On coachwork

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Hyde Park, early evening at the beginning of the tour.

This week I was taught a very good lesson by a Dutch coach driver. Coachwork – providing a commentary on a bus tour (or panos as they’re more commonly known in the trade) – is not my favourite part of guiding. Or at least that’s what I always, rather snobbishly, say. Compared to walking tours, where you can do interesting research and put together a considered narrative through the streets, a coach tour is a repetitious bunfight with the content constantly being switched from one topic to another to suit the buildings and landmarks that one is driving past.

The route rarely varies (Westminster, a bit of Southwark/Lambeth and the City of London, occasionally Docklands and the Olympic Park – I rarely go out of town) and thus your patter tends to have a core content of royals, wars, shops and celebrities with the amount you can devote to a particular anecdote dependent on the stickiness of the traffic. Due to the constant gridlock around Knightsbridge I know far too much about Harrod’s (a place I’ve only visited once (once is enough, isn’t it?)). For example that the Shakhtar Donetsk football team were refused entry for wearing shell suits. I tell this anecdote to help me to feel warmer about the place. It doesn’t work.

So, it’s with a rather heavy heart that I prep for the coach. However, there are certain aspects of coachwork that I do enjoy, chief among them the feeling of working in a team. This week’s driver, a Dutchman, introduced himself as Rien, ‘Like the French for nothing’. ‘But you’re everything to me this evening,’ I jokingly said.

There was an element of truth lying behind the gag – the guide depends on the driver to get the coach round safely, to slow down when going past the major TVPs (Top Visual Priorities – more guiding lingo), and sometimes to calm down the rabble at the back. Similarly, the driver relies on the guide – to know the route, to give clear directions, and to entertain the clients (or at least to avoid making them positively hostile).

My prep for the coach tour (because I avoid them it means when I do do them I have to prep a lot more than I would for something that I do regularly, like a Westminster walk) was stressing me because I have two writing deadlines at the moment. The nearest one isn’t a definite deadline, it’s more of a self-imposed deadline for a chapter in a book on South African cricket. This will be volume two of a work that I’m collaborating on with a group of authors for UNISA Press. (Volume 1 is here.) And because it’s for people who have become good friends I care very much that I do a good job. Stress and tension in the house.

I think it’s quite common for academics to feel that they have too much on their plate – it was certainly a feeling I had while writing my thesis and trying to combine that with working, and that returned while teaching at Luton and trying to write papers and articles. Having more than one project on the go can feel overwhelming and in trying to do everything at once one often finds that one advances very little on any front.

What does this have to do with coachwork?

Rien was one of the best drivers I’ve worked with. While I was prattling on about the Duke of Wellington at Hyde Park Corner I hadn’t registered that Rien was in the lane to head down the Mall rather than round the back of Buckingham Palace until it was nearly too late. The Mall costs for coaches so it is to be avoided for the budget conscious group leader. I asked Rien if he could get in the right lane. ‘Yes, no problem,’he said as he gently nudged across two lanes of traffic incurring angry honking horns from angry gesticulating cabbies.

Rien was magisterial in his calm at the wheel (this wasn’t the only time that I had to give him a late nudge in the right direction), and I complimented him on it at the end of the tour. ‘I drive the bus to the end of the day and when I bring the bus home I’m happy. Why be worried along the way if you do a good job?’ Wise words. 

So now I’m thinking of my chapter as a big bus. And it’s my job to get the bus home. Why be worried if along the way I do a good job?

Looking at the photos on my phone after the job I thought how lucky I am to do coachwork. The first was of Hyde Park where I was waiting for the coach to arrive. Peace, joggers, grass and trees in the soft evening light. And the next was after being dropped off at Lambeth, the Palace of Westminster in the last glow of the sun. Coachwork isn’t so bad.

Sunset and the Palace of Westminster at the end of the tour.

Sunset and the Palace of Westminster at the end of the tour.

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