The The Machiavelli Interpreted Tour is one that I found out about via the Walking Artist Network, which is worth signing up to if this sort of thing floats your boat. It was held on the 500th anniversary of Machiavelli's seminal text The Prince being first mentioned in a famous letter the author wrote to Franceso Vettori. I also note that the tour is also on the Artangel 100 list along with The Tour of All Tours!
We gathered beside The Tower of London in a cafe and signed in with the organiser. I found, to my surprise, that I knew some of the fifteen odd people who were on the tour and, interestingly, knew them from quite different contexts. Some were more from performance, others were in academia and there was one woman I could swear I had spoken to before but who I couldn't for the life of me place. Encouraged, I guessed this meant I was in the right place and in good company. It also echoed an idea I had recently when writing about the Queen Mary University East End Tour, namely, that walks and tours are almost inherently interdisciplinary bringing together somewhat disparate ideas and histories in the same way the city functions to bring together and connect people in a defined geographic space.
We stepped out onto the terrace and, with The Tower of London as a backdrop, were given a short introduction to the event by its curator Mary Ann Hushlak. There were few formalities with health and safety which gave the sense this was not a tourism industry product but rather a walk that had grown out of an engagement with political and ethical thinking, and an interest in walking considered as an art event.
We were asked to find partners to walk and talk with, and we were reassured we would rotate as the walk progressed. This walking in pairs is something of a format that I was amused to see is also common with children in school groups. I was at The British Library yesterday and saw a group of 8 year-olds in yellow reflective tops enter in pairs, wait in line while their teacher found their guide, before they descended noisily into the basement. We were more or less the same as them save the reflective waistcoats, the high pitched chatter and the fact that ours was a walking reading group. I had already heard about a Walking Reading Group, a new format for me, operating in East London and had been meaning to attend one of their walks, but now I found my way onto another one. The idea is, when walking, you talk in a different way to how you do sat in a cafe or seminar room. What's more, because we switched partners every ten to fifteen minutes it meant there was not the problem of getting stuck with someone tiresome or running out of things to say. It also meant, however, that some conversations had to be dropped mid-sentence as a reading from The Prince began and we had to fall silent. My first partner was a Greek theatre director and translator of medical and literary works. This was not a typical cross-section of the British public.
We stopped after a short walk in a garden and former execution site, right next to where the Ripping Yarns Jack the Ripper Tour begins. We then listened to artist Bram Arnold, who was waiting for us, give a short reading from The Prince. He was dressed smartly, in some way assuming the role of a contemporary Machiavelli or, at the very least, dressing and speaking in a way that was supportive rather than disruptive to the text. With a bite-sized snippet of renaissance political philosophy to chew over, we resumed our march north into The City.
The drizzle began to fall as we passed through Leadenhall Market so this was the last place I felt able to use my better camera as it was dry under the market hall's cover. It was back to pocket snaps for the rest of this route until the very end of the walk when it dried up enough. Leadenhall Market is another Harry Potter film location and so features on the Potter tours. It was also one of the places the London Olympic Marathon got rerouted to when the Whitechapel / Mile End route to a stadium finish got dropped. The tourist imagination flows so much more fluidly here.
We made up way up Bishopsgate and past the stalled construction site of The Pinnacle or, as I know it, The Pimple. I call it The Pimple for two reasons. One, it is currently no more than a static concrete stub rising out of a construction site, a stub awaiting a court ruling and planning permission before it can soar up to compete with The Shard or be torn down and redeveloped in some other way. Two, even if it does get the go ahead it will be about as attractive as an oversized zit. Have you seen the design? No wonder it's having difficulty getting off the ground.
The choice of doing the tour on a Sunday around noon was a good one. The City has a uncanny quality at this time; it is practically a zombie film waiting to happen. These deserted streets revealed a very different character to that of their weekday buzz: the historical layers were far clearer. Some of the stretches between the reading locations were as long as fifteen minutes, which is far more than you'd find on a guided tour. These spaces were filled with conversations which were made all the easier by the lack of modern traffic jammed into medieval streets and medieval people jammed into modern suits screaming into mobiles and fighting their way through a corporate rat race.
