JEREMY ATIYAH COLUMN
You can't package a burning, feverish passion for adventure into a guidebook...
Sunday 21 November 1999
"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.
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