Streets Ahead is the column from London Walks' Pen David Tucker…
There’s lots of very good reasons for doing this – for being a London Walks guide.
It’s fun. You meet nice people. London’s infinitely fascinating. It’s healthy – walking’s good for you. It sure beats a cubicle existence. It’s mostly outdoors. It’s different every day. The world’s a better place for it. It’s gentle. It’s civilised. It’s intelligent. It’s social. Its yuck Richter Scale is zero – c.f. being a janitor at a porno theatre or going down a sewer. It’s not conning people – well, London Walks and London Walks guiding doesn’t con people. It’s not harming people. Or killing them. Etc. etc.
That list isn’t exhaustive.
For me – David – a big something that’s not on the list above is figuring this place out. One of the most important reasons I guide is to figure this place out. And by this place I don’t just mean London – I mean this country, this culture, these people.
My adopted country. Adopted culture. Adopted people. Well, if truth be told I’ve pretty much forced them to adopt me. Or at least accept me, make a place for me.
And no question about it, much of that – that compulsion, that drive to figure this place out – stems from the land of my birth, the land of my upbringing being on the other side of the Atlantic. Different culture, different people, different mores, different way of doing things and looking at the world.
43 years I’ve been here now and I’m still figuring this place out. This most secretive of peoples, of cultures.
Take crossword puzzles, for example. American crossword puzzles are definitional. British ones – well, the prestigious one, the first-class ones, the cream of the crop ones – are cryptic. Definitional ones are for children. And Americans.
An example of a cryptic crossword clue: “a kiss from a monkey.” Correct answer: apex [of course].
I can’t do them. My American mind is too straightforward. Partly I think it’s the slightly ponderous, very earnest, very straightforward Germanic strain running through that culture. And the cast it’s given to our American minds.
When I see my English rose – Mary – and her mother and every Brit I know effortlessly, happily, assuredly sailing right through the murky waters of the Times crossword I’m in awe. Let alone humbled. I think, “my God, the sinuosity of the British mind. More darkly I also sometimes think: Perfidious Albion. That their minds work that way, that they can do that stuff. No wonder they’re so witty. No wonder you can’t beat them. No wonder they ran the world.
And of course you – well, me, this transplanted Yank – want to know where that cast of mind came from, how it came about.
I’m sure it stems in part from the insular mentality – British headline: Fog in the Channel, Continent Cut Off. And from the class system, good and bad – public schools and closing ranks and “don’t let the working classes find out how good cheese-and-pear is” and “mustn’t upset the servants.” And from having to ride herd on Johnny Foreigner when he outnumbered you 10,000 to 1. And so on.
Getting a handle on – getting a read of – stuff like cryptic crossword puzzles is just one piton sunk in the sheer cliff face of this particular ascent up the mountain of Englishness. Or do I mean Britishness? Of getting up there where you can see further, understand better.
And London’s of course part of that.
Winston Churchill said, “we make our houses and then they make us.” Same goes for cities. We make our cities and then they make us.
So you want to figure this place out – place in the wider sense of “the people, the culture, the land” – one way of doing that is to figure out its capital city. What’s there. Why it is the way it is. How it’s all of a piece, how it connects up – talking here culturally and biographically and socially, etc. as well as geographically.
Making the connections.
And again if you think about London’s American counterpart… well, that comparison tells you a great deal.
Manhattan the avenues are north and south, the streets east and west. Grid pattern. Street names couldn’t be more of a yawn. 33rd Street, 34th Street, 35th Street, 36th Street… on and on it goes. Sole exception is Greenwich Village and Greenwich Village was of course “Brit made.” I recommend that you get across that connection. Here’s what for me is a fairly cryptic clue: Warren Street Station.
At no little risk of belabouring the obvious, in London the avenues aren’t north and south, the streets aren’t east and west. Everything’s higgledy piggledy. Delightfully so. No wonder doing the knowledge – learning to become a London cabbie – has been described as the intellectual equivalent of memorising the complete works of Shakespeare.
And how cryptic is Shakespeare, his life at any rate? You can find him – I find him on my Shakespeare’s London walk – but finding him is like doing a cryptic crossword puzzle. It’s one that I can do. But that’s another post.
As is the next blue plaque London Walks will be putting up. It’ll go up tomorrow. And, not a little incredibly, not a little elliptically, it follows on from this post. Connects up with it.
See ya tomorrow.
A London Walk costs £10 – £8 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.