Sunday, 31 August 2014

New Tour of All Tour Dates Added for London & Beijing

The Tour of All Tours a guided tour of guided tours. You've read the writing and the reviews of tours here on the blog, these tours of tours are where it all comes together and gets put into action. The tour is as much an art performance as it is a guided tour, if you are in London or Beijing come and see for yourself.

Beijing Saturday October 11th 2PM 
Starting Point: Bookworm, Building 4, Nan Sanlitun Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing
Cost 100 RMB

London Tuesday October 28th 7PM 
Starting Point: outside Richmix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA
Cost £8

Bookings: info ( a t )

Friday, 29 August 2014

The Mad Max Tour: from Stonehenge to Harry Potter

Mad Max Tours, a bus tour running out of Bath, does involve motorised transport but that's about all it has in common with the post-apocalyptic movie starring Mel Gibson back in the day when he seemed OK, i.e. before he went off and did Braveheart, The Passion of The Christ and turned anti-Semitic. It's so much easier to appear cool when you burst onto the scene and don't have a history behind you.

This tour shares its name with the movie because the woman who originally gave it and who now runs the company is called Maddy, or Mad for short, and her dog, who used to accompany her, was called Max. There is an internal tourist body clock which tends to work a good two hours behind the rest of us and by that reckoning the 8.20 AM start was very early. Still, we knew we had a long day ahead of us that would take us to Stonehenge, Avebury and two picturesque Cotswold villages we had never heard of but which, apparently, were wonderful. What this early start did mean was that I missed breakfast because the place I was staying at was adjusted for these leisurely hours and only started serving breakfast at 8AM. With a stomach looking in vain for food all morning I hopped in the van along with about eight others.

Our  mild-mannered guide and driver introduced himself with some self-deprecating wit and gave a brief outline of the day. He asked where we were from to which the reply was UK, Canada, USA and Hong Kong. There would be a lot of words on this tour so the fact that everyone spoke good English made his work a lot easier. With the obligatory health and safety notice out of the way, we were off. 

While we were driving he spoke through a small microphone. He made a lot of observations on the various things we were passing such as the crops growing in the fields, about which he seemed very knowledgable, at least to a city boy like me. The type of wheat and how it is cut might then be followed by a story about why a certain place got the its name, or, in this instance about the hill in the distance which became briefly famous for a UFO sighting. When we were rounding upon Stonehenge we listened to an audio track about the place narrated by Maddy, who used to give this tour and who didn't sound mad in the slightest. At first it jarred as I would have preferred to have heard about Stonehenge live but it was a pretty good introduction that covered both the known and the unknown mixing history with speculations and stories, so this switching between live and recorded was OK in the end.  

At Stonehenge there was a good deal more audio commentary as we walked around by ourselves listening to the audio guides. This commentary and the new visitor centre more generally, were very professional and no doubt reflected contemporary expert opinions but they were also slightly dull. 

I was not surprised to see that the map I was given didn't show anything like the full extent of the tourists: it acknowledges the visitor centre and the road that ferries you back and forth but after that it glosses over the viewing paths and crowds that line them preferring instead to transport you back to pre-history.  

Running visitors back and forth to the stones were these minibuses that sported the logo 'Step into England's story.' Coming in the run up to the vote for Scottish independence, I could not but notice this wording. I doubt this logo would have been chosen even ten years ago but now this kind of stuff is commonplace. I found that this stamping the flag upon the prehistory of a place tricky when I came across it in China, and I found it just as tricky here: it's the stuff of nationalists. It's not that I am not interested in the past and how we came to today, I simply feel that Stonehenge's builders were not English in the way we think we are and this effort to retrospectively make them so is conspicuous. I much prefer how it used to be: step into prehistory and learn about the stone age or bronze age or whatever. Please, leave England out of the story.

