Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Reflexions of an Oxford City Guide

I have been an Oxford city guide for some eight years now and it seems a good time to look back over this new career of my third age. You meet people from lots of countries in this job: mostly nice, some irritating. One of my first experiences of the latter was provided by a large woman from the USA who, at the beginning of a two-hour walking tour, asked very loudly "will there be much walking involved in this tour?" I explained that it was a walking tour to which she responded, "Well, I cannot walk very far you know". I allowed silence to reign and tapped into the growing discomfort of the other eighteen or so walkers.
Encaenia 2014
Tour groups are like a person, they have a mass character usually determined by the more vocal members and backed up by the rest. Some are great: the spokespersons ask sensible questions, engage in repartee with me and sometimes supply useful additional info. Like the performer that you are, you feed off this: it fuels your ego and pumps up your act - it really does. Children, teenagers and corporate groups can bring you down: the former two by showing complete disinterest in anything not connected with Harry Potter, the latter by their their overweening interest in their work and their corporate buddies. These groups have not chosen to come on a tour; someone selected it for them and paid for them. They reap what they sow: a lukewarm performance from a clockwatching guide.

Interestingly, when you start out as a guide you fear questions that you cannot answer - and have to restrain yourself from attempting to answer them regardless. As you mature into the job then you relish an interesting question that you have never encountered. I have not stopped learning (information about Oxford is glacial), so an interesting question turns me into a researcher rather than a regurgitator. Science tours are best for this I find, it's in the nature of the people who choose that tour to be searching, and in my nature to search.
Occasionally I have taken 'important people' on tours. I do not wish to do so again. Usually these people are accustomed to 'royal' treatment and cannot or will not respond to my same-level approach to guiding. One of them would not follow me (I am the guide!), another would pass on by when I stopped to explain something.

One thing worries me about people in groups (and perhaps about humanity): they can so easily lose their individuality. For example, there are times when you have to cross a road where there is no pedestrian crossing. I ask them to be careful then begin to cross only to find they are following like lemmings - not looking out for traffic at all.

You do regularly meet the same type of punter. There's the 'echo' for one. After a spirited description of a college in which you supply its name, age and history the 'echo' asks, "Which college is this?" followed by, "How old is this college?" Then there's the 'expert abroad' who is intent on telling you and the other 
members of an Oxford tour all about their hometown: Northampton, or Swindon, or wherever - fascinating. And there is the 'googler' who asks why a particular niche is empty, or why a hand is missing from a statue, or where a particular chunk of limestone came from. But all these types are the exceptions not the rule and they are sent to test our gentility.

When I started guiding, there was little competition. We, the trained and badged guides, worked from the Tourist Information Centre; there was also a small group hanging around Trinity College for the good summer pickings; a nice man from Blackwell's called Peter; and a drunk who haunted the remoter regions of the city.  Nowadays you can barely pass the information centre without tripping over a board offering 'free' tours, or hear yourself speak for the cries of so-called guides vying for the punter's attention. One lot offers 'official free tours' whatever that means. Another encourages their free-borders to leap up and shout under what they misleading call 'The Bridge of Sighs'. Disneyland has arrived and there is no attempt to regulate this menagerie.

Thing are not what they used to be, but I still enjoy far more than half of the tours that I do - and grin and bear the remainder. The city is beautiful and its history sublimely interesting.

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