Planes, brains and autodidacts

August 20, 1999

Increasing numbers of academics are augmenting their salaries by taking well heeled tourists on cultural holidays. But is the Pounds 200 daily fee worth the aggravation? Anne Sebba reports.

The hushed audience sat expectantly in the calm of the beautiful Jugendstil Kirche outside Vienna. Roderick Swanston, reader in historical and interdisciplinary studies at the Royal College of Music, was about to give a pre-concert talk setting the scene for difficult works by Mahler, Schoenberg and Webern. Suddenly he was interrupted by a bloodcurdling scream from behind the barbed windows of the Steinhof mental hospital that abutted the church. "That, more than anything I could say, illustrated the dark interior worlds that most of us bury away but which these composers tried to explore and express in their music," he says. "It was like magic and that is what these tours are about. They are inimitable and unrepeatable. Whatever enthusiasm I put into my talks I get so much back."

Swanston is one of the most popular and charismatic lecturers in the highly competitive field of cultural tours. His employer, Martin Randall Travel, has received advance requests to tour with Swanston spanning the next ten years.

A particular attraction is the Austro-Hungarian Music Festival tour - eight days in mid-August in a luxurious river cruiser along the Danube, with the additional benefit of talks from Tim Blanning, professor of modern European history at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

Blanning, a specialist on the Hapsburg monarchy, gives ten "soundbite" lectures of 15 minutes each, compared with his usual 50 to 60 minutes to a university audience. He says the key to being a success is not to dumb down but to make the subject more accessible and always to contextualise. "Of course one or two people will know nothing but some will have studied the reading list and know a great deal. The trick is balance," he explains.

For some, this is not the only trick. Tony Seaton, Whitbread professor of tourism behaviour at Luton University, cautions against seeing anything new in these tours. "Thomas Cook started sending wealthy Britons in the 1840s and 1850s to Egypt, Switzerland and Italy," he says. "All Martin Randall has done, by giving his clients high-powered university professors to accompany them, is to sell people a concept that they are not tourists but travellers - they are not going to the Costa Brava with Thomson.

"Status plays an important part and these holidays give those who buy them something to talk about at dinner parties afterwards, or even, if they are young enough, at job interviews to show they have an interest in art. It is really travel for softies - they sound adventurous holidays but in fact the adventure is taken out of them."

Most of these "high-powered university professors" would disagree. For them, the tours offer the chance at least of intellectual adventure.

Swanston says: "Any lecturer will tell you that the best listeners are mature students. They are more committed, show better motivation and appreciation and, in this case, anyone who has paid that much (most of the eight-day tours he takes cost just over Pounds 1,000) will want to get the most out of the trip."

Art historian Caroline Cannon-Brookes, who has worked for Martin Randall for ten years, specialising in tours to the Czech Republic, says: "The reason I find the work fascinating is because of the dramatic and continuing changes as the country adapts to capitalism. I went to Prague with my husband for years on British Council trips during the communist era and had a full taste of this dark, Kafkaesque world and never thought we would see any change. But each time I go I learn new things and follow the progress of restorations. You must be enthusiastic in this job and communicate that to the people who come with you."

Cannon-Brookes takes four to six short trips to Prague a year. She describes the pay she receives for these tours as "meaningful" - other sources put it at between Pounds 100 and Pounds 200 a day - and the rest of the time she teaches history of art at Oxford University's department for continuing education. She is, therefore, well used to mature students and finds teaching them rewarding. But she is open-eyed about their foibles since she sometimes has to act as tour manager as well.

"The responsibilities start at the airport," she says. "You have to be extremely resourceful and prepared for the unpredictable."

She remembers one man who insisted on having his breakfast served in bed in southern Bohemia: "I knew he would be difficult from then on and he was."

Another time, a man came with a girlfriend and pre-booked a double bed everywhere but it was constantly given to two elderly ladies on the trip by mistake. They were not amused.

On another occasion, a guest who had a room over the car park complained and the group was offered a better hotel but everyone else refused to pack up and move.

"You have to make a joke out of things and remember that not only have they paid large sums of money to come on this trip, but that they are intelligent people often at the top of their own particular fields," she says.

With most of those indulging in cultural tours near or past retirement (many companies have an upper limit of 80), health problems inevitably surface. On one recent trip a man in her group was suddenly taken ill and the plane had to make an emergency landing at Frankfurt. Cannon-Brookes's role was to support the wife and calm the rest of her delayed group.