And on the theme of nationalism, our guide told us that a few weeks ago, coincident with the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, the fields around the visitor centre were awash with poppies, these being the flowers that are used to commemorate the soldiers who died in battle. I spotted just three on my visit which led me to suspect that the burst of flowers a few weeks ago was most probably not the result of nature alone. Our guide would not express a sceptical opinion but neither would he refute mine and when we left Stonehenge, we drove past Larkhill military base, neighbouring the stones, and I had to conclude that The Royal Artillery, whose home this was, were the most likely source of this patriotic blossoming. I find it a pity that scepticism has little place in most tours and while a full on 'sceptics tour' would be a curious creature (and not necessarily a bad one) I do feel that our natural scepticism should be allowed equal space on a tour as elsewhere. The basic situation of most tours tends against this, however, as there is a guide who knows a place and a public who doesn't. Deliberately awakening the critical instinct is only done with a little effort and can, I suppose, look heavy handed if laboured. In fairness though, we were encouraged to take some of the other stories on this tour with a pinch of salt, such as the UFOs and crop circles, of which we'll come to in a moment. 

With Stonehenge ticked off we were on the road again and passed but did not stop at a place I would have been quite curious to have seen. To the left is the way down to The Barge Inn which boasts at being the 'world headquarters' of crop circles. Wiltshire is, we were told, the most active part of the world for these and where better to have your HQ than a pub? I remember reading a somewhat daft book on crop circles in relation to the Mayan calendar and end of the world and what struck me most was the degree of work that went into these 'unexplained' patterns in the fields. Reading between the lines there is a bit of a wacko culture around these circles which, despite the proven hoaxes, continues to read into them all manner of messages from UFOs and suchlike. The Barge Inn is definitely a place to return to at a later date on a more esoteric tour of the region's subcultures. Maybe it will be as much of an anti-climax as Stonehenge, maybe it will be Mecca, for now it is full of potential.

Avebury was completely different story to Stonehenge. The circle was far larger, the surrounding ditch deeper, there was no fencing off and no visitor centre and the general atmosphere was calmer by far. I also remember people randomly smiling at me around the stones and in the street in a way that did not happen anywhere else on this tour. Although our guide would not go too far into what the stones meant he did give us some history of how they came to be how they are. The Christian Church, he told us, over a number of centuries damaged and buried many of the stones in an attempt to suppress the pagan faith. They clearly did not succeed! He told us that some of the stones were recovered from the ground and returned to their original positions, which seemed natural to do given this was not only an archeology dig but also a living place of worship.  

It was a lot of fun to have a go at dowsing. When I tried it, the rods converged as I approached the stones and then at the last moment swung back parallel when I was right up close to the stone. When some of the other people tried the same thing with the same metal rods they didn't move at all. I couldn't say why that was but it definitely happened and I would quite like to try this more.

The bookshop in Averbury was particularly well stocked in new age and esoteric books about the stones, earth mysteries and related topics. Unlike Stonehenge, which was rather dry and commercial, Avebury looked as if the people who really cared the most about the stones played a far greater role in setting the tone of the place. On the shelves of the bookstore I noticed this book by Peter Knight which I was happy to see because I have been in touch with him about his tours. I'm all set to return to Avebury in a week or two and be shown round by him on his alternative tour that will include drumming, dowsing and more. That couldn't be further away from the Stonehenge visit and, to be honest, whether or not I believe what I am told, the very fact that it comes from someone who genuinely cares about the rituals and meanings of the stones in a complete and not narrowly academic way, should, at very least, make for a great tour.

Next stop was Lacock where we ate our lunches separately. I felt it was a pity that the group was an unsociable one but that is something that it is probably impossible to fully predict or manage. Following lunch we had an informative walking tour around the village. 

This brought us to one of the principal reasons that the village is so firmly on the tourist map. This pleasant but unremarkable house featured in several of the Harry Potter films as, we were told, Harry's parents' home. With an important featured location, and a number of further incidental locations used in the films, Lacock is now actively marketed as a Potter destination. I met an American couple not long ago who took a Harry Potter coach tour around London and they complained that the sites they were taken to didn't look the same as in the film clips they watched while driving between locations. The problem was the film uses a lot of special effects, so many that in some places you had to really look hard to recognise it as the setting of the clip you had just watched. And to make matters worse, some locations were blocked off by Palestinian protesters... Not so here in Lacock. Film tourism seems to be very big and villages that do not appear in films, like Little Bredy where I am also currently working on a tour, are deserted. Some time I will have to write about my appearance in one of the Harry Potter movies, but that will have to wait for another moment. 

