John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Is the Kremlin, that off-puttingly bleak and spiky fortress, really anyone's idea of something wonderful?'
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The Independent Online

I see there's much rejoicing, in neo-Druidic circles, at the news that Stonehenge has made it to the long list of the New Seven Wonders of the World. This is an idea cooked up in Zurich five years ago by one Bernard Weber, a Swiss "adventurer" and heritage restoration specialist. Out of 77 man-made structures, his New7Wonders project has selected 21, and is encouraging a global audience to phone in and vote for their favourite, to be revealed next July. Yes, I know it sounds like a massive premium-phone-rate scam, but it appears to be genuine. And it has tapped into one of the human race's favourite games.

People were listing the world's top physical attractions in the 2nd century BC. A chap called Callimachus of Cyrene, the chief librarian of the Alexandria Museum, wrote A Collection of Wonders Around the World - but, curses, we never knew what they were because the work perished when the library burnt down. A forerunner of Judith Chalmers and her travel-impresario breed was Antipater of Sidon, who produced the original list: Pyramids, Colossus of Rhodes, Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, Gates of Babylon, Hanging Gardens of same, Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Statue of Zeus at Olympia. It wasn't an entirely capricious selection - he was listing the most popular attractions as named in early guidebooks for Greek tourists. No Wonders were named outside the Mediterranean region simply because tourists didn't stray further afield, and easyJet and Ryanair were barely a twinkle in Antipater's eye. As time went on, the Lighthouse at Alexandria replaced the Gates of Babylon in the list, but by 1500, every one of the Wonders had been destroyed by earthquake or fire, except the Pyramids.

Now here's the Swiss adventurer asking us to nominate the New Seven Wonders, or rather, to choose from his nominations. But what a snore they are, his long list of 21. They include the Statue of Liberty (zzz), the Taj Mahal (zzzz), the Eiffel Tower (zzzzzzzzz) plus a few undoubtedly impressive sights, like Machu Picchu and the Great Wall of China. We must ask: is the Sydney Opera House just a smart piece of design and engineering, or a wonder of the world? Is the Kremlin, that off-puttingly bleak and spiky fortress, anyone's idea of something wonderful? And aren't we too grown-up, these days, to be impressed by big buildings, like goggling tourists in 206 BC?

The original wonders were built as symbolic celebrations of religion, mythology, art, power and science. After the Romantic concept of the Sublime took over, in the early 19th century, travellers were more inspired to wonder by natural scenes - the Grand Canyon, Angel Falls, Mount Fuji. Today, I suggest, the things we contemplate with wonder are everyday marvels, concepts, technology, things you can't easily photograph. I'd nominate the Channel Tunnel, for changing our whole spatial awareness of being European. I'd nominate the video-phone, which means Mr & Mrs Expatriate in Melbourne can see and hear their grandchild saying her first words in Hartlepool. If I can't have the whole internet (so much of it is far from Wonderful) I'll pick YouTube, for its endless display of the weirdness of modern life. If food can be a Wonder, I'll pick Ferran Adria's El Bulli restaurant in Barcelona and, if I must choose a dish, I choose his asparagus soup, whose essence is transformed from a liquid to a froth to an aerosol spray.

What else? Modern New World wine-making has long eclipsed French vinicultural practice, and reaches its zenith in the Australian McLaren Vale vintages, of which The Ironstone Pressings is definitely A Wonder, as far as I'm concerned. I cannot see how anyone could not nominate the PlayStation game Guitar Hero as a 24-carat marvel of total absorption. And lastly, though I expect it breaks some stuffy rule about having only inanimate creatures, I'd nominate the 24-year-old Russian model Natalia Vodianova, who seems to me to bring the whole business of human evolution to a pretty wonderful conclusion. Like the Great Wall of China, she can be contemplated at length, even if she can't be seen from space.

That's my seven. If you disagree hotly, or think Big Ben should be in here somewhere (yawn), drop me a line and I'll publish the best Wonders next week.


One thing puzzles me about the Madonna adoption business, and it's the baby's family. We've heard from Yohane, the father, who claims Madonna agreed to return David to their home in Malawi when he was old enough to do farming work, cleaning out the piggery and other activities for which several years of living with Mr & Mrs Ritchie will have prepared him. We've heard from David's uncle Wiseman Banda who says, "Our understanding as a family is that David is still part of and parcel of our clan. After the good woman nurtures and educates him, he will return back."

Isn't there something rather sophisticated about these Bandas, with their arguments about the minutiae of legal contracts? And isn't there something significant about the family name? It seems only yesterday that Malawi was run by Dr Hastings Banda, who made himself president for life in 1971, and whose opponents were regularly killed. (He also had strict notions about how women should be attired. Broadly speaking, he liked them to be dressed the exact opposite of Madonna's way.)

Can it be that these Bandas are made of the same tribal ruthlessness? Will a lawyer friend of the family discover that being granted "temporary adoption rights" means that Madonna is allowed only to be the child's educational sponsor for a few years before returning him to the tribe? I fear the lovely Madge may have adopted slightly more than she can chew.