarked it for its headquarters when it got here and started running the show. One wag, hearing that, and knowing that all those Ministry of Information cranks and geniuses and oddballs had been holed up in there during the war, said, “well, that would have replaced one set of troublemakers with another set.”
Anyway, Happy Birthday Senate House.
Moving on, three walks recommendations this week. The distinguished former diplomat Lisa Honan has laid on an extra one of her East India Company walks. It takes place at 10.45 am on Tuesday, August 22nd. Goes from Monument Tube. It gets my strongest possible recommendation. It’s a walk that’s changed the way I see things. And it’s changed my reading. It lit a fuse for me. I’ve done a great deal of reading about the British Empire thanks to what I heard and saw on Lisa’s walk. And it’s not just me, we hear again and again from walkers, “that walk really got me thinking.”
Then on Tuesday night, August 22nd at 6.30 pm, from exit 3 of Hyde Park Corner Underground Station, I, David, will be guiding my Belgravia Pub Walk. That one hasn’t seen the light of day since pre-Covid times. It was an extraordinary walk as was. Maybe read the blurb. We get into secret little byways and back streets – the underside as it were – of London at its poshest. And tucked away back in those secret places and mews you’ve got pubs that are hidden gems. But over and above all of that, this walk gets personal. I spent my first week or so in London in a tiny flat up at the far end of one of those tiny Belgravia capillaries. We go there, we take a quick look at it. But here’s the thing, I’ve since discovered – I did not know this until a few months ago, so I’ll be debut-ing this extraordinary point-out, and the tale that goes with it, when I do the walk on Tuesday night – directly across from the alleyway where, 50 years ago, I spent my first week in London, stands the mews townhouse of Ghislaine Maxwell. And it was there that a 17-year-old American girl named Virginia Roberts is pictured in a photograph with Prince Andrew, the Duke of York as he was then. He’s got his arm around the teenager. Well, you’ll be broadly familiar with the rest of the story. You’ll know about Geoffrey Epstein. And that socialite Ghislaine Maxwell is now in prison in New York. And the Duke of York is pretty much disgraced. I don’t know, is it just my insatiable curiosity or do I have a streak of the voyeur in me, but for me there’s something satisfying about knowing, “oh, so this is where that happened, right up there in that room.”
So that’ll be a new addition to that already richly rewarding walk.
Moving on, on Wednesday morning, 9.45 am on August 23rd, from just outside exit 4 of Westminster Underground Station, I’ll be doing my Mrs Dalloway’s london walk. This summer is the centenary of the day Mrs Dalloway took her walk. We start at 9.45 am so we can hear Big Ben at 10 am – exactly when Mrs Dalloway heard it. “The leaden circles dissolving in the air” in Virginia Woolf’s beyond perfect brushstroke. I’ve spent more time researching that walk than probably any other walk I’ve ever created. And my walkers get the fruits of the prospecting I did in that lode. And not just in the form of stories. We’re old friends, me and the newspapers of that day in 1923. I’ve spent a lot of time in their company. And made some very interesting – extraordinary, really – discoveries in those yellowed, century-old news sheets. I’ve had our designer produce copies of them for me. And I show them to my walkers. They’ll be looking at newspapers that nobody has looked at for a century. And in them they’ll see things that bear directly on that day, indeed on that moment in that great novel. And, always, a London Walk is a work in progress. So on August 23rd the walk will be garnished with a highly relevant piece of information that has only just come my way in the last couple of weeks. The last time I did the walk – that was in June – I had no idea about Virginia Woolf’s connection – in 1923 no less, the year of Mrs Dalloway’s walk – with one of the back streets we go to on the walk. Some backstreet, some relevant piece of information – because said backstreet is the leading candidate for the location of Mrs Dalloway’s house. In fact, an American scholar thinks he’s pinpointed the very house. We of course go there.
And finally, and this is not a London Walks walking tour recommendation, it’s just a straight up London Walks London recommendation. I’ve just learned that, alas, the India Club, there at the eastern end of the Strand, just beyond Waterloo Bridge, is closing on September 17th. Take it from me – I’m speaking from personal experience – stepping in there is stepping into a time machine. Just like that you’re back 60 years. Its days are numbered. The recommendation is go there and have a curry. And rejoice in that marvellous view looking out over the Aldwych corner of the Strand. These last few weeks of its existence, it really is last chance saloon time. After September 17th Club the India Club will be no more. Will just be a memory. I’m being pretty directive here. Confidently so. You’ll be doing yourself a favour to have it be a personal memory. Take your camera.
You’ve been listening to the London Calling 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 peanuts – for McDonald’s wages. 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 distinguished
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
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
The London Walks All-Star team of
guides includes a former London
Mayor, it includes barristers (one of
them an MBE); it includes doctors,
geologists, museum curators,
archaeologists, historians, criminal
defence lawyers, university professors,
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
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.