This scepter'd isle, this tourist trap

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The Independent Culture
YOU'VE JUST landed at Gatwick, an Italian or Japanese - or, more likely these days, Australian or American - tourist, and the first thing you get, as you wheel your trolley through the automatic doors, is a 'Welcome To Britain' pack; a liveried woman sticks out her arm and prods it at you. And what's on the cover? It's . . . a picture of an old church. A small, old, grey . . . religious building. So what do you do now? Poke it into the face of your companion and give him a high five?

Well, what do you think? This is the problem with tourism in Britain. The attractions are getting less attractive to the tourists. Last week, the National Economic Development Council published a report saying that British tourism was in the doldrums because of shabby resorts, poor transport facilities and disorganised information offices. What optimism] What wishful thinking]

The real problem is much more worrying. Just stand in the terminal hall and watch the tourists arrive. Count the bright, logo-etched T-shirts, the baseball caps, the weird haircuts, the trainers, the shell suits. And now count the people who look like they've come to see old churches. See? Tourist attractions, like North Sea oil, are a fossil fuel. They get used up when people stop being interested in them. When Britain was great, or at least memorable, and for a while afterwards, foreigners wanted to know what the greatness had been all about; they'd heard the star names - Wellington, William Pitt, Churchill. They wanted to come over and have a look. But now our great period is fading into the middle distance - there isn't much really old stuff, like in Rome, Greece and Egypt. Just a load of 100- year-old buildings, and no Disneyland.

So you get off your long-haul flight from Sydney, check in at your hotel, and give it a try anyway. This is London, home of the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Brixton riots. You want to see the sites from an open-topped bus. You still want to know what makes the place tick.

The bus is jolting along Whitehall, moving sickeningly slowly in the traffic. Jeez, the fumes] Oh - look at that guy in the bearskin hat] Well, that's something. But he isn't even moving. The bus gives a lurch. The on-board PA system crackles. The tour guide says: 'And over to our left is the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.' Hmm] - it's a squarish building, not big, not small. So this is where they talk about farming? In this very building? 'And to your right,' says the guide, his voice gliding along like a DJ, 'is the Queen's residence . . . No, I am sorry, it's . . . John Major's residence. If you look to your right there . . .' You peer. Nothing. But - yes, there it is. You can just see up some old alley, some kind of terrace, a bit of scaffolding. So this is it, then?

There's more. Churchill, an interesting guy at least, had his wartime bunker round here; this little stump is called the Cenotaph; that pointy old tower, Big Ben, has a bell weighing 13.5 tons. But you're flagging now, looking for something a bit tastier. Didn't they just open a Planet Hollywood here? Isn't Michael Jackson in town? You jog over a bridge across the river - the second biggest river in Britain - and get this: the railings are painted green, because the seats in the House of Commons are green. And here's Lambeth Palace, another old kind of hall, something to do with the church. And a school called St Olaf's. What's the point of St Olaf's?

'If you haven't seen it yet,' says the guide, 'I'd advise you to go and look at St Paul's' From the outside, this looks pretty good, a big dome, loads of people outside, for some reason no coffee shops in sight. Quiet inside. Yeah, you can see how old the place is. The stone on the inside is damaged, bits falling off. It's full of statues and busts. Dr Johnson, a guy with a fat face and a body like Mike Tyson. 'Grammatico Et Critico Scriptorum Anglicorum.' So there you have it. The place is full of Americans, all looking like the Golden Girls or Arnold Palmer, tanned faces, pastel slacks, flash watches.

This place is cold. It's full of monuments to the dead: George Blagdon Westcott, 'Captain of the Majestic . . . fell gloriously in the year of MDCCXCVIII'; Captain Edmund Moubray Lyons, 'who . . . was mortally wounded, having just returned from the command of the squadron in the sea of Azov where his brilliant successes were acknowledged by his sovereign . . .' The American guide says: 'When Sir James Thornhill was painting the dome, he was up on the scaffolding one day, and he nearly fell off.' What a grabber - nearly fell off. A speaker crackles and a voice booms out: 'Will you please remain standing or sit or kneel as you wish - this is a place of prayer, a place of worship. And now for the Lord's Prayer . . . Our Father . . .' You're out of the door inside a minute. Didn't put any money in the box.

London Bridge, which was bought by an American and shipped back in parts, Nelson's Column, the Changing of the Guard, the Monument, built to commemorate the Great Fire of London, which is 202ft high, exactly as far from the ground as it is from the spot in Pudding Lane where the fire started. How much more of this can you stand? The Tower of London, the ravens, old legends, wings clipped, the Queen worried that if they fly away the monarchy will crumble. Is this true? Or sentimental rubbish? What it is, is marketing talk. It's part of an image of Britain that the heritage industry is trying to sell. But what kind of Queen would clip the wings of a bunch of crows just to get a few more Americans to trudge around this old building?

At least you can tell your folks about it. They put seashells in Hampton Court. Inside the floorboards. The Archbishopric of Canterbury has existed as an office for more than 900 years. But your idea of history is John Wayne movies. Basically, you can't wait to get to Amsterdam - it doesn't sound like it's for real, but drugs are legal there. You will book your flight in the morning. And then there's always Euro Disney.-