Notice the revised subtitle of this blog? Elixir is no longer about ‘Reflective and Creative Writing’, but ‘Footnotes from the Third Age’. What does that mean? Why footnotes?
Footnotes are important. (1) They are the tracings of other minds leading us to new information or supporting the author’s argument. Now days we talk about disappearing down the rabbit hole that is the internet, following link after link, creating our own tracings as we follow a chain of ideas, meeting minds more lucid, more adventurous than our own, or straying into savage, unseemly brambles.
Our mind is the seat or faculty of reason. It is also responsible for our thoughts and feelings, but it is also capricious, fickle and mercurial, which I believe is one of the best things about having a mind. Changing our mind often starts with questions like, ‘What if …? Maybe I should try …? Perhaps I’ll give it another …?’ Then a friend shares an insight, we exchange ideas and what was an irritating, unanswered uncertainty becomes … a footnote?
I’m not saying the Third Age is a footnote to life; the Third Age is more important than that. But I’ve had footnotes take me on unimaginable adventures. Maybe a revived Elixir will be my footnote, my indelible nota bene for others to reference?
What do you think?
(1) Footnotes and endnotes are both ways to add clarifying information into a document. They provide important details with which the reader may be unfamiliar.
This is Elixir’s last post. My decision to quit blogging comes from long consideration and research into why people abandon their blogs. Like many others, I found the routine of writing a regular post onerous and I have also lost interest in my topic.
Blogging is a new genre with its own sub genres, literary styles and rules. The expectations of both readers and bloggers are different to the expectations of novelists or short story writers, and their readers. Authors usually encounter their readers through letters or emails, writing festivals or book launches and although most modern authors acknowledge the writer/reader relationship is more embodied and frequent than in the past, bloggers depend on ongoing, long term and immediate responses from their readers/subscribers.
I began this blog because I wanted to find such an audience – and, thanks to my subscribers I have – but blogging is a reciprocal art; a successful blogger is also an avid reader of other blogs, something I didn’t know before I started this blog. Networking is an extrovert’s idea of heaven but I’ve become more introverted in the last three years, so networking is my definition of hell. I’ve also discovered that the upside of the close and direct writer/reader relationship is immediate and honest feedback, while the downside is the temptation to write for the audience, instead of writing from the heart, or taking artistic and creative risks.
I also prefer reading books than blogs, and as I’ve only ever written one letter to a novelist (a friend of mine) I am not invested in contacting every writer I admire. Keeping up with other blogs steals time I prefer to spend reading books, writing flash fiction and short stories and working on my novel.
I’ve been blogging for two and a half years, the recommended period for giving a blog a ‘good try’. I once looked forward to writing my blog; I now find it a chore akin to driving to work or attending a meeting out of habit rather than necessity.
I will continue to write. As regular readers of Elixir know, I’ve written all my life, but only recently called myself a writer who spends her days writing. I am working on several short stories, a novel, two ideas for a play, and an essay. What I am working on may never find readers, but that’s not the point. At the risk of sounding pretentious – oh, what the heck, I don’t care if I sound pretentious – it’s the artistic endeavour I enjoy. I love the act of fitting words together, composing appealing sentences, and forming clear, resolute and provocative thoughts and ideas that excite me. Blogging no longer fulfils that need.
As the title of this post indicates, I don’t see starting and quitting this blog as a failure but an opportunity to grow and learn as a writer. I am moving on to a new phase of learning. I am not sure what that entails but I’m excited by the prospect.
In this last blog I want to acknowledge my generous readers, particularly Cheryl over at Impromptu Promptlings and Peculiar Ponderings, my dear friend C who inspired this blog and my partner who encouraged me and edited my posts. You have challenged and inspired me; your friendships are like charming, pleasant and challenging sentences that give me pause and spur me on. I will forever cherish your support.
Thanks also to my other readers and to the bloggers whose posts I have read. I am sorry if I did not always respond to what you wrote but I have enjoyed your blogs and wish you joy with your writing.
Meghan imagines Simon and Petra sitting together in the café on the avenue where the Jacaranda bloom.
‘Just friends,’ Simon assures Meghan, ‘we are just friends. We talk about work; she knows work is our focus. I’m mentoring her. She’s bright, she’ll do well. If Petra was a Peter you wouldn’t worry.’
