London Walks connecting.
London Walks here with today’s London fix.
Story time. History time.
Here’s a soupcon from the Mrs Dalloway’s London Walk.
Mrs Dalloway goes for her walk on a Wednesday in mid-June, 1923. So this is the centenary summer of that polestar moment in the history of English literature.
The walk has a five-fold purpose.
The primary goal I suppose is to increase your appreciation of that great novel.
Secondly, we of course walk in Mrs. Dalloway’s footsteps.
Thirdly, the walk is a reconstruction of the London of 1923.
Fourthly, I do my best to people the streets and buildings of Virginia Woolf’s London with the characters from the novel.
Effectively, we do some on-the-ground mapping or charting. The characters in the novel are like isotopes moving through London. We get a good ‘read’ of where they’re going. What they see, feel, experience, encounter.
Fifthly, there are a few peculiarities about the novel. Matters that are puzzling. The walk sheds light on, clears up some of those peculiarities. So in some ways the walk is like solving a puzzle.
I said in yesterday’s podcast that I’ve probably put more work into this walk than any other walk I’ve ever created. I’ve read the book six times in the last year or so. And I’ve spent a lot of time reading newspapers from that summer. And I’ve done a lot of picture research. All of that having to do with the aim of recreating the London of the world of the novel, the London of 1923. London has changed in the last century and I want my walkers to be able to see some of the things that Mrs Dalloway sees that are no longer. So I’ve reproduced a lot of old photographs and line drawings and other images. Including those 1923 newspapers, that as I said in yesterday’s podcast, nobody’s looked at in over a hundred years now.
One of the fascinating things about that process is the glimpses it affords of the ordinary life of important historical personages. So, by way of example, in the novel there’s a minor character of some significance named Lady Bruton. She’s a society hostess. Has a grand house in Brook Street in Mayfair. She manages to wound Mrs Dalloway ever so slightly because she invites Richard Dalloway, Mrs Dalloway’s husband, to lunch. But the invitation is not extended to his wife, Clarissa. Mrs. Dalloway. Anyway, rooting around in those old newspapers I came across a society column headed up Dances. And let’s remind ourselves here that Mrs Dalloway takes her walk to fetch flowers from a Bond Street florist. She goes up there to pick up the flowers because she’s being a bit of a society hostess herself that night. Mrs Dalloway is giving a party. And given that the prime minister will be in attendance, well, there’s no question but Mrs Dalloway’s party is itself something of a society event. Anyway, in that Times column headed Dances I discovered that the night before a Mayfair society couple named Lord and Lady Queensborough had given a dance at their townhouse in Berkeley Square for their daughter. The Times account goes on almost forever, in the finest possible print, about who was in attendance. And I’m very glad I stuck with it, read it all the way through. Because lo and behold Mr and Mrs Winston Churchill were among the guests. As was Oswald Mosley. Yes, Oswald Mosley, the future fascist and leader of the Black Shirt movement. He and Churchill were moving in the same social circles in 1923. It’s a frisson moment, handing that page of the Times newspaper to my walkers and saying, ‘cast your eyes over the guest list at the Queensborough’s dance.”
Churchill’s bestriding this country’s political landscape like a colossus was still 20 years in the future but he’s got a fascinating – indeed a very revealing – cameo role in the walk. We make our way to the house that an American academic stoutly maintains must be the house Virginia Woolf had in mind as Mrs Dalloway’s house. It’s to be found in that marvellous little nest of Georgian back streets just a stone’s throw away from the Houses of Parliament. It’s just a stone’s throw away but there are zero tourists back there. They can’t find it.
Anyway the house in question was lived in at the time by Walter Runciman. And his family and many servants. I’ve done some good, primary evidence digging. Unearthed some good documents. Including the census return. I show it to my walkers. It sheds a great deal of light on that house. And I’ve got a photograph of Walter Runciman. And a neat society pages reference to him and his wife returning home from a cruise in the Mediterranean. Now Walter Runciman was the Head of the Board of Trade during World War I. And World War I is the monster that lurks in the background of the novel. It permeates it. And, I think we can deduce from that, it will have coloured, informed the sensibility of those times. It had ended five years previously. But as we see from the novel – and indeed from those newspaper – it’s the ghost at the banquet.
One of the things I do on the walk – by way of scene-setting – is show a rare 1920 photograph of the unveiling of the President Abraham Lincoln statue there in Parliament. They’d veiled the statue with a covering of the two flags – the British flag and the American stars and stripes – they’d sewn them together and draped them over the statue. And then I dug out from three years previously a very similar image. It shows the thanksgiving service in St Paul’s. Thanksgiving the Americans have come into the war on the side of Britain and its allies. And sure enough, there they are again, those two flags, enormous versions of those two flags, hanging side down from that very high ceiling in St Paul’s.
But all of that should be a reminder just how touch and go all of that was for the Brits. Remember that President Wilson had campaigned on the slogan, he kept America out of the War in European. And there was tremendous opposition in the United States to America getting involved. There were millions of Irish Americans who did not want to fight for the King of England. There were millions of Jewish Americans who did not want to fight as allies of the Czar whose oppression they’d fled. There were tens of millions of German Americans who were dead opposed to fighting against their ancestral homeland. It was so touch and go the thought had crossed Wilson’s mind that America might wind up fighting on the other side.
What came to the rescue for the Triple Entente – Britain and its allies France and Russia – was Germany’s sinking of neutral shipping. Particularly the Lusitania. 1198 out of 1959 passengers and crew drowned. Among the dead, 128 Americans. And that brings us to a certain Mr Winston Churchill. And a letter – a deeply cynical, wildly indiscrete letter Churchill wrote to Walter Runciman in his, Churchill’s capacity, as First lord of the Admiralty. Churchill said, “it is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany, We want the traffic, the more the better, and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.”
Well, I’ll leave you to weigh that one up for yourself. And maybe see some of you on the Mrs Dalloway’s London walk tomorrow. Or indeed the next time we run it.
You’ve been listening to the London Calling 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 peanuts – for McDonald’s wages. 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 distinguished
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
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
The London Walks All-Star team of
guides includes a former London
Mayor, it includes barristers (one of
them an MBE); it includes doctors,
geologists, museum curators,
archaeologists, historians, criminal
defence lawyers, university professors,
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
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.