The Tourist Who’ll Never Go Home
Nineteen years ago Harold Metcalfe left Ottawa for a rubberneck trip to London. He fell so completely under its spell that he stayed to make others do the same. Now tourists from Aden to Antigonish see the sights through the rose-colored glasses of “the Canadian Guide”
AN ARAB businessman about to return to the desert after a holiday in England recently expressed his feelings about leaving in the following words: “The more I stay in this great
London the more I feel love and deepest inclination. As the time of my departure draws near my heart beats go faster and were it not for dear home and dear family I would say, 'I shall never leave this noble city, nay the resumé of the whole world.’” These sentiments were not induced entirely by the city. They were addressed to a fifty-nineyear-old Canadian named Harold Metcalfe, who had a hand in creating them.
Technically Metcalfe is one of an army of tourists’ guides trained by the British Travel Association to show visitors the sights. Spiritually he stands apart from the army as a kind of tourists’ Cupid dedicated to making visitors fall in love with London.
For five days a week he plans his attack as a librarian in the Ministry of Supply. But at noon on the sixth day, and sometimes in the evenings, he becomes the chubby little god of guiding, his quiver bulging with illuminating shafts of history plucked from the four hundred books on London in his private library, his bow drawn to pierce the hearts of his victims with a permanent passion for the city that has been his home since he left Canada in 1936.
Metcalfe came to London from Ottawa nineteen years ago as a tourist and fell in love with the city. So completely was he captivated that he decided to stay. Two years later, after a series of temporary jobs, he joined the British Civil Service and became a permanent resident.
In the winter of 1951-52 the British Travel Association decided to train extra guides in preparation for the Festival of Britain. Met-
calfe applied and his abiding passion swept him to first place in a class of a hundred and forty guides. The course of study, requiring trainees to read one hundred and forty-two books, consisted of evening lectures on everything from Egyptian art to sewerage systems, supplemented by Saturday tours under a tutor. In the end Metcalfe was convinced that for him, guiding was a true avocation.
“It’s more of a hobby than a business,” he says, explaining that he cannot calculate his earnings because these are mainly tips. He specializes in Westminster Abbey, the London Zoo, the Tower at night, a Victorian music hall called the Players’ Theatre Club and the Houses of Parliament. Most of his customers come from the steady stream of tourists who visit the Houses of Parliament. Every Saturday afternoon he is assigned three groups of sightseers.
“At the end of each tour I simply pass out my business card, tell the tourists about the other things I do and before long I have a crowd for the Abbey at four o’clock and my date book for the week is full.” He also sends his name, address and qualifications to the various foreign embassies and consulates in London and always invites his customers to send their friends.
Metcalfe is known simply as “the Canadian Guide” to the police around the Houses of Parliament. He is about five feet tall and compactly built, his pink face smooth and unlined and his pink head fringed with fluffy white hair. He rarely walks. He rides to a rendezvous with tourists on a weather-beaten bicycle because he says, “Public transport cannot be relied on and a guide must never be late.”
When he reaches his destination he removes his Basque beret, stuffs it into the pocket of his English mackintosh, completes his disguise as an
Englishman by removing a long, rolled umbrella from a silk stocking fixed lengthwise to the crossbar of his bicycle, fastens the bike to a convenient lamppost with a padlock and a yard of rusty chain, takes a gulp of strong tea from the thermos flask in his saddle bag, then bounces off to mesmerize the tourists with historical small talk.
A sample of Metcalfe’s arresting technique is his description of the grave of playwright Ben Jonson, who was buried in Westminster Abbey in 1637. “Ben Jonson was a very mean man,” he says, tapping his umbrella on a shabby t.wo-foot square in the old stone floor faintly inscribed with the words, ‘O Rare Ben Jonson.’ “One day in the abbey the abbot asked him if he intended to be buried here. ‘Heavens no!’ replied Jonson. T cannot afford it.’ So they made a deal. Jonson bought two square feet Continued on next page
and agreed to L>e buried standing up.
“After the funeral one of his friends asked if any arrangements had been made to put a marker on the grave. None had so the friend instructed a stonecutter to inscribe ‘Orare Ben Jonson’ which means ‘pray for Ben Jonson.’ The stonecutter didn’t understand Latin so he separated the ‘O’ from the rest of the verb leaving this appropriate memorial.”
