Chapter 14 - History Lessons

The next couple I had to meet in Southampton came by ship as they always did. They were scared of flying. The man was one of the few awkward Americans I've met. It was very difficult to please him and I never saw him smile, perhaps he had something wrong with his mouth. But his wife was an educated ex teacher who wanted to visit as many places she could connected to famous writers and poets and some universities. He tried to give the impression that he was like his wife, but kept getting mixed up and all wrong. We had been to Stratford on Avon and seen Shakespeare's birth place and Ann Hathaway's cottage and all the other Shakespeare connections. We went to Sherwood Forest at his request. I showed them the house that the sheriff was supposed to have lived. He then insisted I take him to the spot where Robin Hood practised using his bow and arrow. I explained that there was no proof that Robin Hood ever existed. There might have been a man who was supposed to be helpful to the poor people and it became a legend but it was only a possibility. The man got annoyed; he said I didn't know what I was talking about. He said that he had seen him in films. I never said another word and although they came to England again, I never drove them again.

It was a pleasure to meet two lady passengers for my next tour. They were retied from their professions. One was a doctor who been working in cancer research and the other was an ex teacher of a college. They both had a great knowledge of English history and literature, not only did they want to visit the homes and museums of famous writers, but also to see the places where battles took place and the kings were buried. It was impossible for me to cover everything in the time allocated so I had to work out a plan and do my best. I had to consider their age and frailty. We started in London but there are so many famous poets, authors and others that I didn't know who to leave out. I decided on Keats, Johnson, Dickens and Freud and hoped to find time later for others.

On the way to Dover I showed them the RAF camps where the pilots in the battle of Brattain were stationed and then on to Battle, where the Battle of Hastings took place. They liked the little Abbey, but not the success of the French.

We were going to Bath, stopping at Winchester and Salisbury to see the beautiful cathedrals. It had been a long drive and was quite late, and they were exhausted. I took them to the hotel where they were booked for two nights. It was very busy because the ground floor was converted into a pub. I went to the desk to check in for them. The proprietor was there. He looked up sharply saying that it was too late, he thought they were not coming so he had let the room to someone else. I said, “How you can do that, the room had been paid for in advance?” He said he was sorry but the time for arrival was 6pm unless there's a phone call to say you would be late. I again complained, “Look at the ladies, they are completely exhausted!” He thought about it for a few minutes and said, “Hang on I'll try and get them in at another hotel for tonight.” He did some phoning and managed to find accommodation and said there would be no need to pay anything, he would see to that. We went to this other small boarding place much further away and not so pleasant. It was much cheaper but there was no refund.

Every one knows what a beautiful town Bath is. It's probably is the most visited place outside of London. Its history and architecture combined with the famous people who live in the spectacular crescent is worth seeing alone. But the Roman baths and the assembly rooms are the most popular. We had afternoon tea in the pump room where three-piece bands were playing some popular music and of course the ladies had to taste the spa water. They enjoyed the visit to the Assembly rooms which was the centre of amusement for the gentry centuries ago and I was pleased to show them the fashion collection, where a dress worn by Margot Fonteyn is on display. On the way home, I just had to take them to Stonehenge, Avebury and Silbury Hill. They must have been worn out and glad to be going home to New Jersey. When they did get home, they wrote an article in the local paper all about their tour and how much they enjoyed it and even mentioned me.

Two years later they came again. This time we travelled north. We went to St Albans; the scene of queen Boadicea with her ragged army fighting the Roman legions. Then on to Naseby where Cromwell defeated Charles I in the Civil War. Then to Bosworth Field where Richard III was defeated by Henry who later became King Henry. Leaving the battlefields for a while we went to homes of the Brontes, Wordsworth and Enid Blyton. Still going north they saw Hadrian's Wall and then on to Bannockburn where Scotland greatest hero Robert the Bruce defeated the English King Edward II. Returning southwards they just had to go to the home town of George Washington’s ancestors, Sulgrave. The ladies returned home and I received a letter of thanks, I also got a Christmas card and then nothing. I could only think that they died. I shall never forget them.

It was a bit odd that I had another spot of bother with a hotel in Bath. With so many visitors it's not surprising some fiddling goes on with some residents and some visitors. I was touring with two American couples and I had booked a hotel for them to stay one night but not pre-paid. When we were finished for the day, I took them to the hotel. I specially asked for the best bedrooms in the hotel. The girl receptionist signed them in and took them to the rooms. I was checking their luggage when they all came down again. My group asked me if I had seen the rooms. I said no I had never been in the hotel before. They told me they were horrible. They might have exaggerated a bit, but they were used to first class. We all waked out and I managed to get them into a nicer hotel. There were others waiting for accommodation at the first hotel and I saw them let to them. A few days later I received a letter from the owner asking for payment of the rooms I had booked otherwise he was going to sue me. I wrote back saying that first of all the rooms were unsuitable, second I saw other people book the rooms and third one of my clients was a top lawyer in the USA so if you want to sue me, he would be very happy to defend me and counter sue you for trying to get money twice for the rooms. I heard no more.

The wife of the Archdeacon of St. Pauls called me. She told me to get to the building where there was a special meeting of some of the hierarchy of the Church of England. I was to take four of them to various railway stations for them to get home. They would be waiting for me. I didn't know them but they knew about me and what I looked like. When I got there I was a little apprehensive but I had no need to worry, they were all friendly. They were dressed normally except for the collar. They were all bishops around fifty years old. The one who did the talking introduced me to the others. I thanked him. I expected that their conversation might be about church business but instead it was all informal, they were telling jokes and laughing. I was checkmated by Bishops. I was happy to drive them and be able to say I was with four bishops. In my job, you never knew what would come next.