We stopped in front of Guildhall and were told about its history, as indeed were two other groups also parked on this multi-tour site. There was a trio to the left who were getting a Spanish tour and a larger group in the distance getting what looked like a heritage site tour. The woman in black caught in the middle was, like me, taking photographs and so was floating around and joining the group from different vantage points. The other place where there were tours others than ours was around Westminster. I noticed that there you can take tours of parliament, but they are not so cheap. In fact, come to think of it, I did request a tour of Big Ben from my MP (you have a right to a free tour but must book it via them). I emailed my request but nobody ever got back to me... and they want a raise.
We made a stop at Bart's and had a brief historical reference to The Huguenots and how they related to this location followed by another reading from The Prince. The tour was in a sense a two hander with the curator introducing some of the locations and Bram then giving a reading. They were co-ordinated as a pair and in no way like the Tour with Two Guides that I reviewed earlier this year. Here you can get a good view of the group and, as you can see, people were sensibly dressed and as you might be able to imagine, in some sense an 'in-crowd'. This made for some harmony when we were talking to one another as there were plenty of shared interests and possibilities to take the conversation in engaging directions. I had to ask myself however, "What if this walking reading group had been drawn from a very different pool of people? Would it have worked if it had been business people or politicians and lobbyists paying £100 a head to participate?" I suspect they might well have been interested in conversing with one another using The Prince as their starting point. That said, from what I gather, you are more likely to see people from Meryl Lynch and KPMG together on the 5km City Race or last week's Santa Run than on tours like this.
We passed the plaque that marked the place of William Wallace's execution (yes he of Braveheart), next to Smithfield Market. We passed it in conversation and did not stop to investigate. It was the Scottish flags that caught my attention and I took this snap. I now realise he took a similar tour to ours on his day of execution: he was taken from The Tower of London and brought here. His journey was considerably less comfortable, however; he was dragged naked through the streets behind a horse. This did make me briefly imagine an execution themed guided tour which would consist of gruesome stories and graphic descriptions of people similarly transported before being disemboweled and their genitals cut from them and burnt in front of their eyes. The list of tortures employed is long, so a full-length tour could surely be sustained. The route would pass through many spots we ourselves passed through and the collaging of financial services and Pret a Manger with cruel, degrading, barbaric tortures and executions might make for an interesting tour.
We stopped at a damp and mirror like Paternoster Square, the original target of Occupy. The reading concluded here with some observations on the character of men and how they prefer the well trodden path to the revolutionary one. This canny thinking on the reliability of ones supporters must have been relevant to all sides during the tent occupation of St Paul's Churchyard and Finsbury Square in 2001/12. These connections between the various passages from The Prince and sites we stopped at were allowed to exist but were not underscored at all. Incidentally, although Occupy have long since been evicted, they are still running tours and I will be taking the Occupy Tour of The City in January and also finding out about the 1% tour that took place last year too. Reviews to follow.
About half way into the tour the rain picked up from a light drizzle to a proper shower. Umbrellas up and carry on regardless was the only option. Here we found ourselves in a quiet corner of Central London that was pretty much typical of the places we were led to. The route was chosen with considerable care to weave us through the city using minor roads and passages which had the effect on depositing us at familiar locations in often surprising ways. Bram, our reader, did not accompany us and so made his own way between the designated reading sites. This 'now you see me now you don't' approach was probably not so tricky to achieve as we, as a group, were usually very indirect and thus slower than him. This spot here was the exception where we waited a moment for him to come down the steps behind us. I have had the experience of seeing a person on a route who magically seemed to reappear further along and must have needed to race 'backstage' to make such a reappearance. No such tricks were needed here. Not even a bike. I did question how necessary this reticence was as it did not bring so much more to the reading except perhaps to absent Bram from the ensuing conversations
A general trend in the readings was to say it is better for a ruler to start his reign violently, get the evil out the way early and then rule justly over subjects who will then be too afraid to rebel. This was held out as being a superior ethical position as doing the opposite would only in practice result in more bloodshed in the long run. The unpalatability of this stance and impossibility of selling it to a populace are clear, however. Many chins were scratched over the course of the afternoon.