Our final destination was Castle Combe, seen here in the movie War Horse. The church had this display up in a corner recording some scenes shot in the village once declared, "the prettiest village in England." That is a difficult title to live up to and it seems the place today has opted to endure the occasional minibus of proletarians like us rolling in and taking snaps and concentrate instead on high-end tourism with a hotel where prices start at £210 a night, then add in golf, dining and other profitable distractions. Strangely, there was an informal book sale in the church to raise money for the place and there was a conspicuously good selection of books on Marxist theory and philosophy. They were clearly all left by one person and they made odd bedfellows with a Hollywood movie set and luxury country resort.

It was funny to notice that we were not the only tour group in Castle Combe. As well as Chinese tours visiting Bath and Stonehenge, as I wrote about recently, there must also be a Chinese operator who includes Castle Combe on one of their itineraries. Their tour buses really do get everywhere these days. Well, everywhere except Little Bredy.

The final stretch of the road back into Bath was graced with music and a rainbow, a fortuitous and beautiful ending to the day. I was left with the feeling that because Bath city centre is so famously attractive, it can create an attention vortex that leads its surroundings relatively neglected. This tour showed me that Bath can be regarded not only as a day-trip or weekend destination, but can also a base from which to go out and see the surrounding attractions too. I am not sorry to have seen Stonehenge and to have had a typically underwhelming experience: I had to see it once for myself in order to have an opinion. Avebury, however, is rather special and is a place I'll return to. As for the filmset villages, they are pretty but also victims of their own success in showing themselves off. It is quite fitting, in a way, that Lacock is inundated with tourists taking pictures of it as it is the birthplace of photography: Fox Talbot's first ever photograph was, we were reliably informed, of a window in Lacock Abbey.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Idiot Tours: a visiting anarchist from Barcelona unveils Bath in style

Much as I have enjoyed sampling the tours of Bath, I have noticed an increasingly predictable pattern to them: they are mostly industry standard. That is clearly no bad thing for a city that depends upon tourism for much of its livelihood. What I have seen little of, however, and have started to miss, is tours that are amateurish, political or plain eccentric. You can imagine my excitement then when, one afternoon having lunch near the station, I saw a man pass in front of the window where I was sat with a home-made sign attached to his hat that read IDIOT TOURS. I finished my meal in seconds, paid at the counter and dashed off in search of an idiot tour.  

Like an alternative tourism bloodhound, I was on the scent and found him in no time. He had a public of two keeping a sceptical distance from him, and when I arrived they left. Strangely, he spoke into the empty space some two metres to my left and not directly to me. This and his homemade outfit made me wonder if he might not be crazy. He spoke very deliberately, however, and was assured in what he did so I hung in there. He was basically parodying a tour guide and giving a few generic historical names and numbers that might, but probably weren't, be true. He then moved on to talking about Bath today but insisted on calling it Newcastle. He said Newcastle has a Costa, a Superdrug, a H&M, a Sainsburys and so on, which indeed it most probably does. After a few minutes he acknowledged my presence and we started talking. His basic angle was that tourism and consumerism make everywhere more or less the same. At this point, a lady arrived looking for a tour and when we were still there after three minutes talking about placelessness, she asked whether we were going to walk anywhere. The answer that came was not positive, as he was waiting for somebody, and with that she went on her way in search of a tour that would take her somewhere. It was funny that it was not the content of the idiot tour that she found wanting, merely its lack of momentum. That, incidentally, reminds me of the Stuttgart walking tour I took which some older ladies followed, not listening to the guide, but using it as a social stroll through the better parts of the city in which none of them had to worry about which direction to take.

