Another week, another questionable experience for Michael Hodges. This week, he explains the pitfalls of the private tour…
She said she liked water, so I took her for a walk by the Thames. As soon as we arrived, the sky blackened and 400,000 cubic metres of rain fell on the exact spot where we were standing. She said she didn’t like water that much. So we took shelter in Southwark Cathedral.
Wandering in, we came across Shakespeare’s tomb, a reclining marble figure in a carved stone niche.
‘I didn’t know Shakespeare was buried next to Borough Market,’ I said.
‘He isn’t,’ came the reply, not from my wet companion but from a small man with a clipboard who had joined us without either of us noticing when exactly he did it.
‘No, he’s not buried here. This statue is purely a tribute to him,’ the man continued. ‘But his younger brother is.’
We could have shuffled away, of course. I could have said, ‘That’s interesting,’ and walked on. Or, more directly, as the river wasn’t far away and the man with the clipboard wasn’t a big man, I could have put a sack over his head, tied up the end, weighted it with a heavy object and had him under the swirling brown waters of the Thames in a matter of minutes. But although Southwark Cathedral is full of heavy objects – brass eagle lecterns, iron candelabra – I had no sack with me and as yet didn’t realise what I was dealing with. So I did the worst thing I could have done and replied to the man.
‘Really? I didn’t know he had a brother.’
‘Oh yes, let me show you the tomb in the choir…’
That was it. He had joined our company and from now on he was telling us stuff as we left a trail of wet footprints across the ancient stones.
And it was very interesting stuff: trust me, you would have stopped and listened. He had the impressive knowledge of an official tour guide, only he wasn’t an official tour guide. We were in the hands of a rogue amateur historian.
‘Look up there.’ He pointed across the church to a stained glass window.‘That’s the Chaucer window. It’s the only stained glass window in the country with a pub in it.’ Again, at this point I could have stuffed his mouth with prayer books and then beaten him about the head with a chair. But although there were prayer books and chairs aplenty, I didn’t. After all, it is the only stained glass window in the country with a pub in it.
And so our tour continued – the whatsit chapel, the tombs of Sir this and Lady that, the effigy of a fourteenth-century knight – until, under an enchantment cast by his hypnotic and unrelenting delivery, I had lost the power to think or act independently. I looked at my friend and could see that something similar had happened to her. Her eyes were glazed and she talked in a monotone about rood screens: ‘Thirteenth century? Hand-worked in ash? Fascinating.’
Looking down, I saw that we had come to the point where our wet steps began, completing a circuit of the cathedral to return to the supine figure of our national poet. A party of American tourists stood there.
‘So, here he is,’ one of them announced to the rest of the group. ‘William Shakespeare! Buried here! Well, I didn’t know that.’
It was too much for our unofficial guide. His ears stiffened; his eyebrows twitched. I could see he was fighting the urge, as he continued with a detailed description of the seating arrangementsin the choir for our benefit, but it was more than he could resist. He turned to the Americans. ‘No, he’s not buried here. But his younger brother is.’
‘His brother?’ echoed a New York voice.
‘Oh yes, he had a brother, you know.’
‘Now,’ I said to her. ‘Run!’
Read on for more of Michael’s antiquarian adventures…