Something to Declare
You won't find authenticity in a model village
Sunday 22 July 2012
Having seemed intent on destroying Tibetan culture, the Chinese government recently announced that it intends to invest the equivalent of £40m in creating model villages in Tibet for tourists to enjoy. They will no doubt be filled with actors playing pliant Buddhist monks, happy housewives and laughing children. Grim as this particular idea may be – and it comes after foreigners were banned from visiting Tibet, following months of protests and a series of self-immolations – the notion of "model villages" is an old one.
We have all seen them: many Cotswold idylls have a touch of the "model" about them: tarted-up, polished, cleaned and made to look "authentic". For we have gently nibbled away over the years at our villages, and many are no longer viable as working communities; our inauthentic economic system has sought to destroy them.
Some cruise lines have even bought their own model islands, rather than release their charges ashore to spend money in other people's shops and restaurants. Norwegian Cruise Lines pioneered the idea with the purchase of Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas in 1977. Disney claimed its corner of Bahamian paradise with Castaway Cay, while Carnival snapped up part of the island of Eleuthera as Princess Cays and renamed Little San Salvador Island as Half Moon Cay. Royal Caribbean's bit of the Bahamas is Coco Cay, and the line has also grabbed a fragment of Haiti called Labadee. At each of these locations, the passengers pretend to be ashore on a living, breathing island, and spend their time and money in the company shops and on the company jet skis.
In the same parade of the inauthentic I would place chain hotels and chain restaurants: indeed chain anything. Everyone recognises the phenomenon, and it's enough to ignite a longing for more authenticity in travel.
I have spent a lot of time looking for people and places that have refused to bow to the grim inauthenticity of our age. We all know splendid people doing their own thing in their own wonderful way. In the case of many of our B&B owners and others, they hold principles dear and stick to them. If good food matters, then they raise their own chickens and grow their own wheat and vegetables. They buy from their local shops, support their communities, go "slow", enjoy what they love and what makes them feel whole.
Philosophers have long enjoyed wrestling with the concept of authenticity. I think W H Auden helped a little with these words: "Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about." But I leave the last word to Margery Williams Bianco in her children's story, The Velveteen Rabbit: "Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand." She got it in one.
Alastair Sawday is founder of Sawday's, the guide to special places to stay in the UK and Europe. See sawdays.co.uk.
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