With continued talking and he told me he was not from Bath at all but was from Barcelona. He said he arrived yesterday, was visiting the city for a few days and giving some idiot tours while he was about it. He continued in an anti-capitalist direction decrying the gentrification of Barcelona that came with The Olympics saying how much better the city was before. 

To prove his point he showed me his Spanish identity papers which feature this decidedly un-serious ID photo. He said it would not be permitted today. He told me he has a BLOG where he has written about this and while I did not find much on the city of Barcelona, it did give me a clearer picture of who he is. 

"Hello, my name is Clive Booth. I live in Barcelona, where, for the last 30+ years, I have freely chosen to be an artist/performer/free thinker, committed to us human animals, in the public places in the city centre. I work so as to finance my free art. I share my creations, my imagination, my ideas, my sadnesses even, with my fellow men/women. I do not have time for or interest in conventional art and culture."

There are indeed some videos showing his street performance on Youtube.

The tour ended when he handed me a small scrap of card which had written on it SOCIAL MONEY. He told me, with a smile, to use it wisely. On his blog I see he writes about it, "Our freedom is still possible - with our organisation and imagination! Make your own social money."  Looking back on the tour now, I can barely call it a tour as we mostly remained in one location and he was using the tour guide convention in order to gather an audience and do his own thing. Still, if he calls it a tour, an idiot tour no less, then I'm happy to include it here. I am on the lookout for a few more tours here in Bath which, like this one, have a social and political dimension. They seem few in number and I find it ironic that when I finally find one it is given by a visitor to the city who been here but 24 hours. That said, I'm on the trail of another, a certain Saxon Wanderer, and I hope to give further attention to more of these marginal and itinerant tours that can be found in this fine city.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

The Chinese Bus Tour of Bath and Stonehenge

This is not the first Chinese bus tour I've reviewed, strangely enough. The Beijing Hub of Tourist Dispatch Tour (Great Wall with shopping) was quite a trip but I want to here write about a Chinese bus tour in the UK, which is a different kettle of fish entirely. Unlike in China where I ended up on that tour because it was the only one with that precise route, here in the UK there are plenty of English language operators offering Bath & Stonehenge day trips from London. As a result of this, these tours are run exclusively for Chinese tourists and it was not possible for me to just show up and buy a ticket. I still wanted to get their take on Bath so what I did was compile this post by interviewing someone who had been on one of these tours, observing the tourists as an outsider and then writing it up as a first person account. 

There are a few Chinese operators to chose from, Omega Travel run coaches daily to Bath and Stonehenge and Wang Dynasty do the same but in a minibus which is nicer because it is less crowded and almost the same price. We had to meet at 8.30AM next to Euston Station in London and from there the bus fought its way out of the city through the rush hour traffic. The driver, was from the mainland (China) but has been living in the UK for 10 years. He doubled as the guideFirst stop was Bath and it was fast and furious stuff. The group spilled out of the minibus at The Royal Crescent and we got a short history of the city from the driver and the chance to take some pictures. Within 10 minutes the coach was off again, parked below a mall (Southgate) and we were led up to the Roman Baths where there was another brief commentary on the history but everyone was more keen just to see it for themselves. See it, and then take selfies in front of it!

The really organised people in the group, like this family from Shanxi, brought their own tripod and made more dignified holiday photographs. It's really all about getting some good shots that you can put on Weibo or Wechat (Chinese social media), though these cameras are far more high end than really needed for that. While the Roman Baths were interesting to hear about, they are not so special to look at from the outside so it was the Abbey that everyone wanted to get their picture taken in front of.

This uncle just went around filming everything, he didn't stop. I am glad I wasn't with him because he kept telling his wife and his daughter, a student at Kings, where to stand and when to smile, like he was some sort of big film director. He also took a lot shots of the locals like these old English people. They give authenticity to the place: these are the type of Westerners who you never see in China, not even in Shanghai or Beijing.

With lunchtime approaching, the guide set out our options. Unlike some tours which have negotiated a group rate with a local Chinese restaurant, this one let us go off and chose our own lunch. The man on the right had come prepared with some instant noodles which he had brought over from China and a large thermos flask of hot water to pour over them. There way nothing was left to chance: he don't have to deal with over-priced restaurants that served bad food and he didn't have the problem of ordering it in English either. 

