Thursday, August 4, 2011

The King of Syon Park

In the eyes of my American classmates, Christopher King, our tour guide at Syon Park, was just a cranky, American-hating man. “He was just rude,” remarked one student during our post-tour lunch conversation, which revolved entirely around him rather than the actual attraction. “The more I tried to seem engaged, the more he was disgusted by me,” added Brian Rose, a professor on the trip.

Sitting amidst a sea of complaints from my New-World peers, I couldn’t help but wonder about Mr. King’s side of the story. Why was it that he came off as cranky? Did he really hate Americans? And what was a seemingly unfriendly man doing giving tours of Syon Park, the London mansion of the Duke of Northumberland? With the help of my professor, I left our luncheon and wandered back into Syon House to interview him and get some answers.

My initial impression of Mr. King, which I had gotten hints of during the tour, wasn’t that he was cranky so much as that he was deeply troubled by something. He didn’t seem to care much about the person in front of him: he abruptly dismissed my introduction just as he dismissed my professors’ introductions earlier, and he requested that I didn’t ask him anything personal. Whereas I was there to make some kind of connection with this man, he wanted just the opposite: he would oblige me and answer work-related questions so long as they weren’t too fluffy, too cozy, or, worse, about him.

Within minutes, Mr. King, who is officially titled the part-time Deputy House Manager of Syon Park, had geophysical graphs laid out on his desk and was explaining how a rough ground dig bore traces of an earlier, unrecorded establishment on the grounds of the Park.

“I’m probably boring you terribly,” he grumbled. I insisted that I wasn’t bored at all in order to make him feel comfortable enough to give me more than one-word answers. Accepting my response, Mr. King readily pulled out more books about English History and archaeology and resumed talking about the possibility of an ancient monastery on the site, as if he were answering a question that I hadn’t asked.

“What we do here is try to convey to visitors [as much of] the history and personality of the house, and anything that goes with it,” he said of the mission of Syon Park. Yet, as he pored over maps comparing the modern site to a 1462 estimation, it became clear that he comes to work more for the history than for the visitors.

Although King has no background in history (he was in the Royal Navy before he worked at Syon Park) he is currently happy to bury himself in it. Delving into history is not just King’s job, but also his hobby: he reads 150 books per year and estimates that each book is around 250 pages, which adds up to approximately 103 pages of reading every day. Unsurprisingly, all of that history gets repetitive. In order to access new material, King seeks out niche history books, such as those specifically about the Tudors or Ann Boelyn. At the moment, he’s going home to the history of Edward VI and Somerset, specifically Somerset’s beheading during Edward’s reign.

It is understandable, then, that King is disappointed, or perhaps cranky, when others do not share his passion.

“It’s not fair to burden people with the history of England,” King remarked, a tinge of melancholy clouding his statement. And maybe he has a right to be melancholy, as his muse is a burden for some people, namely, our group, which he described as “quite distinctly bored.” While “dealing with” groups such as ours is indubitably a drag, the most rewarding aspect of King’s job is guiding groups who are “pleased to get information and pleased to ask questions.”

“Every so often I’ll get a really interesting question about the hereditary history of someone I didn’t know, and I’ll have to go research it,” King explained. “I quite like that as it pushes me farther along the line of knowledge.”

This exchange of knowledge seems to be Mr. King’s preferred mode of interaction: one where he is not just spewing out facts but where he is challenged, confronted, encouraged to learn more. He seems to be intensely driven by knowledge in life, his messy desk bearing no family photos and his right ring finger sporting a band instead of his left. As King sat facing me with soft afternoon light reflecting off of the room’s light yellow walls, he didn’t seem cranky or American-hating at all. He just seemed like a man who desperately wanted to share his passion with someone who would listen.

By the end of the interview, King struck me as a modest man, maybe a little lonely, with a very specific interest in which he is happy to bury himself. As I left his office, he was much less cranky than when I had arrived, even insisting that I take a Syon Park book as a free souvenir. Opening the house’s huge wooden door to let me out, Christopher King saw me off with one last request. “Do be kind to me,” he asked. And I promised that I would.

1 comment:

  1. Gina- this is such a moving story. It is totally and completely you! Always seeing the other side of people and giving everyone a second chance. It is one of the most amazing aspects of you. I am so proud of you for thinking critically and trying so hard to see him as just another person, and not so much as a cranky, American- hating tour guide. What a marvel. It warms my heart so much to know that you are loving London, and growing so much as a person.