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Story time. History time.
Whimsical. Another good word. As words go, it’s a bit of a stray, an outrider. They’re not sure of its lineage, its derivation. It’s been suggested that it might come from an Old Norse word meaning, ‘let the eyes wander.’ Or a Norwegian word meaning ‘to flutter.’ Well, that’s good enough for me. What’s that’s Scots word, ‘skeery’? Means ‘butterfly minded.’ I readily admit, I’m a bit skeery. I like to flit and sip. So this morning, this podcast, I’m going to let my eyes wander. Indulge in a bit of whimsy.
Two items, really. First up, I see President Biden did a spectacular belly-flopper in relation to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s name. Referred to him as Rashee Sanook. And then for good measure promoted him to ‘Mr President.’ It’s Keystone Kops stuff.
But seriously, it’s yet another reminder – not that we needed any – that it’s not the Brits who are insular. It’s the Yanks. Insular and myopic. And that all comes down to geography. This is an island. A small island. France is just twenty miles away. Paris is just over two hours away.
The United States is effectively a continent. Two hours from Decatur, Illinois is Turkey Run State Park. In the U.S. the signals from other countries are distant and weak.
And also American culture – precisely because it’s not getting a lot of input from foreign countries – is huge, insulated, monolithic, dominant. And there’s another factor. Not to put too fine a point on it, the modern age’s dominant art form is the movies. And the movies are an American invention. American movies make the running.
I’ve been reminded of this imbalance – the little British cocker spaniel barely registering as it scampers along – vying for some attention – next to the American elephant – been reminded of that bantamweight-heavyweight no contest many times.
It was really driven home to me 30 years ago. The O.J. Simpson trial. I remember being the Overnight Editor in the Newsroom and about 5 o’clock in the morning the cleaning ladies pitched up. And sure enough, they were all talking about O.J. Simpson. And I remember being more than a little bit in awe, thinking, ‘my god, the power of American culture. Thinking O.J. Simpson and the NFL, etc. none of that was even remotely on the radar of any of these ladies until just a couple of days ago. And now it’s a main topic of conversation. And I remember fully getting the measure of that American cultural juggernaut by thinking, “if Ian Wright was accused of stabbing his estranged wife and a young man to death on her doorstep there’d be no chance of that registering with cleaning ladies in Charleston, South Carolina or Topeka, Kansas, or Los Angeles, California. They wouldn’t be even remotely across that. Ian Wright at the time was maybe the most famous English footballer – so protagonist-wise that was a pretty good comparison. Anyway, that’s where my eyes wandered to when I found out about President Biden calling Rishi Sunak Mr President and referring to him as Rashee Sanook.
And let them wander a bit further. Every Sunday morning I summit. But it’s not a solo ascent. I summit with ten to twenty London Walkers. Take them up to the highest point in London. Up on Hampstead Heath. On my Sunday morning Hampstead Village and Hampstead Heath Walk. It’s one of many highlights – highlights, good word here – one of many highlights on that great walk. What the New York Times called the crown jewel of London Walks. I tell my walkers, “you’re standing where the great artist John Constable stood. From here he could see all the way down the Thames estuary. He could see the white billowing sails of the ocean-going tall ships, every pulse in the estuary carrying them quayward, carrying them seaward. And that’s the spot where I unravel the complicated history of that miracle, the saving of Hampstead Heath. And we also do Whitestone Pond while we’re up there. I explain what a dew-fed pond is. As opposed to spring-fed. And the very good reason for putting a man-made pond at the top of the highest hill in London. And finally, the height. I say to my walkers, “give yourselves a pat on the back. You’ve just summited. This is the highest point in London. How high are we? Right now the soles of your shoes are 435 feet and seven inches above sea level. Or to get that into perspective, 16 feet and 7 inches – that’s five and a half metres if you’re thinking metrically – above the top of the cross on top of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. So we’re up in the air a ways.
And that’s the point at which I often entertain a really far-fetched thought. It comes almost unbidden. And when it comes I often think – this is pure whimsy – this is what I’m thinking now, I’d so like to know what everybody in this group is thinking right now. I’d like to see the flag that’s flapping right now in each of their minds.
And then I sometimes think, I wander what they’d think if they knew what I was thinking right now.
And what is that thought? Standing up there, up on the summit, up on the roof of London, I often think about the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. A tsunami that appeared without warning. The towering mile-high wave that drowned the dinosaurs and altered the course of evolution. How high is a mile-high wave. Well, you would have been safe up on the top of Pike’s Peak. But not up on the summit of London. Run the figures. There are 5,280 feet in a mile. Up there on Hampstead Heath, up on the summit of London, we’re 435 feet above sea level. You have to multiply 435 feet about 12 times to 5,280 feet. Translate that to a foot-long ruler. Twelve inches – the top of the ruler – would be the top of the tsunami. 435 feet, that’s just one inch from the bottom of the ruler. The dinosaurs and I would be just an inch from the bottom of that twelve-inch-deep tsunami. We’d be under eleven-twelfths of that mountain of water.
So there you have it, that’s where my mind sometimes goes when I summit on a Sunday morning up in Hampstead. You’re up there with me, by all means feel free to ask me, “are you glugging away David, thinking about the dinosaurs, thinking about being under a mile of water?”
You’ve been listening to This is London, 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.
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