Sunday, 4 December 2016

To travel is to be forced into being an incessant consumer.

The tradition of photographing exotic places reaches back almost to the invention of the medium. As the Grand Tour was extended to take into “the Orient” so, in the 1850s, photographers such as Francis Frith lugged their bulky equipment to the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. Once the resulting pictures of the pyramids and other wonders became widely available the desire to go to these places increased. Such was - such is - the allure and promise of photographs that people wanted to see the precise spots shown in the pictures. Part of the motive for travelling  was, as it were, to experience the photographs on site, for real. Of course there was a lot to see that hadn’t been photographed, but the places in the frame served as oases or taverns, nodes that visibly determined one’s itinerary. Adventurous travellers naturally wanted to get off this pre-beaten track. By so doing, the places they visited gradually became parte of the track. Just as Wordsworth complained about the growing numbers of visitors to the Lake District that his poetry has attracted so travellers to out-of-the-way places began to lament the tourist that came after them.

As travelling has become quicker, easier and cheaper so this problem - or syndrome - has grown more acute. Whereas it once required a considerable effort of will and some ingenuity to get to Egypt, Paul Fussell, in his book Abroad, thinks that the coming of efficient, uniform jet travel — which ‘began in earnest around 1957’ — ‘represents an interesting moment in the history of human passivity’. Maybe so but, as Garry Winogrand’s airport photographs from the 1960s and ‘70s attest, it also heralded a great democratic expansion of the opportunity horizon.

The pictures in Martin Parr’s Small World (...) show the places photographed by the likes of Frith (the pyramids) and they show how the excitement and promise of Winogrand’s pictures has become a source of cramped frustration. (...)

(...)With the inconvenience of air travel drastically increased in the wake of 9/11 the average traveller i.e. anyone not in Business or First  — dreads going to the airport. To add insult to injury — or, more exactly, guilt to discomfort — we are acutely conscious of the cost to the environment, of the way that air travel is contributing to global warming. In this context a stay-at-home like Fernando Pessoa seems almost visionary: ‘What is travel and what use is it? All sunsets are sunsets; there is not need to go and see one in Constantinople.’

It’s not just the sunsets. When people do travel to Constantinople — or anywhere else for that matter — they can increasingly expect to find many of the things and conveniences taken for granted at home. Back in the 1950S the Swiss tourist Robert Frank travelled through America photographing ‘the kind of civilization born here and spreading everywhere’. Frank was right: forty years down the line Parr finds bits and pieces of the America imperium everywhere. (He also records the contrary tendency whereby one no longer has to travel to Egypt — with the attendant threat of terror — to experience the Orient; it can be found in  Las Vegas, in the shape of the Luxor.) In order to escape the tentacles of this homogenising ‘civilisation’ it is necessary to travel further and further afield. And by so doing you drag those tentacles after you. We are all responsible for the ruination we lament. Wherever you travel some kind of industry develops to cater for you – even if it’s not the kind of catering you, personally, where hoping for. (...)

The effect of tourism are, of course, not uniform. Not all places have given themselves over entirely to tourism. But, as Mary McCarthy wrote almost half a century ago, ‘there is no use pretending that the tourist Venice is not the real Venice, which is possible with other cities — Rome or Florence or Naples. The tourist Venice is Venice. Venice is a folding picture-post-card of itself’.

Venice is an extreme case. Even in Rome and Florence, however, visitors feel reassured by the way there are so many others doing, seeing — and photographing — the same things. (...) At the risk of being racist, the Japanese — the ‘lens-faced Japanese’, in Martin Amis’ phrase — seem to take particular comfort in being photographed in places where everyone else is being photographed. People go to places not to see the places but to obtain evidence — photographs of themselves — of having been there. (...)

(...) he endorses the verdict of the narrator in Don DeLillo’s The Names: ‘Tourism is the march of stupidity. You’re expected to be stupid. The entire mechanism of the host country is geared to travellers acting stupidity. You walk around dazed, squinting into fold-out maps. You don’t know how to talk to people, how to get anywhere, what the money means, what time it is, what to eat or how to eat it. Being stupid is the pattern, the level and the norm’. (...)

(...) I suspects, also, that the people in the photographs would recognise themselves and their fellow-travellers. They would agree that, although they have chosen and paid to come to these places, sightseeing in particular and holidaying generally are often the opposite of fun — partly because of all the other tourist. (Like car drivers moaning about traffic, the discerning tourist often complains that a place is “too touristy”.) And the money, even in supposedly cheap places, slips through your fingers like water. (...)

There is no way round it: to travel, either as a backpacker or package tourist, is to be forced into being an incessant consumer. Factor in queues, hassle, jet-lag and tummy upsets and it’s a wonder, even now, when travel has become so easy, that people still want to do it. Phillip Larkin certainly didn’t want to, but he did consent, every year, to take his mother away for a dismal week somewhere in England (he didn’t believe  in ‘abroad’). The experience led him to develop ‘a theory [that] “holidays” evolved from the medieval pilgrimage, and are essentially a kind of penance for being so happy and comfortable in one’s daily life’.