Tuesday, 24 January 2012

What Do You Do with a BA in English?*

Apparently, you lead one of the best walking tours in London – for free! For those of you who haven’t come across it, the line ‘What Do You Do With a BA in English?’ is the opening lyric of the satirical musical Avenue Q (see/hear a rendition here). It is plaintively sung by the lead character who finds that while his dreams aspire to Avenue A, his wallet and work experience place him firmly in Avenue Q. But it’s also the melody that comes into my head every time I encounter a creative, engaging, and self-motivated young person working in a freelance or internship capacity in tourism, education, museums or NGOs as they attempt to get their ‘break’ in the big city. The crew at Sandeman’s New London tours – a dynamic mix of aspiring writers, actors, dancers and academics – works on a tips-only basis. On the one hand, this means that they draw a varied crowd of tourists from all budget backgrounds (ensuring an overall haul that incrementally pays the rent on a leaky flatshare in Hackney). On the other, it acts as an ongoing incentive to research and deliver the best possible walking tour of London over the space of just under three hours… So, I decided that if I was going to really get to know the city, I’d better start on foot.

Emerging from Hyde Park Corner tube station, I found myself at the imposing Wellington Arch, which commemorates Britain’s victories in the Napoleanic Wars. More intriguing, perhaps, is the fact that the arch is hollow inside and, until 1992, housed the second (?) smallest police station in London. Curiously, half of the arch is actually a ventilation shaft for the London Underground network… Now if they had used the whole arch for the police station it may have been marginally more successful, but, then again, it would have lost its competitive edge in the square metreage stakes… After pondering this for a while, I noticed a gathering crowd of tourists at the statue of the Duke of Wellington, and thus joined the free Royal London walking tour, which focuses on Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace and the Palace of Westminster.

Buckingham Palace was never intended to be the home of the Monarch. In fact, it was originally built in 1705 for the Duke of Wellington, who invited the King round to see his posh new place, only to have it confiscated for the crown in a fit of architectural one-upmanship. But nevertheless, it’s now a major London attraction so, along with thousands of other tourists, our tour headed across Constitution Hill towards the Queen’s London residence. Embarrassingly, after two years in London, I had never gotten around to watching the Changing of the Guards.

Although visitors tend to think it’s a tradition as old as the proverbial hills, it was really only started by Queen Victoria, who cunningly added a bit of pomp and circumstance to what was essentially a logistical reshuffling of resources. In 1837, she was the first sovereign to move from the official residence at St James’s Palace to Buckingham Palace up the road, but the troops remained stationed at St James. So every day a detachment would – and continues to – march/trot up from St James’s to replace those guarding the Queen. It’s a fairly complicated procedure, involving multiple ‘detachments’ of the ‘Old Guard’ and the ‘New Guard’ who are variously inspected, paraded, and serenaded by the Regimental Band, before they finally exchange the Palace keys as a symbol of responsibility for its security. It occurred to me that this ritual is performative history at its best: retaining a familiar structure but with the flexibility to accommodate changing contexts and current affairs. For example, when Michael Jackson died, instead of the usual military standards, the Regimental Band apparently played a Jackson medley with a rousing Thriller finale.

After Buckingham Palace, we headed to St James’s Palace, once a leper hospital and still the official residence of the monarchy (England is never keen on breaking with precedent, even if maintaining it only on paper), since Henry VIII built it in the daring red-brick Tudor style of the time. Now, however, it houses court offices and the headquarters from which the royals run their various charity initiatives. Walking along the edge of St James's Park, we came to the Horse Guards Parade ground and the Palladian splendour of the Horse Guards building. Originally the site of popular jousting, the Parade now hosts the annual Trooping of the Colour for the Queen’s official birthday in June - she also has a real, ‘unofficial’ birthday, but winter is so inconvenient for complicated equine manoeuvres and public fanfare. Rumour has it that the Parade, which backs onto the rear of 10 Downing Street, will host the Beach Volleyball contingent of the 2012 Olympic Games. I’m sure Cameron will be supporting the teams with gusto from his foggy bathroom window...

The Citadel , a mysterious fortress-like edifice with no ground-floor windows or visible entrances, ivy growing over its bland brown exterior and grass planted on its roof, was built adjacent to the Parade to protect the Admiralty communications centre from aerial attack during the Second World War. Churchhill referred to it as a ‘great monstrosity’ next to the grandeur of the Horse Guards. But, while it may indeed have housed the underground lair from which the UK hatched its plans during the war (with a network of subterranean tunnels connecting key locations), it still requires a secret service gardener to infiltrate with a lawnmower every summer.

We ended our tour sitting in rows outside Westminster Abbey and gazing up at the awesome neo-Gothic spectacle of the Palace of Westminster, home to the UK Parliament. Meanwhile an earnest man wearing a sandwich board detailing his dissent added his voice to the historical narrative of our tourguide. As our guide’s ancient tales of gunpowder, treason - and plot! (somehow she managed to say it in bold and italics simultaneously) – mingled with the protestor’s contemporary critiques of government cuts, police corruption – and plot! – it reminded me of one of the things I love most about London: the way in which past and present constantly jostle, each revealing a little more about the other...

*Disclaimer: Just in case this sounds like a negative reprise, I should mention that once upon a time, I did a BA in English. And it Rocked. My. World. (Also, it underpins what I do in editing, arts journalism, museum education, teaching, and Life in General).


  1. I cant wait to get back to London and do one (or more) of these tours. In fact, having read this, I feel inspired to book my tickets right now..

  2. Lovely! I felt I was walking with you through the streets of London. I can't wait to get back.