Chaos at ports, strike threats, damaged luggage, pandemic paperwork and flight cancellations – going on holiday these days can be an anxiety-inducing game. But as Lucy Lethbridge points out Touristswe Brits can’t help ourselves.
Other books have told the story of tourism. There was Alain de Botton’s bestseller The Art of Travel (2002), a philosophical look at “pleasure” travel, and more recently Above the tank (2013) by former New York Times correspondent Elizabeth Becker, who scrutinized the tourism industry.
This book follows a much narrower subject area – British visitors and their very particular, and often strange, wants and desires from the early 19th century to the 1970s. If that sounds warm, it isn’t. Like other meticulously researched social history books with a single theme, such as Lizzie Collingham Biscuits or Mark Kurlansky’s Salthe quickly points to broader sociological truths and customs.
Lethbridge has tackled the intricacies of British society and class snobbery before. Her previous book, The servantsgave voice to local staff, largely ignored by history, and in Touristsrather than focusing on famous or notable British travellers, a spotlight is turned on the general public, ‘vagrants’ and tourists, where they went, what they got up to and who inspired or facilitated their journeys.
The book begins with panoramas and dioramas, visual spectacles that, for many, were a chance to see “the globe in a nutshell.” William Bullock’s Egyptian Hall, commissioned in 1812, was “a pharaonic temple-like structure in Piccadilly” where for a penny the armchair-travelling audience could purchase a simulated experience.
Things really got going with the grand offerings of the great spectacularist Albert Smith, a founding member of the Alpine Club, whose quirky hacks and “sharp exploiters of snobbery and pretense” painted sets, stripped of scenery artists and effects 3D, sold- out in the 1850s. This irritated high-minded souls, such as the Victorian critic and polymath John Ruskin, who believed that Smith’s experience of the “Alps in a box” perverted from sacred landscapes. But the reception reflected the fascination of the general public, with Smith’s Mont Blanc show grossing “£30,000 (today over a million) in ticket sales” in the six years it ran.
Tourists it’s a walking story of Brits holidaying abroad and at home, and Lethbridge is as good at sketchbook-toting Victorians as it is at the Caravan Club of stalwart mobile home owners. In the 1950s, we learn, several factors were at play to facilitate the great caravan boom of that decade. New to the market were chemical toilets, in “water-colored Elsan blue with Jeyes Fluid”, a revival of the folk song, the Pakamac raincoat (which would be “suffocated in 1971 by the arrival of the cagoule, with its important pocket and big forward”) and then the launch of Camping Gas stoves fueled by methylated spirits in 1956. This kind of detail, as enjoyable as mac users themselves, is what makes the book such a satisfying read.
What also becomes apparent are the similarities between tourism behavior then and now. Just as today there is “dark tourism” and evil YouTubers traveling to conflict zones, in 1919 the Daily Express reported that in the Belgian town of Ypres there were “visitors trying to catch the thrill of a terror they had not experienced”. . In an 1853 edition of Murray’s Naples manual, a grim suggestion is made to “bake in a pauper’s burial in one of the 366 deep pits in the Campo Santo Nuovo.”
All this brings to mind the groups of Western tourists with cameras at the Ganges burial sites seen today. And just as we have Instagram filters, the Victorians had their curious accessory, the Claude glass, where upon arriving at a beauty spot, visitors turned their backs on the view holding up a plano-convex mirror that reflected a simplified, painted. landscape version.
The 18th-century clergyman Reverend William Gilpin, remembered for his unrelenting pursuit of the “picturesque,” encouraged the idea that the view is the destination, something that must eventually be entered into an album. For Gilpin, Claude’s glass gave nature a pleasant, subdued hue.
Critics believed that such aesthetic consumption “reduced the grand vistas of the world into tiny bubbles of manufactured feeling,” which could be said of selfie art and social media in general. But as Lethbridge says of vacation memories, “who would believe your travel stories if you didn’t have anything great to show for them?”
Tourists: How the British went abroad to find themselves by Lucy Lethbridge, Bloomsbury £20, 320 pages
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