Sunday, November 21, 1999



You can't package a burning, feverish passion for adventure into a guidebook...
Sunday, 21 November 1999
Oh no, a horrible apparition has just arrived on my desk. A guidebook - not to a place, but to a "passion".
"Venture deep into the heart of your interests, with a new approach to travel planning ..." breathes the back page. "This guide summons free- spirited travelers [sic] enchanted by the supernatural mystique that shrouds locations throughout the United States ..."
Oh dear, so it's that kind of passion. Not a burning, feverish desire, then. But a dreary, little suburban interest. A hobby. A trainspotterish pastime. The guidebook I see before me, entitled Haunted Holidays, is one of a new series of themed guidebooks from Insight Guides, in conjunction with the people who own the Discovery Channel.
It is certainly making me feel ghastly. The opening pages of the book are packed with photographs of "ghosts", such as the transparent woman in a wedding dress standing in a cemetery in Arizona on pages six and seven. I don't know who she is supposed to be, but she is certainly not a person I have the slightest expectation of meeting on any earthly holiday.
Nor does Haunted America strike me as a brilliant place for self-proclaimed "information-providers" such as Discovery to start its new series. The introduction to the book after all - following immediately after the photograph of the headless man by a tombstone holding a three-cornered hat - does refer to Discovery Communications as "the world's premier source of non- fiction television programming".
But I'll put aside the question of whether or not ghosts are supposed to be fictional. What really depresses me is that guidebooks to the world are seeking to become more interesting than the world itself.
In search of the unknown? Longing to seek the mysteries of the universe? Don't expect to have an adventure looking for it. It's all meticulously recorded in this book for you, along with the telephone numbers of the local chambers of commerce. The best place to hear the disembodied voices of Capuchin priests for example (outside St Louis Cathedral on rainy nights). The ideal location to detect the screams and groans of the victims of the St Valentine's Day Massacre (a nursing home in Chicago). Even the right spot to observe the shades of Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson (the White House). And underneath you'll even find details of where to stay and how to get there.
Having reduced the entire planet to a tourism commodity, guidebook writers (I confess I'm one of them) seem to want to move to another level altogether. It is as though we have already decided that the real world is not interesting enough any more. That we are bored of it. Bored of the same old continents, the same old countries, the same old stereotypes - clogging up our maps and guidebooks year after year.
Is that it? Is that why we now need maps larger and with more details than the places they purport to map, and why we need to fill our guidebooks with mumbo-jumbo about bodies in wells and pirates in pits? Because India and China - and dare I say it, the United States of America - are not mysterious enough in themselves?
If so I suggest that the solution might be to throw away all guide-books ever written to date. Then wait a few years. Eventually we might start getting up our passions (of the burning, feverish variety) for this world all over again.

Sunday, November 14, 1999

The lords and ladies of the realm need not fear - they still have vital role to play

The lords and ladies of the realm need not fear - they still have vital role to play

Now that the hereditaries have lost their day-jobs, I understand that a lot of them are planning to go into tourism, where they will once again have the chance to shine for Britain. This time as an asset for the British Tourist Board.

For this purpose all lords, even the young ones, will be required to dress up to look their age by donning tweeds, monocles and fob watches and carrying canes. They will sport wild thatches of hair on the sides of their heads, and sit motionless in rocking-chairs while American tourists are brought in quietly behind their backs, being instructed by their guides not to talk too loudly or throw food.

Some of the clever lords will renovate their suburban homes to resemble atmospheric castles, with deliberately engineered draughts whistling in under the doors and around the stairwells at all times of day and night. The more energetic ones will wrap themselves in ermine and commandeer small punts to take Japanese visitors on fishing expeditions from the banks of their rivers.

Britain will become known as the land of the smiling lord. Every foreign visitor will pick up leaflets in Heathrow Airport decorated by photos of mysterious and alluring lords who will do for Britain what geishas do for Japan and koala bears do for Australia. Tourists will study the behaviour of this indigenous tribe of people, unique to our shores, any encounter with which will offer visitors ... "a rare and precious insight into a uniquely British way of life".

Prices will be high, of course. A tour of a stately home is already expensive. For those willing to pay for the pleasure, even closer encounters will be possible. American businesses will take their best-performing sales staff on incentive trips to serve tea to lords, to sit in baronial halls with lords, to watch lords hunt stag, to have their accents derided by lords. In short to be lorded over, in the good old-fashioned way.

Such a potentially profitable business will raise its share of problems. Unscrupulous 
lords will employ their cooks and gardeners to stand in for them while they themselves fly off to take part in unlordly activities such as yachting on the Costa del Sol or shopping in New York.

The British Tourist Board will issue warnings for tourists to be on their guard against the possibility that the gentleman with the coat of arms and the pedigree may in fact turn out to be a fraud or an impersonator. Any person claiming the right to sit in the British parliament - it will warn - cannot possibly be regarded as an authentic British lord.