Talking Gal

A tour dispatch.

On occasional weekends I don’t have a Walking Gal Walking Tour booked, I stand on the canal with two signs on panels from my neighbours’ discarded bureau advertising pretty scenery, depressing history, and good company in crowded capital letters. 100,000 tourists pass through Camden Market every weekend. Probability is high that eventually at least one will want me to walk them down a path and talk for £20.

Some people have strong reactions to the contrary, though. These detractors have been solitary older British men of pastier persuasion with accents spanning the upper, middle, and working classes. Typically, while awaiting one of the 100,000 to fall into my trap, I read a book, people watch, or give directions. I take pictures when asked. Once I started writing a letter but my hands got cold. Regardless which of these activities is happening, I am an innocuous presence in the public realm.

They start blustering as soon as they step in front of me, blocking my sign and ability to talk to potential customers. Never opening with greeting, they launch into their feelings or interrogation. “There are too many walking tours in London!” “What do you know about the canal?” “IT’S NOT DEPRESSING HISTORY.” 

The author, as photographed by this guy Michael.

The average male native to this island struggles to make eye contact and is likely not listening to me anyway. “Oh, I’ll pack up and go home then.” “I don’t know, I just make things up as I go along.” “Literally everything about it is depressing.” I am quizzed and badgered about what I’m reading, my qualifications are compared to theirs (“well I was born here”), and I am subjected to soliloquies about the canal and millennials.

Other residents stop for a friendly chat before continuing their own walks, but usually I’m not entertaining the masses. Some people take pictures of my signs, but Camden Market isn’t a place one goes in hopes of an education, and the tourists skew teenaged. The market is fun to roam off-season weekdays, but Saturday and Sunday it is a cramped, increasingly corporate, underwhelming experience. I give directions to toilets and rave-wear store CyberDog to bewildered families, who have jostled through the crowded quay of food vendors onto the mighty bank of the metre-deep Regent’s Canal. A steep stone bridge, on which tourists frequently slip, leads back to the equally hectic High Street on their left. Sometimes teenagers are perched on the brick wall to the right, legs dangling, sharing a joint and beers. Beyond them stretches the towpath into a slice of relative idyllic tranquility.

One man, though, storming past me towards the footbridge, was apparently not calmed by the pastoral surroundings from where he was emerging. “OI! I BET SHE DOESN’T HAVE A BLUE BADGE.” I didn’t look up from my novel. “YEH I BET SHE DOESN’T HAVE A BLUE BADGE.” I finish the sentence and look up. “What?” “DO YOU HAVE A BLUE BADGE? I BET YOU DON’T, Y’KNOW WHY, MY MISSUS HAS ONE.” 

He is correct. I do not have a blue badge, but ask why his wife having one precludes me from having one (I assume there is more than one blue badge to be had). He doesn’t answer but turns to stare me down as he starts ascending the footbridge. I always feel badly when people lose their footing, but am disappointed he crosses without slipping. This walk-by character assassin wasn’t alone; his speculation about my blue badge status was directed to a teenaged male beside him, who sneered out of embarrassment, obnoxiousness, or both, but he said it loudly enough for everyone around him to look at me, confused.

This stood in harsh contrast to an encounter with a different local man whose philosophy of canal etiquette seemed more aligned with mine. Once west of Camden Market, towpath activity peters out. A sit-spot made convenient by a step down to the water is occupied by drinkers and smokers watching ducks, each other, and on some summer evenings the yoga classes on a boat club’s dock opposite the towpath. Behind them, the brick walls are by adorned by murals of women by Pico Rudson. It was while leading a tour for two, admiring these colourful portraits that we were joined by a man doing the same and smoking a joint. He listened and pointed out some of his own canal trivia. He accompanied us past the Chinese restaurant and zoo aviary, where we parted ways to summit Primrose Hill.

Typically, the Walking Gal tour starts further east of Camden Market, at Granary Square in Kings Cross, so by the time we peel off the canal I imagine everyone could use a few minutes without my voice. I learned to not do the history of Regents Park on the way up Primrose Hill on the first tour as I panted between factoids about Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell. The climber approaching from the south faces away from the panoramic view, and is presented with the sweeping expanse only when she faces about on the top, breath already taken. On clear days, the uninterrupted vantage reaches southwest to a chimney of the Battersea Power Station and northeast up to Hampstead. Dead centre of this stands City of London, the young skyscrapers tightly packed over Roman roads and bridges on the Thames, the tallest sometimes covered by clouds. St. Paul’s rotunda sits apart from them, shorter but more commanding and three centuries older. Garish glass towers that will not house Londoners sprout along the river, and at night, the red lights of cranes outline more to come.