Tourist Trade

A 2 hour tour of London on an open topped bus with “live” commentary: what fun! See all the sights, and hop on and off at will if you wish to linger: simply catch the next bus when you’re ready to move on. I had always wanted to ride in one, but never expected this to happen with me as a Guide, in charge of the thing and of 72 eager passengers to boot. It was one of our rare super-hot London summers leading into a warm damp autumn and I sat atop that bus for 6 months, armed with hat, dodgy microphone and a growing fund of London facts and stories. You had to keep talking, that was essential thing, even as you shepherded your charges up and down the shaking stairs and tried to sort out their worries.

Which were varied: a poor man who announced at Tower Hill that he had 20 minutes to reach Heathrow and a flight to Texas; a quarrelsome girl obsessed with Virginia Woolf’s medical history; the American quartet who thought they were in Paris. (The Tube mistaken for the Chunnel). Plus there were problems with “comfort stops”: mine, not the passengers’. You couldn’t go at will and of course as soon as you start thinking about that sort of thing, your need becomes very urgent. Fortunately I had been urged by grandparents from the age of 3 to “think of other things” when out for walks; and I’d read somewhere that Unity Mitford had trained herself not to go for 12 hours to prepare herself for sitting through Hitler’s interminable speeches. So I had to rely on Mental Attitude and it never (quite) let me down. I was very interested to read Karren Brady’s germane comments in a recent Telegraph interview about drinking less at work so as to avoid going and so save working time: ” ..it was a long walk to the Ladies.”

The sights somehow seemed fresh every time you did the circuit and I never got past becoming all choked up reciting the death of Nelson in Trafalgar Square thrice daily. The early morning runs were the best, coasting keen and attentive early-bird punters through the newly cleaned streets; and those on balmy summer evenings with London tinged with blue and mauve, the lights starting to come on, and something of a party atmosphere aboard. Then all was inspiring and magical, and paradoxically one felt as free as the air, master of the City and the West End. Especially if you had a driver eager to finish his shift and driving like Ben Hur down the Embankment and up Park Lane. The bad times came with rare rainy days, all of us huddled downstairs and the bus pervaded by the stale dreary smell of sodden newspapers, cheap umbrellas, wet hair and sullen boredom.

The sights of London enlivened by the smells of London. Around Piccadilly and Leicester Square everything was dominated by fast food and disinfectant. This was the principal comfort and feeding stop between tours: all those munchers of burgers, fries, pop corn, polythene sandwiches, half-eaten apples and “fasta pasta” queuing for tickets and darting back into Macdonalds for favour of lavatories. One of the problems with lemon-based perfumes, especially if sharp, woody and citric, is that they carry bathroom connotations to many people raised on the camouflaging properties of Glade, Oust, Izal, Pine and Airwwick. That summer, the smell of heat predominated: a heady and quite psychotropic fug of exhaust fumes, cigarettes, dry baking concrete, stone and tarmac, perspiration and high-factor sunscreen. And for me the smell of strong tea, taken in the crypt cafe of St Martin’s in the Fields: wonderful scalding aromatic sweet black tea, reviving and comforting. Try Pierre Guillaume’s L’Eau Rare Matale for a scented substitute.

They say you remember only the good times and the smell that lingers longest when I think of London summers, and this was no exception, is that of the linden trees. We swept past Hyde, Green and St James’s Parks with the boughs just gracing our heads, heavy and powdery with that piercingly nostalgic scent of lime tree blossom which cuts through the traffic fumes and if only for a moment freshens the greasy heat. The fact that so many people smell linden without actually knowing what it is only adds to the enchantment of this divine odour. D’Orsay have recreated it in their soap and eau de toilette Tilleul; and Andy Tauer’s staggering Zeta defines it once and for all. Zeta is derived from natural oils, thick and oleaginous; a smell of lime avenues in country parks, new mown grass, sweet fresh hay and even a June afternoon swinging round Hyde Park Corner, just in time for tea at the Ritz.

Image from traveltura.com

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One thought on “Tourist Trade

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