When it comes to history tours, the team at Unreal City Audio, fronted by Dr Matthew Green, are really blazing a ‘trail’. We chat to Dr Matthew Green about the release of an extraordinary new app that brings to life the world of 18th century London.
Serendipitously, it was a diary entry I stumbled across one Winter’s evening in the British Library when I was studying for my master’s thesis. It was written on the 22nd February 1716 by a ruthlessly ambitious yet chronically insecure twenty-three year old law student called Dudley Ryder who lodged at the Middle Temple and kept an exhilaratingly vivid account of what it was like to live, work, fret and dream in Europe’s biggest city. After witnessing the beheading of a rebel Jacobite Lord on Tower Hill he recalled, ‘went to the Grecian coffee-house. A great many gentlemen of good sense come there. I ventured to sit down among them and talk a little about the execution of the lords today. I think I spoke rather handsomely. Heard them talk a great deal.’ What an amazing world, I thought, where you could walk into a coffeehouse, sit down next to a stranger, and discuss the latest news late into the night. It was a discovery that carried me from my seat in the British Library to the cobbled, lantern-lit Devereux Court off Fleet Street where to my sadness I found very little trace of the enlightened, convivial atmosphere of the Grecian only a dreary, lifeless boozer.
On my way there I passed squadrons of Starbucks and Cafè Neros and these clones seemed so anonymous, lonely, and drab compared to the coffeehouses visited by Dudley Ryder, cauldrons of creativity, innovation and wit bubbling with news, gossip, and intrigue. Coffeehouses, I thought, are essentially meeting places, sites of intersection, where the paths of strangers criss-crossed in a sociable and congenial environment. That people were sitting in these 21st-century coffee shops all alone, immersed in their own thoughts, or compulsively checking their mobile phones seemed to speak volumes about the increasingly atomised and virtual nature of our own society. I wanted to understand, in part as a foil, how this very different mode of interaction, one founded on the face-to-face exchange of ideas, had come into existence in the 17th century and why on earth it withered away the 19th. Ultimately I hoped to understand whether it could ever be recreated in the modern world. And I’m still working on that.
Tell me about Unreal City Audio…
Sure. After submitting my PhD (on the power of the mass media in the 18th century) three years ago I felt, as one does after being shut away in libraries every hour God sends, starved of human contact and alienated from the real world. I wanted to reconnect and bring my findings to the wider world. So I headed to London and co-founded an historical media company called Unreal City Audio with my close friend, the excellent musician and writer Duncan Brown in February 2012 with a view to producing immersive historical tours of London led by charismatic experts, brought to life by actors and musicians, and powered by shots of industrial strength 17th-century coffee. Our name derives from The Wasteland. Everyone’s in such a hurry these days, we barely have time to notice their own city. We want to help Londoners see their city with fresh eyes, make it seem unfamiliar, unreal.
Eighteen months on, I’m pleased to report everything seems to be going to plan. We’ve grown into a creative coalition of writers, historians, actors, musicians, programmers, and sound designers staging a range of public, private, and corporate tours every week. And we’ve been featured and praised by the Guardian, Telegraph, BBC and ITV, which is gratifying. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though. On one tour we were intercepted by armed police after a meddlesome drinker in a pub saw one of our actors (playing an aggrieved tavern keeper in a ridiculous periwig) wielding an 18th-century duelling pistol in the face of Pasqua Rosée, London’s first purveyor of coffee. He promptly contacted the City of London police. The audience loved it though, thinking our budget stretched to hiring a police van and unnervingly life-like machine guns. If only.
The App is an immersive GPS-powered tour of London’s original – and best – coffeehouses set in the rain-rattled alleys and hallowed courtyards of the City of London. A big-screen version of our live Coffeehouse Tour, it is a collaboration between Unreal City Audio and PocketGuide, a Hungarian company who produce bestselling tour Apps for cities worldwide. It consists of two hours of compelling narrative and suspense-filled drama woven into a cinematic sound design which re-imagines what it would have sounded like to walk through the streets of London 300 years ago. We were interested in harnessing the very latest technology to bring the past bursting to life. At first it seemed like it was going to be too complicated and we nearly gave up. But we battled on and have finally finished it! As voices from the past and present guide you through the City’s maze of medieval alleys and courts, you can expect your phone to magically strew your path with the stories, songs and sounds of Old London as coffee blazes a trail through the hallowed streets of Cornhill, spawning the institutions of the modern enlightened world.
By the way, you don’t actually have to travel into the City to use it; the App is overflowing with photographs, antique images, and anecdotes based on original research that will fascinate anyone interested in the history of London. Or coffee. And it has a sci-fi twist too, which I’ll say nothing more about.
It costs less than the price of a cup of coffee, £1.99, and works on all smartphones. If you’d like to buy a copy, follow these simple instructions:
1.Download the PocketGuide App. to your smartphone from the App Store or Google Play:
Click here! (preferably from a smartphone browser)
2. From the tour menu, select London.
3. Scroll down a little for the Coffeehouse Tour and download
What is the most surprising thing about 17th and 18th-century London?
Well, obviously there are a number of contenders here: the high literacy rates (c. 80% of adult males and around 45% of females by c. 1750); the ubiquity of animal cruelty (James Boswell recalls Dr Johnson’s horror at hearing of a nobleman running around town shooting cats and fretted about his own beloved Hodge); or indeed the popularity of chocolate wine. But what strikes me the most, I think, is just how mobile the middle and upper classes were. To return to Dudley Ryder, it’s clear from his diary that he’d quite happily make two journeys on foot from the Temple to Hackney in the space of a single day. I live in Hackney and I wouldn’t dream of doing that. But then again, he did have lots of coffeehouses to drop into on the way. And the prostitutes of Fleet Street were something of a distraction too.
Who is your historical hero?
François-Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire, who did more than anyone to demonstrate the power of wit. He made Europe an immeasurably better place with his razor-sharp wit.
Complete the sentence. ‘Not a lot of people know this, but…’
Not a lot of people know this but Girls Just Wanna Have Fun by Cyndi Lauper is a cover version. I was astonished when I found that out in a pub in Borough the other night.