Thursday, 8 January 2015

The One Fixed Point in a Changing Age – Part One

As promised earlier this month, London Walks' pen David Tucker addresses a few of the thornier issues in heading up London's best walking tour company…

“The One Fixed Point in a Changing Age”

It’s a phrase used to describe one of the most famous characters in English Literature.

But it also describes London Walks.

The “changing age” half of the equation is the maelstrom the London walking tour scene has become, in large part compliments of the Internet.

The “barriers to entry” to this line of work – were always pretty low. All someone needed was maybe a thousand pounds to print up some leaflets.

Thanks to the Internet those barriers are now knee high to a grasshopper.

It’s a happy state of affairs for anybody who fancies “trying his hand at that walking tour gig.”

A much less happy state of affairs for “the consumer.”  The Internet being what it is ­– grabbing a URL for the price of a Happy Meal, get busy tonking away on Twitter and other “social media”, writing your own “reviews” on Trip Advisor (“fact checking” now being as quaint as the “running boards” on 1940s automobiles), etc. etc. – well, if you’re the consumer and you’re not careful and at least a little bit savvy your most precious and irreplaceable commodity – your time – could well go pfffffttt  on a walking tour by a self-described “expert” who’s anything but and who’s “wrong” in so many other ways as well –  ranging from having a voice that’s like listening to paint being scraped to puffing away on a fag while he’s guiding (though they usually do thoughtfully turn their head to the side for the exhalation half of the manoeuvre).

How’s the old Chinese saw go: it’s always easy to fool the foreigner.

That’s the topsy turvy, feverish, on-the-make, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t character of our “craft” these days. The secondary meaning of the word “craft” – as in “crafty” – coming well and truly to the fore more often than not in our brave new world.

And in that maelstrom – in the middle of it, the hustles and nonsense and con jobs whipping past it like dirty laundry being blown about it in a high wind – London Walks: “the one fixed point in a changing age.”

In practical terms, what’s that mean? Well, above all, as always, from the very first, ab origo London Walks – the oldest urban walking tour company in the world – has always put all of its eggs in the guides and the guiding basket. “It all comes down to the guiding.” If you know – as we do – that that’s the case, you have to have a model, a structure that means you can attract and keep top flight guides. In one little symbol: £s. You can get schlubbers to do this £10 or £20 a walk. You can’t get the best guides in London. You can’t get experts. You can’t get accomplished people, talented people.

Now to develop the argument a little bit further, there’s no “plant” in this line of work. No “machinery.” Not even any office costs to speak of.

The only appreciable “cost” is the work force.

So if where you’re coming from is to have a walking tour business that makes a pile of money that’s where you make it.  You’ve got to externalise that cost (as they say in Business School) – you’ve got to get other people to bear it, rather than you having to bear it, having to pay for it. In short, you’ve got to get people – “guides” – to work for you for “free”.  Or for peanuts. How do you do that? Well, it’s not something we’ve ever thought about – coming from where we’re coming from – but one imagines that it’s a set-up very much along the lines of the proverbial dangling carrot. And if that arrangement means you churn “guides” – can’t keep them for any length of time at all because the “carrot” is of course a receding horizon and before too long they wise up to their role in the “enterprise” – well, so what? There’s a never-ending queue of youngsters who think the dangling carrot is there for the taking.

Guides that aren’t guides. “Reviews” that aren’t reviews. Hocus pocus about (in particular) our name – operators calling themselves London Walks who aren’t London Walks. You can get the measure of that by imagining us, London Walks, setting up a Twitter Account flying under the banner: Genuinely Free London Walking Tours. Well, we wouldn’t do it. It’s not our name. But it would irritate one of our irritants no end – for obvious reasons.

Anyway, started a hare with this. And it wasn’t the hare I was really after.

That “hare” has to do with “the one fixed point’s” interaction with its walkers. And in particular the question of negative feedback – how we deal with it.
It won’t come as a surprise that it’s all of a piece with how “the one true fixed point” conducts itself right across the board.

But that’s going to have to be Part II of this discussion. Coming up tomorrow.

Signing off: “Good old London Walks – the one fixed point in a changing age”

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

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