Metcalfe is an expert on Westminster Abbey. To prepare himself to discuss it (he did not consider his training as a guide nearly adequate) he read between three and four hundred books. Every lunch hour for more than a year he bounced from his office in Whitehall to the abbey to study the inscriptions on its tombs and memorials and to place each one on a scale plan. At home he looked up the names of the dead, illustrious or otherwise, in reference books and “discarded all those without a good story.”
It distresses Metcalfe to see tourists determinedly reading the long epitaphs on many of the abbey’s ornate tombs. Before a tour he tells the party that he will pass these without comment because, “in the eighteenth century anyone with money was buried in the abbey and as a consequence it is cluttered with wonderful-looking tombs and memorials to people of no literary or historical account.”
He has, however, three favorite epitaphs to people of no account that he always shows to tourists. One is to a seventeenth-century shorthand writer: “Shorthand he wrote, his flowere in prime did fade and hasty death shorthand of him hath made.” One, “Jane Lister Dear Child,” is notable for its simple dignity and one to an obscure seventeenth-century student is notable for its bad taste: “Thomas Smith who through ye spotted veil of small pox rendered a pure and unspotted soul to God.”
Metcalfe also dramatizes a description of a marble memorial to Isaac Casaubon, an illustrious sixteenth-century scholar quite forgotten today. “Notice this marble memorial,” he says. “If you look closely you will see the letters ‘I.W.’ and the date 1658 scratched in one corner. They were placed here by a naughty schoolboy named Izaak Walton, who grew up to write The Compleat Angler.”
In Westminster Abbey Metcalfe operates on the idea that tourists are “sick to death of churches,” that “they don’t want a lot of historical facts” and that “they aren’t interested in statistics and dimensions.” For ordinary tourists he is content to wave a vague and somewhat impious hand at the origins of the abbey.
“It all started with that queer fellow Edward the Confessor, who built the first Palace of Westminster and in 1057 brought the Benedictines here to start building the abbey,” he says. He then describes the first coronation, in 1066, when William the Conqueror snatched the crown from the Archbishop of York and clapped it on his own head, challenging all to dispute his right to wear it.
“Poor old Chaucer,” he says, pausing at the poet’s tomt>. “He couldn’t make a living as a writer, so he got a job as clerk in the abbey. He was buried here not because he was regarded as much of a poet but because he was one of the employees.”
Metcalfe is always looking for new stories and sometimes he gets a lead from a tourist. Once an American asked to be shown the tomb of “the umbrella man.” “You mean Neville Chamberlain?” Metcalfe suggested. “No I don’t,” said the American, who was unable to supply any clues about whom he did mean.
Metcalfe searched through his refer-
ence books until he discovered that the American referred to Jonas Hanway, an eighteenth-century philanthropist. Hanway visited Persia in 1743 and returned to England with the first umbrella ever seen in the Western world. In rain-soaked London it caught on so quickly that the makers of sedan chairs, their business threatened, hired small hoys to pelt Hanway with mud whenever he appeared on the streets.
Metcalfe is always careful not to offend. “I never say ‘Bloody Mary’ but always ‘Mary Tudor’ in case there may be Catholics in the party,” he explains. Once he offended two Canadian clergymen when he showed them the grave of Old Tom Parr, the oldest citizen in British history. Old Tom died in London in 1634 in his 154th year as a result of the immoderate entertainments provided for him by King Charles I. One night at a feast in the palace the king asked Tom for the story of his life. Tom boasted that when he was 103 he had been put in the stocks for fathering an illegitimate child.
“That was the end of the tour,” says Metcalfe. “When I told that story the clergymen clapped their hats on their heads and stalked out.”
