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Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Seven Qualities of a Really Really Good Tour Guide.

So what does make an excellent tour guide? At London City Steps we have trained over 100 young unemployed people to become tour guides so here are the seven things that we think make a tour guide really really good:

1)      Knowing the facts 

Guided tours are full of facts and they need to be mastered thoroughly. Stories, humour and anecdotes and the things that fascinate audiences. Dates are often the bug-bear as they need to be known but risk sounding like a dull list. It suffices to say that the British Museum was founded  in the mid 1700s as people aren’t too interested in 1752 or 1753 as this is a guided tour not a history lecture. Using terms such as “the 16th century” often automatically makes the listener picture the 1600s so we refer to the 16th century as the 1500s.

Where facts conflict, or there are several theories we mention them both. For example, Big Ben’s name comes from two theories:  1) Sir Benjamin Hall who built it or 2) Benjamin Caunt a Victorian boxer who survived 60 rounds with the then boxing champion. I really like the second one, 60 whole rounds, wow!

The problem with the words, is just knowing the words is never enough. It’s the coffee in the cappuccino, without the froth and without the chocolate sprinkles. You may know the words to Bohemian Rhapsody but that doesn’t make you Freddie Mercury. That’s why you need the second ingredient....

2)      Personality

A tour guide is a band frontman (or frontperson) like a Freddie Mercury or Courtney Love. Once our trainees have mastered the facts and practised, there is a chrysalis-to-butterfly moment. Confidence incubates, personality emerges.  Last month we witnessed such an a-ha moment when training a 20 year old on our Gems of Whitechapel walk. We came outside the Blind Beggar pub and when he started to talk about the Kray twins he spoke animatedly, he brought in humour and passion, he brought a certain banter to his stories and a repartee with the listeners. Personality can’t be taught, it can only be coaxed, but when it does emerge it needs to be encouraged. If London City Steps was X Factor, personality would be ...well...the “X” factor.

3)      Knowing the audience.

We advise our guides to get to the start ten minutes earlier to meet the audience and have a good chat. This calms the nerves, gets the voice box turning over and gets you acquainted with the audience. Are they native English speakers? Will they get our humour? Are there children in the group? Tailor the communication likewise. If there are elderly people, perhaps walk a bit slower. Notice a quizzed look and ask why. See a raised hand. Notice a limping straggler and walk with them. Try and engage the audience as early as you can. “Any Irish people here? Did you know it was an Irish Doctor who founded the British Museum?” Offer them questions, show pictures, ask them to vote on something - you are there both to educate and entertain, but also to converse and hear them too.

4)      Say what is seen.

This is what makes tour guiding different to a history lesson as you can physically see the object/ building/ panorama in front of you. Some details need to be pointed out literally such as the World War One shrapnel damage on Embankment’s Cleoptra’s needle, or the nose on Admiralty Arch.

5)      Housekeeping.

This is all going to sound basic but so easily forgotten. Make sure you’re not obstructing the public right of way. Have your back to the object you are talking about so your audience won’t have to look at you and the object as watching tennis. Marshall the crowd in a nice way.  Always cross roads at the green man, avoid slippery paths and puddles.  Always make sure you have public insurance. Stay safe

6)      Flexibility.

Events can always pan out differently especially  in London. Roads can get cordoned off by police at the last moment. Roadworks suddenly appear, and museum artefacts go for repairs or on loan. A good guide will walk the walk before to check ahead or failing that will be able to think on his/her feet for a plan B. At the British Museum were were taught to avoid talking over another tour group, wait for them to pass by filling in with an extra story we had prepared up our sleeves.

7)      Delivery

Have good eye contact. Scan the crowds as you speak to them, but don’t too long on one person (it might look like a fixation). Make sure everyone can hear you especially if you there is a lot of traffic noise. Avoid the robot-like monotone.

So I think that just about covers it. All seven of them or have I missed something? Just getting to know my audience.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

2012 the end of the world?

SO 2012 HAS ARRIVED and may it bring hope, prosperity and health to one and all. Hopefully it will also bring us 2013 at the end but the possibility of the latter not actually happening did occur to me this week when I popped in to the British Museum to put the finishing touches to the training for our next guided walk called... fanfare please ... “British Museum: stories behind the objects”. (If you can think of a better title for our walk, please let us know and we will invite you and a group of 4 friends to the first one).