The guide told us that there was only one hour for lunch and for any shopping we wanted to do in Bath before the bus left. He then advised us not to eat in the Western restaurants because they take too long to serve you. He gave us directions to some Chinese places as, in any case, some of us have a 'Chinese stomach' which is to say we don't like foreign food. Thai or Vietnamese places are OK, as they are basically Chinese, but that's the limit.

We ended up at Hong Kong Bistro next to the bus station. It's a little bit different as it is a Cantonese place with a British twist but one of the staff there spoke pretty good Mandarin, even if she did have a funny accent. I ordered king prawn fried noodle and it turned out to be not bad at all for a noodle bar in the UK 

After lunch everyone got back on the bus and we were driving again, now on to Stonehenge. I talked a bit more to the other people on the bus, who were mostly either studying here in the UK or else they were family member visiting students. There was one girl sitting next to me who, when we drove past a Tesco would say, "Oh look, a Tesco, I really like their meat and dairy," and then she kept on saying it again and again, "Oh a Tesco," or just, "Tesco." She was obsessed by the place. 

Stonehenge was a bit of an anti-climax, the stones are so much smaller than the photos make them appear and you cannot get up close to them. Our guide didn't say anything about the place, he just brought us our tickets and the audio guides. He then waited on the minibus while we walked around listening to the commentary and taking some pictures.

To get to and from the stones we took a ride in one of the little wagons and the family from Hefei were there too. Their youngest girl was very cute and talked to everybody in the carriage, even to the Westerners who couldn't understand a word she said. We had a quick look around the visitor centre but it was pretty boring and went back to the minibus. It took quite a while getting back into London; we arrived and it was already 6 and yes, we passed many more Tescos on the way.  

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The Masonic Tour: are you a freemason?

Just when I was starting to suspect that all the guided tours on offer in Bath are industry standard, along come the masons to prove me wrong. There is nothing to tell you it might be unusual, it is listed in the official tourist booklets as a tour of the Old Theatre Royal and Masonic Hall and it takes place regularly in the Summer. 

Once inside I was told that photographs were not allowed; the images of the hall below have been culled from the internet. There were seven of us waiting for the tour and I was the only person under 50. We got held up by an alarm that kept going off and our guide, who was in his 80s, couldn't figure out how to silence it for quite some time.

The tour began with him asking me, "Are you a mason?" to which I replied I was not. He wouldn't let go and asked again, "you're definitely not a mason?" It turned out that almost everybody else on the tour was a mason, hence his surprise that there was this very proper looking man who was not one of theirs. It was a strange beginning that felt to me as if he suspected I was hiding something, that I really was a mason from an ultra-secretive lodge.

We passed into the main hall and he gave us a history of the building. This did touch upon its former use as a church and as a theatre but there was little detail here except the surprising one that 1000 people crammed in here once to see a show. Under modern health and safety regulations, they would be hard pressed to squeeze more than 200 in today. What he lacked in terms of theatre history, however, was more than compensated for by his knowledgable of its use as a masonic hall. He showed us shields and heraldic designs which designated different lodges, and no I still don't know what a masonic lodge is precisely. He also showed us framed certificates, outsized paintings depicting biblical subjects and wooden boards that recorded the names of the heads of the various groups that met here. I noticed the dates on these boards continued right up into the present: this was not just of historical interest, this place was very current. Two of the masons in my group were visiting from Preston and they asked how the rituals were observed here. At this point the conversation rapidly turned esoteric, at least it was for non-masonic (really!) me. There was a woman on the tour who looked as lost as I was; she later told me she was researching Theatre Royals (next stop Harrogate) and she said to me, it all sounded like 'mumbo jumbo'. She was right, this was professional jargon designed to keep us out. That in itself made it quite interesting, and every now and then, a crack in the surface would open up and meaning emerge. The guide forgot his words once or twice, understandable for his age, and would then search for the word in the air in front of him until someone offered it to him. This was quite a nice participatory side to the tour.

