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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)