He likes to comment on the British character. “Do you see these ducks?” he asks, pointing to a small pond near the abbey’s east entrance. “The English are such lovers of birds that they have made London unique. It is the only city in the world that is a bird sanctuary. Wild fowl, migrating from Scandinavia to South Africa, break their flight in the parks of central London.”
lie’s Icing for the Cake
Guides are not supposed to engage in political discussions with tourists but when Metcalfe is asked about the Red Dean of Canterbury he turns his explanation into another example of national tolerance. “Canterbury Cathedral, like Westminster Abbey, is one of seven Royal Peculiars where the dean is appointed by the sovereign for life to be absolute master of the fabric of his church. In 1931 the Ramsay MacDonald Labour Government asked the King to appoint to the vacant deanship of Canterbury a young radical clergyman named Dr. Hewlett Johnson. He holds this post today and it is a tribute to the British that they will not break tradition to dislodge him because of his political views.”
Metcalfe did not consider himself a particularly good student at the guide school and was astonished when he came first in class. He was so upset by his first practice tour that he began touring at his own expense to learn from other guides. When he graduated he considered he had “barely scratched the surface” although every tourist agency in London offered him a job at a premium salary because of his high standing. At the end of his final test in Westminster Abbey one of the judges, the director of a leading tourist agency, whispered: “Metcalfe, if
you want to be the best guide in London come to see me tomorrow.”
The next morning he patted Metcalfe’s shoulder and urged: “I want
you to take all our tours free of charge. Go as often as you like, wherever you like. Learn everything!” Metcalfe duly traveled to Canterbury, Winchester, Stratford-on-Avon, Oxford, Cambridge and the great country houses around London, learning everything. At the end of this supplementary training, when he revealed that he was a civil servant and didn’t want a full-time job his benefactor was enraged.
“He said, ‘Take the tours’ so 1 took
them,” explains Metcalfe. “We’re friends now, though. I send my people to him for set tours and he sends customers to me for extras.”
Metcalfe likes to think of himself as the icing on the cake provided by the travel agencies. At first he found it hard to get part-time work so he resorted to soliciting business outside Westminster Abbey. The vergers objected to this undignified conduct and one day told him that touting wasn’t permitted. Metcalfe refused to budge. “I hold to the Canadian point of view —if you have something to sell, sell it,” he maintained stoutly. “I have something to sell and what’s more, I intend to sell it.”
One day he approached two welldressed American men standing in Westminster Square and invited them to accompany him over the abbey. They agreed. When the tour ended he asked for their names and addresses. One proved to be Dr. Omar Pancoast, food officer for Western Germany under Gen. Lucius Clay, and the other, Anthony Mascaiarelli, commissioner of markets for New York City. “Mascaiarelli sends me a tinned turkey every Christmas and between them they send me more customers than any other ten people,” Metcalfe says.
Many of his customers send their friends and many send presents. In one six-week interval recently he received six litres of olive oil from Tunis, five pounds of chocolates from Switzerland, a cheese from France, a box ot j raisins from Saudi Arabia, a crate of I oranges from Palestine and some geological specimens from Norway.
The presents are usually for small favors outside the province of guiding. Metcalfe’s head is stuffed with oddj ments of useful information such as ! where to eat well and cheaply, where to shop and what to buy, how to rent a car and where to park the children while you see the sights. He takes the names and addresses of everyone in his parties and when they get home he writes to them. He sometimes writes fourteen letters in a single evening. He submits all names and addresses to the British Travel Association and the Canadian Tourist Bureau with a request to forward travel literature.
On a second appointment a tourist is often immensely flattered to find that Metcalfe knows all about him. Once at the House of Commons a tourist gave his name as Guy Stewart, and his address as a small town in California. The following night Stewart accompanied Metcalfe to the Players’ Theatre Club. He was astonished when Metcalfe signed his name in the visitors’ book: Dr. Guy Robertson Stewart,
professor of plant ecology, University of Southern California.
“I looked him up in Who’s Who and couldn’t find him,” Metcalfe says. “So I tried American Men of Science and i discovered he was the world’s leading ! authority on plant ecology.”
The Players’ Theatre Club is Metcalfe’s only concession to London’s night life. “I hate night clubs,” he says. A favorite with the tourists, the I Players’ Club is a modern, but authentic copy of a Victorian song-and-supper club where the spectators consume neoVictorian hot dogs, sandwiches and ale while they hiss the villain, cheer the heroine and join in the choruses of lugubrious nineteenth-century ballads with such titles as She Has Fallen by the Wayside and Please Sell No More Drink to My Father.
