“We never closed…we never clothed”

A David gallimaufry


London calling. David here.

Another gallimaufry tonight.

Thought I’d start with an addendum to yesterday’s podcast, which was mostly about the British slave trade and in particular my surprise that they were all at it.

By “all” I mean household names in the London pantheon. Famous 17th-century Londoners. People that we as guides talk about a fair bit. Because they’re good copy. There are good stories about them. And because they’re very much with us 350 years later. And not just in our history books. There are statues of many of them. A lot of them have streets named after them. They figure in televised period dramas and films. And so on.

And what jumped off the page at me was that in many years of encountering these people – reading about them, listening to radio programmes about them, going to lectures they figured in, etc. – this particular aspect of their lives, well, it was the dark side of the moon. I had no idea they’d piled right in – got there first, really – when slavery as a business opportunity set up shop in London. 

Indeed, an American chap who listened to the podcast got in touch, and said, “Oh, I was really surprised – taken aback – by your innocence – surely, that’s something you should have known – we all know that Thomas Jefferson had slaves and George Washington had slaves, and on it goes.”

And maybe native Britons do know. This could be one of those lacunae that goes with the territory of being what I am, an incomer, an immigrant. You didn’t go to school over here (well, I did, but not until I was in my 20s, a graduate student – and in any case a Brit would never use the word school when referring to university), Anyway, you didn’t go to school over here, you didn’t watch the television programmes your British contemporaries watched when they were growing up, etc. So naturally, you’re playing catch-up from Day One. Come over here, as I did, in your early 20s, your native-born contemporaries have a 20-year head start on you.

So, yes, maybe bred and born Brits do know that Samuel Pepys and John Locke and Lord Craven and Dukes and Admirals and Kings and Queens had their snouts in the slavery trough from Day One. I’ll find out. I’ll ask some of my fellow London Walks guides: did you know that our Swiss Army Knife Restoration favourite – Swiss Army Knife because there are so many different uses you can put him to when you’re guiding – our Swiss Army Knife Restoration favourite Samuel Pepys piled right in as soon as the opportunity to make money from the slave trade pitched up on these shores? Or what about Queen Anne’s speech to parliament on the 6th of June 1712. All eyes on Her Majesty there in the mother of parliaments – hanging on her every word – and probably nodding assent, maybe even standing up and clapping, when she came out with this gem, “I have insisted and obtained that the asientio or contract for furnishing the Spanish West Indies with negroes shall be made with us for 30 years.” A few days later there was a torchlight procession through London to in celebration. Getting that contract was like being awarded the Olympic Games. The particulars were 4,800 slaves annually for 30 years. And it wasn’t just London and Londoners who had reason to celebrate. The deal handsomely wetted the beak of the Spanish King. He got 33 and a half pesos in silver for each captive delivered safe and sound. 

How’s that old saying go, behind every great fortune there’s a great crime.

Anyway, yes, I’ll find out if my English colleagues – Tom and Judy and Simon – were in fact learning this stuff in school. And if it was part of the curriculum, I’ll ask: “did your teacher give you an idea of the numbers involved? That the cargo in human beings in those British ships may have been as many as 3 million people. And did the teacher mention that England was deemed by a court to have “too pure Air for slaves to breathe in.”?

And when I’ve finished with my inquisition I’ll of course add, “mustn’t feel too bad you guys, don’t forget that on my side of the Atlantic – well, what was my side of the Atlantic – President George Washington was a slave owner. And President Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner and a paedophile.”

That’ll make them feel better.

Moving on.

I thought I’d do a quick where are we, what’s the state of play with London Walks 13 months into the Covid era. Bad news first. Still losing money over fist. As long as we’ve got some to lose, well, it’s just money. No big deal. The crunch will come – and, alas, it gets closer every day – when the piggy bank is empty. So, yes, the good ship London Walks is still going down. All we’ve managed to do is slow the rate of descent ever so slightly. Haven’t been able to stop. Well, we’ll see what the future holds.

That said, we can certainly hold our heads high. Inevitably, we’ve taken to likening London Walks to the legendary Windmill Theatre.

The Windmill’s wartime boast was “We never closed.” 

Aside here:

the Windmill was in fact a strip club – famous for introducing nude showgirls to Britain. So, sure enough, it wasn’t long before “We never closed” became “We never clothed.”

Anyway, yes, like the Windmill London Walks never closed. Well, we did probably for a couple of weeks right after Covid first touched down last year. But then the ever-inventive, imaginative Adam came up with the idea of virtual tours…and that was it, we were off to the races, Covid or no Covid, Lockdown or no Lockdown.

And what a rainbow rainbow rainbow of creativity it’s been from this remarkable group of human beings, these wonderful guides. They’ve now created – and given – well over 300 different virtual tours. And not just London virtual tours. We’ve done them in Stratford and Salisbury here in England. And we’ve gone overseas: have done them in Paris, Athens, Rome, Venice, Tuscany, Naples, Athens, Turkey.

And Madrid and Seville are in the pipeline. You heard it here first.

What else? Well, there’s this. The London Walks daily podcast. We’ve produced – and broadcast, if that’s the term – well over 400 of them now. If you’d asked me 12 months ago how long we’d be able to keep putting them out I would have said, I don’t know, maybe about 30 episodes…can’t imagine that we’ll be able to maintain this pace. Shouldn’t think it’ll be too long before we have to cut back to once a week.” I was wrong.

All pretty impressive, if I say so myself. 

Impressive. But not the main thing. The main thing – well, let’s use the big league or premiership term: signings. The superstar guiding talent we’ve added to the London Walks roster. When this is all over, I’m going to look back on it and say, “Covid? Remember it well. That was the year we got Steve, Anna, Rick Jones, Leo, Fiona Jane. I mean, Steve’s the author of the Lonely Planet Guide to London and now he’s a London Walks guide. Rick was the Evening Standard’s Chief Music Critic for years – and now he’s a London Walks guide. Leo – Leo, the funnest, bubbliest guide ever – Leo, our sixth Guide of the Year Award winner. Leo, now a London Walks guide. Anna – superstar Anna – 25 years taking groups to Rome, Venice, Florence. That’s right, it’s Anna who’s created those hugely popular – and wonderful – virtual tours in Rome and Venice and Tuscany. Yes, Anna’s now a London Walks guide.

Our guides – it’s always been our strongest suit – it’s what London Walks is famous for – “the best guides in London” – because, after all, it all comes down to the guiding – as that journalist said – I think it’s my favourite quote of all – we’ve gleaned a lot of them over the years – I see each of those great quotes as a pennant in a row of championship pennant running round the top of our stadium – anyway, yes, my favourite is that one, “If this were a golf tournament every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.” That was said years ago. How would that same journalist put it today, with our much stronger line-up.

How’s the saying go, it’s an ill wind that doesn’t blow some good.

The ill wind of Covid’s brought us these world-beating guides.

So, yes, a year-on, that’s the state of play. 

Or is it? No, I haven’t just remembered, haven’t forgotten. I’ve purposely saved it for last.

You guys. Our walkers. Your support and encouragement and warmth – without it, without you, none of this would have been possible. London Walks wouldn’t be here today. So this is to say, “thank you.”

A heartfelt thank you. 

A heartfelt thank you – and an unashamed request. Please stay with us. Stand by us. And if you can, spread the word.

Thanks again.

C’est tout.

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