Streets Ahead is the column from London Walks' Pen & Daily Constitutional Special Correspondent David Tucker…
“Every English king has been coronated in there for the last thousand years.”
That sluzzle (sluzzle, not sizzle) compliments of the Aria Frita (Fried Air) aka “Free” Tours got the chortle it deserved in the Daily Constitutional a few days ago.
Here's a re-cap:
You won’t have to put up with the kind of thing we overheard the other day outside Westminster Abbey on one of the “‘free’-but-not-really-free“ walks. (“When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.”)
Coming into the home stretch – “tip time” – their red-clad (but not red faced) guide was addressing those poor souls thusly:
"This is Westminster Abbey [so far so good, for indeed it was]. Every English king has been coronated here for a thousand years".
Show stopper verb and headline news to Edwards V and VIII.
But that “unbelievably ignorant” howler shouldn’t be passed over so lightly. It’s of the essence. And as such it calls for a more considered appraisal.
In our “London Spy” – the weekly press review Adam pulls together for the Daily Constitutional – a couple of weeks back, Adam links to a splendid article in the Vancouver Sun by the American travel guru Rick Steves. The article’s titled Why You Should Hire a Local Guide and early on in the piece Steves makes the point that on a visit last summer to Lisbon – a city RS thought he knew fairly well having visited it umpteen times – he, Steves, hired a local guide who “showed me things I’d never noticed even after 20 years of visits to Lisbon.”
The other two relevant points here are 1) Adam’s dictum – and look, Adam’s a mentor as well as a star journalist, brilliant guide, and good friend – “it’s all about making connections”; and 2) what top flight, savvy, experienced guides know – and do (it’s second nature to them): you’ve got to relate what you’re saying to what they’re looking at.
Ok, so bearing the above in mind, let’s do a pb (pull back) – get a wider angle – on last Thursday’s crime scene.
“Coronated” came into view when I stopped my group right by the east end of the Henry VIIth chapel of the Abbey. He and his walkers were just ahead, by the statue of George V. Don’t know how long they’d been there. But I do know how long they were there after they came into our purview.
We made a whole bunch of stops in passing them. They were there – stuck there – patience on a monument – one stop stoppageing – the whole time.
At the east end of the Abbey I pointed out the shrapnel damage. “Something you’d never notice even after 20 years of visits past that end of the Abbey.”
Then came the “connection” – “it’s all about making connections” – “this is the reason – some of you noticed it when we were inside St. Margaret’s – the stained glass on the north side of the nave is old, whereas on this side, the south side, it’s modern. It’s post 1945 by John Piper. That’s right, bomb damage.”
Then we moved forward a few yards and I directed their gaze to the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) door “that’s directly over the way, in the corner there”.
“That door opens onto what’s called ‘Bomb Stair’. Now if you look right at the base of HP – just along from that door – you’ll see those foundation stones are absolutely pock marked with bomb blast damage.” So: another sighting of “something you’d never notice even after 20 years of walking past there”. And another – well, two actually, bomb stair and the shrapnel damage – “connection”.
Then I point out and tell the story about the equestrian statue of Richard I. In particular the tale about the sword not being the original one, which was damaged – bent – in that bomb raid. And – a “connection” – how it illustrates perfectly the genius Brits have for turning military disasters into propaganda triumphs (Dunkirk, anyone?). You think about it, it was a disaster that the airforce of a fascist tyranny dedicated to the overthrowal of democracy could fly directly above the Mother of Parliaments and drop bombs on it. A disaster. But the line they put out – one can only gawp with admiration – was “Nazi tyranny can bend the sword of democracy but it can’t break it.”
And then another “connection” made – a connection “connected” to something they’re looking at: It was Richard I who coined what became the motto of English monarchs: Dieu et Mon Droit (God and My Right). It was the password they used to tell friend from foe at the 1198 battle of Gisors.
And then a few steps further on, stop them and make the point that anyone who’s going into the Strangers’ Gallery after the walk needs to take their time as they pass through the last corridor just before they get to the Gallery. “I’ve been in there hundreds of times and the tourists just breeze right through there and in doing so they’re hugely short changing themselves. Take your time going through there – look at what’s on either wall. Fascinating paintings. And even more fascinating old photos. For example, a photograph taken in the immediate aftermath of the direct hit on the House of Commons. Or a rare one of the barrage balloons directly above the Thames just outside the HP. Or the 1940 photograph of the workmen on the roof of Parliament prising off, with crowbars, the iron and lead from the roof. Prising it off so it could be turned into munitions. You want in a single image a crystallisation of how desperate this country was – how its back was right up against the wall – you can’t do better than to make the acquaintance of that image. Every time I look at it it turns on spigots – I’ve got tears streaming down my face.”
So, a “connection” and a good “tip” – a different kind of tip, a tip from me to my walkers rather than the other way around.
And then we move on to the George V statue. Sharing the space with the “coronateds”. Just make the point – en passant – “If my dad looked like that I’d stutter too”. But the point is that the commentary is connected to something they’re looking at. And then a further “connection”: “actually the only person who wasn’t afraid if him was his grand-daughter, our Queen today. They adored each other. He called her Lilibet and she called him Gwanpa England”.
And then a few more steps to talk about this area generally. “This is Old Palace Yard and I don’t know if you’ve been aware of it but we’ve had to elbow our way through a huge throng here. A ghostly throng. Thousands of them. They’re here because this was a principal execution site…”
And then on to talk about the executions that took place here.
And that’s not all. Also, en passant – again, something they wouldn’t have noticed and it’s talking about something they can see, something that’s been pointed out to them – the Houses of Parliament “taxi lamp”.
So that’s several stops. It’s lots of pointings out – “showing them things they’d never notice”; it’s “guiding” – talking about – what they’re looking at; and it’s “making connections”.
It’s not patience on a monument – stuck there in that one spot, all that time, listening to coronatings – swotted up history that can be got – and got accurately – off Wikipedia.
The English rose – Mary – was an actress (until we started breeding). Like every thesp she had a lot of “bosses”. Worked for a lot of directors. Her favourite director was the National Theatre’s Peter Wood. He was extremely sharp, fun, funny, full of good ideas, knew what he was doing. And didn’t suffer fools.
Mary still giggles whenever she recalls the dressing down an exasperated Peter Wood gave to a mediocre no-hoper of a spear carrier during one memorable rehearsal.
“I don’t know what you call that but it’s not acting”
Well, you’ll know where this is headed, but I’m going to say it just the same.
“I don’t know what you call that – coronating I suppose – but it’s not guiding.”
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