London Walks connecting.
London Walks here with today’s London fix.
Story time. History time.
Recent time. And not so recent – indeed, a long time ago.
Just another day in London.
Here’s a couple of entrees London served up for me on the longest day of the year. June 21st, the Summer Solstice.
I did a private Hampstead Walk for a global group of energy and petrochemical companies. They had people in town from some of their far-flung outposts and they laid on a Get to Know London outing for them. Well, get to know a special part of London. Hampstead.
Anyway, as always, got there early. Was going up the High Street and heard a voice booming out over a public address system. As it happens it was a portable public address system. Well dressed gentleman who was carrying a placard that read Sterilisation for the Nation. He was announcing to one and all that, I’m quoting here, “if your father had had a vasectomy all of your problems would be over.” And “I have made the ultimate mistake of bringing people into existence three times.”
Puzzling over words the way I always do I naturally wondered if that meant he had brought the same set of people into existence three times and if it was the ultimate mistake why did he keep repeating it? And also wondered of course how his kids felt about his making the ultimate mistake.
Anyway, it’s London. It’s full of characters like said gentleman. There are three possible responses to them. Two of the responses are sensible. The third one is not a good idea. You can ignore them. Brush on by them. Get away from them as fast as possible. Or you can stand a safe distance away and be an unengaged spectator. Hear what he’s got to say. Maybe do as I did, be bemused and take a couple of notes. That’s also not a bad strategy. What’s not a good idea is to engage them. Argue with them. You won’t get anywhere. It’s like trying to pick up Mercury with a fork.
Just generally, London really is a city of eccentrics. There must be thousands of them happily nesting in the tree called London. London’s fond of its eccentrics. Takes them to its heart. I remember the first time I was in Brussels. Many years ago. I was wearing a pair of red shoes. I was in a shop, innocently minding my own business. And suddenly I was accosted, out of the blue, by a Belgian woman. Presumably a Brussels woman. She was angry. She was offended. No, outraged. She took me to task. She said, “no Belgian man would ever wear red shoes.” You’d think I’d dropped my trousers right by her table in a swish restaurant and defecated. But all I’d done was go out in public in Brussels wearing red shoes.
And of course coming from where I live – London, well, apparel-wise, anything goes. Wear what you want, no matter how outrageous, nobody’s going to mind in the least. It’s par for the course for London. A favourite dictum of mine about London and its citizenry is “the civilised indifference of the London.” I grew up in a small town in the Midwest. Everything was everybody’s business. People were nosy. I hated it. Just doesn’t happen here. The standard setting for a Londoner is civilised indifference. If you need help they’ll proffer it. But otherwise your business is your business and only yours. Londoners aren’t annoying busybodies poking their noses in. But it’s not just indifference, it’s civilised indifference. To my way of thinking that’s the gold standard of social behaviour.
Now all of that said – anything goes as long as it’s not harmful, fertile ground for eccentricity, etc. – there is one respect in which London’s not a happy hunting ground for push-the-envelope types. That’s if they’re trying to get a rise, trying to get attention, get noticed, trying to grab you by the lapels, shake you and say ‘look at me, look at me.’ Fond memories of a tale Mary tells. From way back. It was rush hour. She – along with hundreds of commuters – it was packed out – she was moving along a passageway in Charing Cross Station. And then there he was. Up ahead, some poor sod was exposing himself. Had it out. Was saying to the London commuters rushing by him. “Look at this, look at this, look at this.” And of course nobody was. Nobody could be arsed. They just brushed by him. Ignored him – and it – completely. He wasn’t getting even a smidgeon of what he was so desperately seeking: he wanted attention, he wanted to be noticed, he wanted to shock. No joy, I’m afraid. Not in London. So the place can, I suppose, be demoralising for attention seekers. Londoners for the most part aren’t going to pay you a blind bit of notice.
Anyway, it was time to move on. So I left the Vasectomy for the Nation campaigner and moved up to Hampstead Tube where I was meeting my walkers. I was just hanging about and suddenly I noticed what the young woman standing near me was holding. A little bird. I asked her about it. She said, ‘it’s a baby pigeon.’ That was a first for me. Famously, you never see a baby pigeon. Now I had. She said it had fallen in the canal down in Camden Town. She’d fished it out. And for some reason brought it up to Hampstead. She’d rung London Wildlife Protection. It’s a volunteer-run organisation that focusses on wild birds living in London.
Sure enough in due course a young woman pitched up with a box. The baby pigeon was put in the box and went on its way to Pigeon House in south London, where it would be looked after. That was the first I’d heard about the London Wildlife Protection outfit. And indeed the first I’d heard about Pigeon House.
And I also found out that the little orange feathers above the beak signal that it’s a baby pigeon. So, what a learning curve. I think the general point is, there’s always something new, always something unexpected in London. Even quotidian London is fascinating.
Age cannot wither nor custom stale her – London’s – infinite variety.
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. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. See ya next time.