Streets Ahead is the column from London Walks' Pen & Daily Constitutional David Tucker…
It’s a strange business the business of getting from A to B. Can be, anyway.
On a train journey it’s the actual chug chugging away – the clickety clack getting over the ground, the passing scenery – that satisfies.
The stops along the way – this station, that station, the next station – feel like downtime. Sort of like what Americans call “TV timeouts” in American football games. Everything stops, the players stand around all but fiddling their thumbs while Papa John is flogging his pizzas on 100 million television screens from Boring, Oregon to Why, Arizona.
You get the idea. You’re going to Brighton from Blackfriars the eight (or whatever it is) stops along the way are so many knots in a thread. A series of Checkpoint Charlies that have to be if not endured at least patiently put up with. Waited out.
Oh, there are exceptions. Perhaps a station name – Whifflesplatter – that momentarily diverts. Or maybe a “scene” on the platform – a throwback, a commuter in pin stripes with a bowler, brolly and monocle cruising along the platform on a monocycle (I’d go to Whifflesplatter to see that). Or a passionately hugging couple each of whom is multitasking – i.e., simultaneously gazing deep into the screen of his or her iphone.
To say nothing of “the Larkin moment”…
At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,
As if out on the end of an event
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that
Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known
Success so huge and wholly farcical;
The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem
Just long enough to settle hats and say
I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
—An Odeon went past, a cooling tower,
And someone running up to bowl—and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:
There we were aimed…
The Whitsun Weddings
But the monocle on the monocycle and the Whitsun Weddings are the exceptions that prove the rule. For the most part the stops are downtime – after each one we all glance at the electronic scoreboard overhead to see how many more stops before we get to our stop, get to where we’re going.
Now on a walking tour it’s just the opposite. The stops are what count. The guide stops the group because there’s something interesting there to see, something to look at. It’s full-on sensory: we’re seeing and we’re hearing what the guide’s got to say about what we’re looking at.
The stops are the currants in the bun.
A precise reversal.
Or is it?
Yes, here it comes – the “turn.” This post is in praise of “downtime” on a walking tour. The intervals, the “between stops.” The unheralded, unsung and under appreciated. Let’s give them their due. Here’s why they’re good.
1. They’re an opportunity for short bursts of socialising. (And hey, what’s not to like about short bursts of socialising? They open a door a crack. Cracks are good – they let the light in.) If the burst is a beaut, well, it can be built on.* If the burst is a bust, no big deal.
2. The “between stops” on a walking tour are an opportunity for free range gazing. Looking around on your own. What’s not to like about a bit of free range gazing?
3. The “between stops” on a walking tour are a chance for a 1-2-1 with the guide. Got a question for him? Get up there on the point with him. Or her.
4. The “between stops” are a chance for a burst of mental R & R. A chance to put your mind in glide. Suck up a couple bursts of refresh and recharge.
5. The “between stops” are a chance to do some notebook jotting or instagramming or texting or step-counter checking.
6. The “between stops” are a chance to mull. A guide’s just said, for example, “Chamberlain got a piece of paper at Munich; Hitler got the Sudetenland” – well, a chance to turn that one over in your mind and shake your head in assent might well be called for.
7. The “between stops” are a chance to take survey of what you’re doing and where you are and who you’re with. Take survey, take stock and, chances are, feel pretty satisfied, pretty beatific.
8. The “between stops” are a chance to take the long view – to reflect that “educationally” walking tours have the best pedigree going. That this was the way Aristotle taught. His Peripatetic school at the Lyceum Temple in ancient Athens. Peripatetic, which today means travelling from place to place, referred originally to the colonnades in the temple and out into the garden. Like a London Walks guide and a group of walkers Aristotle and his students would walk a bit – “we’ll stop at that next colonnade” – whereupon he’d point something out, explain something, then they’d walk some more. There’d be another stop. More pointing out, more points taken in. You think about it there’s something very fine, something companionable and agreeable about the architecture of the set-up, be it a London Walk in 2016 or a peripatetic lecture in Athens in 335 BCE. Bears repeating: that’s a pretty good pedigree. I’ll take it. Take it and feel pretty good about it. As will most of our walkers – the merry band of good folk from Timbuktu to Tighnabruaich who’ve made the happy discovery of that gentle, fun, civilised, companionable, stimulating, informative, good humoured thing to do in London – a London Walk.
*As TravelMom269 from California put it in a very recent Trip Advisor review (in the event, it was my, David’s, Belgravia Pub Walk they’d been on): “London Walks changed the way we want to visit a city!...We were about 15 in our evening walk with David, and enjoyed an in-depth wander around the Belgravia area, stopping in at four classic neighborhood pubs along the way. David is a pleasure, and this thought-provoking walk gave us a chance to compare impressions and perspectives with people from multiple countries (over a pint, of course!). This is something you simply can't do if you are on a bus tour!”