‘She,’ says Meghan, ‘is younger than me, she is beautiful, she is vulnerable and she doesn’t know your history.’
Simon holds up his left hand, the white gold ring on his ring finger a thin shield. ‘I have changed. You know that,’ he says.
Meghan imagines Simon and Petra’s heads bent together, discussing work over half filled cups of coffee and a single white plate, empty except for cake crumbs and two cream smeared cake forks that sit on the side of the plate.
‘You told her, you told me, you had “feelings” for her,’ says Meghan.
‘I was trying to be honest to all of us,’ Simon says, ‘you most of all, to myself and to her, of course. She’s not threatened. She knows I will never act on my feelings. I’ve changed.’
He says, ‘I’ve changed,’ again and Meghan imagines a phalanx of men holding aloft torches that flare like lies as Simon, on a high podium, shouts ‘I’ve changed,’ into a microphone. The men roar back at him, ‘You’ve changed, you’ve changed,’ their arms in stiff accord, their torches assaulting the darkened sky.
Meghan imagines Petra crying in the café where the Jacaranda bloom. Petra weeps often, especially when Simon is with her; there is always something happening at work, something that upsets her. People are mean, they don’t understand her. She works at a different pace to others, she talks to customers differently, she respects people. That’s why Simon has feelings for her, why he watches her working at her desk, a Botticelli nymph, Simonetta Vespucci captured and in thrall to a computer. Her gaze is dreamlike, her lips are slightly pursed as she caresses the mouse and produces delicate, diaphanous, vaguely decadent images for her clients. ‘Sure,’ says Simon when he comes home from work, ‘she takes longer than others to finish her projects but her clients are always happy. She is the real thing, Meghan,’ he says. ‘An artist.’
And so Simon supports her, that’s all, nothing more. And if Petra phones him at ten of an evening, in tears, he walks away from Meghan to soothe Petra. He doesn’t leave the room but turns the television sound down, so he can hear Petra’s laments, reedy and importunate, over his mobile. ‘It’s all out in the open, isn’t it?’ he says to Meghan when he has finished consoling Petra. He turns up the television, he goes to bed with Meghan, he makes love to Meghan because it is Meghan he lives with.
Meghan imagines Simon and Petra, smiling at each other over the coffee cups, talking about work, their hands not touching, their eyes neutral the way friends’ eyes are neutral, their laughter light and convivial, like friends’ laughter. And then she imagines the intimate, fearless opposite, as if a puckish movie maker has infiltrated her mind and he’s filmed two different scenes that run over and over, a hellish loop of ‘this is what it is, this is what it could be’ until Meghan doesn’t know what is what.
Meghan imagines Simon and Petra leaving the coffee shop, the dropped Jacaranda petals an imperial tide lapping their ankles. She imagines them hugging, because that’s what friends do even if one of them has “feelings”, and the other one knows, because we live in such a modern, such a civilized, such a sophisticated era where hugs are the neologism of the age.
Meghan scans the internet, another neologism, and reads, ‘It is best, when in a relationship, to keep your feelings for other people in check. Even a Platonic friendship calls for time and energy, which is energy stolen from your wife or your husband.’
Meghan imagines her relationship, a Charybdis into which her time, her energy, her precious work, drains. She wonders if she should phone her lawyer or finish the portrait she’s worked on for months. She decides to complete the portrait and then she will phone the lawyer.
2017 is almost done. Some of us may already be preparing for Christmas, others will be looking forward to the holidays and warmer weather (here in the Southern Hemisphere anyway) and many of us will start to reflect on the achievements and lessons of 2017, and the promises and challenges of 2018.
Normally I spend the final days of December reflecting on the past year but I’m starting early. It has been a good year, mostly because of the trip to Europe. Everything about where my partner and I went, what we did, who we met and the adventures and misadventures we experienced, was exceptional. I have suffered, however, middling health for most of the year. A cough I developed on the first of January lasted around eighty days. I hurt my back six weeks before we travelled to Europe and in recent weeks an as yet undiagnosed condition has dogged me. None of this dimmed the joy we experienced while away but for most of 2017 I’d have preferred to lie on a couch, read a good book or doze.
