Basil had no idea that anyone had complained.  As far as he was aware, his customers had always been enthralled, gathering round  to catch his every word above the background noise of passing traffic, laughing appreciatively at his well-rehearsed jokes.  But a curt email conveyed the bad news: someone had accused him of making insensitive and offensive remarks.  Insensitive and offensive — not just one, but both!

Appalled, Basil read the email again.  Apparently, an unidentified person or persons had reported him to the Institute of Tourist Guiding, his professional body, and he was summoned to a formal hearing to explain himself.  

His hard-earned Blue Badge was clearly in jeopardy.

Basil cast his mind back over the tours he had led around the monuments in Trafalgar Square: two kings, two generals and one admiral: all white, all men. The email from the Institute gave no indication of how far back he should go.  He assumed the complaint must have been fairly recent.  He usually conducted four tours a week, two on Wednesdays and two on Fridays.  How could he possibly work out which group had harboured the anonymous complainant?

Not surprisingly, his memory of the participants was hazy.  Invariably they were a sea of nondescript faces: fifteen or so people obediently following him as he led them round the Square, clustering round each monument as they listened to his spiel.  He knew he should distribute his eye contact in more or less equal measure to avoid becoming fixated on anyone in particular.  However, try as he might, he found it difficult to remain impartial.  He couldn’t help having favourites: people who appeared to hang on his every word, people who nodded and smiled, people who asked sensible questions (especially those he could answer!), young, attractive females who he secretly fancied. Oh lord, might one of those have thought he was leering at them?

How could he possibly know who he had offended?

Basil had always found it difficult to judge the extent to which foreign visitors on his tours were content with his performance.  They were more difficult to fathom.  Perhaps he’d offended someone in the Japanese group that he’d led round the Square recently?  Might they have sensed his irritation with their ceaseless giggling and their reluctance to ask any questions?  Had they thought him disrespectful when he failed to return their bows at the end of the tour? 

Or might he have upset the Indians in one of his groups when he’d described how, in 1857 at the ripe old age of 62 (Basil’s age), Major General Sir Henry Havelock had helped to put down the Indian Mutiny.   Perhaps they objected to his enthusiastic description of how Havelock had led the final charge that resulted in the deaths of thousands of rebels.  Had he sounded a touch too jingoistic?  Or maybe it had been when, standing at the other plinth and gazing up at the magnificent bronze of Major General Sir Charles Napier, he had related how the general had conquered Sind in 1843, using cannon fire to slaughter huge numbers of Sindi and Baluchi soldiers.  Could that have upset someone?  And what about dear Nelson standing victoriously on the top of his column?  Might some French tourists have taken offence when he waxed lyrical about the Admiral’s victories over Napoleon?  

The possibilities were endless. 

Maybe he’d upset a fat person — there had always been plenty of those in his groups — with his mickey-taking about George IV’s considerable girth.  He always told the story of how Chantry, the creator of the bronze, had used artistic licence to slim the king down and, having done so, still put him astride a horse with all four legs firmly planted on the ground — a first in equestrian bronzes.   Yes, thinking back, Basil could see how people who were overweight might have objected to the way he cheerfully recounted how the king had died a morbidly obese drunkard.  Still, facts are facts.  Why should he be economical with the truth just because some people in his group stuffed their faces with junk food? 

Basil became increasingly indignant as he realised the possibilities of inadvertently causing offence were endless.  Yet, he reminded himself, he’d been guiding folk round Trafalgar Square for ten years without mishap.  Was it possible that he’d become too complacent, a little too sure of himself?   Basil quickly pushed the thought aside.  He mustn’t succumb to self-doubt in his hour of need.

Maybe someone had objected to the way he always poo-pooed recent demands to remove the bronzes of the two Victorian generals, to drag them from their pedestals and fling them in the Thames.  He always joked that they’d probably be replaced with someone considered more worthy: someone black or transgender.  As far as he could judge, his audiences had always shared his utter disdain for anything “woke”. 