The performers, dressed in real Victorian costumes down to their corsets and underwear, rigidly ignore all wars since the Boer, all twentieth-century social changes and all monarchs after Victoria, who is toasted every night. This typical British humor sometimes
baffles Metcalfe’s guests. The chairman always asks tourists to identify themselves. Once Metcalfe introduced an elderly woman from Johannesburg, South Africa. “Tell me madam,” asked the chairman, “how is Dr. Livingstone getting on with his work in your country?” “I’m not as old as all that,” she cried furiously.
On another occasion one of Metcalfe’s guests was a representative ol the Soviet news agency, Tass. Reluctantly he allowed himself to be introduced and the imperturbable chairman enquired politely about His Imperial Majesty, Czar of all the Russians. Scowling, the Russian buried his chin in his collar and said nothing. Later he scored the chairman bitterly for mentioning the Romanovs to a citizen of the Soviet Union. “The Soviet Union?” repeated the chairman in puzzlement. “Indeed I never heard of it. And I’m sure her Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria never heard of it either.”
Metcalfe charges one guinea—about three dollars—to take a guest to the Players’ Theatre. This pays the admission plus beer and sandwiches, leaving a tip for himself. He gets no fee for
his lectures on the Houses of Parliament or Westminster Abbey. The tourists simply tip according to their inclination. Once a jewel-studded maharajah gave nothing although he was obviously enjoying himself for he agreed at the end of the abbey tour to go to the Tower of London that night to watch the ceremony of The Keys. After this he handed Metcalfe three gold sovereigns, worth about thirtytwo dollars.
Only forty people are admitted each evening to the locking-up ceremony at the Tower and tickets, which are free, must be ordered months in advance through the resident governor. Metcalfe has a standing order for four tickets every Saturday and Sunday. His charges pay ten shillings per person to see this unique ceremony which hasn’t varied by as much as seven seconds in seven centuries. The fee provides tips for the beefeaters, a fast Dickens and Shakespeare tour on the way and a glass of ale. The tour includes Southwark Cathedral, where Shakespeare’s brother is buried, the site of the old Globe Theatre where Shakespeare acted and a visit to The George, London’s oldest and best-preserved coaching inn, which both Dickens and Shakespeare used.
Metcalfe says that his irregular income from guiding is much less important than the fun he gets out of it. Once on a practice tour of Westminster Abbey, the tutor, a former Shakespearean actor named Norman Webb, put his finger on its chief attraction. “Harold, this is more satisfactory than acting,” he confessed. “When you’re guiding you’re always in the spotlight.”
“I think that’s why I like it so much,” says Metcalfe frankly. “All my life I’ve had petty jobs that made me feel mean and inconsequential. When I’m guiding I’m inspired because I can capture people’s attention and make them love what I love. I
wish I had started forty years ago.”
Forty years ago, after graduating from high school in Riceville, Ont., Metcalfe became a publicist for the Railway Association of Canada. Then for three years he was a real estate agent in St. Anne de Bellevue, Que. “My business failed in 1933 so 1 went to Ottawa to try to make a living as a free-lance journalist,” he says. “1 was rather left wing then and I used to review books on Russia, about which I knew absolutely nothing.”
Many of his reviews were published and in 1936 Metcalfe used his clippings to obtain a visa to Russia. Except for occasional holidays in France this three-month period is his only experience of tourism. Then, as now, lit? was opposed to too much organization. “Everything we did was supervised and planned by Intourist, the Soviet Government travel agency,” he says. “I objected to spending my time with English and Americans because 1 wanted to learn something about the Russians.”
Still a Tourist at Heart
One night he crashed a carnival in Moscow by presenting an Intourist meal ticket, which he believes the gate keeper was unable to read. A loudspeaker system, blaring the latest American jazz, was hooked up all over the fairground. During an interval in the program Metcalfe vaulted to a platform, snatched a microphone from under the nose of a startled announcer and asked in English and French if anyone present spoke either language. Two students took him in charge.
“They were peasants whose education was being paid for by the Communist Party. They spoke good English and we had a wonderful time. I quizzed them about everything but there was no point in trying to talk to them about Canada. In spite of everything I said they were convinced it was some kind of hell on earth.”
