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Following the Urban Alchemist: The Tour Guide and the History of London

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Sport and Leisure History
Following the Urban Alchemist: The Tour Guide and the History of London
Geoffrey Levett (Birkbeck, University of London)
28 May 2012

 Geoffrey Levett is not just an historian, but also a tour guide in London.  This topic is therefore one where Levett is very much at home.  Tour guides create a narrative about a place and have to try and convey meaning to streets as they take their tourists around a place.  In this talk Levett looks at the historical development of guides in London and its move into an industry.  He also looks at how and why guides seek out stories and understanding of a place.

Levett basis his evidence upon a series of interviews he has carried out with tour guides, his own experiences, and the wealth of literature produced by guides over the years.  He looks at regulation but also individual representations of a place.  The syllabus often represents London in terms of progress and of national greatness, but not all are inclined to follow this to the letter.   Similarly the development of Westfield Strafford represents both a new challenge for guides as well as uncertainty over the focus: should they talk about the regeneration of the region at the expense of past histories?  Levett also discusses the difficulties in representing monarchy clearly, especially during events such as the changing of the guard.  In the end, however, guides must tailor their talks to the expectation of tourists.  Much content therefore is about things that people already know (or think they know), however this must be mediated with unexpected information about an area to maintain interest.

It seems that the role of the tour guide is complex and is an interesting way into the history of London.  They are part storytellers, part tourist industry, and part history of the area themselves.

 To listen to this podcast click here.