The Mayan friezes section on the ground floor is magnificent, and although this Mesoamerican civilisation was in to all types of activities, from the gory (blood-letting ceremonies), the bad (human sacrifices) to the very good (making chocolate), the civilisation that ended about 900AD has in recent years caught the popular imagination for their Long Count Calendar which ends abruptly on the 21st of December 2012 (it is a five thousand year calendar hence "long"). Some believe that the abrupt ending is a prediction of the end of the world while others believe that calendars have to end (lack of pages or stones to carve on etc that sort of limitation). Having done a bit of research on this, London City Steps is happy to inform you that the odds are still massively in our favour.

Popular fascination with this date stems from Hollywood which in recent years have churned out films such as “Apocalypto” and “2012” (tagline “we were warned”) when the world is overcome by solar storms, earthquakes, floods, and asteroid showers. Some people are genuinely scared of the possibility of these events - on the NASA website for example, a frequently asked question is “will the earth end in 2012?” to which a calm, scientific answer is given as, “The world will not end, our planet has been getting along just fine for more than 4 billion years.” That NASA has had to put up an official statement to that effect shows that queries must be piling in.

There are all sorts of theories doing the rounds on how the world might end this year with multiple origins for the chaos. A mysterious planet Nibiru is due to return to our solar system; a reversal of the earth’s magnetism or rotation will occur; my favourite though is an alien invasion at the closing ceremony of the Olympic games. Who would have believed the place mankind might make first contact with extra-terrestrial beings would be Stratford?

End of the world theories have been around for hundreds of years. In the year 999, a popular belief was that Armageddon would as it would have been 1000 year since Christ. Peter Ackroyd in his excellent Biography of London, mentions Londoners hundreds of years ago believed that on the Last Judgement, angels would peal the bells of London in order to convince Londoners that the end of the world was nigh. Three times during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I earthquakes hit London (two of them on Christmas eve), and church bells such as the Westminster clock bell, rang of their own accord, creating a hysteria on the streets.

Perhaps the most famous of the prophets of the end of the world was Michel de Nostredame, who lived in France in the 1500s and Latinised his name to Nostradamus. Even today his supporters maintain he was able to predict everything from Hitler's rise, the Great Fire of London, 9/11 and even the trial of OJ Simpson.

Perhaps the most high profile predictor of doom from last year was Harold Camping who predicted that May 21st 2011 would be the end date, with five months of fire, brimstone and plagues in what he termed the Rapture. The clock ticked by and Mr Camping was reported on May 22nd to be flabbergasted, while the rest of us breathed a sigh of relief.

So, not wanting to tempt fate, end of world predictions so far have tended to be damp squibs and the odds are well in our favour. So those packing away their Christmas decorations now, pack them with care for you you’ll almost certainly be needing them for next Christmas. But as for the aliens invading the closing ceremony at the London Olympics, I can't help but hope that we can show off our city to those around and out of our world.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Is graffiti ever acceptable?

Of course not, it’s illegal. But from the Rosetta Stone to Banksie, it’s been going on a long time. So can graffiti ever acquire a social value?

London’s two famous Nelson statues had contrasting experiences in graffiti and vandalism lately. Our first Nelson, who has been a statue for nearly 200 years, Admiral Horatio Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar Square, stands on his 56 metre column and survived the Battles of Copenhagen, the Nile and the aerosol graffiti of the recent protests (although the plinth had “Revolution” emblazoned on it). The Christmas tree beside Nelson’s Column fared worse. The annual gift to the UK from the city of Oslo given since 1947 as a token of their gratitude for help in the war, war was lit ablaze by the vandals.

London’s other much loved Nelson statue, Nelson Mandela, who stands in Parliament Square got a tough time - graffiti and a rag tied round his neck (quite what the message was here is lost on me). Beside his neighbour, the statue of Churchill, the ground was marked with the words “Churchill, common gangster, traitor, killer.” Worse than that a man swung on a union flag draped to the Cenotaph, Whitehall’s Portland stone memorial to the war dead which just a few weeks ago saw dignitaries paying wreaths of poppies in remembrance of their sacrifice. Such lack of respect for people who died in the wars is high contemptible, and paradoxical in that our war dead died to save our very rights of expression that they the anarchists, quite distinct from the majority of the decent protesters, now abuse.

Despite the vandalism, the most iconic image of the recent student demo will surely always be a positive one - of school girls linking hands to save a police van from being battered by vandals, surely the most iconic London photo in ages.

Does graffiti ever have a place in society either in art, or a form of public expression?

