Trafalgar Square Redux 5 – Epilogue to an Empire

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

Story time. History time.

Yes, London Walks.

Streets Ahead.

It’s January 20th, 2024.

Here’s today’s PRO.

PRO. P for Pin. A January 20, 2024 news story pinned to the front end of this podcast.

And R for Random. A Random fun, quirky, catch-you-by-surprise factoid.

And O for Ongoing. The latest installment of this ongoing series about Trafalgar Square.

The pin – the news story – is the announcement that central Paris might become the first major European city to ban cars.

And for good measure, how a London hotel sting caught those two Swiss museum heist thieves. The thieves were two brothers from Greenwich. The brothers took a saw and crowbar to the front door of Geneva’s Museum of Far Eastern Arts, which hosts the Bauer Foundation, Geneva’s world-renowned collection of Chinese and Japanese artefacts. Once in the museum they grabbed two-14th century Ming Dynasty bowls and a vase and hot-footed it. The heist took less than a minute. Not so fast, though – because as the basic principle of forensic science puts it, “every contact leaves a trace.” Taking their leave of the museum one of the thieves scraped his stomach against the sides of the hole in the door. Doing so, he left a calling card. Traces of his DNA. DNA doesn’t lie. The DNA trail led to one of the brothers in Greenwich. The hotel sting, arrests, a trial and convictions followed as a matter of course.

Every contact leaves a trace. Let us now repair to Hampton Court. Hampton Court  450 years ago. Not so long ago archaeologists excavated a Tudor piss pot  from the privy garden there at Hampton Court. Here’s one for you to lap up – though I’m not sure lap up is the felicitous way of putting it – that rather special Hampton Court vessel has been scientifically proven to contain traces of genuine Tudor urine.

The past – you can’t piss it away.

Ok, here today’s Random. The next time you go by a building site and there’s a crane doing its thing. Or go down to the docks and watch the cranes in action there – you might like to keep in mind that there’s a Stuart execution – lots of Stuart executions – ghosting inside that crane. You didn’t see it before but you will now.

Another word for crane is derrick. Derrick was the surname of a 17th-century English hangman. His name led to a gallows being called a derrick. Then when cranes came along – well, it’s obvious isn’t it, with that arm sticking out, the arm the condemned hung from, it resembled a gallows. And a gallows was called a derrick, after the hangman.

They say we die three times. We die when we die. We die when we’re buried. And we die the last time our name is spoken. That 17th-century London hangman – Derrick – he’s not dead yet. In fact, he’s going to be around a long time. As long as building sites and docks have cranes and as long as cranes are called derricks.

Derrick the hangman and his work. Derrick lives. London – and the English language – have given Derrick the hangman the gift of eternal life.

And that brings us to our Ongoing. The very latest chapter on Trafalgar Square.

It’s a poem. One of at least two that I’ll be rolling out in this Trafalgar Square series. The second one will come on February 7th. The date couldn’t be more appropriate. But you’ll have to wait till then to find out why.

Today’s poem should by all rights get its airing on October 21st. Trafalgar Day. And it’s such a good poem maybe wheeling it out every October 21st will become a London Calling tradition. We’ll see.

Anyway, our poet is Jon Stallworthy. It’s a poem about the British Empire. Jon Stallworthy was a child of the British Empire. His parents were New Zealanders. Thanks to this podcast I now know where Jon Stallworthy was born. In Maida Vale, not far from where I live. It’s going  to be fun to go to that address, stand outside and savour that teensy bit of satisfaction that will invariably come with the thought, “so this is where one of my favourite 20th-century poets – the author of that great poem about Trafalgar Square – this is where that great London poet got his start in life.” That was on January 18th, 1935. So timing-wise, I didn’t miss by much, did I.

Jon Stallworthy wasn’t given to pontificating about poetry. Two brief remarks give us, I think, the temper of the man and his mind. Asked about poetry he said, “look, I will echo Keats: ‘I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affection.’”

He believed that in the long term poetry could make things happen, and that the great war poets ‘can be credited with kindling the anti-war fury that blazed through the streets of London in February 2003.’

Jon Stallworthy died ten years ago.

Here’s his undying poem,

“Epilogue to an empire – 1600 – 1900: An Ode for Trafalgar Day.”

As I was crossing Trafalgar Square

Whose but the Admiral’s shadow hand

Should tap my shoulder. At my ear:

“You, sir, stay-at-home citizen

Poet, here’s more use for your pen

Than picking scabs. Tell them in England

This: when first I stuck my head in the air,

Winched from a cockpit’s tar and blood

To my crow’s nest over London, I

Looked down on a singular crowd

Moving with the confident swell

Of the sea. As it rose and fell

Every pulse in the estuary

Carried them quayward, carried them seaward.

Box-wallah, missionary, clerk,

Lancer, planter, I saw them all

Linked like the waves on the waves embark.

Their eyes looked out – as yours look in –

To harbor names on the cabin-

Trunks carrying topees to Bengal,

Maxims or gospels to lighten a dark

Continent.  Blatant as the flag

They went out under, were the bright

Abstractions nailed to every mast.

Sharpshooters since have riddled most

and buried an empire in their rags –

Scrivener, do you dare to write

A little ‘e’ in the epilogue

To an empire that spread its wings

Wider than Rome?  They are folded,

You say, with the maps and flags; awnings

And verandas overrun

By impis of the ant; sun-

Downers sunk, and the planters’ blood

Turned tea or siphoned into rubber saplings.

My one eye reports that their roads

Remain, their laws, their language

Seeding all winds.  They were no gods

From harnessed clouds, as the islanders

Thought them, nor were they monsters

But men, as you stooped over your page

And you and you and these wind-driven crowds

Are and are not. For you have lost

Their rhythm, the pulse of the sea

In their salt blood.  Your heart has missed

The beat of centuries, its channels

Silted to their source. The muscles

Of the will stricken by dystrophy

Dishonor those that bareback rode the crest

Of untamed seas. Acknowledge

Their energy. If you condemn

Their violence in a violent age

Speak of their courage. Mock their pride

When, having built as well, in as wide

A compass, you have none. Tell them in

England this.”

And a pigeon sealed the page.



You’ve been listening to This… is London, the London Walks 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:

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, archaeologists, historians,

university professors,

criminal defence lawyers,

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 walking and Good Londoning

one and all. See ya next time.

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