We then descended into the basement where there was a display of masonic medals, paintings and paraphernalia. It was not particularly beautiful, it had a stiff aesthetic that was at once opaque, coded and yet also very establishment. Our guide talked about bodies being exhumed from below the building and then he got onto his lodge, the Knights Templar. There was a great deal more mason talk and I could hang on to bits here and there about certain lodges being very secretive ones whose meetings even other masons would not be allowed to attend. The tour concluded with him telling me they are the UK's second biggest charitable organisation and then suggesting I seriously consider joining. He gave me a DVD with this video on it, which the Preston men said was, "very good" and that was that. The overriding impression was that there is indeed a state within a state quietly directing things at the micro and macro level. Rather than allaying my suspicions, it rather made me ask myself whether I should be more aware of who they are and what they do. What's more, I also felt that they are attempting to create positive publicity to counter the conspiracy narratives that circulate but do so reluctantly as the masons natural instinct is to be discrete and act in the background. I was not expecting such a tour, I thought it would be a standard architectural tour focussed on the theatre's past. Instead what I got was a slice of the masonic present.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Jane Austen Centre Tour: literature as lifestyle

The Jane Austen Centre, Bath, is squeezed into a Georgian house and spread over two floors with the third floor, up top, given over to a tea room. At the front door a middle-aged man in period costume, sideburns bristling, hovered around, occasionally waving at the passing tourist buses trying to drum up business. I could see how his job could easily become a soul destroying one if he invested too much of himself in it. I slipped past, got my ticket from a lady, also in period costume, who ushered me up onto the 1st floor.

There I waited for fifteen minutes until the next introduction to the centre was due to start. At first alone and then with a small but growing group, I watched a promotional video for the Jane Austen Festival, which takes place annually in Bath and features literary events, dances, walks, concerts and dinners. Much of it appeared to have next to nothing to do with literature except for the fact that Austen wrote about these things. There is, I realised, a big market for fans to enter into the world of the novels that they hold dear: they've already bought the books, the next step is workshops in the dances that Austen may have enjoyed.

A young woman entered and then ushered us into the next room where she gave us an introduction to the life and work of Jane Austen. I have to confess to not having read cover to cover any of her novels; I received a truly awful education in English literature that pretty much poisoned the entire English cannon for me. So, In order to get better acquainted with Austin's oeuvre, I have just watched an adaptation of Northanger Abbey. It looked like a good quality Mills & Boon story. Indeed, taking a look at the Mills & Boon website, like you do, I noticed that they have a 24-book Regency Society series of brassiere busters. I know that TV adaptations are almost always going to have a dumbing down effect on literature and I also see it was a vastly different thing for Austen to write novels back then than it is for the M&B stable of authors to pump out their slim tomes destined to fill charity shops. Still, it is ultimately girl meets boy stuff. That said, even though I was through with it by about 20 minutes and was then watching it mainly for the Bath angle, I did hang on till the bitter, or should I say saccharine sweet end, when they got married, had a baby and lived happily ever after. You can't leave things like that dangling in the air.

We were shown a picture of Austin's family home in Chawton, Hampshire which is today the Jane Austen's House Museum. I got the distinct impression that it was by far the larger and more prestigious establishment and that this smaller Bath centre, existed because the city is a major tourist destination and the setting of two of her novels. The Bath connection is, then, not wholly tenuous, even if it takes the form of a museum primarily because of tourist money. I noticed some much more opportunistic literary acquisition still in the shape of Birmingham's claim to some of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle glory on the basis of a few months' work there spread over 3 years. Portsmouth has their angle on his time there, Edinburgh can claim his birthplace, London has 221b Baker street and Crowborough, his home in Sussex, is in with a punt too. There's no reason why there should only be one museum to these figures, but in the case of Jane Austen and Bath, I felt it superfluous in that they didn't really have anything very original to show, the original objects are held elsewhere. The relationship between the author and city was, here, not that of the city showing off its finest sons and daughters but rather the city using its relations with famous figures to show off itself. Bath is in the enviable position of having been a society resort to which practically all of the 18th Century canonical English authors would have paid a visit. This opens up the possibility of many more museums where this one came from.

