Homecoming week

One night in the summer of 1994, around 3 AM, I woke up to the sound of a key in the lock of the door of my room.

This was when I was working for a Public Sector Organisation. It was headquartered in a town that had a Budapest-like divide between the wealthier and poorer sections. My main concern at the time was rent, so naturally I was living in the latter. But I also wasn’t unaware of the risks that would come with that.

However, there was also a nursing college in that part of town. Which had a residence, and which also happily rented out rooms to non-nurses if they had some available. A friend who also worked for Public Sector Organisation had stayed there the previous summer, so it came recommended. It seemed like the perfect solution: community, solidarity in numbers, the presence of other people working in the Public Sector who were new in town. And a security guard on reception.

Who didn’t work nights.

So I sat up in bed saying something that probably sounded like “whazzafluck?” Heart pounding, trying to cope with the fact that, despite all my security precautions, someone, someone who was not authorised to do so, was not even breaking into my room, but was actually. Coming. In. With. A. Key.

The door swung open, to reveal, not burglars, rapists or emergency services personnel, but two girls in their late teens.

The first one looked me straight in the bleary eyes and said, cheerfully, “Oh, hello. I didn’t realised they’d rented the room out again. Mind if I show my friend around?”

And then, while I sat there in bed trying to figure it out, she literally gave her friend a tour. It wasn’t a big room, so the tour was along the lines of, “this is the bed, and this is the cupboard, and this is the bookshelf, and this is the window and this is the desk…”

She then smiled, said goodbye, and walked out, closing the door behind her.

The next day the security guard was very apologetic, swearing blind that he hadn’t know she’d kept a copy of the key (I believed him, but not so sure I believed the building manager’s similar denial), and agreeing both to move me to a different room as soon as possible, and to keep my laptop in the combination-locked secure room until that could happen (1990s laptops being expensive and huge).

The story, as much as I could tell, was that she was a local girl who had run away from a bad home situation and used the nursing residence as a sort of halfway stop between getting away from her family and actually getting out of town. She’d just moved out one day, presumably having found a way to do just that.

So that explained the surreal reunion tour. With a biography like that one, the desk, the cupboard, and the bookshelf– your own desk, cupboard and bookshelf– do rather become very significant things.

And if somebody who’d lived in my house back in the day came by and wanted to visit, I’d be happy to let them in to relive the old memories.

Not, however, normally at 3 AM!

Life Lessons from a Tour Guide

If you had to ask me what has been the most useful job for me in terms of skills learned, I’d have to say the two summers I spent working as a tour guide at a (Victorian military) living history museum. Here’s what you learn from a job like that:

How to compartmentalise. Because if you’ve got back-to-back tours, you can’t be thinking about everything that went wrong on Tour One while you’re leading Tour Two.

How to deal with difficult people. Because if a guest is angry, or upset, or determined to ruin the fun for the rest of the tour, or coming out with an appalling remark about those members of the historical interpretation staff who aren’t white or male (those were rare, but they happened), you have to be able to respond calmly and cheerfully, but very firmly.

How to deal with difficult people (schoolchild edition). After a few tours I figured out that the trick is, identify the attention-seeking ones and make sure they’re getting attention. It can even be seemingly negative attention: they’re the ones who will actually love it if you “pick on” them to help demonstrate something, or make them stand in the corner of the Victorian schoolroom when running a pretend lesson, or similar, and the shyer members of the class get to giggle with relief that it’s not them.

How to deliver information in 45-60 minutes to a group of people of varying skills, knowledge levels, English levels and boredom. There’s a surprising amount of overlap between tour guiding and university lecturing.

How to deal with the unexpected. For instance: in one of the museum rooms, the German-speaking guides were encouraged to point out a picture of Prince Albert, ask if anyone knew who he was, and prompt them by saying he was the most famous German in the British Empire. Usually German-language tours didn’t know (one student suggested “Bismark?” which wasn’t a bad guess), but then came the tour who all chanted out his name, birthplace, pedigree and life history in unison. Turned out they were from Saxe-Coburg.

How to improvise. If you’re all set to take a tour into the soldiers’ living quarters, and one of the senior staff brushes by and whispers to you that you can’t do that bit because a schoolchild on the previous tour has vomited onto one of the beds, you’ve got to turn round without a blink and say, “I’m sorry, we can’t go into the living quarters, Sergeant Smith’s wife is having a baby, so let’s go visit the underground fortifications instead.”

How people deal with frame breaches. If a tourist happened to accidentally venture into one of the backstage areas (the office, the staffroom, or God forbid the locker rooms), they would inevitably make exactly the same joke about “the old Victorian computer system [refrigerator, hair dryer, whatever]” and wander out again. After a while I began to find the fact that they all used the same script rather interesting: I suspect that if they’d done the same at an amusement park, they’d just have said, “oh sorry”, but when you’re dressed up and performing, there needs to be that little extra layer of joking to make it right.

How to find fun. One of the best pieces of advice the guiding manual gave was to make sure you’re enjoying the tour yourself: if you’re not having fun, neither will the guests. So you have to get creative. Give different pieces of information in different ways. Develop narratives. Do improv drama with other staff members. At one point I wound up giving an impromptu chorus of Pirate Jenny’s song from The Threepenny Opera (long story, but it made sense in context). But it’s definitely true of just about everything that you need to find the fun in it– and that you can always find some way of locating, deriving or creating the fun.

Driving Ambition: Chapter One

Just thought I’d mention that my first novel, Driving Ambition, a tale of murder, labour relations, and self-driving cars, has had its launch event at Can-Con.

Here is a video of me reading the first chapter…

Britons: I’ll be interviewed live at the BSFA meeting on 24 October, and will bring copies for sale. Canadians: There are copies available at Can-Con. Everyone: I’ll be posting an ordering link as soon as I have one.