Walks: Confessions of a Blue Guide

Showing confused foreigners around Manchester is funny old job, writes tour guide Jonathan Schofield

Every first Thursday of the month there's a pub walk. We stroll from boozer to boozer, having a drink in each, before finishing, a couple of hours later, with a gentle quiz based upon my commentary. On this occasion there were around 20 people on the tour, 15 from countries other than the UK. For reasons I can't now remember, I described a few of Manchester's pioneering moments in politics as well as the usual tales of revelry and vice.

Every first Thursday of the month there's a pub walk. We stroll from boozer to boozer, having a drink in each, before finishing, a couple of hours later, with a gentle quiz based upon my commentary. On this occasion there were around 20 people on the tour, 15 from countries other than the UK. For reasons I can't now remember, I described a few of Manchester's pioneering moments in politics as well as the usual tales of revelry and vice.

So, during the quiz, I threw in a worthy question: "Which female emancipation movement began in the city in 1903?" All the teams gave the correct answer, apart from the three Australian friends. Instead of "Suffragettes" they had put "Weight Watchers". After a few moments of amusement and amazement they explained why. "Jeez mate, we thought you'd said emaciation movement," one said. That night I dreamed of thin ladies, padlocked to railings, demanding less food.

Such confusion fills the lives of tour guides. It helps to make the job so entertaining. Of course, it can be demanding, but experience helps. Where once I used to dread impossible questions, I now find them eminently collectible. Most come from severe-looking Austrians, such as: "Why is the bar in this pub so long?" Or, on passing an overflowing bin: "Please explain your inefficient waste disposal system." Just wait until I get to Austria. "So how come you let these mountains get so high?" I'll ask.

Another example of international confusion occurred recently outside Marks & Spencer with a group of gay American travel writers. A latter-day manifestation of Manchester's radical tradition is the large Gay Village which is promoted as energetically as a major castle or cathedral elsewhere. On this day we encountered a troupe of prancing, flower-bedecked, bell- jangling Morris dancers. "You didn't have to lay this on," said one. I attempted to explain the ancient tradition of Morris dancing but they weren't having it, saying: "Look Jonathan, they've all got beards, we've got to get this back to California."

One incident which surprised me rather than my guests took place in Chetham's, one of the city's superb libraries. This was founded in 1655, in buildings dating back to 1421. Here, I showed an elderly group of Russians the table where Friedrich Engels had discussed and studied political economy with his bearded (and I am not implying anything by this) buddy Karl Marx. He may even have passed him brown envelopes filled with cash from his Manchester business so that Marx could get up late and write Das Kapital in the British Library. My Russians, although impressed, didn't break into a spontaneous quoting of The Communist Manifesto, instead saving their showmanship for later. On the way back to the airport we passed a former cinema where the youthful Bee Gees had first performed. My commentary stopped as the minibus filled with heavily accented voices singing: "Vell you can tell by the vay I use my valk, I'm a vomen's man no time for talk."

But why, I hear southerners cry, do people come to Manchester at all? They come for the same reasons anybody might visit a major city: for food and drink, for business, study or pleasure, for high culture such as classical music and art, for popular culture such as sport and pop music. One 20-year-old American, Jenny, came, like many, to follow the trail of The Smiths. She hired me and a taxi to take her around the landmarks. When we drew up at the house where Johnny Marr had called on Morrissey and begun the band, Jenny started to cry. She rarely stopped for the next hour and a half.

Tourists come here because they positively want to. Manchester isn't yet on a package-tourist milk-run between London, York and Edinburgh. Happily for our visitors, it is easier, too. When I enter monuments and museums there are no queues and people are pleased to see me. Much of what you can do here is free or cheap. Pop into a Joseph Holt's pub to sample a pint of their bitter, ask the price and ask again when you think your ears have deceived you. Yep, the barman really said £1.19.

I've taken people of some 40 nationalities around Manchester. I always remember when 30,000 Manchester City supporters delighted a group of Chinese. As the match started, the stands at Maine Road rang with "sitaaay, sitaaay". My Chinese visitors became flushed with delight, for in their local dialect this meant "welcome".

But it is another sporting behemoth that pulls in the most overseas visitors. Manchester United is the biggest and the wealthiest institution of its kind in the world. The full magnitude of the brand, as the plc people call it, was brought home to me a couple of years ago when I saw a Singaporean guest buy almost £1,000 of merchandise at the souvenir shop. After the Treble in 1999 I read that United had at least 20 million fans in China. Of course, that level of cosmopolitan success is a stick with which to beat the club. Not that I can imagine anyone in Stratford-upon-Avon saying: "Bill Shakespeare, no way. His lot's all from Japan and America. All the locals round here follow Chrissy Marlowe."

Indeed, football was a deciding factor in my pursuing a career as a tour guide. My first guiding job was to lead 169 Carlsberg warehousemen from Manchester over to Sheffield where their team, Denmark, were playing in Euro 96. The brewery was paying for any Carlsberg lager that they drank and the warehousemen took this as a challenge. They cleared at least three pints each over breakfast and we had to leave at 8am. After the match we were returning over Snake Pass with a beautiful sunset over Manchester, when they all decided they needed to relieve themselves. All 169 Danes lined up on the roadside and started a flash flood in Glossop. I stood to one side and watched the faces in the passing cars. They were clearly horrified. At first I struggled to understand why ­ the warehousemen had their backs to the road, so no offence could be caused. Then I realised. Every single one wore their fierce red flag with white cross draped cape-like over their shoulders and every single one, without exception, sported a plastic Viking helmet on his head. Oh no, rape and pillage were back. I couldn't contain myself. I roared with laughter.

 

¿ Jonathan Schofield is a public speaker, writer and Blue Badge Guide in Manchester (tel: 0161-872 3013; email jon@ad79.demon.co.uk).

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