It’s been a while since I’ve felt like writing, let alone had the energy to sit in front of a computer. Elixir, Concise, my novel-in-progress and numerous drafts of short stories have been ignored, apart from the odd moment when I lifted my head from my book, felt guilty about not having written anything then hastily turned the page and read on. This adds to my usual struggle with sticking to a writing routine so I decided, not long after we arrived home from the trip, to return to notebooks to jot down ideas, record my thoughts and even use coloured pens and pencils to highlight and illustrate my musings.
I went back to pen and paper because writing was no longer a pleasurable activity. Despite my best intentions, blogging became a process of second-guessing my readers and how they might judge what I write. In other words, I stopped writing from my heart. Going back to basics, writing by hand and playing with coloured pencils helped me rediscover the joy of writing. It seems that poor health was really a gateway to a under-developed creative path.
What does this mean for Elixir and Concise? I cannot maintain two separate blogs, which is why Concise will be retired and the flash fiction stories from that blog will reappear on Elixir, on the page once labelled ‘Sparks’ and now relabelled ‘Concise.’ I will continue to post pieces of flash fiction but as an adjunct to Elixir.
Elixir itself has changed appearance and will be more of an occasional blog rather than something that must be attended to every two to three days.
I recently turned sixty-five, which in Australia was once the age when one officially retired from the paid workforce. I don’t feel old in heart or mind. The insecurities of youth and the challenges of maintaining harmonious relationships still hound me. I also play games with my granddaughter, which means getting down on the floor or kicking a ball with her in the backyard. This year my body has sent me several strong messages; instead of spending hours in front of a computer I need to exercise more, meditate and eat regularly, and get enough sleep. That way, after spending time with the people I love, I will have the energy to write.
What is your experience? Do you have a habit of reflecting on the past year? Is November or December the best time for you? How do you stay healthy so you can do what gives you joy?
Back in late September, when I shared Ben Brooker’s blog, Kate’s Words, I suggested Ben give me a word and I’d try to ‘refresh my writing muscles’. The suggestion is I write for thirty minutes, musing on the word – which in this case is knots – and share what emerges. Okay, here goes …
… R D Laing published Knots in 1970. I tried but failed to read the book in the middle seventies, when I was first married. I failed because … well the text tied me in knots and my life then – as now – was rather knotty anyway, so I felt unable to see the book through to the end.
I wrote a poem a decade and a half later, titled, I think, ‘Rope’. It alluded to the ribald habit ropes have in snapping at your ankles and tripping you up. Maybe I’ll go back to it later this month and turn it into a Flash Fiction, which is something I’ve done with several of my old poems. This is cannibalising one’s writing and has little to do with knots, though it might explain why some of my Flash Fiction lacks a distinct narrative.
Free writing can get knotty too, because when you let the mind wander – the purpose of free writing – the mind, like a rope, can turn in and around on itself, twisting neurons and crimping axons, leading to nowhere or worse, allowing it to form its own connections, risking aberrant, gratuitous or self-destructive thoughts, like ‘Why am I doing this, I am usually so structured and planned? I don’t like this …’
… See what I mean?
Have you ever tried to undo a knot in a gold or silver chain? It’s not easy (see what I did there?). When I cleaned out my mother’s jewellery drawer I found most of her chains tangled into a ball. The week I cleaned the house, the week my father joined my mother in the ‘Aged Care Facility’, was unseasonably hot at well over forty degrees Celsius. I remember sitting on their bed and looking at the tangled ball of gold and silver and wondering how on earth I could separate them. That the ball symbolised my often difficult relationship with my parents was not lost on me and perhaps I applied myself to the task because of that; by separating the chains maybe I could prepare myself for my parents’ inevitable demise, something that happened only three years later, in my father’s case, and eight months after that, in my mother’s. I only ever managed to untangle the ball of chains, I could never address the disarray that was our relationship.
I kept some of those chains. I wear them occasionally and admit I am, like my mother, careless when I remove them and put them away. Will my children have to untangle my necklaces when it is time for me to move on?
From the knotted peculiarity of Laing, to my early poems, to the gnarled vagaries of my mind and on to my mother’s tangled, sometimes twisted hold on me I have come, perhaps inevitably, to my own demise, to the day when I must untie the knot that secures my hold on life. Maybe I should find a copy of Knots? Perhaps, at my current stage of life, I will understand it better than I did when I was a callous, untried girl?
