Bookish Bonding

Photo of Mike and Cindy with guests, Neil, Cornelia and Christel, outside Sotheran's bookshop at the end of a literary walking tour of St James's, featuring writers Virginia Woolf, Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and others, showing happiness and how we have all bonded.

It’s a wonderful thing that guests can arrive on one of our tours as strangers but leave as –well, friends. Over the course of three hours, we perform in the street for a small group of people from all over the world. It’s face-to-face in the light of day, and it’s interactive, yes. But there’s something about the common ground – a shared love of literature – that gives us something straightaway to build a relationship on. And then there’s the literature itself and what it has to say about love, death, hope and injustice etc. – and so we find ourselves in a kind of dialogue (though not necessarily an explicit one) about all those things that concern us all on a deep level. It makes chatting about ourselves and our lives easy, as we walk from stop to stop.

A case in point is Uli, from Bremen in Germany, his partner Cornelia, and their friends from England, Neil and Christel. Three of them met years ago studying literature together at university and the four of them are lifelong friends. Christel booked our St James’s Jaunt for them all as part of Uli’s ‘special’ – let’s say 21st – birthday. After the tour we joined them for coffee and a pastry and more conversation.

We were bowled over when Uli wrote to us a couple of weeks later with a long account of his experience of the tour, together with some photos. Uli said we could use his words on our website, so here are some of them. We thought it would make a good blog about what it’s like to come on one of our tours. Thank you, Uli! And we hope you all enjoy…

St James Jaunt – A Literary Tour: A Piece of Art on Art, Not L’Art Pour L’Art

Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway welcomes us at the beginning of our tour of St James’s. It is a brisk Saturday morning with drizzling rain. We forget about the weather as Cindy and Mike draw us into a literary world. Walking around the streets and alleys and stopping in front of significant buildings provides a backdrop to the literature of a period – focused on the interwar years of the 20th century. The literature is set in a real-world context, which will make our (re-)reading of it more vivid. After only a few minutes of Cindy and Mike’s performance, we wanted to run to the next bookshop or library to start reading!

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Mike and Cindy standing in the sunshine at the beginning of a St James's literary walking tour, with Cindy looking like Mrs Dalloway.

At each stop of this literary stroll, we learn about the importance of the site for certain authors and their writing. Cindy and Mike explain the relationship between the location and the writers, and they quote, i.e., recite from novels, poems, biographies, autobiographies, and letters, and they act out scenes from plays and dialogues from novels.

The experience of the Great War shaped the poetry of young men such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. We learn about them by the garden of the Reform Club, at the early stage of our tour. And we learn about Edith’s Sitwell’s role as editor of Owen’s first collection of poetry. This exotic and eccentric poet, Sitwell is one of the key figures of the St James’s walk, and here she links one place to the next, the renowned London Library – used as a means to deal with women’s role in the intellectual world, and referencing a Virginia Woolf story set there, ending with an insight that is part of a process of emancipation from male dominance.

These opening stops have revealed the makeup of the tour: history and politics, the relationships between and among authors, cultural and political disputes, marriages, sexual affairs and sexual preferences, and religion – quite a number of conversions to Roman Catholicism – these are the leitmotifs of this “epic play” built from a collage of references and quotations.

The tour is a multi-sensual pleasure. While listening to and looking at Cindy and Mike acting, reciting, explaining, inviting us to read scripts, our eyes take in the architecture of the area, the memorials (such as those to the St James’s Theatre), the gardens and courtyards, the pubs and the shops – some of them, in Jermyn Street, with luxurious menswear, where the male writers shopped.

Our literary guides themselves are “fashion-able”. Their clothes are eyecatchers, yet not too obtrusive. They are part of our time and world; at the same time, they are signs pointing to the works of literature we learn about; Cindy and Mike could be Arthur Conan Doyle or Virginia Woolf characters.

The more our tour progresses, the more the authors, their spouses, and their lovers form a word of scandal, dispute, and strife, yet there are some surprise happy endings.

Wanting more and more of this literary gossip, we hardly notice that the entertaining jaunt — from Mrs Dalloway and the War Poets to Graham Greene’s and Ian Fleming’s Cold War spy novels — is coming to its end. It’s been a kind of juggling act, with lots of names and texts thrown into the air like props and kept there.

However, we know that we heard far more than just gossip. For example, we came across Nancy Cunard and her poetry for the first time – and we commemorate her as a cultural critic fighting racism and fascism. And entertaining and humorous as our jaunt has been, we are very much aware that the time we moved in was that between two world wars. The content of some of the books and the lifestyles of their authors might have been escapist – but were still shaped by memories of the Great War and vague anticipation of the catastrophe to come.

We do not want the artistic juggling to end and invite Cindy and Mike for a coffee and ask them about further tours and about their working style. It is clear those two work incredibly hard and they love what they are doing. Thanks a lot for that.

Review by Uli Imig
Posted by Mike