"Mostly they are very fit or they would not come, but invariably they will not admit to a disability. Once, unknowingly, I had two deaf people, and when I made arrangements to get off the Prague metro at a particular stop, they did not know and we lost them for an hour or two."

David Nichols, a retired professor of biological sciences at Exeter University, has taught about 30 80-year-olds to snorkel over the past ten years in his role as guest speaker for Swan Hellenic. The company organised its first cultural tour - a cruise to the Mediterranean - in 1954. Nichols is unpaid but is accompanied by his wife for no charge as long as she undertakes certain library duties and socialises - a duty many lecturers find onerous. Because many single people are attracted to these holidays one person often gets left behind at every meal.

Nichols sometimes finds himself in charge of 60 or so elderly snorkellers.

He takes with him an underwater writing slate and back on board the boat shows pictures of what the group has seen and explains it.

He gives three to five lectures per cruise, on the sea, the climate and the sea bed. He tries not to use technical terms but apart from that avoids talking down to his audience. "You can get across fairly complex matters," he says. "It is sometimes much more rewarding than teaching cantankerous 18-year olds and we usually have very strong discussions at the bar afterwards. You never know who you have got in the audience. Once I had an atmospheric chemist and he took me to task for over-simplification."

One of his best experiences was being taken for a ride by a turtle in the Indian Ocean after holding on to its carapace. "I had never before seen a living turtle in its natural habitat - a marvellous experience that extends one's purview of environmental situations," he says. "For so long I lectured my students simply on the basis of textbooks and the theory of coral reefs without ever seeing them. Before retiring I could not have afforded to go on these sorts of trips, but now I can talk with more confidence and excitement so everybody benefits."

Tour groups such as Page & Moy offer destinations for people who want less learning and more holiday. For Thomas Tuohy, a freelance lecturer and author not attached to any university, the Page & Moy approach is ideal because he is given many places and subjects. This year, he will lead tours to Greece and Rome, Antwerp for a Van Dyk exhibition, Finland for an opera tour, Vienna, Bologna and Rome again - and is not overburdened with lecturing once there.

Few other companies would expect their speakers to be knowledgeable about such a wide variety of subjects.

"I can take five months a year off to research, proof-read or write a book and doing these tours has given me a greater opportunity to have a broader life than I could have experienced as an academic," he says. "Academics tend to work one subject to death but I have learnt an awful lot about European history and art and have gained access to some works of art on a regular basis."

For example, he goes to Vienna twice a year and has visited St Petersburg 25 times so has become familiar with the collections.

He suggests many academics could not cope with these tours because they are used to reading from a prepared paper inside a university lecture hall to a public they know.

"What I do is much more exposed," he says. "It may be in a gallery or in a street and anyone can join in and listen and frequently they do. It takes quite a lot of getting used to and preparation beforehand so that you can speak without notes."

One of the most trying aspects, he finds, is having to eat with the group the whole time.

"Often I am rather exhausted at the end of the day; I do not want to have to sort out the bill and take the orders and listen when people insist on telling you what food costs at Sainsbury's. I think I've got used to that now but that is why it does not appeal to a lot of academics."

The other reason is that it is often hard to fit in such work around a heavy university timetable. And even if academics do see it as the way to solve all their financial problems and see the world, they may not get the job.

Randall, who started his company 11 years ago, "because I have a huge didactic urge", and occasionally leads tours himself, believes that the market may have peaked, despite the growing number of advertisements for cultural tours.

He has a canny understanding of what his clients require and has turned down several applications from potential lecturers.

Those who are accepted are sent on a three-day residential training programme. He says he used to be embarrassed to ask Oxbridge professors to do this, "but if it is a requirement for everyone I suppose they understand".

In addition, all his clients are required to fill in a questionnaire at the end of a trip detailing what they thought of their lecturers. These seem to disprove the view that the lecture tours are an example of academic dumbing down. According to him, the biggest single criticism is over-simplification.

16 featuresThe Times HigherJaugust 20J1999 Ducking and diving: lecturing on the cultural holiday circuit has allowed retired biology professor David Nichols to scuba dive on coral reefs and ride on turtles pictures: Robert Harding The Times HigherJaugust 20J1999features 17 From Rome (top) to Vienna (above) to St Petersburg (left): do cultural tours really offer intellectual adventure?

Art historian Caroline Cannon-Brookes lost two deaf tourists on Prague's metro

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