The introductory talk lasted no more than 20 minutes and we were then led downstairs into the exhibition space and left to it. There were displays like the one which work the Austen in Bath angle; both Austin the writer and the lives of her literary creations.

Following this was a video that explained it a whole lot more. There were some nice shots of the architecture and a spectral Georgian lady making her way along the streets. It looked a bit like a ghost walk but I suppose the idea is that the presence of Austen remains tangible in the city today. It was striking that the Bath of this video looked almost exactly like the Bath of the walking tours. No Primark and absolutely no Poundland.

An actor who had starred in one of the adaptations of her novels a few years back gave the authoritative narrative that strung the video together. It featured many clips from film adaptations and the whole package was politely short so that it didn't try the visitors' patience. If there are multiple levels and nuances to her work, as I'm guessing their must be, they were not evinced here. The centre, when taken as a whole, seemed to celebrate Jane Austin and the Bath lifestyle that she led and wrote about, while leaving her actual literary works more or less untouched.

Moving on, I came to a wardrobe of clothes and here I am playing at being the Georgian gentleman. Dressing up in period costume was more popular with the ladies: I was the only man attired this and the choice of men's clothes was far more limited. Looking at the picture now, I think I look a bit stranded in the 21st century, not quite able to make that leap back. I do have some pictures from my dim past working on TV period dramas, however, and in these I am a little more fully makeover for the 18th and 19th centuries. Thinking back to those costume drama experiences, I seem to remember the programmes almost always found themselves caught in the dilemma that the audience and actors didn't actually want to go too far down the line of historical accuracy. If it's done too thoroughly, the actors get stuck with weird haircuts and facial hair that interferes with their other work and they have to learn accents and mannerisms that today's audience struggle to understand. So that is how it was in the centre too: we all remained stranded in our presents, the costumed staff in the centre and tourists dressing up for Georgian dinners and dances.

This is a picture that was taken a few weeks ago when I visited the centre for the unveiling of their latest exhibit. I only had the time that day to see the final exhibit, this 'lifelike' waxwork model of Jane Austen based upon a single sketch and written descriptions of her. There are now 'no photography' signs up around it. I'm trying to understand the impulse to stop photography since taking pictures has become so much a part of what tourists do. No 1 Royal Crescent also has a picture ban as does Denis Severs House in London, which I reviewed a few months ago. There is an article in The Telegraph supporting a photo ban, but reading through the comments it is interesting to see how normal people are more inclined to allow photography, as indeed am I. While I think there is a problem of some people paying too much attention to artworks through the lens of their camera and not looking closely enough when lacking a screen, I believe educating people to look rather than banning this principal form of image distribution is the answer. The Jane Austen Centre banning just this single exhibit seems odd and it could have been done for two reasons, as far as I can see. The first was to protect the sculpture from flash photography. I don't know how it was made and if it is sensitive to flash, so maybe there's something there. The second reason is simply to protect postcard sales. This Jane Austen lookalike sculpture and the dressing up option in the previous room are practically the only two photo worthy moments in a visit to the centre. Having many pictures like the above double portrait in circulation brings more attention to the centre and Jane Austen more generally. A similar debate takes place in the performance field and I am of the opinion that it is better to embrace the camera as this then leaves records that provoke memories and spark conversations.

And then, spat back onto the street, I saw this: blokish humour co-existing with Georgian make believe. Faced with such a contrast I see how there is a space for a Jane Austen Centre. Bath is a divided city and the lines are only starting to become a bit more visible. If it is possible to find tours that can make these evident is a challenge, but I'm out every day with a new tour, so lets see.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The No. 1 Royal Crescent Tour: a period drama minus the drama

A further 'must see' site in Bath that offers a tour of sorts is No. 1 Royal Crescent. I got my ticket from a lady in period costume who then directed me to a side room to watch a video.

