Today (July 25) in London History – “it’s Cleopatra but it’s also London”

Mixed bag. James I, oysters, some great London poetry. They’re the main components of this Today in London History podcast.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one’s for me, David.

Today’s my birthday. 

So I want a podcast that’s a bit of a birthday cake. It has to be full of good stuff. And there have to be poems – London poems. London poems written by people like me: immigrants, incomers, outsiders. Poems because I love poetry and because English Literature is what brought me here. It’s why I’m here. Indeed, it’s how I got my foot in the door at London Walks. Ian, who owned London Walks at the time, didn’t want an American guide. But I knew a little bit about Dickens. And London Walks has always done lots of Dickens walks. 

But back to that birthday cake – one of its ingredients has to be a great surprise. Something you don’t know. Something I didn’t know.

So what have we got? Let’s stick our finger in the frosting and have a taste.

First taste: well, you can’t have a July 25th Today in London History birthday cake without a nod to James I. He was crowned on July 25th, 1603. He knew what he was doing. They knew what they were doing. July 25th is the Feast day of St. James. St. James is the patron saint of Spain, of several South American countries, of labourers, of rheumatism and of pilgrims. Pretty good that, because I’ve shown tens of thousands of people round London. They’re pilgrims, they’ve made the pilgrimage to London.

James’ emblem is the scallop shell – or cockle shell. Pilgrims often wore one on their hat. James was a fisherman, so that was appropriate. But the mussel shell was also a drinking vessel for pilgrims. They got to a spring or a well or a stream they could scoop up a drink in the shell.

The German word for a scallop is Jakobsmuschel, which means Jacob’s mussel or clam. The Dutch word is Jacobsschelp, meaning Jacob’s shell. And let’s keep that detail in mind – it’s going to make another appearance.

So that’s James, the coronation and the saint. And since it’s a birthday celebration we don’t want any unpleasantness, so we won’t let the July 25th, 1222  London riot crash the fun and games. Nor is that July 25th, 1837 parachute death getting anywhere near the party.

Now as for our poets and our poems… First marker to put down is that, like me, and like that Scot, James I, they’re all incomers. Shakespeare was of course from Stratford, from Warwickshire in the very heart of England. In his great play Antony and Cleopatra he’s got a brief exchange between (Mahseen-us) Mecaenus and Enobarbus about Cleopatra and her hold on Antony. Every time I get to that juncture in the play I have one of those layered, stereophonic London moments. A highly personal layered, stereophonic moment. The top layer is of course hearing those lines in the way we’re supposed to hear them. They’re about Antony and Cleopatra. That’s their intended, face-value meaning. But every time I hear those lines the thought that breaks in upon me is, he’s talking about Antony and Cleopatra but he could be talking about me and London. Especially London.

Here’s the exchange.

[Mahseen-us] Mecaenus says: “Now Antony must leave her utterly.”

To which Enobarbus replies:

“Never; he will not:

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” 

Ten words. “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” That’s Cleopatra. But it’s also London. 

And as long as we’re at – maybe a Shakespeare teaching moment here – offered up because the fit is so perfect. I used to say ‘I have three really interesting jobs – and being a London Walks guide is the one I like the most.’ The other two – well, my main job – my career – I was a News Editor, a television journalist. And with the weird hours that go with that line of work – a seven-day fortnight, two of the seven days being every other weekend – I was somehow able to keep my academic hand in. I taught Shakespeare – and the History of London – for 33 years for a summer school programme at a university here in London. I would always teach plays that were on the London stage – so the students could see the plays we were studying. So, for sure, Shakespeare’s great tragedy Othello would come round every few years. Introducing the play, I’d usually walk my students through the three main names in that play: stress that the sense is in the sound. Othello and Desdemona. Those are beautiful names – very pleasing sounds. But Iago… all those contorted vowels twisted together. Iago’s a twisted, deformed, evil human being – and what do you know, you can even hear what he’s like in his name.  But Shakespeare’s genius doesn’t stop there. As I said – it’s common knowledge, this – St James is the patron saint of Spain. The Spanish pronunciation of his name is Santiago. Can you hear it? Santiago.

