The V for Victory Sign and Jumbo the Dog

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.

Newsflash 1: Landmark day for this podcast. We’ve just gone over 300,000 listens. So I suppose the first big one – half a million – is in sight. And, hey, 30 per cent of the way toward a million. We’ll take it.

Newsflash 2: New walk hoving into view. A Legal London Walk guided by criminal defense lawyer Joanne and barrister Tom. It’ll be a small group tour – we’ll be limiting the numbers – and it’ll cost a bit more. It’ll have to be booked and pre-paid. It’ll make its professional debut in August. Watch this space – and – for further particulars.

Moving on – and I suppose this is news of sorts – it’s looking increasingly like I could be dancing with Corybantic abandon next week. (Corybantic – look it up if you don’t know that fine adjective.)

Rumour has it that I might be getting a Life Membership to the London Library for a birthday present. And if so, yeah, I’m going to be dancing with Corybantic abandon.

Why is the London Library so important to me? Well, first of all, it’s as close as the likes of me is going to get to an English gentleman’s club. That reading room in St James’ – that is heaven in SW1. The leather-covered armchairs, those huge windows looking out over that beautiful square. That’s rainbow rainbow rainbow.

But seriously the real joy of the London Library is you can check books out, take them home. And even more important, you can go into the stacks. The stacks at the British Library are off-limits to readers. And as for taking books home from the British Library, fuhgeddit.

Now why is it important to be able to go into the stacks? It’s the magical potion of a combination of propinquity and serendipity. You’re in the stacks looking for a certain book and suddenly out of the corner of your eye you’ll spot a title that you didn’t know about and is beyond perfect for your purposes. No chance of that happening in the British Library because their stacks are strictly off-limits. So, yes, propinquity (the state of being close to someone or something)

and serendipity (the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way). What’s not to like. That’s what the London Library regularly serves up.

And now – the main part of this podcast – I’m going to give you a good example of same.

It’s July 19th, 1941. It has come to my attention that July 19th, 1941 was the day Winston Churchill inaugurated the “V for Victory” campaign in Europe. He did so with style. Got the BBC to use the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony to introduce news bulletins. Those first four notes match the Morse Code for the letter V.

Well, I was all ears. And all eyes. Both hands were up in the air holding up those first two digits, making that famous V sign.

Had to know more.

So in a sense I was in the stacks. Went to the July 20th, 1941 newspapers. Why July 20th when the day in question was July 19th? Well, it’s obvious isn’t it. If it happened on July 19th it wouldn’t be until the next day – July 20th – that it made the papers.

So there I was, in the stacks so to speak.

And sure enough, propinquity and serendipity got in on the act.

As always, like with just about everything else here, there are wheels within wheels. So I didn’t find anything at all about the V for Victory campaign in the July 20th papers. But in the July 22nd Telegraph we get a story that it was a Belgian who gave the ‘V’ sign to oppressed Europe. I’m going to quote now, “Monsieur Victor de Laveleye, head of the Belgian station at the BBC, a barrister and member of the Belgian Parliament, originated the V for Victory campaign which has swept across Europe and brought new hope to peoples oppressed under the Nazi tyranny. In a broadcast to Belgium in January he suggested that as Belgians were chalking on walls the letters “RAF” they should add V for Vrijheid, Flemish for Freedom.”

Filling in and developing the story, the Telegraph reporter said, “this was revealed at a BBC conference. yesterday, when Sir Stephen Tallents, Controller of Overseas Services, explained the workings of the Corporation’s foreign services.

There was, he said, evidence that broadcasts in 25 languages 178 hours a week were getting through to the people for whom they were intended, despite savage penalties for listening. In Belgium a little girl was asked the time and she replied 7.15. Asked how she knew, she pointed to the empty street. Everyone was indoors listening to the BBC.”

And fast forward 20 years – to December 2nd, 1961 – great headline: “V-for-Victory Tympanist Awarded £1,915.” Mr James Blades, 60, the tympanist who recorded the V for Victory drum signal which preceded wartime broadcasts to Occupied Europe was awarded damages against the BBC in the High Court yesterday. He fell five feet from an orchestra rostrum and broke his left leg. And brought suit against the BBC.

Well, something on the order of an Easter Egg hunt, that.

But really all it did was whet my appetite for finding a hole in the fence of time – a hole I could look through and get a peek at London on our day in question, July 20th, 1941. Looking at those fading, yellowed old newspapers, it was like being in the stacks. And let me put my cards on the table. It’s not just the hard fact stories that grab me. What I like so much about doing this is the feel you can get for a moment in time in London’s history.

And the “feel” on July 20th, 1941? They were putting a brave face on things. The situation was dire. The Wehrmacht and its allies had its jackboot on the throat of the continent.  France had surrendered over a year ago. Ditto the Dutch. Ditto Norway. This country stood alone. Well, alone with its dominions and colonies. The American declaration of war was still months in the future. In any case, the U.S. was a demilitarized society. Hard to imagine today, isn’t it. It had the 17th strongest army in the world. Romania had a more powerful army than the United States of America.

So, yes, Britain and its dominions and colonies stood alone. With no realistic chance at all of turning the tide by itself. But it wasn’t giving up. It kept the faith. And the evidence of that is all over the newspapers of the day. But what moved me the most was the soppiness of some of the stories. These are people after all who are renowned for the stiff upper lip and not showing emotion. I wouldn’t set too much store by that cliche if I were you.

Consider this story. This is the main propinquity story. I spotted it. Out of the corner of my eye. Spotted it, read it and suddenly I was there, I had what I wanted – a really good feel for what London was like – and what Londoners were like – on June 20th, 1941.

The story ran in the Sunday Pictorial. It was headlined The Dog on the Corner.

Reads as follows: “Every evening a dog sits on the pavement at the corner of Tabard Street, Southwark, London…It’s Jumbo waiting for his boss, Fred Hooper, to come home. Jumbo waits for hours and then he walks slowly back with his tail between his legs – alone. Young Fred, 14, got his dog when it was a puppy. They grew up together. And it was one of Jumbo’s habits always to sleep in his master’s bedroom at their home in a block of flats in South London. But on the night of London’s last blitz, Jumbo wouldn’t go into Fred’s bedroom. He tried to stop Fred by gripping his trouser leg and tugging with his teeth. When Fred took him inside and shut the door Jumbo whined to get out and for the first time the dog went to sleep downstairs with Mr Hooper. In the middle of the night Jumbo woke him up by licking his face. A few minutes later the floor caved in, the walls collapsed. Mr Hooper saved his life by clutching a dangling pipe. Jumbo stood on his shoulders. As they hung forty feet in mid-air the rescue squad climbed to save them. Mr Hooper was rushed to hospital. Jumbo went and nosed in the ruins. He was looking for Fred. That is why anyone can see Jumbo sitting and waiting at the street corner each evening down in Southwark. He thinks Fred will come that way from work, from his first job. Jumbo doesn’t know that when the rescue squad went to look for Fred’s bedroom they couldn’t find it for debris. Fred ignored Jumbo’s warning. He isn’t coming home…

It’s a real tear-jerker isn’t it. Together with that uncanny stuff about how the dog seemed to know what the immediate future held. He didn’t want Fred sleeping in that room. Ok, time to take our eye away from the peephole that gives us a glimpse of London on July 20th, 1941. Time to get back to July 20th, 2023.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. 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 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

headline acts.

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

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 Londoning one and all. See ya next time.

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