For the past year I’ve been living a secret life. As a tour guide at the Jane Austen Centre in Bath. Well, it hasn’t really been that much of a secret. In fact, pretty much everyone I know knew I was working there. And so did the thousands of people I met who visited the centre. Okay, so it wasn’t a secret.
It’s just, as I’ve done so much writing in the past year, I’ve truly felt – for the first time in my life – that my writing has come first and the “secret day job” to pay the rent came second.
But, this is definitely not to say the tour guide role (and later staff supervisor and then General Manager for a short stint) hasn’t been an amazing, rewarding, challenging and a confidence-boosting experience. In fact, being a tour guide has solidified my ability to speak in front of huge crowds of people.
Many people say I come across as a confident person; and, yes, most of the time I am. But before last year I’ve held on to a real secret: the fear I’ve had of talking, performing and presenting in front of people. I’ve done these things for other jobs in the past – at police community groups, at Connexions conferences, at press conferences as a journalist and at theatre groups directing plays – but, you see, just because I did them it doesn’t mean I felt comfortable within myself to do it.
I joined the Jane Austen Centre team at the height of the summer season in 2012 (when the centre regularly gets 300-400 visitors a day) and so the tour guide job forced me to confront my nervousness of talking in front of people. I started doing six talks a day in front of about 30 people each time and, in the past year, have done 1200 talks to approximately 30,000 people.
It did, of course, help enormously that everyone who works at the Jane Austen Centre are lovely, quirky, passionate people wanting to keep Austen’s Pride and Prejudice legacy alive for visitors (especially in the bi-centenary year that the novel was first published), and they do it in a fun, educational, interactive and very warm, personable way.
As well as this, the team all supported me enormously when my mum passed away last year and so this blog post is my personal way of thanking Jennie, Dave, Cary, Elle, Hannah, Jack, Beth N., Sonja, Sophie, Lauren, Bella, Jane, Rosie, Jess, Moira, Patrick, Martin, Amber, Becca, Clare, Jackie, Lenka, Wendy, Matthew and Yarka. And a special thank you to a brilliant manager, Jennie, and to Lenka too because, if she hadn’t passed my CV on to Jennie in the first place, I’d never have become a tour guide.
At the Jane Austen Centre I did traditional door Meeting and Greeting too: dressed up in full Regency wear. I said “good morning” to a million people, had my photography taken more than 100 times every day (to be published on infinite Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram pages and scattered around the world) and waved at endless amounts of tour buses driving by – so many, in fact, I still have trouble stopping the automatic urge of waving at any bus as it goes by now.
Inside the Austen exhibition, I tied up hundreds of girls dresses as they got into Regency costumes (in a strictly plutonic, gentlemanly fashion you understand) and cracked the same jokes in my presentations to countless warm and wonderful crowds. I’ve been called Mr Darcy at least 500 times and been asked out to dinner a lot of times (it’s the cravat that does it, I’m sure). At the Jane Austen Centre I danced, laughed and had amazing fun – it was a brilliant experience.
And dressing up was about performing a role every day, so I understand now why actors do their job: you can become someone else for a while, someone far more confident, charming and intelligent than your actual self. Except, of course, you have to have all those qualities inside you in the first place to become them. You just have to find your own way to discover them.
Which brings me to the fact my family always volunteer me to do public speaking at events – whether it is at a wedding, my mum’s funeral, big birthday bashes and so on. I’m always the one who gets out in front of everyone. The one who seems confident. But every time I’ve done it I’ve got nervous, shaky and sweaty, my mind has gone blank and the anxiety beforehand was almost too much to bear.
But not anymore. Now, I love it. You put me in a room with lots of people and I’ll talk to them the same way as I’m chatting to someone one-to-one; being in front of people doesn’t faze me. It energises me.
Someone said to me last year: you should be yourself wherever you are.
And, not until now – after I’ve conquered this talking-in-front-of-people fear – have I realised what that statement really meant. And how important it is for everyone to do exactly that in their lives.
Everyone “comes into themselves” – becomes comfortable and confident in their own skin – at different stages in their lives. And I think, now, I’m happy in mine. I can be myself wherever I am. And that’s great; magical, in fact. It’s also a lot less tiring!
And so, what has all this meant?
Well, it’s all good training for being an author (especially for being on tour and doing workshops/talks in front of lots of people) and it’s also meant that being in Bath, being at the Jane Austen Centre, has helped me in so many ways.
Working as a tour guide became the perfect balance: I did a lot of creating and writing in my spare time and did a lot of socialising, working and entertaining whilst at the centre. And, okay, if you want to get a bit spiritual here, these two things were my yin and yang – confidence and creativity. Both of them fuelled each other, giving me the opportunity and space to achieve what I wanted to.
And now I’m leaving Bath. With the experience of achieving lots of things in this beautiful World Heritage site, and with the knowledge I’ve learnt lots of things about myself and about other people. In the next two weeks I hope to start some very important youth arts projects elsewhere in the country. This will be my new “secret life” at the same time as being an author. I’m looking forward to getting the same balance right as before.
Stay tuned for more exciting info on my author and youth arts projects soon! Love n hugs.x