November 3rd 2015: ‘A tour of London: fifty years out of date…’

I’d forgotten about this article! It’s a travel piece, but with a twist… I took a vintage travel guide to London around the city with me. I also took the above photograph with my high-res camera.

Here’s the link:

Read on for the full text.

Ever wondered what would happen if you took one politically incorrect travel guide from the sixties, one tourist, and then put them together in central London? I’m a visitor in the capital, still struggling with the Underground’s use of zones. I’ve brought one travel guide with me to London; the date of its publication is 1965. With only this book as my guide, I’m about to embark on a journey across the capital that’s fifty years out of date. Here’s how to tour London like it’s 1965.

Get used to the politically incorrect – and don’t vote Labour

Bound for central London, I’m already enjoying myself. Exactly fifty years old, the guide’s prose is (gloriously) politically incorrect. Halfway through, the author, Betty James, abruptly breaks off from listing famous galleries. “Some of the foregoing magnificence,” James warns, “may have filled many visitors with envy, [or] a desire to vote Labour.” James then recommends a visit to the “gruesome” St. Thomas’s Hospital’s Operating Theatres, as a swift antidote to the (then) incumbent government.


Turn off your phone’s data (and make friends with the Met Office)

To ensure I stick to James’ instructions alone, I’ve turned off my phone’s cellular data. It’s been so long since I last did so that I had to Google ‘how to turn off cellular data’. I have no access to Google Maps, or to Weather. James helpfully informs me “weather conditions may be checked by dialling WEA 211 for London”. I have no idea what this means. However, I’ve saved the number for the Met Office instead. The automated operator instructs me to hold, before repeatedly suggesting I check the Met Office website. Nice try.

I’m finally put through to a nice bloke called Jonathon. “Can you tell me the weather forecast for London today?” I ask, feeling foolish.

A pause.

“No problem. Fairly hot and humid, isolated thundery showers, with a top temperature of 30 degrees,” Jonathon rattles off. “Have a nice day.”

Don’t take selfies walking backwards

Suitably attired for “hot and humid”, I arrive at Charring-Cross Station and head for Trafalgar Square. I take a few snaps comparing the layout of the square in 1965 (pictured on the guide’s front cover) to todays. I notice that the bus lane between the square and the National Gallery has been removed, presumably to ease the transition between the two for the throngs of foreign tourists. Since so many appear to be crossing Trafalgar backwards – selfie-sticks borne aloft – the removal of the buses was probably for the best, in the interest of road safety


Beware of floating Yodas and museum headsets

I head across the square (facing forwards). “The National Gallery,” James reveals, “is air-conditioned inside and decorated outside with… roughly hewn young creeps who congregate daily along the balustrades trying to look like uncannily preserved Beatniks”. I can only presume she’s referring to the floating Yodas clutching their staffs. James also informs me that most London museums and art galleries “are now supplying portable sound-guide sets, which are hired out at 3s. or 6d.” She seems sceptical of “this larky innovation”, advising me to save my 6d. As a stingy student, I concur.

Forget any hopes of His ‘n’ Hers steaks

From Trafalgar Square, James prescribes a series of walking tours to choose from. I pick ‘Westminster’, ‘The Law’ and ‘St. Paul’s and the City Markets’, jumping from one to the other. James has included in each section a number of restaurants to choose from; however, I’m nervous about relying on her advice. I’m already disappointed that ‘Fanny by Gaslight’, offering “His” and “Hers” steaks at 9s. 6d. and 7s.6d. respectively (“When She gets to know him better She eats His. And He eats Hers”), is, for some unfathomable reason, out of business.

I realise I’m at risk of resembling Frank Sinatra’s character in On the Town (1949), armed with his grandfather’s dated guide to New York and hopes of seeing the Woolworth Tower.

Don’t take this tour if you’re a Young Thing

I walk from Whitehall and through Victoria Tower gardens, before crossing Lambeth Bridge and strolling along Southbank. Somehow I’ve managed not to get lost, mostly thanks to James’ condescending tone and habit of putting key landmarks in bold lettering. The last thing a tourist wants is to be treated as though they possess any sense of direction. I photograph colourful graffiti, and wonder if my tour guide would disapprove. I’ve grown fond of Betty James. Her moniker suggests sweetness, a sense of the swinging sixties. Instead, James is like a testy great-aunt. She includes a brief section at the very back of the book dedicated to “Young Things”. “This section,” she says, “is nothing to do with me”.

Drink Typhoo (but hold it in)

Crossing Millennium Bridge, James takes me on a break-neck tour of St. Paul’s, Fleet Street, the Strand, and Covent Garden. I’m surprised to find The Nag’s Head, a pub James highly recommends for “a cup of Typhoo and a bacon sandwich”, is still standing on the corner of James Street. I’ve declined James’ suggestion that, if “faced with urgent ablution”, the thing to do is to nip into any hotel, “smiling at the commissionaire like a rich customer just arriving”. I didn’t like my chances against the brawny hotel bodyguards.

Look out for cock slappers

From Covent Garden I head back towards Westminster via the Lyceum Theatre, passing Leicester Square and Piccadilly. I nip into Fortnum & Mason’s to ask for a “stick of vanilla”, which James promises me will be “wrapped… by a gentle grocer in striped pants”. No sticks of vanilla available, but I’m allowed to take a photo of the striped pants. James also assures me that “the sort of Englishman who rushes busily around taking ‘breathers’ and slapping old cocks on the back” refer to Buckingham Palace as “Bucks House”. However, not one passer-by can help me in my search for Bucks House. I assume there’s been a deficit in cock slappers since 1965.

No sticks of vanilla here
No sticks of vanilla here

Do it all again

I reach Charing-Cross exhausted. It’s the kind of fatigue I haven’t experienced since childhood, when I was marched across the vast grounds of National Trust properties in search of fresh air. Nonetheless, James has inspired me. I jump on the tube, determined to set out again tomorrow for another tour of 1960s London.

I make a mental note to add the Met Office on speed dial.

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