Perhaps the most telling historical graffiti is in Pompeii the Roman city consumed by volcanic ash in 79AD, which preserved wall writings on a multitude of subjects. These range from the mundane “On April 19th, I made bread.” (Quiet why one would need to write that on a wall, I don’t know), to the factual, “Antiochus hung out here with his girlfriend Cithera,” which I suppose is an ancient version of “we woz ere”. There are rude ones such as “Epaphra, you are bald!” and “Phileros is a eunuch!” to the downright cruel “Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they ever have before!”
But then there are graffiti that give helpful household hints such as, “Let water wash your feet clean and a slave wipe them dry,” and ofcourse to the romantic, “If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girl friend.” Unsurprisingly much of the Pompeii wall-chat is of an unsavoury nature, the great sentiments of human kind from Pompeii to the 21st century pub urinal have never changed and ancient graffiti is the common trig-point proof. Today, the Pompeii graffiti transmits messages across millennia about how people lived in 79AD with more lucidity and perceptive detail than any monument, tome or edict ever could. It’s a vox populi of the common person, a primitive community billboard for the masses unlike so much of written history where the words are given over to the victor or the intelligentsia. The tiny details of Chie’s haemorrhoids, the bitchiness of whoever wrote that, the intrigue, the debauchery, romance, boasting, show our commonality and oneness between nations and across time in full measure.

The Rosetta Stone and Graffiti

So given the passing of the sands of time through the hour glass, does a piece of graffiti acquire respectability? Does it at some juncture come of age and receive the badge of societal endorsement? Does time turn something worthless and crude in to a priceless historical artefact? Perhaps.

Take the Rosetta stone, the British Museum’s most important artefact which 200 years ago was used to help decipher hieroglyphics. It has three obvious scripts, Demotic, Hieroglyphics and Greek; but look closer and on its rugged edge and you might notice a fourth script: English. It’s a tad faint but can be still read as “Captured by the British Army 1805”, which purists at the time could have argued is a form of graffiti, defacing an ancient artefact. But today joining the dots backwards, it gives the stone an extra richness, another, more modern story for it to tell, about how the British fought Napoleon’s armies over 200 years ago to capture it in Egypt.
It’s not just old graffiti - modern graffiti too can be much coveted and loved at large. Take Banksy, the Bristol graffiti artist whose street art often of a political and thought-provocative nature is highly regarded and although books have been written about him and some of his stencilled wall art can sell for tens of thousands of pounds, is still essentially graffiti despite for despite its richness of thought, is held to be so due to its illegality.

(London City Steps in no way advocates graffiti but has a strong appreciation of Banksy and Pompeii. )

Monday, 20 December 2010

Snow, London's Nemesis

Keeping our streets snow free

Making steps in the city is a careful activity in the snowfall we’ve had this past week. London City Steps walks are more likely to be slushy trudges so get ready to be booted, with thermals and thick socks and layers upon layers of woollens. It looks like our local councils whose responsibility it is to keep our pavements snow-free, might be running out of grit later in the winter.

By the way, if it’s any help, a Himalayan guide once advised me to walk heel first on ice (legal caveat: use this advice at your peril, afterall he was a Himalayan guide used to such conditions).

London’s wrong type of snow

London copes poorly with snow you see, not for her the romantic vision of snowflakes shimmering and spiralling in moonlight – closer to the truth are irate commuters, train delays, snow clearing trains not coping due to the “wrong type of snow” and even our underground system (the “Tube”), failing. It’s havoc and standstill at a time when there’s so much to get done, presents to buy, mincepies to fill and pine trees to carry home.
So even if it’s our local council’s duty to clear the snow, what’s the neighbourly solution here which Londoners can expedite should they fail in this?

The start of public pavements

This takes logically and tangentially to one of our walks at London City Steps, the Classic Tour where our guides show a small forgotten square right beside Trafalgar Square; one Arthur Onslow, the Speaker of the House of Commons was in the 1710s visiting this square by Harrington House, when his horse drawn carriage got stuck in the tiny alleyway leading up to it. It was so tightly squeezed-in that Onslow was unable to open the carriage door to get out. In the end, they had to cut a hole in the top of his carriage and pull him out by his breeches and poor Onslow was forced to do something he hadn’t done before – walk the streets of London to get to his office down Whitehall. On that walk he saw muddy streets, the risks for pedestrians to not have a part of the road that was theirs with huge cartwheels passing close by. And on this walk, Onslow had his eureka moment – he recommended to Parliament that London should have series of paving stones for pedestrians to walk on and every household and business would be responsible for the creation and upkeep of a series of paving stones in front of their properties. And thus London’s pavements were created.

Clearing snow for neighbours - is it a good idea?

