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CITY TOURIST


On the anniversary of the Russian Invasion of Prague 1969 I was chased, guidebook open in hand, up a blind alley by a riot policemen. He cornered me against the closed grille of a shop, truncheon raised and smashed it calculatedly against the grille two inches above my head, then veered back to join his mates (now where was I? Ah, yes : "Gothic Cathedral of St. Vitus…..") Tourism and the real life of the city; what exactly do they have to do with each other?

Tourism is usually a form of time travel. We go abroad, typically to locations less "developed" than our own, in search of the old, the traditional, the small. "Kyoto offers what all Westerners long for of Japan: naked pebble gardens, the sensuous contours of a temple roof"..(Lonely Planet Guide: Japan)

The juxtaposition of the old and the new is a great favourite of the simpler sort of tourist writing; and who can deny how dramatic it is? Who could resist the option of retreat from an exotic but overwhelming street market to the air-conditioned fastnesses of a five star hotel atrium where fountains plash and a medley from Cats tinkles across from the Piano Bar?

But I don't long for the past. Speaking as someone with no pronounced interest in pebble gardens (why this minimalism rather than the neon lit alleys of Shibuya?) or again as someone who thrills more to the mammoth twin towers of Tange's Tokyo City Hall more than by the "sensuous contours of a temple roof'" I am dissatisfied with this invariability of touristic time travel, by the attitudes behind it and the literature that is the fruit of it. A Year In Provence. Need one say more?

This escapist and ultimately condescending pursuit of the past is, in any case, doomed; indeed always has been. The traveller into the past will always be disappointed. Gauguin, a hundred years ago, was horrified to find the South Sea Islanders eating tinned food. The English aesthetes in Forster's Where Angels fear to Tread, shudder at the thought that one of their number has fallen in love with a native of the Tuscan town of Monteriano; she has to be rescued because (this is the crucial fact) he is...a dentist. "A dentist in Monteriano!"; Medieval Tuscany and Modern Dentistry are simply incompatible.

   
 

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