Afterword: I could not help myself – I edited this piece but only so I could eliminate any convoluted sentences.
Four days ago I posted the last of twelve pieces of flash fiction on Elixir’s sister site, Concise. I enjoyed the exercise although I gleaned only a few more followers for Concise. Attracting more readers was not, however, the point of the exercise. My purpose was to (re)establish a daily writing habit.
The abiding theme of my life is my struggle to write on a regular basis. I understand what I need: willpower; a room of my own; the cognitive, emotional and psychological space needed to write; and the self-belief necessary to shut the door on my partner, my family and my friends. I also need to combine the above with imagination, knowledge of craft and technique, and a vast reading history – because good writers read for pleasure and to learn from other writers. It’s all about commitment, really, and to commit is to ‘join, practise, entrust,’ and to ‘expose to risk. ‘ (OED).
To write, particularly to write and publish (in whatever form) can be risky. Is it acceptable, for example, for writers risk their relationships when no one reads what they write or don’t like the writer’s work?
I wonder how many writers have lost sleep over that question?
On the other hand, I read, many years ago, that if writing is hard then not writing is harder. Writing, like any art, always carries with it a degree of difficulty. The hours can be long, the loneliness alienating, the editing debilitating and the lack of financial return demoralising. Writers are known for ignoring their loved ones, compromising their health, and agonizing over book sales or their blog’s statistics.
But the alternative – not writing – is to risk losing your soul.
I committed to writing late in life. I tried and failed for years to avoid the truth of my obsession with stringing words together. So, yes, writing and posting twelve short, short stories has been worthwhile, not only because it helped me re-establish a regular daily writing habit but because it helped me reflect, once more, on why I enjoy writing, and it has nothing to do with gathering vast numbers of readers or followers.
In writing, a ‘theme’ is the underlying significance of the story or novel, its relevance, how it relates to life in all its manifestations. I was wrong when I said, above, that the abiding theme of my life is my struggle to write on a regular basis. I understand now that the underlying theme of my life has been avoiding risk.
This reminds of my favourite quotation, one I’d print out and display in various office spaces I worked in over the last thirty years:
Risk! Risk anything! Care no more for the opinions of others, for those voices. Do the hardest thing on earth for you. Act for yourself. Face the truth.
New Zealand author (1888 – 1923)
Mansfield’s quotation gradually helped me ignore my fears; I am a writer because I enjoy, most of the time, the complex and often troublesome task of communicating my ideas. I have also found that acting for myself is worth the risk.
What is the ‘theme’ of your writing life? What do you give up in order to write?
I don’t normally share or reblog posts but today I want to encourage you to have a look at my friend and colleague, Ben Brooker’s, new blog, Kate’s Words, and then go over to Brevity and see what they’re up to.
Ben is a respected critic, essayist, playwright and author of many published short stories and poems. Several of his reviews are featured on his original blog, Marginalia. Given his interests, Ben’s writing style is invariably precise, rigorously researched, and intellectually subtle and balanced. In Kate’s Words, Ben plans to slough off scholarly strictures and relax his writing muscles. I’m eager to see what his blog produces and very tempted to follow his lead. I also like the premise – have a friend send you a word and free write on the word to see what emerges.
Because I cannot find a definition of ‘free writing’ in my normally trusty Oxford English Dictionary (Grrr, OED) I have to resort to Wikipedia, which defines free writing as
a prewriting technique in which a person writes continuously for a set period of time without regard to spelling, grammar, or topic. It produces raw, often unusable material, but helps writers overcome blocks of apathy and self-criticism. It is used mainly by prose writers and writing teachers.
This article gives you a deeper idea of what freewriting is and the angst often connected with trying to do it in the classroom. I admire Ben’s willingness to share his free writing because I am usually a bit ‘precious’ about what I write. As Peter Elbow writes in his article,
I’m a bit ambivalent about shared or public freewriting. On the one hand
I tend to avoid it in favor of private writing. For I find most people’s writing has suffered because they have been led to think of writing as something they must always share with a reader; thus we need more private writing. On the other hand I love the sharing of freewriting – for the community of it and for the learning it produces. It’s so reassuring to discover that unplanned, unstudied writing is worth sharing.