Anyway I digress: so the neighbourly solution to clearing snow? That we the citizens clear it from the front of our houses and businesses? Great idea but how does that stack up in this era of health and safety at Christmas (or should that be “elf and safety”). In Germany, USA, Austria and Switzerland there are legal requirements to clear snow even down to the millimetres thickness of the snow. Although London City Steps is not in the legal business, it seems in Blighty you could get in to a spot of bother for bothering to clear the snow – you see, if the snow you sweep away causes a nuisance in the place it’s swept away to it could cause a legal problem depending on how carelessly it was done. But really! Haven’t we really got to use some common sense here? Just to be neighbourly and just check on someone else? You know, we might just get a sense of community once more, but just don’t get swept away with the concept.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Tour guiding in London - a funny old game

Tour guiding in London can be a dream job; you get to meet new people, go on brisk healthy walks, and know the secrets behind the greatest city on earth. It’s never repetitive, no two tours are the same - despite being a British Museum tour guide now for 4 years and having done exactly the same tours (Assyria and Japan), I always look forward to them; every time new faces, new questions, varying nationalities and ages. I’ve even had tourists suggest changes to my script (“the helmet on the Assyrian Lamassu is clearly phallic, can’t you see it?” or “I don’t think those soldiers in the picture are eunuchs.” When I questioned him on why he thought that , he replied rather casually with arms on hips, “because men without balls can’t fight.” To this I just had to reply, “but I know women who can fight.”

Moving away swiftly from the Freudian, equally enlightening and a little unnerving to a tour guide are new questions that appear every now and again. After all that training and all that reading you would have thought most bases would have been covered, but there’s always something that is left out.It’s a bit like taking all our washing out of the washing machine in one go. Just when you think you have managed to cram every garment, sock and sleeve in to your cradled arms, one piece always manages to fall out.

Children, unhindered by self-consciousness and rampant curiosity, often ask the most penetrating questions. I was once on a tour of a Buddhist temple in, of all places, Colorado); the tour guide managed to answer all the questions about Prince Gautama Siddartha Buddha, where he was born, where he lived etc. Then a child asked how many brothers and sisters did Buddha have and that completely threw him.

Cavemen and dinosaurs
Talking of kids, a tour guide recounted a time when he was managing one of the “handling desks” at the British Museum to allow people to hold a 100,000 year old hand axe from Olduvai Tanzania, genuinely one of the oldest tools of man (or woman). In came a lady with her young son, and said, “Oh look Johnny it’s what cavemen used to kill dinosaurs with.”

The guide was stuck in a dilemma. What to do? Humans and dinosaurs never actually co-existed, we’ve been around for about a quarter of a million years, while dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago. So he wondered, should he risk correcting her in front of the young child – a tad inappropriate; but letting Johnny believe an incorrect version of history was just as bad, so he replied rather diplomatically , “Yes, but the latest thinking is that they never co-existed...” To which she retorted, “Well actually they did. It was on Jurassic Park.” At which point the guide said he went to the loo (I wonder if he took the hand axe with him.)

Hollywood and history make bad bed fellows
Talking of which, Hollywood and history make such bad bed fellows don’t they? For example, Cleopatra was Greek, not Egyptian; the guy that ran the Great Court Run before the final chime in 1927 was actually Lord Burghley not Harold Abrahams (as incorrectly depicted in Chariots of Fire). Alexander the Great looked nothing like Colin Farrell. In contrast, Ben Kingsley did look a lot like the Mahatma though; Gandhi was not a Hollywood film. QED. Must be loads more? 300? Titanic? Wizard of Oz?

Boney M and Mesopotamia
One thing I learned early on about giving tours is invoke humour at your peril. Infact, don’t go there unless you are absolutely convinced it’s going to be funny. And take this advice from someone who learned the hard way.

Last year, not heeding this advice, I started off my tour on Assyria as I usually do, by asking the group, can anyone tell me where was Mesopotamia? Some people answer this with Iraq, or the Fertile Crescent but this time someone replied, “By the rivers Tigris and Euphrates.” “Correct,” I replied. But then deluded by a mist of comedy, I added, “yes, by the rivers of Babylon where Boney M sat down.”

There followed a few seconds of silence as I waited for laughter. It was not forthcoming. Blank looks filled the void. Tumbleweed sped its way through gallery 7 of the British Museum. Wind whistled.

So I recomposed and continued the tour for a further 30 minutes; in the back of my mind, I thought, perhaps the socio demographic that visits museums and has a penchant for ancient history knows little about late 70s pop bands with a penchant for white glittery spandex. The tour itself was entirely devoid of any questions at all (quite unusual) but as I concluded and thanked them a hand went up at the back of a group. “A question?” I asked. “Yes,” a voice uttered. “Who was Boney M”

As I was saying, it’s a funny old game tour guiding, but perhaps keep the jokes for the pub ;0)