Often, as I stand outside Tottenham Court Road tube station; wearing a “Murder Mile“ cap, bag, badge and waving a branded flag, amidst a flurry of slightly bemused tourists who all ask me whether I’m “the Beatles tour”, “the punk rock tour” or whether I know “the way to The British Museum”, I am often asked by my beloved customers, how and why I started Murder Mile Walks? Why? Honestly? Two reasons; firstly I dreamt it… and, secondly, I was desperate.
As a child, growing up in Birmingham, trapped in a dull concrete jungle and burdened with a vivid imagination that I was too young to do anything about (which often frustrated my dad to such a degree, as the toys he’d buy he knew I’d never play with… unlike the box it came in) I would wile away my days silently dreaming. Some days I would dream was a king, the next I was a cowboy, often I could fly, on others simply I couldn’t die, but always I dreamed.
As I got older, my dreams became duller and simpler - yes, I still wanted invisibility, x-ray vision and the power of telepathy, who doesn’t – but those dreams also became more realistic and achievable, as (growing up) I set my heart on five small goals. #1 move to London, #2 work in telly, #3 live on a boat, #4 write a play, and #5 run my own murder walks (which, even back then, I knew I’d call “Murder Mile”).
Dream #1 move to London, I achieved in 1999, but only because that’s where my mum lived. #2 work in telly, I achieved in 2000, by accident, and I stayed there for almost a decade and a half. Where-as #3 live on a boat, #4 write a play, and #5 make a “murder mile”? Well, deep down, I knew they were only dreams, and the older I got, the harder they became to achieve and the more I knew that they would never happen, as slowly but surely, life (and responsibility) got in the way. So I settled into a comfortable job, a cosy house, a steady income and an imagination utterly wasted. I had died inside, I just didn’t know it.
But as cruel as life can be, it can also be a blessing… if you know where to look, what to listen out for, and how to keep your mind open.
August 2008, I was reviewing comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as part of my job with BBC Comedy, watching ten hour-long shows a day, seven days a week, on a diet of beer, crisps and suspiciously looking hot-dogs. I was bored, tired and moody. And as I skulked out of another painfully poor excuse for a “comedy show” muttering “what a piece of crap”, and trying to think up seventeen synonyms for “shit” - it hit me.
“Yes, the show was shit… but I couldn’t do any better”. Or “could I?”
Not being one to rest on my laurels, and always up for a new challenge (having already walked solo from Paris to London and about to run my third London Marathon next year) I told myself to “put up, or shut up” and that – right there, right then – I promised myself I would write and perform a one-hour show, every day, for next year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, having never written or performed before.
Why? To fulfil a dream; #4 write a play.
Why? Because I was desperate. I was fed-up with dream #2; to work in telly, but I didn’t know what else to do with my life. I had one skill, it paid well, and I hated it. Trust me, no-one with even an ounce of creativity or talent actively seeks out a job in TV development, and if you do, you either consider it your career, a means-to-an-end, or the death-nail in your creative coffin.
I would go on to write and perform four plays at the Fringe; all of which cemented my passion for story-telling, characters, black humour and history, with a desire to tell very odd love stories about people psychologically pushed to breaking point. Not one of them made a penny, and although they were loved and loathed in equal measure (one day I got a standing ovation and the next 98% of the audience walked out), for me they were “a modestly successful failure”. Not because the reviews were good – they weren’t – but because I had enjoyed myself.
For the next few years I struggled on; writing crap no-one wanted to read, performing twaddle no-one wanted to see, and all funded by a job I openly despised. Over five years as a part-time writer with a niche side-line as an odd-ball character act, and with three sitcoms in development, I had made just £1700 – and no that’s not a typo missing a few zeros.
And then came redundancy – both a blessing and a curse.
A blessing, because I could stop working, start writing, and – better still – finally fulfil dream #3: to live on a boat, having been paid enough “don’t come back” money to live a frugal but survivable lifestyle for maybe two years at best - which was the kick in the arse I needed - or so I thought.
A curse, because after eighteen months of physical, literal and creative freedom, with endless hours, limited funds, and nothing to do but write, I was stuck in the vice-like grip of one of the worst bouts of writer’s block I have ever encountered.
For three months I stared at my laptop’s flashing cursor, willing it to write, which I didn’t. I had achieved four of my five dreams, and every single one of them was killing me. I’d stopped eating, stopped sleeping, stopped talking, I had nothing left, and every ounce of passion that remained, quickly drained away with every tear that rolled down my sunken cheeks.
And everyone who asked me “how’s the writing going?”, always did so with a smirk, an unspoken “I told you so”, and a wealth of useful advice about how I should “stop dreaming” and get myself “a proper job”… none of whom saw the irony that all they ever talked about was how they hated their job, wanted out, but didn’t know what else to do.
And so, having hit rock-bottom, I sighed, switched back on my laptop, and reluctantly started job-hunting… which lasted six whole seconds… because it made me sick.
I couldn’t give up. I wouldn’t give up. I couldn’t go back, I’d come too far... but I also knew couldn’t move forward. Which left me with just one option – up. On a post-it note over my bed was a mantra by the writer John Morton which said “nothing worthwhile is ever easy”. And he was right.
For the first time since I was a kid, dream #5 began to bubble in my battered little brain.
“Make the Murder Mile” it muttered, a distant memory I’d filed away under “yeah, whatever!”. “Go on, do it” it grinned, like two tiny shoulder-based devils and angels, talking for the first time in unison. “If you make a Murder Mile, they will come”, it uttered, I half expected James Earl Jones to turn up and to witter on endlessly about baseball. He didn't. Which was lucky really, because as much as I love James Earl Jones, I hate sport.
I started with nothing.
No money… just dreams.
No track-record… just time.
No experience… just enthusiasm.
And no plan… just lots and lots of passion.
Nine months later, having researched, written and rehearsed a two hour history of Soho’s most infamous murders, as well as becoming an expert on the best tea-shops nearest to my three new homes – The Old Bailey, the National Archives and the British Library – and having thoroughly investigated every aspect of over three hundred murders across one square mile of Soho, Murder Mile was launched.
Murder Mile Walks is the culmination of everything I love in life; it’s writing, it’s performing, it’s history, it’s being my own boss, it’s the reason I wake and it’s the reason I dream, I’m 100% responsible if it’s a hit, and 100% to blame if it’s a failure, every single ounce of blood, sweat and tears (and, trust me, there’s been a few) have been mine and mine alone, and best of all, I am living my dreams - all of them. And although life is tough; I don’t even make minimum wage, and have to hold down seven other odd-jobs just to sustain it, I love it… every single minute of it.
"What’s the point in dreaming, if you don’t wake up... and make them real?"
Today, my writer's block is long gone, with a self-penned novels under my belt as well as two more tours in development, including the second Murder Mile Walk... I no longer consider dreams as dreams, or simply figments of a vivid imagination, but as tiny acorns of how I want my life to be.
To be continued:
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten quirky & unusual things to do in London” and featuring 18 murderers, 3 serial killers, across 21 locations, totalling 75 deaths, over just a one mile walk.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime historian, writer, podcaster and tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious and unusual things to do in London".