‘Toward a Phenomenology
of Freewriting’, p 52.
So, Ben, if you’re reading this, send me a word and I’ll try to be brave enough to share one piece of unplanned, unedited, raw work.
This allows me to segue into the second blog I wish to share, Brevity, a favourite of mine because it features (carefully edited) short creative nonfiction, sometimes known as narrative nonfiction. Brevity recently celebrated its 20th anniversary and it’s currently running a series of fascinating blogs where, as Shane Borrowman the editor of The <750> Project explains, four authors
return to a previous publication and take on the task of either shortening their piece or expanding it.
Asking writers to modify a previous article is a bold move, and the writers are to be admired because of their willingness to do so publicly. It is also a brilliant way to help beginning writers, indeed all writers, improve and enhance their practice. I hope you take the time to check it out. The first example can be found here.
In the meantime, over at Elixir’s sister blog Concise, I have stuck to my routine of writing and posting a piece of flash fiction every two days. I’ve posted five stories and there’s two more to go; I cannot continue the project indefinitely because running two blogs and sending other pieces to competitions is about as much as I can handle at the moment. I have, however, really enjoyed the exercise and I hope you’ve enjoyed the stories.
What do you think of Ben’s method for loosening up his writing? What is your favourite writing prompt or activity? What do you think of Brevity’s <750> Project? Have you ever tried to shorten or lengthen a piece of writing? How did it feel and what did you learn?
During my recent trip and since my return, Concise, my companion blog has languished. To remedy this, and to exercise my ‘writing muscles’, I plan to post, every second day for fourteen days, one of my short, short stories on Concise. Yes, I hope to attract more readers to the blog but I also need to reboot my daily writing practice and maybe this method will inspire me and intrigue others.
Please go on over to Concise and take a look. I’d appreciate it if you share my stories with your readers, comment on the tales either here or on Concise (writers love feedback, particularly if it is constructive), and subscribe to Concise. If you write short stories or Flash Fiction, drop me a line, I’d love to have more guest bloggers, or perhaps write a post/short story for your blog.
I don’t plan to preempt all of my stories, but today’s post on Concise is, I think, about a woman who learns how to commit herself. I hope you enjoy it.
In my last post, I described my discomfort with the travel industry. While researching the topic I discovered criticism of the industry is not new. In 1959, German poet Hans Enzensberger wrote an article addressing the issue of travel as an ‘experience’. This post will attempt to summarise the article.
Enzensberger begins by outlining the development of tourism, including the first appearance of the word ‘tourism’ in dictionaries. He is particularly interested in how tourism is mythologized as a ‘metaphysical’ experience when it was, originally, an exclusive enterprise that pandered to a selective group of people clamoring for an historical, untrammeled, romanticised, pristine experience of, as Enzensberger calls them, carefully selected ‘sights’. He argues that travel is a by-product of the bourgeois/ capitalistic endeavor, designed for the benefit of the few, who believe they have a ‘right’ to crisscross the planet at whim, to the detriment of the many whose rights are deferred. Eventually, the ‘privileged’, wealthy tourists were joined by ‘emancipated citizens’ who, although restricted in both capital and time, nevertheless flooded the tourism industry. This has been achieved in three different ways: standardization, packaging and serial production. Standardization is a result of the emergence, in the 19th century, of ‘travel books’, which encouraged travelers to perceive, and venues to package, certain ‘sights’ as highly significant. Standardization creates ‘obedient tourists’ who visit sights ‘produced’ as tourist venues.
‘Packaging’ is the assembly of a set of specific experiences and venues. When it proved too expensive to create packages for every individual the ‘serial production’ of collective experiences, otherwise known as cruises and guided tours, emerged. Taken together, these three techniques drive an industry that markets ‘inexpensive’ destinations while eliminating the risk that tourists will stray off the predetermined, mass-produced and designated trail. It does not, however, address the needs of residents who live in cities, not ‘destinations’, and who resent the seasonal, mass intrusion of thousands of people into their country and lifestyle.
Given the significance of such locations to the packaged product, tourism, claims Enzensberger, is little more than the political, social, technological, intellectual, cultural and environmental ‘homogenization of space’. I interpret this to mean that most tourist sites are mere parodies, frozen facsimiles of what they once were, little more than fantasy images on a postcard tourists purchase or the photos they snap, instead of unique, organic locations open to change and renewal.
