Trafalgar Square Redux 10 – the Quarterdeck

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


It’s February 23rd, 2024. Today’s pin – the news story that gets the show on the road – is Chris Van Tulleken, the TV doctor, spelling it out to the House of Lords Food, Diet and Obesity Committee. Talking about the marketing power of the Food Giants, the companies that traffic in processed foods, Dr Van Tulleken said, “the companies are not in control of their business model.” He said they’re marketing their processed foods today the way tobacco was marketed in the 1970s. He said, “they are obliged to institution investors who hold all our pensions. They would like to behave in a moral way…but the way the system works, they have to sell harmful, additive food because that’s how they make their money. The big food businesses can’t control themselves.” He said there’s a direct correlation between the food giants’ huge profits and the UK’s health crisis.

Moving on, today’s Random. In the last podcast, we met Londoner John, twenty-five years a forklift driver, and for the last two years, homeless, sleeping rough. John said there are 50,000 homeless people in London. I looked at the official statistics, they say over 10,000. 50,000 or 10,000 – they’re statistics. They don’t begin to address, the lived, individual experience – the despair and hardship – of every single man, woman and child who’ll be sleeping rough tonight. And tomorrow night. And this time next year. In John’s phrase, ‘we’re struggling.”

Whatever the headcount is, it’s horrifying. And will there be more – or fewer – in a week’s time. And if there are fewer, will it be, at least in part, because some of the people who are struggling tonight will die in the next few days? I had John on my mind. And his hometown, London. My home town now as well. And I wanted to step back, take a long view, time-wise. I turned to one of the classics of London historical literature, Dorothy George’s London Life in the 18th century. A rough population figure for Georgian London was 550,000 people. Dorothy George estimated that by the end of the 18th-century, there were in London “above 20,000 miserable individuals of various classes, who rise up every morning without knowing how…they are to be supported during the passing day, or where in many instances they are to lodge on the succeeding night.” Other city dwellers, rendered fearful, shunned the poor. The very presence of the poor increased the morbid nervousness and unease of all Londoners. We see the shape of the city from the shadow it casts.

And, like John, we keep moving.

So here’s today’s Ongoing. Our ongoing engagement with London. We’re going to circle back to Trafalgar Square. This will make what, Trafalgar Square Redux 10. We’re going to take one more quick look at Nelson’s death.

I sometimes envision Trafalgar Square as the HMS Victory. The trigger for that was reading that Nelson’s column is the same height as the main mast on the Victory. I see main entry of the National Gallery as the quarterdeck of the Victory. From up there, you can look out across everything, just as Nelson could look out across his ship. There’s the main mast. Nelson’s column.

It’s one of those great London vantage points. Beyond the column is the equestrian statue of Charles I. Eternally looking down at the spot where he was beheaded. Looking down Whitehall, government street, the most important street in the UK. Decisions taken there affect the lives of every man, woman and child in this country. And way down at the far end is the Palace of Westminster. Big Ben and co. When I was there on Thursday evening it was just getting dark and the Ayrton lamp was lit. The Ayrton lamp is that very power lamp high up in the rigging of the Queen Elizabeth Tower, the Big Ben Tower. You can’t miss it if you look for it. When it’s lit it’s proclaiming that Parliament is sitting. The game’s afoot in the House of Commons.

So that’s a good view from the quarterdeck. And why else do I see that raised main entry of the National Gallery as the quarterdeck? Well, for one thing the quarterdecks of the wooden world – the ships of the Georgian navy – were a rectangular space about twice as long as they were broad. And those are exactly the dimensions of the main entry of the National Gallery. The quarterdeck – where Nelson was standing when the fatal ball tore into his left shoulder – was the most dangerous place on board the HMS Victory. The largest part of the ship’s company were below decks, manning the guns. They were protected by the heavy timbers of the ship’s sides. The marines and their officers were on deck but they were firing from behind a breastwork of rolled hammocks in nettings on top of the bulwarks. Their protection was roughly comparable to sandbags up to chest height. The bosun and his crew who saw to the sail and repaired rigging were exposed. But they were continually on the move. Only Nelson, only the admiral and his fellow quarter-deck officers, were in the position of standing still to be shot at. And you can be sure the enemy marksmen knew where the quarterdeck was, they knew where Nelson could be found, where they could get him in their sights. So that’s me, that’s why whenever I go to the National Gallery I make a point of going out onto that main entrance. It’s the quarter-deck of Trafalgar Square. And credit where credit is due, for the look and characteristics of the quarter-deck this landlubber is indebted to the great naval historian, N.A.M. Rodger.

You’ve been listening to This… is London, the London Walks podcast. Emanating from –

home of London Walks,

London’s signature

walking tour company.m

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:

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 a 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.

Or take our Ripper Walk. It’s the creation of the world’s leading expert on Jack the Ripper, Donald Rumbelow, the author of the definitive book on the subject.  Britain’s most distinguished crime historian, Donald is, in the words of The Jack the Ripper A to Z,“internationally recognised as the leading authority on Jack the Ripper.” Donald’s emeritus now but he’s still the guiding light on our Ripper Walk. He curates the walk. He trains up and mentors our Ripper Walk guides. Fields any and all questions they throw at him.

The London Walks Aristocracy of Talent – its All-Star team of guides – includes a former London Mayor. It includes the former Chief Music Critic for the Evening Standard. It includes the Chair of the Association of Professional Tour Guides. And the former chair of the Guild of Guides.

It includes barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, a former Museum of London archaeologist, historians,

university professors (one of them a distinguished Cambridge University paleontologist); it includes

criminal defence lawyers,

Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre 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 walking and Good Londoning

one and all. See ya next time.

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