Two ladies from St. Louis came off the Concorde with a lot of luggage. I had to put some on the top of the car. One lady was much older than the other - they were like chalk and cheese. The old lady was very miserable and the younger was pleasant and charming. I believe that the young one was a paid companion. I was to take them on tour. The old lady didn't really need me except to drive. She thought she knew everything. She was very rude and treated me like a lowly servant but there were times she condescended to let me explain something. When we were in Plymouth, she was interested in the sailing of the Mayflower. Somehow she heard the name Drake mentioned, she asked me who he was. When I tried to explain about his game of bowls and the Armada she could not care less. As I took her to the stores, I felt like going to Drakes drum and appealing for help. The only good thing I could say about her was her interest in architecture, which meant that she was interested in Bath, Salisbury and Winchester. Although the young lady was nudging me to ignore her attitude I was very pleased when the tour ended. I hoped the pilot on the Concord avoided her. It might have affected his piloting.

A well known American, author came with his wife to visit and get the feel of some Victorian and Edwardian sites in London that had some historical interest for a book he was to write. He had some places in mind but was hoping that I could help him with his search. Beside his research he had an appointment with his English publisher. Being a Londoner I was acquainted with places I could show him. The first site was in East London where, in 1911, there were a group of anarchists who were causing lots of problems and threatening murder. The police traced them and they were holed up in a building in Sidney St. The police tried to capture them but were met by gunfire. The situation became a siege. Soldiers with rifles were sent in under the leadership of the Minister, Winston Churchill. After much firing the police were still unable to enter the building. Suddenly the whole building was ablaze. When the police eventually got in they found no bodies. The Anarchists had vanished and were never seen again. Not far from the building was a foundry that made one of the huge bells that chimed at Big Ben.

Only three miles away was the street where I was born and close to that street a murder was committed by the infamous Jack the Ripper. He was known to have killed six at least. They were all prostitutes. They were all killed in the same fashion; their bodies were cut open in a surgical style. It is thought that the murderer must have had some medical training. All the murders took place within a mile or two. There are so many books and films about Jack the Ripper that he must have had at least twenty disguises. He was never caught.

I drove to Kensington Gardens and told them about the building and great exhibition of the Crystal Palace and the statue of Prince Albert. I took the author to other places I thought he could write about but he was due to see his publisher. We went without his wife who was out shopping. Arriving at the offices, I remained in the reception room and he went up some stairs to the main office. I knew I would have to wait some time because they would be discussing the manuscript he had left with them. In spite of his experience with publishers, he came down in a temper. I asked him what happened. He explained that the book was about the USSR where he had spent two years doing research and was almost put in prison. The book was all about the hardships and hunger and people dying after the Revolution and war. The American Government with President Hoover decided to help the poor people by providing money and food. It was known as the Hoover mission. The reader of his manuscript was new to the job, just out of university with his diplomas. He told the author that the book was well written but they could not publish just then because fiction was not selling. He obviously knew nothing about the subject. The author was so disgusted that rather than try to explain he just picked up the script and walked out without saying a word. He eventually had it published in the USA but he cut short our touring and took the first plane home never to come back to England.

I got an offer I couldn't refuse, but I did. I was recommended to an American and his wife from Palm Springs. They wanted a general tour but the wife had a special request. First I had to hire a bigger car, a Limo. The man originally came from Chicago. He was an astute businessman and, I thought, something else. However he was very wealthy but not very well educated. He had become wealthy by buying companies that had financial difficulties and somehow helping to make them successful and sell them for a profit. His beautiful wife, was very intelligent and well educated. She was a collector of old books and was searching for first editions. I drove them to Hay-on-Wye the pretty little town in Wales famous for its book vendors. She loved handling books and managed to find a few she liked. Afterwards I drove them along the River Wye and stopped at Tintern Abbey, which she was very interested in. We stayed at a delightful hotel in the pretty village of Castle Coombe, made famous by the film Dr. Doolittle. I had been there many times but this time I had the shock of my life. My passenger met up with some friends. One of them was a well-known television announcer who had also been a racing driver and they all enjoyed a drink. Unfortunately the hotel only had a licence to sell drinks at the bar until 10pm. They asked me if I knew where they could go to continue their drinking. I said there was nothing in the village but I knew a place in Bath.

When we got to the car, the ex, racing driver said that was an unusual car and asked if he could drive it. I said I wasn't insured for that. My good friend said don't worry he is a great driver. He drove out of the hotel into the lane leading to the main road to Bath. He liked the car and started speeding. As we were getting nearer there I said, “Slow down.” I don't know if he heard me but he sped on. I shouted, “Stop the car.” He must have heard that time because he braked. We had just reached the end of the lane and a car driving on the main road spotted us just sliding out of the lane and had to swerve to avoid a collision. Nothing more was said, I just took the driving seat not knowing where my heart was. I took them to a hotel where I knew they could go on drinking. While they were drinking two girls came and sat at the table. I knew what they wanted but the men bought them drinks and seemed quite used to it. The third man was blind drunk. When we returned to the hotel he managed to say, “I thought you were taking us to a whorehouse.” I ignored him. Next morning he ignored me and all their wives avoided me.

A trend among the very wealthy Americans living around the west coast at that time was to have butler as kind of a show piece. He had to be foreign and preferably English. The English accent was all the vogue probably brought about by an English actor playing the part in a film. My good passenger told me that he was looking for an English butler and would I like the job. I said that I had a wife. He replied that he would engage her as well. Then I said that I had no experience as a butler. He then said that he would send me to be trained. Money was no object. I thanked him and said I would discuss it with my wife. He realised I was refusing and he never spoke to me again. It was not a case of, ‘if I were a rich man’, it was a case of, ‘I could have been a rich man.’