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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)

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