Streets Ahead is the column from London Walks' Pen David Tucker…
“This is the third time I’ve been on this walk with you and every time it’s different.”
Thus spake an American lady on Sunday on my Hampstead walk. And, yes, it was said admiringly, said happily.
The reply to which was something along the lines of: “For sure, a walking tour’s a living thing, a work in progress. If you’re [the guide] doing the job right you keep on drilling down – and connecting up. Finding out more about the place – and people – you’re guiding. You’re peering down ever further into the depths of the past. But you’ve also got to be alert to the way its surface is ever changing. Ever changing because it reflects and refracts the shifting scene of the present.”
Case in point. My Sunday afternoon Old City walk. The names up on the marquee are Shakespeare and Dickens. The walk goes in search of them, their times, their London.
Thinking (a lot, of late) about the killing fields there – which we go over on the walk. And peer into. Catch a glimpse – well, more than a glimpse – of Edward Arden, Shakespeare’s relative, who was hanged, drawn and quartered there. And Shakespeare, just a few years later, living a stone’s throw away from that terrible place. And posing the question – how did he deal with that?
How would any of us deal with it?
Did he avoid going there? Skirt the killing fields? Or did he somehow blinker his mind – force his thoughts elsewhere? Or did he look the cruel, red-eyed beast right in the eye? Indeed, did he do what so many of his fellow Londoners did – stand in the crowd, be there, be a spectator at any of the many executions that took place during his time in London?
Whichever course he adopted, how could it not have been red hot and clanged out, sparks flying in the forge of his mind? How could it not have shaped and coloured his thinking about cruelty and power and tyranny and courage and the terrible things human beings do to other human beings?
The screams of agony from those killing fields – how could they not have gone on echoing in his mind?
And then just a slight step back – and a big leap forward.
The step back to a gv (general view, big picture view) of the general turmoil of those times. Of the dizzying – and terrifying – changes. The sense of being in a power-gone-brakes-gone-steering-gone runaway vehicle hurtling down a mountain road.
Come on, climb aboard. Let’s take that 16th century “ride”.
Pottering along snug in the time immemorial, highly conservative Roman Catholicism in the England of the 1520s…
And then – what’s this? – suddenly, abruptly, Catholicism under the supreme headship of the king? Whoa. Out of left field that.
And then – gathering speed (hey, the brakes seem a bit mushy) – a “wary, tentative Protestantism.”
And then (“hey guys, no brakes at all”) – a much more radical Protestantism.
And then (“hang on”)– the hairpin of aggressive, take-no-prisoners, militant, renewed Catholicism.
And then: Protestantism…again.
Worse than dizzying.
Because the outriders – there at every turn, every lurch – were conspiracy and persecution. And the tools of their trade: rack and thumbscrew and axe and fire.
And how can we not make the connection? The surface of the past ever changing because it mirrors the present.
Yes, that’s right (this is the big leap forward). I’m talking about British troops in Iraq. Again. And Sunnis. And Shiites. And Al Queda. And Isis. (“Where’d they come from? Who’d heard of them before a couple of months ago”?) And beheadings.
I mean you can run the table: conspiracy, persecution, dizzying shifts, on it goes.
Well we might ask – what next?
Whither’s the hurtling vehicle taking us?
Well, that’s flash photography. Going to switch it off now. Because for sure, the walk is what it is. It’s not about “current events”. It is about Shakespeare’s and Dickens’ Old City.
But that connection – that parallel – is there. It’s there to be made. Takes all of 20 seconds.
And making the connection – well, it’s like seeing with two eyes rather than one. It’s a useful moment of calibration, of depth and perspective.
You want to see the past – see it steady and see it whole – you also have to see the present. And vice versa.
A London Walk costs £9 – £7 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at www.walks.com.