War is coming

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

This… is London.

This is London Walks.

Streets ahead.

Story time. History time.


Good morning, London.

The pin for the day – the news story that gets the London Calling show on the road – no, it’s not what you’d expect. I’m going to give it a miss. You know the one I’m talking about. The one that everyone’s talking about. The one that’s all over everywhere. Well, all march one way. Except not all because I’m not marching that way. I’m breaking ranks. All I’m going to say is this – food for thought, surely – approximately 500 other women in the UK got some horrible news yesterday. They found out they have cancer. As will 500 more today. And so on.

No, my pin for the day is something of a different stripe altogether. Different but oh so British. Moving. Perhaps ever so slightly daft. The country is up in arms because the daily twitter is being pared way down. It’s going to a weekly twitter. So that’s six days a week, no daily twitter. And, yes, bears repeating, the country is up in arms about that catastrophe, that piece of arrant vandalism.

Now what’s the Daily Twitter. And I have to confess, I didn’t know about it until yesterday. And when the story first moved, I took it to mean that Radio 4 was reading out, in the morning, a piquant or funny or special or eccentric or amusing Tweet. That’s Tweet as in Twitter, the social media maelstrom that Elon Musk took over and rebranded X. There are 500 million of them a day and I thought the BBC was latching onto one of them and recycling it.

Well, live and learn.

Turns out that Tweet of the Day in Brit speak is 90 seconds of bird song that Radio 4 was airing every day early in the morning. It was a mini programme in its own right. Its slot was after the programme Farming Today and before the Today Show. The Farming Today slot is 5.45 am to 5.58 am. The Today programme starts two minutes later, at 6 am. That two-minute window in between those two programmes was the Tweet of the Day slot. 90 seconds of bird song followed by a quick chat about the bird species whose bird song you’d just listened to. And, well, should have known this, turns out that early-rising Brits the length and breadth of this country have loved waking up to the sounds of birds each morning and having a relaxing start to the day.

And now all that’s to be no more. Well, just one day a week. Sunday morning. And the reason for the silence of the birds, finances. Its budget ever squeezed, the BBC is having to make programming cuts to save money. The much-loved Tweet of the Day is one of those cuts. Silence of the birds it might be but it’s certainly not silence of the thousands, maybe millions of Brits who listen to the programme and love starting their day with bird song. As I said, they’re up in arms. Demanding that Tweet of the Day go on Tweeting.

Moving on, today’s Random. I went to Kew Gardens yesterday. What a joy. And perfect timing it was. It’s cherry blossom week. Does you good – works wonders – going to Kew Gardens. All that green, all those flowers, nature refulgent. And it’s not just the senses that get super stimulated and pleased and delighted, it’s also the mind. You learn so much. The common Rhododendron, for example. Its history, it’s like an advent calendar. You peel off this square you learn that it’s named for its home in the Pontic Mountains of northeastern Turkey. You peel off that square you learn that the nectar of rhododendron flowers is toxic. That it’s deadly to British honeybees. But doesn’t faze bumblebees, so they’ve become collaborators in the rhododendron invasion. And for that matter, the honeybees back home – in the Turkish mountains along the Black Sea coast – have evolved immunity to the toxin. So far so good – for that part of Turkey. What’s not good is that the honey those Turkish bees produce has traces of the toxin and humans aren’t proof against a generous helping of it. It lowers blood pressure and slows the heart dangerously. In smaller amounts, though, “Mad Honey” as it’s called is used as a pick-me-up or a recreational drug. Apparently it gives you a tingling wooziness. And if you’re a man it gives you something else. Or is believed to do so. You ready for this? It’s said to enhance sexual performance. And what follows from that conviction – it might be an old wives’ tale – is – no surprise, this – most of the inadvertent poisonings are among men of a certain age. There, you’ve been warned, chaps.

And that jolly note brings us to today’s Ongoing. It’s March 23rd, 2024. But here on the London Calling podcast it’s also March 23rd, 1775. And we’re here in London. But we’re also a little way out in the Atlantic, on a packet ship, bound for America. And how does Puck put it, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “I’ll put a girdle round the earth in 40 minutes.” Well, we’ll put a girdle round the earth in 40 seconds. Because not only are we a little way out to sea on this side of the Atlantic, we’re also on the other side. In Richmond, Virginia. In St John’s Church, in Richmond, Virginia. We’re faces in the crowd of the Second Virginia Convention. The date bears repeating, it’s March 23rd, 1775. A delegate from Hanover County named Patrick Henry has got to his feet and is speaking. He says, “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

He knew his history, did Patrick Henry. Concluding his speech he plunged an ivory paper knife toward his chest in imitation of the Roman patriot, Cato the Younger.

Stunned, the convention sat momentarily in silence. Sat in silence While Henry’s peroration worked its magic. And it did. Those words swayed the Convention. Virginia – the home of George Washington, remember – decided to throw its lot in with the New England colonies. “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” that was the War Cry of the American War of Independence.

Now let’s go back to that packet ship on the other side of the Atlantic. One of our fellow passengers is Ben Franklin. He’d lived in London for years. In Craven Street, just off Trafalgar Square as it happens. He’d represented the American colonists in their quarrel with His Majesty’s Government. To the eleventh hour he’d believed that reconciliation was possible. His hosts turned a deaf ear to his arguments. They took a hard line. In fact, they were going to arrest Benjamin Franklin. He left that Craven Street House on March 20th, 1775. Made his way to the coast. Set sail on March 21st. On March 22nd, on board the packet, he begins – in the guise a very long letter to his son, a detailed account of those last months of negotiations. And how he couldn’t get through to the powers that be. Couldn’t talk them round to making the necessary concessions.

I for one am haunted by that hugely important chapter in American and British history. The way it haunts me the most is summed up in the phrase “ships passing in the night.” In 1775 it took several weeks to cross the Atlantic. Somewhere mid-Atlantic Franklin’s ship will have passed the ship coming from America that carried the news of what went down in that Richmond, Virginia church, the news of what Patrick Henry said, the news of that war cry. That ship was coming this way. The message it was carrying, in effect said, the die is cast. For his part, Franklin must have believed that there was still a chance – the slimmest of chances – of avoiding war. The ship coming this way was out in front of the curve. For once in his life, Ben Franklin was behind it. That ship had passed. War was coming.

And while you’re at it, there’s another ships-passing-in-the night moment on that trans-Atlantic crossing. Closer to America Franklin’s ship will have passed the ship bound for England carrying the news of the shot heard round the world, the start of the American War of Independence in the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775.

Maybe we give the last word – the spectacularly wrong last word – to the great English man of letters, Dr Samuel Johnson.

Shortly after Patrick Henry’s speech Dr Johnson published a pamphlet titled Taxation No Tyranny. In it he denounced American separatists as “traitors to this country” and expressed confidence that any conflict would end with “English superiority and American obedience.” One of history’s great belly floppers, that prediction.

Really, the torch that Patrick Henry lit with those seven words on this day in 1775 – “Give me liberty or give me death – that blaze led to the most important historical development of the last two and a half centuries. The most important world historical development.

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

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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