November 22nd. Red letter day for Charon, the ferryman who rows the souls of the dead across the Styx. A lot of those embarkations push off from these shores, London. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.
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Story time. History time.
November 22nd. Busy day for Charon. Charon you’ll remember is the ferryman of the underworld. He rows the dead – well, deceased souls – across the River Styx to Hades, to the underworld. To the land of the dead.
He’s well named, Charon. His name means “of keen gaze.” It’s a reference to his feverish and fierce eyes.
But, yes, Charon’s a busy chap on November 22nd. The one everyone knows of course is Charon’s ferrying President Kennedy across the Styx on November 22nd, 1963.
I hadn’t realised that Charon had also ferried an American vice president across on November 22nd. One Henry Wilson. That was in 1875. I thought, “gosh, an American president and an American vice president both on the same November day – put a black circle around November 22nd. But then I remembered that Charon took three American presidents for a boat ride on July 4th. And for good measure an American vice president.
Anyway, long before that Dallas embarkation, Charon had favoured November 22nd for Robin Hood’s last boat ride. And Blackbeard’s. And Clive of India’s. Charon picked Clive up in London. In Berkeley Square in Mayfair. Massive overdose of opium. Clive of India was in a lot of pain. He abandoned a game of cards he was playing was friends. He was found dead on the floor of an adjoining room. Charon getting everything just so for the embarkation.
Charon had another London pick-up on November 22nd, 1900. Arthur Sullivan, the composer, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame.
And the list goes on.
November 22nd, 1963 was especially busy for Charon. The business in Dallas of course. But he also had to go to Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles to get Aldous Huxley and to Oxford to get C.S. Lewis.
You want more? Ask and thou shalt receive. The American activist and author Jack London – who wrote so powerfully about the desperately poor in the East End of London – was ferried across on November 22nd, 1916. Mae West was in 1980. Charon had another November 22nd London pick-up in 1993. Another celebrated English author, Anthony Burgess. He died in Twickenham. And for a wild card, pop star Michael Hutchence. Thinking of Charon’s feverish and fierce eyes, I can well imagine the stare-down between those two on that boat ride.
And all of that’s by way of a preamble. Because there was another death on November 22nd. Another London death. A death of sorts.
November 22nd, 1990 was the day the Conservative party defenestrated Margaret Thatcher.
Well, the day she resigned.
She’d had a long innings. She’d won three elections. Was Prime Minister for a whole decade and more. She’d said she fully intended to be in 10 Downing Street for a long time. And she was. But not as long as she wanted to be. For about a year polls showed that she was less popular than her party.
A September 1990 poll showed that Labour had established a 14 per cent lead over the Conservatives.
Then came deputy prime minister Geoffrey Howe’s blistering resignation speech in the House of Commons. That was on November 13th. He was the last remaining member of her original 1979 cabinet. The last straw for Howe was the Iron Lady’s openly dismissive attitude to the government’s proposal for a new European currency. Howe took aim with a cricket metaphor. He said, “it’s like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.” From that moment on it was everything to play for. A blonde assassin named Michael Heseltine entered the lists a day later. He mounted a challenge for the leadership. If it sounds familiar, it should do. Blonde assassin, furore over Europe, the EEC as it was then. Like a re-run that drama was recently played out again, though this time the principals were named Boris Johnson and Theresa May.
And of course the agonising torque of this country’s relationship with the continent it’s part of but not conjoined to proceeds apace.
Anyway, in that first ballot Mrs Thatcher did not get enough votes to see off the Heseltine challenge. She vowed to fight on and fight to win the second ballot. Then, famously, her cabinet members, one by one, met privately with her. They told her the game was up. She announced her resignation. That announcement will have been the Charon moment. Her seeing his feverish and fierce eyes as he came for her. After a final audience with the Queen and calling other world leaders and making a final speech in the House of Commons she left Downing Street for good, left it in tears. That was on November 28th. That was when we saw what she’d seen – that feverish and fierce gaze, implacable, levelled full on at her. The sands have run out Prime Minister. Death – a living death – the underworld, Hades, that’s what we see on that strained face and in those tear-stained eyes. Maybe take another look at that famous photograph. That moment in our fairly recent political history is a fanfare moment on my Old Westminster walk. We get a look at Hades. That is to say, the house the limousine ferried her to, the house where Michael Brunson and the other political reporters caught up with her, where she gave her first interview post-resignation.
And a Today in London recommendation: well, how’s about our Old Westminster walk? See Hades, see that house Charon ferried her to. And then afterward – that’s if you go on the afternoon walk – go to the Evensong service at Westminster Abbey.
You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from www.walks.com – 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.