I found that over the two and half hours of the walk I developed strategies for how to deal with the new walking partners I was thrown in with. I started rather naively with the sociable, "Hello, who are you? How did you find out about this? Oh you know such and such, is that through XYZ? Oh and have you read The Prince?" line of approach. This was fine at first but as we progressed I grew tired of it as it had echoes of speed dating and I found myself repeating questions and answers from previous conversations. I therefore switched tact and got onto Machiavelli more directly. The conversations were none the poorer for this. Later in the pub, one line of discussion was around why dating had switched so much to online sites. One thought was that there are fewer contexts for unforced encounters between strangers than previously and there was no consensus in society as to what sort of flirting was acceptable and what was not, leading to caution in the public sphere. Walks, one woman smartly observed, were a rather good way for people to meet someone, particularly for the over 30s who might be somewhat beyond boozed up nightclubs and the sorts of encounters that you can expect to have in them. Machiavellian dating strategies? No, a rather simple and direct approach but one that does make it clear that many intentions and ideas are in circulation in these walking talking groups and political philosophy may simply be a pretext.
We came to a halt in front of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and here there was some idea that this might be where Machiavelli, if he were alive today in the UK, might be employed. Seeing as he was a professional diplomat this is not impossible. Other ideas were that he he might be a Jonathan Powell like figure, Downing Street's Chief of Staff and advisor to the last government. I'm not so sure that this is exactly how to imagine him, however, as he was a playwright and man of letters as much as he was a diplomat. The Prince is not only an early work of political science, it is also written with much flair and rhetorical flourish. He seems to delight in exposing hypocrisy and cutting to the chase with the justification that his harsh ethical code is a superior basis upon which to act as a leader. What's more, the book was written to win favour with the Medici's and reinstate him from exile so the intention of the text as a whole is anything but transparent. Today I cannot see the political and literary worlds in the UK as having room for such a dual figure, the best we seem to manage is Jeffrey Archer or should I say Lord Archer who, despite resignations over scandals and imprisonment, is still pumping out pageturners destined to fill the shelves of charity shops the length and breadth of the kingdom.
We passed parliament square where there were many flowers fanned out around Nelson Mandela's statue as this was the day of his burial. Round the corner a bevy of Ukrainians with banners were lined up protesting at their government. It is something of a circus though one all the poorer for the absence of the late Brian Haw who was 10 years resident here until his recent death. I would have liked to have gone on his tour if he ever gave one.
The walking over, we retired to The Red Lion, perhaps the most famous political pub in Westminster and to underscore this point one of us saw Frank Fields MP exiting as we descended into the cellar. For a place so supposedly bound up with centuries of power politics it was a surprisingly unremarkable place to the eye. Berlin has Cafe Einstein, for example, and while it is not crazily ostentatious it is a high-class establishment suitable for the political and intellectual elite to meet and mingle. The Red Lion however, looks much like any other unfashionable local boozer that fills up at the weekend. From this I am not sure what to conclude: whether it indicates a lack of taste, a desire to retain a down to earth place to relax in or what. I'll pay the place a visit again on a weekday and see if it tells more.
Over a pint of beer and a mince pie I talked about the tour with some of the others around a table. The curator then joined us and asked if we'd like to know more about the route. You bet we did! We were then given what amounted to a key to unlocking the rationale behind the places we passed through and their connection to the text. There were explanations for practically every road and passage, for building after building that we passed oblivious to, consumed in conversations on politics, ethics, the city, language, the renaissance or else flirting, buttering up professional contacts and 101 more things besides. From this I had the impression that the basic premise of the walk was a psychogeographical one: the city is full of power architecture that exerts an influence upon the individual as they pass through it. Even if this impact was unconscious, we were being exposed to it and it was informing our conversations around The Prince. While that may be true I also felt that I would have liked to have been able to take this onboard more deliberately whilst doing the tour rather than receiving it as a postscript, even if that meant disrupting the free flow of the conversations. With so many symbols and forms of architecture to view and so many alternative ways to understand the spaces we passed through, some tuning of the city to Machiavelli might have made the walking element more meaningful for me. On the other hand, I must admit that this space of meaning was instead colonised by the conversations and I was fortunate enough to have an interesting succession of walking partners. Either way, it seems, Machiavelli does still have relevance today and this event gave us an intriguing format to consider his ideas.