The tour guide versus the history teacher (war at The Tower!)

Woman wielding Asagai

The kids were tired. It was my first Euro-tour with Saheti (an independent school in Joburg) and we’d had a jol; revelling in the might and magnificence of Europe’s proudest cities. London was the last leg and we were excited…but touring is heck of a tiring and we were all were feeling it.

The kids piled off the Eurostar into the hustle and bustle of London’s lively St Pancras Station – baggage, passports, phones and all sorts of junk in hand – and trundled toward two tour busses that were ready to transport us around the city that punctuated their history books with stories of exploration, plagues, dungeons, chopped-off-heads, Shakespeare, colonialism and war. We were met by a couple of tour guides, one of whom (a slim, quietly spoken woman with a nose that pointed so far up in the air it was likely to be clipped by a spacecraft) immediately starts ordering the Grade 10 and 11 kids onto the busses—no pleasantries, introductions or “How would you like your students to be seated?”; just bossing. I interjected quickly, stating that we’d prefer it if the kids could be seated according to their year groups. Fine. I was annoyed at her curt manner but fobbed it off.

Once the kids were organised we set off. So, I’m travelling with the Grade 10s and she-with-nose-in-the-air is our designated guide. It only took five minutes of regaling for us to discover that not only is Miss Priss (as she shall be known for the duration of this tale) snippety but irreparably dull—her deadpan face and voice doing no justice to the grandiosity of lofty London. The kids quickly lose interest; phones out, headphones in, eyes closed. Dreadfully insulted, Miss Priss proceeds to inform me that the students should not be playing on their phones, and, dripping with disdain, addresses the Saheti kids: “Excuse me, please put your phones away and listen to what I have to say”. Now, in principle, she wasn’t entirely wrong but the Grade 10s were tired, she was boring…and her blatant arrogance was flipping annoying—how dare she reprimand my students whilst I am sitting right there (no prior conversation or forewarning)?

She was treating us like a bunch of ignorant peasants from South Africa; like we were from the gamadoelas and here she was: to delight and inspire with the unrefuted greatness of British history—which is fine but then do that. Condescending your tour group is not likely to endear interest and respect.

I decide not to intervene (and allow the kids to carry on sleeping).

By the time we arrive at Buckingham Palace I am seething and I natter away with the kids as we stand in front of the Queen Victoria Memorial waiting for the story; all of us agreeing that Miss Priss is irritating-deluxe (my frustration unknowingly setting my students up for a showdown that was written in the stars). Miss Priss proceeds to regale about Buckingham Palace and patronises the kids with babyish questions, like “Do you know who lives here?” Sick of being treated like morons from darkest Africa, the Saheti kids decide to take the guide for a ride: “Yes! This is BECKingham Palace and David Beckham lives here”. And of course everyone finds this quite funny except for the horrified Miss Priss, who splutters, “Well, you must have a really bad history teacher”. One of the kids immediately pipes up, “Yes, well, she’s standing over there”—gesturing my way. Tale over.

We move on, the regaling continues and so does the yawning. Our last stop is the Tower of London. We’re given a little shpiel just outside the entrance. As I said, the kids were tired;  it was not that they didn’t appreciate London but some of them did not have the bandwidth to entertain a boring tour guide such as Miss Priss. Mid-regale, someone at the back blurts out, “So, where is the tower?” (expecting a massive, high, tall megalith of sorts) and in exasperation Miss Priss ejaculates (with resplendent shrillness), “You’re standing on the tower!” I was finished—the other teacher and I were in hysterics. Déjà vu: tale over.

We’re herded into the tower; mission around, have a look at the Crown Jewels and are then shepherded into the courtyard where Anne Boelyn spent her final blood-splattered moments. We’re told (not asked) to wait so that the Grade 11 tour group can catch up with us. Fine. We wait.

I’m standing with a group of kids and, an extrovert by nature, I need to vent; I am so annoyed that I blurt out, “Actually, this lady has pissed me off!” Miss Priss hears. In fact, she is standing right behind me. She comes over to confront me and with her requisite disdain posits, “Oh, so I’ve pissed you off?”, and I say, “Actually yes; you are extremely rude and these children are tired and we have had enough of your attitude”. Now the 15-, 16- and 17-year-old kids in the tour group start to pay attention! She-with-nose-in-the-air punts her nostrils an inch higher and says, “Oh well, okay then—you take over the tour”; to which I reply, “Fine, I will. Thank you very much”. And with that our relationship ended.

Miss Priss’s fatal mistake was her assumed superiority—not bothering to know her audience; what she had never counted on was that her inclination to preach to a group of well-educated South African/Greek high school kids on the wonder of British history and culture was superseded by a doctrine of national pride that articulates Greece as the cradle of civilization and western philosophy…as the Greek kids at Saheti are taught from birth. The barney ended up being one the highlights of the London tour. To this day, when I see past pupils who were privy to this moment, they recall it with tears in their eyes—thoroughly enjoying that I’d had this fight with a tour guide on the cobbled court of the Tower of London (sticking up for them!). They called it “the Boer War”—and I’d say that the boer fared pretty well on this occasion. Up with Africa!


Storyteller: Clare Paterson

Author: Andrea Zanin

Clare Paterson grew up in Durban but moved to Joburg in her twenties, and is currently teaching history at Saheti. Her three children and 10 grandchildren live in England; she misses them lots but enjoys visiting her family and jolling around London and the green pastures of the UK. She also loathes boring tour guides. 

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