The video was a professionally filmed and well edited introduction to Bath and The Royal Crescent in its Georgian hay day. I should admit that I start to become a little bit blasé about these industry standard cultural tourism products when I am trapped inside of them writing about them, but I'm also aware I am not their target audience. For the dedicated cultural tourist, this is the stuff of dreams.    

Once the video ended the small group of us who had accumulated were told the the tour of the house began next door. I was also told that photography inside the house was forbidden but it was OK to take pictures out of the window. These images are therefore of everything but the building and that's a pity as it is rather beautiful inside but they want to hang onto the control of their imagery.

This is the view from the dinning room which was laid out very elaborately for dessert. I was handed a laminated information sheet by the guardian who explained some of the features of the room. The most striking of these was a folding screen in the corner behind which gentlemen, during the course of the dinner, could relieve themselves into a pot. With this in mind I looked again at the table and imagined the scene afresh.

I was told by another guardian that the man of the house and the lady had separate rooms and this I seem to remember is the view from the man's room. The ghost tour which passed this way slipped in some historical information which, at the time, I had thought was off topic. Nonetheless, it was good to know when looking out over the crescent that, post WW2 when the crescent was run down, the city council had proposed knocking it down and replacing it with a big concrete town hall. At least, that is how I remember the story and it is curious that none of the heritage guides told me about this important information. I have just ordered Baedeker's Guide to Great Britain 1937, a sort of Fodor's of its day, which reputedly inspired a series of German bombing raids during the war which were a good part of why this area was in such poor condition come 1945. I find the idea of a guidebook being used to select military targets quite far out and I'll be taking that tour as soon as it arrives in the post.

I wandered from room to room like I was in a movie. Speaking of which I have finally relented and in order to get a better grip on why these locations and Bath in general have such an appeal I have started watching Northanger Abbey, more on which I'll write about when I come to the Jane Austen Centre. I think that this period drama filmset made real, is the desired effect. The next step is to get dressed up in the clothes yourself and go in for the reenactments, speaking of which, I did spot a live role playing group in the car park yesterday dressed up like they stepped out of Lord of The Rings. Wrong costume for Georgian Bath but maybe there is another layer of goblins and sorcerers I have not yet found.

When I descended into the basement to the servant's rooms I was surprised to see these were not so well attended to by the guides. Maybe there was less to steal or maybe it was just somebody's break. There was a kitchen, communal dinning room, scullery and housekeeper's room. The most curious of the objects was the 'turnspit dog' model: a dog that walks inside a wheel which turns meat over a fire. I would have liked to have had the opportunity to go further into the class politics and lives of the workers, even if it was a Downton Abbey whitewash of it, but that was not on offer today.

With the tour of the house proper finished, there was still an exhibition to view in the annex. This featured portraits of women who were sexually 'available' from the higher sections of society. That is to say it combined women who conducted affairs, kept mistresses and high class prostitutes. I thought that including women who had affairs which became public knowledge with prostitutes in the same exhibition was stretching the point a bit far, but I also see that this was done to bring the idea of Georgian morality to the fore in order to then interrogate it through the artworks and commentary. The captions were informative and did convey something of the women's lives and the sexism and double standards of Georgian society: men who conducted affairs and used prostitutes were not subject to any such criticism.

Emerging at the end I felt that there was enough here to call the experience a tour, but I was left wishing I could have been shown round by a guide. Because it is a building that contains expensive objects, they have a primary duty to protect the premises and that is best achieved by having guardians based in each room who can both keep an eye on things and explain the room's contents to the visitor. If they were to have tour guides they would probably be in addition to guardians and not instead of them. When the costs are added up, this 'pass the tourist' system is cheaper and quite adequate for most visitors. It all makes perfect sense but something is lost in not having someone give a through line. In any case, most of the visitors, it seemed to me, were quite happy to have their primary focus on the house itself and not on someone dressed up in period costume hustling them from room to room. The thing the visitors really wanted to do was to soak up the atmosphere of the place and imagine how it would have been to have lived here. They were paying to enter a movie. We have different needs and the need to dream is great too.