Astonish me!

By

I have great admiration for those thousands of people who, all through the summer, conduct attentive little groups of tourists, laden with cameras and eagerness, on yet another tour of the Duke of so-and-so's home or such-and-such an art gallery, or up and down the great marble staircase in whatever city chambers it might be. They are a marvellous brand of people, generally carrying out repetitive routines with unflagging enthusiasm, and not too often nowadays collecting a tip at the door. Somebody should write a song in praise of tour guides. Tour guidance must be one of the least honored of the performing arts. And it is definitely an art. You only have to troop round an old house without a guide to realize how much your impression of architectural details, of furniture, of portraiture, even of the atmosphere of a place, can be enriched by one.

I sometimes think that the guides I have encountered over the years are more memorable than the houses they have shown me round. They come in all shapes and sizes, from a dour Scots janitor who has other matters to attend to, but will show you round just now, on the run, so long as you don't stop and look at anything, to the Yorkshire lady (evidently big in the local amateur dramatics) who volunteers every year to show visitors round the little Georgian theatre in her town. She does it because she loves doing it, and the visitor is treated to a train of acted anecdotes, about Siddons and Garrick and Edith Evans, performed with that inexhaustible zest only possible to the nonblase amateur.

There are tour guides who are obviously retired school teachers whose affection for neo-Gothic tracery or Edwardian buttonhooks has been suppressed for forty years by examination syllabuses, and who at last are in their element, expatiating fully on their favorite topic to a captive audience.

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There are the guides whose minds seem elsewhere, though their voices are present enough. There are the efficient and severe ones who will brook no insubordination from the back and who answer an irregular question in a way that makes it clear that what they have already said about the blue-and- gold bedroom is all that there ism to say about the blue-and-gold bedroom. Then there are the opposite kind who can't bear to admit (after a display of factual knowledge sufficient to stagger an encyclopaedist) that they don't actually know the answer to your question and so bluff their way into a reply that they hope will silence you. Then there are those guides who delight in idiosyncratic and gimmicky items of history, or those who like to pick on an unsuspecting member of their audience and ask him if he knows what the Fourth Earl of Sandwich's favorite filling was?

And there are guides who have, above all, the spiritm of the thing, if not quite the letter. A lady who owns a country house in Cumbria overheard one of her guides on the main staircase addressing a group of tourists. What she heard gave her quite a surprise. Later on she casually said to this guide, "Mrs. Marchbunk, you know that picture on the stairs that you tell the visitors is a Rembrandt?"

"Yes."

"Well, you know, actually, it's a Rubens."

"Oh, well, I knew it were onem of them old men."

Some of the loveliest of guides are those who embellish. Feeling perhaps that their job is becoming a little boring, they start to entertain their guests with small tales of their own invention. As we all stare fascinated into the stone dungeon, the guide says: "I like to imagine. . . " -- and there follows an abbreviated historical novel.

Sometimes in art galleries one encounters self-appointed guides. Employed as guards, such people try to alleviate their boredom by looking firstly at the art around them, and then engaging others in discussion. One guard I came across in a London gallery was in full flood, conducting a kind of seminar about Giacometti's sculpture with a group of sceptical schoolchildren. I can only hope that such a deviation from his police work didn't invite disapproval from the administration. He was creating great interest in art. Why not -- in an art gallery?

Another tour guide, in a newspaper office, was once overheard telling her audience, as she pointed out a man walking towards the exit door, that they were very fortunately witnessing one of the foreign correspondents "just leaving on an important mission." Poor girl. Who could blame her for this innocent fiction? She understood, instinctively, perhaps, that the tourists wouldn't really mind if what they were being told was or wasn't ascertainable fact, just so long as it was fascinating.

It is on this basis that guides have for centuries pointed to the eyes in old portraits which "always follow you round, wherever you go." The tourists express amazement, and agree it must be a very great painting, and that's all that matters. The fact that the correspondent in the newspaper office was only going out to wash his hands, and that the eyes in any front facing portrait can't help gazing at you wherever you stand, because the picture is two-dimensional. . . or that the old man on the stairs is Rubens and not Rembrandt: all these are irrelevant. After all, what holidaymaker wants to be given mere facts? What he wants is a holiday.

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