And – we’re coming to the nub here – there’s a story, a legend that the turning point in the decisive battle in Spanish history –the Battle of Clavijo – came when Santiago, riding a white horse and holding a flag and a sword – suddenly appeared and led the charge that routed, defeated the Muslim enemy.  The Muslims were Moors and in Spain’s national iconography Santiago is known as “the slayer of the Moors.”

Ok, now make the connection. Othello, in Shakespeare’s play, is a Moor. The architect of Othello’s terrible tragedy is a man named Iago. In Shakespeare’s great tragedy Othello, the slayer of the Moor is a man named Iago. You want to see Shakespeare’s genius in a resonance that, in its sheer brilliance, is like a flash of lightning, there you’ve got it.

But time to move on. Some more landmark London poetry just ahead of us.

And, yes, you knew this was coming: Wordsworth’s sonnet – with its ungainly title – Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3 1802. It may well be the most famous poem ever written about London. And I think I’ll probably do it in full – do proper justice to it – come September 3rd. We’ll just do the first line here – and accompany it with a reminder that of all people to say this, it’s Wordsworth, the Lake District poet. The Lake District. The most breathtakingly beautiful part of England. That biographical note in itself multiplies the force and power – the impact – of the line. It hydraulics it. You ready for it? Here’s the line: “Earth has not anything to show more fair:”

That’s London he’s talking about, for heaven’s sakes. Wordsworth from the endlessly, infinitely beautiful Lake District.

What Shakespeare says, what Wordsworth says, political commentator Ian Dunt sort of rolled those two up together in a Tweet he put out yesterday. Ian Dunt said, “Thing about London is, it doesn’t just do city better than anywhere else, it does countryside better than anywhere else.” Though needless to say Wordsworth was eyeing up – and responding to city, not countryside in that perfect dawn of an opening line: “Earth has not anything to show more fair”. Admittedly responding to city with an implicit countryside comparison. 

The third poem is by Fleur Adcock. And she’s not just an incomer from elsewhere in England – she’s a full-on, full-blooded, proper immigrant. Fleur Adcock’s a transplanted New Zealander. The poem is her sonnet titled – I love it – Londoner.

Here it is:

Scarcely two hours back in the country

and I’m shopping in East Finchley High Road

in a cotton skirt, a cardigan, jandals —

or flipflops as people call them here,

where February’s winter. Aren’t I cold?

The neighbours in their overcoats are smiling

at my smiles and not at my bare toes:

they know me here.

                   I hardly know myself,

yet. It takes me until Monday evening,

walking from the office after dark

to Westminster Bridge. It’s cold, it’s foggy,

the traffic’s as abominable as ever,

and there across the Thames is County Hall,

that uninspired stone body, floodlit.

It makes me laugh. In fact, it makes me sing.

For starters, there it is again. Westminster Bridge. And I think the word hydraulics applies here as well. The feeling – the rejoicing in the city, the joy at being a Londoner, at coming “home” to London – is all the more felt for not being stated in so many words. 

Okay, that’s the poetry. Here’s the birthday surprise. This one you didn’t know. I didn’t know. 

Old St James’ Day – July 25th – 

was at one time the first day on which oysters were brought into the London market.

 And there was a notion that whoever ate oysters on that day would not want money throughout the year. And yes, there’s another connection isn’t there. Oysters come in a shell. St. James’ symbol is a shell. Admittedly, it’s a scallop shell but I think we can live with that. It’s the iconography equivalent of an off-rhyme in poetry.

And yes, I’ll be having oysters on St James’ Day, on my birthday – July 25th. This day in London history.

And a Today in London recommendation? No prizes for getting this one in one. Treat yourself to a plate of buttery and briny bivalves. There’s any number of top-notch oyster bars in London. But to single one out, maybe try The Oystermen Seafood Bar and Kitchen in Covent Garden. It’s in Henrietta Street. Earned a Best Restaurant gong at the OFM Awards a couple of years ago. Maybe I’ll see you there. 

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. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

One response to “Today (July 25) in London History – “it’s Cleopatra but it’s also London””

  1. Charles Piper says:

    Very good podcast for your special day. I’m feeling like our years are sliding past us, but it is good that you are making such good use of the days you have. I hope you have a great birthday, and that the oysters are wonderful.

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