London Walks connecting.
This… is London.
Story time. History time.
Yes, London Walks.
AKA Streets Ahead.
It’s Wednesday morning, February 7th, 2024.
The obvious pin – the news story – is yesterday’s announcement that King Charles III has cancer. I’m going to put up a more important one, though. Not least because that assertion in itself – that there was a more important story – is an act of open, forthright, defiant lese majeste. Aside here: thank God for the satirical magazine Private Eye. It’s just about the only institution in the country that doesn’t have a forelock. And if it did have one, it wouldn’t tug it. I’m thinking of its front-page coronation headline: Man in Hat Sits on Chair.
Anyway, the more important story, by my lights, is the story that headlined the news until the Buckingham Palace juggernaut announcement rolled up.
If you think about it, the whole business – a 75-year-old-man gets cancer and that’s the most important news story of the day – well, you want an accurate representation of our culture and society, just put a rational, healthy, not-bent-out-of-shape culture and society in front of a funfair mirror, and what you’ll be looking at is an accurate portrayal of the freak show that is our caul. Caul, you know that word? A caul is the amniotic membrane enclosing a fetus. I’m saying our culture, our society is a caul of sorts. And if we’re honest it’s a pretty misshapen caul. I mean, how many other 75-year-old men found out they had cancer yesterday?
Did any of them make the news?
No, for me yesterday’s important story was the announcement
that there’s been an “appalling decline” in the health of children under the age of five in the UK. Soaring rates of obesity and tooth decay and a rise in infant mortality. Horrible. Grim. Appalling. And lese majeste it may be to say it, but that’s the story that matters.
It hit home even harder here because guide Charlie has just created a new walk called The Children of Outcast London. Charlie makes the point that in the 1850s only six in every ten children lived to see their fifth birthday. That’s beyond horrible. And it’s deeply shaming that 175 years later the bar has crept back in that direction.
Ok, moving on. Today’s random.
This podcast is another in the Trafalgar Square redux series. The star of the Trafalgar Square show is of course Admiral Nelson. Which necessarily means that Napoleon is there as well. After a fashion. He’s there because the great fear was that Napoleon would get that mighty army of his across the channel and invade this country, defeat it, bring it to heel. Nelson’s defeating the French fleet checkmated that prospective invasion. I often make the point when I’m talking about Palmerston on my Old Westminster walk that they say you can tell where a 70-year-old man is coming from if you find out what was going on in the world when he was 20 years old. I can personally vouch for the truth of that observation. When I was 20 the Vietnam War was going on and there’s no question but it was formative for me, I’ve never got over it. It was unquestionably the most important event in my life. It’s one of the reasons I came to London. No Vietnam War I might not have been doing this podcast. But Palmerston was the path I started down here. When Palmerston was 20 years old Napoleon had an army of 345,000 men. There were 30,000 men in the British army. Sums it up, doesn’t it. Sums being the mot juste. Why Nelson was practically worshipped. He was the saviour. But that’s not our random. Our random is the other Napoleon. Napoleon III. Napoleon Bonaparte – the really famous Napoleon, probably the brightest meteor to streak across the European skies of 225 years ago – Napoleon Bonaparte was the uncle of Napoleon III. He, Napoleon III, was exiled in London for several years. That working class, radical movement Chartism was out and about in those years. It was a time of mass demonstrations, mass demonstrations that were greatly feared by the authorities. The ruling class blanched at the idea of tens of thousands of Chartists marching on Parliament. Napoleon III did his bit. The last French Emperor volunteered and served as a special constable in Trafalgar Square, there to break up and head off any Chartist revolutionary upheaval that might try to get up a head of steam in Trafalgar Square. That’s just fun to know – Bonaparte and his nephew, Napoleon III, are both part of the Trafalgar Square story.
P for Pin, the news story. R for Random – Napoleon III in Trafalgar Square. And O for Ongoing. Our main Trafalgar Square story.
It’s a poem. You might recall, I trailed it a couple of weeks ago. I said it would run on February 7th.
February 7th because exactly 100 years ago – February 7th, 1924, Herbert Lomas was born. You almost certainly won’t have heard of him. You should have done. And now you have. He was the most wonderful poet.
Herbert Lomas was born in the Pennines, in Todmorden, in West Yorkshire. His parents owned a pub, the Black Swan. His mother was the daughter of a bankrupt mill owner. Both parents were highly articulate. They loved the language. They passed that love on to their son. When he was 18, Bertie as he was known headed off to Liverpool University to read English. It was 1942. Before long he was called up. In his words, he had a cushy war, spent it on the northwest frontier of India. Even though guarding the Khyber Pass was dangerous work. He was shot at by a Pathan tribesman. War over, he went back to Liverpool. Graduated with first-class honours. Taught English on the Greek island of Spetses and then at the University of Finland. He translated Finnish poets. Was made knight, first class, Order of the White Rose of Finland. One of his students was a beautiful American woman, Mary. They married. Lomas returned to England in 1965. Taught in what was London University’s Borough Road College. Mary died in a horseback riding accident in 1994.
That’s all changed, changed utterly. She is everywhere and nowhere, now that you are less than one. There’s no getting over it – but I suppose you try to come to terms with it.
Lomas wrote a sequence of poems called Death of a Horsewoman. A fellow Yorkshire poet, a much better known poet, Ted Hughes, greatly admired Death of a Horsewoman. It was what persuaded Ted Hughes to write Birthday Letters, his extraordinary volume of poems, many of them about the death, in 1962, of his wife, the famous American poet Sylvia Plath.
In that terrible winter – snow two feet deep – Sylvia Plath turned on the gas and put her head in the oven. But that’s another story, albeit connected, intimately, with where we are today.
Herbert Lomas was a deeply religious man. He died thirteen years ago.
The poem is called St Martin-in-the-Fields. St Martin-in-the-Fields is of course the wonderful old church in Trafalgar Square.
I’ve only just now realised that we’ve already been here with this poem. I chose to read it for our one-hundredth podcast. That was eight years ago.
This is our 1,025th podcast. And no question but much loved, great poems deserve the Auld lang syne treatment. We should revisit them again and again. They’re good for us.
Here’s what I said about the poem eight years ago. It was true then; it’s true today.
St Martin-in-the-Fields is a small miracle about a miracle in a miracle in a miracle.* And I (David) love it.
*The four miracles are: 1) the poem; 2) the moment in the church that the poem records; 3) the church; 4) the city in which the church is located (this city, London).
Here’s the poem.
City churches aren’t always easy
To pray in: there may be someone buffing brasses
Squeakily, insistently, with cheesy
Breath and a polish of rage behind their glasses,
Sending almost tangible meditations
To disturb our straggly congregations.
Or visitors delicately boggle at the faithful patients,
Guide Book in hand, not expecting religion
In architecture like this. Outside, the pigeons
Drop little pats of white on assembled nations;
Inside we pray, uneasily wondering:
Whoever it is up there, is he listening?
Yet here bums in a blue-chinned, Greek-looking worshipper,
Pockets stuffed with evening newspapers, coat
Flapping, and grabs his God by the throat:
He prays precipitately, wagging his head – a pew-gripper
Pointing out to an old employer – what?
Is it horses? A tip flopped? A reproach? Or not?
And suddenly I’m in it: his grace has snatched
Me out: over the altar the angels’ faces
Break the wood: they’re reaching down with fact,
Listening, embracing, swooping, and I’m hatched:
A broad white shell of completeness
Has widened and cracked:
I’m open to sweetness.
You’ve been listening to This… is London, the London Walks podcast. Emanating from www.walks.com –
home of London Walks,
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.
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
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,
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.