It is a Saturday morning at the end of June, it is about a million degrees, and Kensal Green Cemetery looks green and alive. I am standing in front of the gravestone of Dickensian author Wilkie Collins, trying to make 10 people I only met an hour ago (and Sheldon) believe it is 1889 and foggy. It’s hard to set the scene given that it’s obviously 2015 and puffy white clouds are lazily floating across a vivid blue sky above us. It’s also hard to set the scene because I have never attempted this particular feat before: I am hosting a stop on a tour of the cemetery arranged by and for a group of qualified Westminster Guides. What on Earth am I doing here? I feel like a fraud as I deliver my (perhaps over-rehearsed) opening line: ‘I’m now going to take you back in time…’ and 11 sets of eyes blink at me like they’ve heard this cliché a gazillion times before. I struggle on. But then I get so involved in painting the portrait of Wilkie Collins’ funeral that I utter the words ‘if you look behind you, you’ll see a line of horse drawn carriages coming down the driveway…’
And they ALL turn around and look.
How did I end up blagging my way on to a tourguides’ Walkshop? It all started a few months ago, when Sheldon told me that he and his fellow Westminster Guide alumni from the class of 2014 met up occasionally and picked a spot in London in which to hold a collaborative tour. They would each pick a stop on the tour to research and give a talk on. He told me that the next one was Kensal Green Cemetery – I got overexcited and said ‘ooh, can I do a stop?’ (I believe these were my exact words). And he agreed, the foolish man.
I found out weeks in advance that I would be in charge of the Wilkie Collins stop. I immediately borrowed The Woman in White and The Moonstone from my Dad, who owns every book in the WORLD (except The Fault in Our Stars and the Twilight series) and then put them on a shelf and failed to do anything with them. Fast forward to 2 days before the tour and it occurred to me that I hadn’t done any research, beyond asking for my Dad’s verdict on the man in question (which, for those interested, was ‘he wasn’t as good as Dickens at writing and he visited a lot of brothels’). A lot of frantic Googling followed. I also found a detailed biography of Collins in the front my Dad’s 1974 edition of The Woman in White. This was the point at which Wilkie Collins started to come to life for me. The biography included a graphic description of Collins’ appearance (he wasn’t a looker) and ventured an opinion on the kind of man he was. I began to fall in love with my subject. Later on, Eileen, a lady on the tour, would tell me that the best stops are delivered by people who have clearly fallen in love in this way. Because if you don’t love what you’re talking about, then you’re just reciting. But if you’re passionate about your subject matter, it shows through.
This was apparent when the tour began. We took turns delivering stops and it was fascinating to watch everyone – each person had an individual style and unique way of bringing their piece of history to life. We walked around the first of the Magnificent Seven Cemeteries and learned about the lives of William Makepeace Thackeray, Isembard Kingdom Brunel, Harold Pinter (master of the Long Pause…) and more. I got lost in watching these highly trained and highly capable tour guides and then realised with an unpleasant jolt that it was my turn. Sheldon had scheduled my stop as the last one, and the nerves built up inside me as we made our way through the lush green cemetery in the sunlight. On any other day I would have been enjoying this. But thanks to my big mouth, instead I was quaking. What would they think of me? Would they be bored? Insulted? Expecting more from the co-creator of cemetery blog? As Sheldon led us closer to my certain Doom, I covertly checked out my egress routes.
It turns out that tour guiding is really blimmin’ tricky. You have to capture the attention of your audience and you have to hold it. You have to stand somewhere where everyone can see and hear you. And you also have to make sure there are no safety issues for your audience and the people around you. For example – is one of your number about to fall into an open grave? Having checked that everyone was still above ground, I started talking…
I don’t remember what I said, or if it made sense. Afterwards, people came up to me and told me it was good and began discussing Wilkie Collins with me (I realised that most of them knew more about him that I did). A couple of people told me I should take the Westminster Guides course. Sheldon said ‘for a beginner you knocked that one out of the park’ and then exclaimed that now he knew I could tour guide, I could help with future Cemetery Club tours (argh). I was relieved. I had done it! And I had learned a lot about the famous residents of Kensal Green Cemetery. A Saturday well spent.
Later on I wondered if perhaps I could do it…watch this space.
Have YOU ever thought about becoming a tour guide? Go here and have a look at the Westminster Tour Guides course. I know I will be.
Photographs by Sheldon K. Goodman (7), Tanya Bloomfield (5), Mark Lubienski (2, 4 & 6) and Christina Owen (1 & 3)