Today (August 28) in London History – Locusts!

Here come the locusts. Today’s Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Ok, this series is due for a wild card. Time for something out of left field. 

And I’m going to make that doubly the case by leading with something that has nothing to do with our main subject, nothing to do with an August 28th happening in London. 

A few days ago – August 22nd – we looked at the life, work and death of Sir Thomas Brock, “London’s forgotten sculptor.” We touched down of course on what is surely the most remarkable story about him – his impromptu knighthood. George V unveiled Brock’s huge masterpiece, the Queen Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace, and being so pleased with it he demanded a sword and knighted Brock on the spot. I mentioned that Kaiser Wilhelm was present at that ceremony and that, always full of himself, he will have regarded himself, what with King Edward having shuffled off this mortal coil,  as the foremost monarch in all the world. 

Anyway, a day or two after I wrote that piece I came across a delightful tidbit in Simon Kuper’s book The Football Men. A delightful delightful tidbit that I would have worked into the impromptu knighthood story had I had it to hand at the time. It’s a passing observation about fame, what a weird and very powerful phenomenon it is. In his profile of the German footballer Lothar Mattheus –  a profile written some 20 years ago – Kuper remarks,  “A century ago the mental hospitals of Europe were full of men who thought they were the German Kaiser. They cultivated their moustaches, let one arm hang limply as if paralysed, and ordered their regiments into battle.”

Now I’m going to do a bit more on fame here in this toccata – yes, please consider this introduction the toccata to the fugue of the August 28th Today in London History podcast – so, yes, I’m going to assay a few more remarks about fame, but before we part company with Simon Kuper I’d like to mention in passing that his new book, Chums – it’s subtitled How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took over the UK – is a superb read. It’s lean sinewy, you can read it in an afternoon. I did. Favourite takeaway – we all know and use the term Toff – short for toffee-nose – it means of course a rich person from a high social class – what I didn’t know – and I’m pretty sure they, toffs, don’t especially want us, the hoi polloi, to know, what I didn’t know is that toffs refer to the rest of us as stains.

That stains spelt s-t-a-i-n-s. Rather priding myself on being a stain. Ok, an American stain – but a stain nonetheless. Anyway, added that gem to my lexical knapsack compliments of Simon Kuper’s wonderful new book, Chums.

Now, fame – let’s finish our toccata.

In this line of work, fame is something you can’t help but be aware of – and you think about it, take its measure, try to understand it all the time. 

Our work is a kind of minuet with fame. To pick just one of countless examples: Diana, Princess of Wales. When she was killed, we waited a respectful interval – about six months – and then we put on two different, weekly, Diana Walks. That was only time London Walks made headlines, made a newspaper hoarding. We’ve still got it. It said, Now They’re Doing Diana Walks. Not that I needed one but it was yet another reminder of the here-to-eternity hypocrisy of the British tabloid press. The press that had, after all, gluttoned for years on Diana was expressing shock and moral outrage that a walking tour company was doing walking tours that looked at the London of Diana, Princess of Wales. Anyway, the point here is that that star burnt out very quickly. Within a year we had to cut back the Diana walks to just once a week. And then to once a month. And then to just on the anniversary of her death. And then, within just a couple of years we pulled the anniversary walk. There just wasn’t demand, there wasn’t interest. We puzzled about it. And in the end concluded that she was famous for being famous – surely the most ephemeral form of fame. I remember drawing comparisons with the Beatles. They were a generation and more before the Princess of Wales and walks-wise they’re still going strong. There’s never-ending demand for Beatles walks. What’s the difference? It’s obvious. The Beatles weren’t just famous for being famous – they were famous for their music. They created something. Made something. Left us something. 

A further reflection – fame isn’t solely about individuals. It’s about events, occurrences. I remember – it’s many years ago now – getting a tremendous shock when I found out that the Viet Nam War meant nothing – or at the most next-to-nothing to a class of American undergraduates I was teaching. It had been the single most important historical development that had bearing – a lot of bearing – on my life. I think in a sense I still haven’t fully got over it. So the idea that I had compatriots – admittedly much younger compatriots – to whom it meant nothing, that came as a shock. Well, so much for fame, so much for our toccata.

Let’s get to our fugue. And as I said, this one’s out of left field.

No way you’ll have seen this one coming. 

One hundred and sixty-five years ago – August 1857 – London was abuzz about locusts.

A story in the Illustrated London News was headlined: A Live Locust in London. Not only headlined but beautifully illustrated. A huge close-up engraving of a locust speared on a pin.

And speaking of pin-points, we can pinpoint where the ugly little invader made his incursion. The story reads: The specimen locust we have engraved was taken in the heart of the metropolis: it flew into the shop of Mr Barratt, of 369 Strand, on the 28th of August, at half-past seven o’clock in the evening, when it was killed by Mr Barratt. The Times weighed in as well. We get this: “A correspondent of the Times states that on the 31st of August his cat caught on the grass in his garden at Lambeth a locust, which, by way of corroboration, he sent alive to the Times office.”

Looking further afield, the ILN article speaks of “several solitary visitations of the Locust have recently been recorded in various parts of the kingdom.”

Trying to read between the lines, I suspect the story is a measure of just how deeply versed in the bible this country was in the mid-nineteenth century. The timing here – the dates – are interesting. It’s 1857. God is still alive. But on Death Row. Remember our August 20th podcast. Something that happened on August 20th, 1858. Just a year later. Yes, the death of God at the Linnean Society. Maybe the coming of those fearful biblical insects was a portent.

Certainly the press didn’t waste any time in getting those biblical fangs into the reading public’s neck. Here’s how the ILN put it: “It is clearly a locust – Gryllus migratorius (love it that they roll out the big gun of the Latin and Greek nomenclature and classification – migratorius is self-explanatory – Gryllus is from an ancient Greek word for an Egyptian dance or the performer of an Egyptian dance) – anyway, “It is clearly a locust (Gryllus migratorius) that destructive insect whose ravages are proverbial – one of those whose approach from the innumerable myriads that compose their squadrons, is announced in prophetic language as a day of darkness and of gloominess, and whose desolating march is thus described: ‘The land is as the Garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness; yea, and nothing shall escape them.”

Hmm. I think I might go out and buy some bug spray.

And a Today in London recommendation: Natural History Museum, here we come. The oldest and most important entomology collection in the world. Over 34 million insects and arachnids. For anyone who doesn’t know – I wasn’t up to speed with the term – arachnids are a class of animals that includes spiders, scorpions, mites and ticks. Cathi Unsworth once summed up London this way: London is shadows and fog. London is haunted. London is the definitive noir. I’d be tempted to revise that to London is shadows and fog and bugs. London is haunted and creepy crawly. London is the definitive noir  and more itches than you can think about scratching.

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 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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