Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Streets Ahead: A Yank Does Dickens. Get Over It

Streets Ahead is the column from London Walks' Pen and Daily Constitutional Special Correspondent David Tucker

(Ed's note: David had a "review" on a well-known website lately that took umbrage with the fact that he was American and leading a walking tour on Charles Dickens. What follows is David's response.)

David's lived in London for nearly half a century. He's British (as well as American). He was educated here. He did his Ph.D. on Dickens at University College London when it had the best English Department in the world (Frank Kermode, Stephen Spender, Dan Jacobson, John Sutherland [his thesis supervisor], A.S. Byatt, etc. He taught Dickens at university here. He's a member of the City of London Pickwick Club. He was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen because of his Dickens "pedigree" and work. Given that, I don't think t's especially "bizarre" – let alone hard to "get over" – that he guides a lot of our literary London Walks.

But that's just for the record. Spelled out here because it's Trip Advisor and we're very keen for people not to get the wrong end of the stick. London Walks does NOT – would NEVER – front its walks with a 19- or 20-year-old student who's only been in London for a few months and won't be guiding next summer. For that kind of American guide you have to look elsewhere. They won't be hard to find. The walking tour companies that front their walks with guides with those "qualifications" are very highly "ranked" – based on thousands of "reviews" (many of them singletons, the only "review" the "reviewer's" ever written, the only "review" they ever will write) – even though they only do a couple of walks a day and have only been in operation for a few years. As opposed to London Walks' 20-30 walks a day and 50 years of operation. Which is by way of saying we're not all over our walkers to write "reviews". That converts them – and the experience and the rankings – into numbers, just numbers. Meaningless, even bogus numbers. Doesn't say anything at all about the quality of the experience. But, yes, it does mean that a walk given by an American (or Australian or New Zealand) student who's been here just a few months will have a much higher "ranking" than David's walks.

You want bizarre there it is in concentrated form. But hey it's the brave new world of the internet. And double hey, we're ok about it. Ok about it precisely because of the sifting and winnowing it willy nilly carries out. We want a certain type of person on our walks. People who are urbane, bright, sophisticated, discerning, consumed with curiosity. We don't want people who've taken leave of their common sense. We're as keen to "create our market" as they are theirs. Theirs is mass, ours is small and select. Not unlike the intake of postgraduate students at UCL's English Department back in the early 70s.

We don't want what's being served up here about London Walks to come out of that sort of box. And so far it isn't. We want quality reviews – yours fits into that category – not quantity. As Marshall McLuhan once said, "we make our tools and then they make us." The which sentiments were updated to our times by internet pioneer Josh Harris. "At first you're going to like it but pretty soon you'll find yourself fitting into smaller and smaller boxes and you won't like who you are."

I don't respond to many of these. The "marketing" "paint-by-numbers" formula is to respond to each and every Trip Advisor review. You do that you end up writing trite, palpably insincere, cookie cutter bromides. I don't write stuff like that. We're not going to insult our walkers' intelligence.

You won't get many of these from London Walks but when you do get one it's going to be considered, thoughtful, well written (we hope), honest and, hey, maybe even a little provocative.

Thanks for putting up your note. It provoked this and I'm glad it's got said.

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