Wednesday, 10 June 2020

End of an era in Oxford

Just recently I was asked to write something about being a walking tour guide in Oxford by the local Guild of Guides. The unexpurgated version of that article follows and provides a brief account of my transition from the world of telecommunications to that of guiding some fifteen years ago. As explained there, most of my work came through the vistor information centre in Oxford and today I heard that the centre is to close its doors for good: an early victim of Covid-19.

At one time the information part of the centre’s activities was funded by the local council, as most of these things are. That funding has run down over time and the centre then had to derive most of its income from the provision of walking tours. Apparently finances were not in a good state and, as with many marginal businesses, the pandemic has provided the final cut.

It is sad for me. I got to know many friendly and helpful people who worked in the centre and really enjoyed leading the so-called public tours with an audience made up of a variety of people from all over the planet. Still, nothing lasts forever and new blooms flower on the earth enriched by the old. Here’s the article I wrote, it may be my valediction.

Images of a tour guide vary so let me start by saying this: I only carry an umbrella when it is raining, I do not invent everything that I say (in fact I am not capable of that) and finally: I do not work for nothing – who does?

I started on the buses. I aspired to be an official walking tour guide in Oxford, but soon found that entry into the Guild of Tour Guides was not easy. Aspirants had to take an examined course and there were none scheduled at that time. Later I learned that courses are only run when a sufficient number of older guides had passed on so, short of arranging early demises for existing guides, I had to wait. So I started guiding on the buses: green ones at that time and labeled Guide Friday, presumably chosen to create an image of Robinson Crusoe’s native guide on his desert island rather the day of the week.

For that I was paid £5 per hour and was whipped around Oxford in that hour. This was a tad less than my rate as consultant in telecoms at that time, but hey, this was about changing my life, not about the money. The job was a bit repetitive, but had its challenges. At times we were racing around at a breakneck speed of twenty miles an hour, at others the bus was ensnarled in Oxford’s dense traffic or stationary whilst a crowd of tourists embarked each paying the driver in cash. This certainly improved my ability to prĂ©cis stories or to lengthen them. I became an elastic band of sorts. More exciting still were the sudden re-routes to avoid closed streets, accidents, etc. Suddenly I would find myself in a part of Oxford that I barely knew and one that often had no buildings of historic interest, in fact of any interest. So, I learned to improvise – but no, that still did not mean making things up.

I was back-packing in Turkey when I heard that the Oxford Guild of Tour Guides were planning to run a new course, presumably a sufficient number of older guides had expired at last. The course fee was quite a lot, I would have to pass an interview and there would be exams and test walks. All that was OK, but did I really want to do it? After my experience on the buses I wondered if, and this may sound arrogant, the role was stretching enough. I need not have worried. The course was great. I learned so much about Oxford that this in itself was worth the fee. And then the scope of the city’s history is so enormous that any attempt to master it is arrogance in itself. There is such a bottomless well of stories, characters, events and buildings in Oxford that the elastic band will always be stretched.

My very first walking tour, led just by me with no back up, no notes and no printed imagery (my own choice), was stretching. I was challenged just before the tour by an employee of my pimp – the then Tourist Information Centre.

“Where’s your badge,” she demanded crossly, “you must have a blue or green badge to lead the official tours.”

I tried to explain that I had passed the course and was now a member of the Institute of Tourist Guiding, but the badges had not yet been made. She was not impressed and I was discombobulated, but marched out to do my duty.

Outside a group of around fifteen people quickly assembled around me and I began my introduction, but was quickly interrupted by a large American lady.

“Will there be much walking on this tour? She asked, adding “I cannot walk very far”.

Nothing in my excellent training course had prepared me for this, so I answered, rather lamely, “Well, it is a walking tour.” Then, recalling that customers are always right, added, “but Oxford is a compact city. I’m sure you’ll be fine”.

One of the skills we were introduced to was crowd control, especially drawing in the group when the guide is speaking. Soon after my first public tour I led a private group, a group of policeman who were attending a bonding course of some sort. For all my efforts they insisted on standing well away from me and each other as if they had anticipated social distancing.

“What’s the matter?” I asked with a smile. “Don’t you like each other?”

“No,” they replied in unbonded unison.

I’ve been an Oxford guide for many years now and do regard the job as a profession. Through it we probably meet a greater diversity of people than in most other trades and I hope they are as enriched and amused by our brief encounters as I am.

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