On another occasion while visiting a summer resort on the Black Sea, he cashed two Intourist meal tickets at once saying he wished to go on a picnic. He then dressed in Russian clothes, which he bought in a local shop, pretended to be a deaf mute and boarded a train for Rostov. “Three days later, when T got back, they were dragging the Don River for my body,” he says. “They didn’t let me out of their sight after that.”
When his Russian visa expired he settled in England but remained a tourist at heart. He is never tired of sight-seeing and his energy is boundless. It is usually after eleven o’clock on Saturday night when he unlocks his bicycle from its post near Charing Cross station, puts his umbrella back in its silk stocking and pedals off toward home in Putney.
On Sunday morning he rides to the London Zoo carrying a haversack stuffed with nuts, dates, milk and maggots. The milk is for Prince, a stage-struck cheetah who played in the film Caesar and Cleopatra and is now so vain that he poses before any lens. The maggots are for the snakes. Metcalfe eats the nuts and dates.
Sunday mornings the show at the zoo is private -only Fellows of the Royal Zoological Society and their friends are admitted. Metcalfe is a Fellow and takes two tourists with him. They are allowed into the cages to watch the animals being fed and to take pictures.
He once took an American couple into the python’s cage and the keeper invited the young wife to hold it. “Ugh, no!” she cried, shrinking back. “That dirty, slimy thing!” “I’ll have
you know, madam,” said the wounded keeper, “the python is not dirty and slimy. It is soft and warm and very nice to touch.”
Two of the zoo’s most interesting exhibits, according to Metcalfe, are the chimpanzees and the King penguins. “Watch out for Spike!” Metcalfe warns, pointing to a surly looking anthropoid. “He’s the most accomplished pickpocket in London. I’ve lost .several packages of dates and a handkerchief to him.” The trick with penguins, he explains, is not to put your hand out because these otherwise amiable birds might mistake it for a herring and bite it.
When he retires from the civil service Metcalfe intends to become a full-time guide. In preparation for this he is now spending every holiday in Winchester, King Alfred’s capital, and “the most entrancing city in England.” He is also spending his lunch hours in the British Museum, to bring his information about it up to his abbey level.
In spite of Metcalfe’s most devoted efforts not all tourists leave London as deeply affected as the Arab businessman. On one occasion a tall ebonyfaced young man from West Africa followed Metcalfe impassively from the Houses of Parliament to Westminster Abbey and then to the Tower. On the way home he spoke his first and last words. Bending down he seized Metcalfe by the coat lapels and said in a deep earnest voice: “Please Mr.
Guide, would you kindly sir, justify for me the House of Lords.”
To this request Metcalfe could not accede. He does not think it necessary to justify anything and moreover, it j is a dangerous practice. A London County Council guide can lose his license by engaging in political controversy. Metcalfe has a staunchly reactionary friend who showed a group of tourists over St. James’s Palace in the summer of 1947, when the Labour Government was in power.
“This palace was built for Henry VIII, after a design by the famous artist Hans Holbein, on the site of what was once a hostel for leprous women,” he said, using the conventional guide’s spiel. Then he added a hot lick of his own. “In England today we don’t have leprosy, we have socialism,” he said. One of the tourists reported him to the agency that employed him. He was promptly summoned before the managing director.
“Harrison,” said the director sadly, “did you really say this?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Harrison.
“Good God, man! Don’t you know you can’t say things like that to tourists?”
“I merely meant, sir,” said Harrison blandly, “that under the beneficent socialist health scheme we do not have diseases like leprosy in England any more.”
“I am good,” Metcalfe says, “but I am not that good. I stay away from politics entirely. If my customers want inflammatory arguments I send them to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, or Tower Hill to listen to the soapbox orators. It’s interesting when you realize that the greatest strongholds of free speech in England were once places of public execution. The condemned man was driven up in a cart and allowed to harangue the country before he was hanged or beheaded. Now it is tradition that anyone can go there and say anything he wants. But a guide must keep his mouth shut.” ★
IS YOUR SUBSCRIPTION DUE?
Subscribers receiving notice of the approaching expiration of their subscriptions are reminded of the necessity of sending in their renewal orders promptly.