Might the problem have resulted from something he’d said about the magnificent statue of Charles I astride his horse — the oldest bronze in London.   Surely not!  As far as he was aware, people had always enjoyed listening to him relating the story of how Cromwell’s lot had been hoodwinked by a brazier called John Rivet.  How, during the Civil War, the Puritans had ordered him to destroy the statue but instead he’d buried the whole thing — no mean feat as it was over 9ft tall and 8ft long — and pretended he’d broken it up by selling trinkets supposedly made from the metal.  Then, after the Restoration, how Rivet had dug up the statue and sold it at a vast profit to Charles II who’d had it erected where it stands today, gazing down Whitehall at the site where his martyred father had been beheaded.  He always relished telling the story of Rivet’s blatant opportunism.  How could anyone possibly object?  Puritans he supposed.        

Ah well, Basil reflected, it was obviously easy to upset people without even knowing he was doing so.

Perhaps it was nothing to do with his well-rehearsed storytelling.  Maybe he’d caused offence with an off-the-cuff comment, one of his many spontaneous ad libs.  Perhaps it was that woman with mobility problems who’d had trouble keeping up with the group.  Had he been short with her when she kept asking him to repeat what she’d missed?  Or perhaps it was someone in the group who’d sympathised with that annoying woman carrying a placard saying ‘Be Kind to Pigeons’.  She had moved amongst his group encouraging them to feed the pigeons and distributing little packets of bird food.  He’d tried to ignore her but eventually he’d lost his patience, telling her in no uncertain terms that he thought the pigeons were a damned nuisance — always crapping on the statues.  Maybe someone in his group, possibly a pigeon-lover, had thought him unduly harsh.

Might he have fallen foul of an undercover inspector, he wondered. He knew he’d been checked out a couple of times before because, once the tourists had dispersed, the inspectors had done the decent thing and made themselves known to him.  But they’d both been men of more or less his own age, seemingly full of admiration for his smooth patter.  They had been amused by Basil’s Union Jack tie but gently recommended that he discontinued wearing his UKIP lapel badge.

Then Basil had a dreadful thought.  Might he have upset a female inspector who sneakily hadn’t declared herself?  Someone younger than him: perhaps a feminist, maybe even a lesbian!   

It was hopeless.  He was at a total loss.

Then the truth dawned on him.  The complaint must be something to do with the  disparaging remarks he always made about the Fourth Plinth.  He left people in no doubt that he disapproved of the use of the plinth for temporary displays of contemporary art.  He had always made it clear that modern art was definitely not his thing.  Someone must have objected to him ridiculing the most recent display: a dollop of whipped cream with an assortment of toppings, including a cherry, a fly and a drone.  He proudly told his groups how, back in 2009, he’d volunteered to be one of the 2,400 people who spent an hour on the plinth.  Sadly, he hadn’t been selected but, he told his audiences, if he had been he was going to spend his time on the plinth displaying a huge placard saying ‘Maggie Thatcher should be standing here’.

Basil decided to take the only honourable course open to him: he wrote to the Institute declining to attend the hearing and tending his resignation forthwith.  He reckoned it was better to be a Fourth Plinth martyr than to be forced to toe the official line.  Far better to jump before suffering the indignity of being pushed.  

He was not for turning!   He felt sure that Maggie Thatcher, were she still alive, would approve.

A few days later Basil received a reply from the Institute.  They thanked him for his distinguished service as a Blue Guide and accepted his resignation with regret.  They went on to say that, had he chosen to attend the hearing, they were sure the matter could have been resolved amicably.  

‘Resolved amicably’?  Perhaps he’d been hasty in tending his resignation.  Maybe his remarks about the absurdity of the Fourth Plinth had not, after all, been the problem.

He had to know! 

He phoned the Institute and was amazed to learn that the complaint had been lodged by a great-great grandson of Major General Sir Charles Napier.  Apparently, he had written to the Institute complaining that Basil had been disrespectful about his distinguished relative.  

Basil’s heart sank.  How absurd that anyone, even a distant relative of the General, could object to him passing round a laminated cartoon of Napier receiving homage from 3,000 Sindi chieftains.  In stark contrast to the formality of his statue, the eyewitness sketch showed what the General had actually looked like, with a huge, beaked nose and a beard that fell in wild profusion to his chest.  He was dressed inappropriately in an old flannel jacket, dirty white trousers and a peaked hunting cap.  Basil relished telling his captive audiences that it was no wonder the General’s soldiers had always referred to him as ‘Old Fagin’. 

Basil reflected ruefully that an anonymous sketch drawn in 1844, not his outspoken views on, well, just about everything, had been the cause of his downfall.

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