The Today in London History Bulletin (December 27)

Allow me to perform the introduction: “World, meet Captain James Hook; Captain Hook, meet the World.” The Today in London History Bulletin for December 27th tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Looking forward to this. I’m guiding a private Hampstead Walk later today. It’s going to be such fun to get them in front of a certain house in Church Row and solemnly – tongue only slightly in cheek – say to them, “and this is where Captain Hook was born.” And then a little bit later show them the Captain’s grave. And earlier on the walk, show them magnificent Cannon Hall – including a couple of its interiors (being able to show them those interiors, that’s London Walks reaching the parts rival walking tours can’t reach) – show them magnificent Cannon Hall and say to them, “and this is the Never Never Land Captain Hook was able to move to when his career took off.”

And then the clincher, say to them, “you better believe, this time exactly 118 years ago – to the day, to the moment – Captain Hook’s nerves would have been bow-string taut. Because eight hours from now Captain James Hook and his villainous crew come over the horizon, join the party, make their grand entrance. 

Well, by Captain Hook I mean of course Gerald du Maurier, the great actor who created the role of Captain Hook. Gerald du Maurier – and thus Captain Hook – was born in that house in Church Row. Gerald du Maurier and thus Captain Hook are buried there in the overflow churchyard of St. Johns, Hampstead’s parish church. And yes, Du Maurier – and thus Captain Hook – lived in Cannon Hall when Captain Hook proved to be the booster rocket that shot Du Maurier’s career into superstardom.

Ok, jump cut. We’re going to take our leave of Hampstead. We’re going to a frozen river in Neverland. Peering through the undergrowth – or if you prefer, sitting on this side of the footlights, we’re watching at a bunch of villains dragging a raft on that frozen river. It’s the beginning of Act II of Peter Pan or, The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up.

It’s December 27th, 1904, the opening night – the very first opening night – of J.M. Barrie’s play. That first-ever production of Peter Pan was staged at the Duke of York’s Theatre, in St Martin’s Lane. I readily and cheerfully admit every time I go past that theatre I think of that great moment in London theatre history.

What an entrance.

Let me remind you of what Captain Hook’s like. You want villainy incarnate you got it in Captain James Hook. But the great thing about the character is the way J.M. Barrie rounded him. There are things about him that are preposterous. Indeed, irresistible. Did ever theatrical villain have a richer life in the chrysalis before his butterfly eruption into undying fame?

Let’s meet the Captain and his crew.

J. M. Barrie doesn’t pull his punches. He says, a more villainous-looking brotherhood of men never hung in a row on Execution dock.

The crew are singing:

“Yo ho, yo ho, the pirate life,

The flag of skull and bones,

A merry hour, a hempen rope,

And hey for Davy Jones!”

Reclining on cushions on the raft is that dark and fearful man, Captain James Hook.

He is, we’re told, “the Cruelest jewel in that dark setting. He is cadaverous and swarthy, his hair dressed in long curls which look like black candles about to melt. His eyes are blue as the forget-me-not and of a profound insensibility, save when he claws, at which time a red spot appears in them. He has an iron hook instead of a right hand, and it is with this he claws. He is never more sinister than when he is most polite, and the elegance of his diction, the distinction of his demeanour, show him one of a different class from his crew, a solitary among uncultured companions. This courtliness impresses even his victims on the high seas, who note that he always says ‘Sorry’ when prodding them along the flank. A man of indomitable courage, the only thing at which he flinches is the sight of his own blood, which is thick and of an unusual colour. At his public school they said of him that he ‘bled yellow.’

In his mouth, a holder of his own contrivance enables him to smoke two cigars at once. Those, however, who have seen him in the flesh, which is an inadequate term for his earthly tenement, agree that the grimmest part of him is his iron claw.

Cutaway to the pirate Starkey, who has spotted the boy Nibs, a member of Peter Pan’s gang. Starkey raises his pistol and takes aim.

Hook twists his hook in Starkey and growls, “Put back that pistol.”

That hook and that command: his first action and his first words. 

STARKEY says: ‘Twas one of those boys you hate; I could have shot him dead.

Hook says, “He is only one, and I want to mischief all the seven. Scatter and look for them.

They continue their distasteful singing as they disembark—

Avast, belay, yo ho, heave to,

A-pirating we go,

And if we ‘re parted by a shot

We ‘re sure to meet below!

Left alone with the pirate Smee, Hook says, “Most of all I want their captain, Peter Pan. ‘Twas he cut off my arm. I have waited long to shake his hand 

with this.  Oh, I’ll tear him!

SMEE (always ready for a chat with his captain) says: Yet I have oft heard you say your hook was worth a score of hands, for combing the hair and other homely uses.

HOOK proudly says, “If I was a mother [some mother, huh], If I was a mother I would pray to have my children born with this instead of that (here Hook shows his left arm).

But the sight of his left arm, which Hook customarily hides behind his back, triggers a painful memory.

Momentarily downcast, Hook says, “Smee, Pan flung my arm to a crocodile that happened to be passing by.”

That’s not an easy remark to respond to. Smee, awkwardly, says, “I have often noticed your strange dread of crocodiles.”

HOOK says pettishly, “Not of crocodiles but of that one crocodile.”

And then momentarily laying bare a lacerated heart, Hook says, “The brute liked my arm so much, Smee, that he has followed me ever since, from sea to sea, and from land to land, licking his lips for the rest of me.”

SMEE (looking for the bright side) says. In a way it is a sort of compliment.

HOOK (with dignity). I want no such compliments; I want Peter Pan, who first gave the brute his taste for me. Smee, that crocodile would have had me before now, but by a lucky chance he swallowed a clock, and it goes tick, tick, tick, tick inside him; and so before he can reach me I hear the tick and bolt.  Once I heard it strike six within him.

SMEE (meditatively, sombrely, unhelpfully says what Hook doesn’t want to hear). Some day the clock will run down, and then he’ll get you.

HOOK (a broken man). Ay, that is the fear that haunts me.

And there you have one of the great entrances in this country’s great theatrical tradition.

I said, I go by the Duke of York’s Theatre I always think of that opening night moment. I’ll go further, I always listen for the ticking of the clock in the croc.

In theatre history that was a plate tectonic event compressed into three or four minutes. It produced an Everest of our theatre world. Captain James Hook. So much a part of our theatre world – and indeed our cultural and individual consciousness generally – it’s hard to believe that before this night, December 27th, 1904, that mountain was not there. There was no Captain Hook.

Anything else? Yes, Gerald Du Maurier’s daughter, Daphne, the future great novelist, was 3 and a half years old at the time. I can’t help but wonder, did Gerald du Maurier practice his lines on his three-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Was Daphne du Maurier the first child to make the acquaintance of Captain James Hook.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History bulletin. Emanating from – 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 £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. 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 accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: 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 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. See ya tomorrow.

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