Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Haunted Holborn Tour

Finally, in the week running up to Halloween I made it round to taking a ghost tour, and it's about time too as I have felt this is a tour experience I have lacked. The tour was free and offered by gotomidtown a Business Improvement District whose package includes street rangers in uniforms and, more originally, guides.   

They have an information point outside Holborn Tube station and this acts as the meeting point for the tour. Note the adoption of the i for information. 

As it was a busy place the guide used amplification. I first encountered these little amps when taking a guided tour in Souther China around some UNESCO sites that were inundated with guides and people selling stuff. To cut through the noise the guides all used these, which of course significantly contributed to the acoustic arms race. Here in Holborn it was useful as the traffic and crowds would have been a bit much to shout over.

There must have been about 25 of us taking the tour and we had to follow our guide through the lunchtime crowds. The timing was tricky not only on account of the bustle but also because of the subject matter. Evening must work far better for ghost tours I imagine. There was no real chance of crating a spooky atmosphere here, indeed the guide didn't even try. He related the stories with considerable distance saying "some people believe this" rather than just telling the story like it happened. This sitting on the fence didn't offer him anything more as a position to narrate from; it is obvious that not everybody believes in ghosts. By the end I was wishing he was in some sort of costume and making an effort to ham it up and scare us.

While waving us on I noticed he was holding these cards which had his script on them, complete with highlighted sections. It is generally a little disappointing to have a guide working from a script and ours here was at least only referring to these cards for dates and facts. What was revealing however was when we arrived at the former entrance to The British Museum underground station. Here he began by reading from a card that had the construction details and dates of this former tube station. These were given in a standardised history tour format. He then moved on from that card and onto a new card which was written with the idea of a ghost tour and not an architectural tour and which contained the story of a wailing Egyptian mummy. My guess is the architectural card belonged to a different tour and was used to introduce the location on the ghost tour. Whist only slightly jarring it did make me wonder about this way of structuring knowledge. It reminded me of wikipedia in the sense that each topic has a discrete entry and you bring your own context and narrative path to the reading and understanding of it. Rather than smoothing over the cracks resulting from the different source materials that the tour's narrative was drawn from this crack was left unintentionally visible. Rather than simply overlooking this minor mistake I feel that there may be something interesting in it if it is enlarged and made deliberate. It makes me wonder if this compartmentalised approach to applying facts could itself become a principle for a tour.

After having taken the ghost tour it was my turn to play guide. The same evening I was scheduled to give a tour around Bloomsbury to a class of students from Birkbeck College. I had neither the time nor inclination to research a Bloomsbury tour so I conducted a little experiment. I decided upon a simple route, looked at what was around and then projected the stories of tours that I had taken elsewhere onto the locations I found in Bloomsbury. I added to these the ghost tour that I had taken earlier and one or two other tours I happen to know about such as the Jehovah's Witness British Museum Tour, so that there was a collection of true and false tours. An example of a false tour was my treatment of The Original Tour, a bus tour which I projected the story of another bus tour The Stuttgart Tour onto.

The Original Tour is in fact interesting for me more generally. I am studying the maps of these bus tours as I will be developing a tour around Shoreditch for 2014 (more on this later) and want to include a bus tour within those I cite. It won't be The Original Tour as the nearest they go is Tower Bridge, following a route that is depressingly similar to the 2012 Olympic Marathon route after the original route through East London was controversially substituted to the sightseeing route.

A curious quality that most of these bus tours have is that they are hop-on and hop-off. This is another way in which the narrative of the journey is flattened as it is impossible to write a beginning, middle and end into such a structure if it is meant to be experienced in that order. What you get instead is an endless stream of touristic information.  

I have noticed that my review of the Sex Tour of Stuttgart is quite popular and tends to get more hits than other blog posts. I'm not sure if this is because people already reading the blog see a list of blog entries and that one pops out at them or if the readers are sex tourists who stumbled across it by accident but one way or another it is a popular subject. I therefore decided to dust it off and apply it to Russel Square. This started with the phone boxes and their prostitute cards which offered the opportunity to talk about a walk I took some years back collecting these cards from Aldgate East to Paddington and looking for correspondences between the services offered and the neighbourhoods. Curiously, Bloomsbury seemed to have a lot of teachers offering to punish naughty boys... In any case I could then move onto applying the Stuttgart narrative to London and cast The Imperial Hotel overlooking Russel Square as a den of high class prostitution.

Another ubiquitous tour that was easy enough to apply was the Chinese Tour, this can be brought out wherever there is a Chinese restaurant. Although this approach has its limitations I rather enjoyed applying tour formulae to locations as this is in a sense the way the tourism industry operates in any case. I think there was some genuine ambiguity as to which were real and which false and this experiment certainly opens possibilities into alternative forms of presenting the guided tour research. 

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