Enzensberger also addresses the ‘adventure holiday’, which, he claims ‘allies itself with the methods of competitive sports.’ A form of heroic tourism reminiscent of Odysseus’ journey back to Ithaca, the adventure holiday provides access to ‘untramelled’ locations, effectively eradicating their ‘undiscovered’ value. Enzensberger’s article was written in 1959, but this concept of ‘lifeseeing,’ or ‘observing the way the people one visits really live,’ eerily prefigures the growth of Airbnb, where tourists eschew large and impersonal chain hotels for the opportunity to stay in a real home with ‘real’ people. This, however, has brought its own problems and restores international hotel chains to their original position of ‘castles of the bourgeoisie’. Fifty plus years before its creation, Enzensberger also foreshadows Facebook when he says,
it is not enough to experience what ideology has sold as the pristine and far away – one also has to publicize it. Those who stay at home demand that the adventures be recounted …
In 2017 neither tourists nor their families need to wait until they arrive home to recount their travel adventures; they can post photographs of the day’s ‘experience’ on Facebook thus verifying their privilege and reputation as travelers.
Enzensberger reminds us that while migration has always been a ‘biological and economic’ necessity, travel has not, historically, been a pleasure. Both, however, are closely associated with capitalism: travel through rampant advertising, the plethora of hotel chains and the marketing of museums, art galleries, and historical sites; migration through war, the premier fuel of capitalism. Is this is why people fleeing, for example, Syria, are labeled ‘economic refugees’? Does the idea, spurious though it might be, of tourism as pleasure blind us to the legitimate needs of people fleeing for their lives? How can we imagine refugees are seduced by the lure of exotic places and economic benefits when what they need is safety and time to grieve for lost homes and family members killed by the same capitalistic regime that casts tourist dollars across the planet?
I am aware that this post describes what Enzensberger calls ‘tourism’s clandestine disappointment’:
Despair is a familiar experience for tourists. Blindly, they grasp for the strongest means to dissipate boredom, well aware beforehand of the futility of their escape. Again and again they see through a deceptive freedom that is sold ready made, but refuse to admit the betrayal that has victimized them. They do not voice their dissapointment because the blame would not fall on the organizers of the trip but only on themselves. In the eyes of their friends, such a confession of defeat would amount to a social failure.
Enzensberger, A Theory of Tourism, pp. 134-135
Written in the late 1950s, Enzensberger’s article examines who benefits from the tourism industry and who is disadvantaged by it. More importantly, he asks that we examine how tourism shapes our perception of the world and ‘whether we have created it, or it has created us.’
These questions continue to be asked. In 2015, Elizabeth Becker described the growing criticism of tourism adding that in 2012 tourists made a billion trips abroad, bolstering an industry that adds ‘$7.6 trillion to the global economy.’ She concludes by noting that,
The United Nations World Tourism Organization projects that by 2030, global tourism will reach 1.8 billion trips a year. It is now so big that it will inevitably be part of conversations about climate change, pollution and migration. Without serious government attention, many beloved places will be at risk of being trammelled and damaged — what those in the tourism industry call being loved to death.
Should we, can we, reverse this trend? Are there better ways to experience the world? As TheGuardianrecently reported, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), which promotes ‘responsible, sustainable and universally accessible tourism’,
recommends a number of proven methods for managing crowds in destinations, such as encouraging tourists to visit beyond the central sights, diversifying tourist activities, reducing seasonality and, importantly, addressing the needs of the local community. The focus should not be, it says, on simply stopping tourists arriving.
The UNWTO has published a pamphlet listing a series of goals designed to achieve this end. The first is to
End poverty in all its forms everywhere: As one of the largest and fastest growing economic sectors in the world, tourism is well-positioned to foster economic growth and development at all levels and provide income through job creation. Sustainable tourism development, and its impact at community level, can be linked with national poverty reduction goals, those related to promoting entrepreneurship and small businesses, and empowering less favored groups, particularly youth and women.
The next time I contemplate spending my tourist dollar, I will try to keep this and the sixteen other sustainable development goals in mind. Unless we all commit to doing so, there may be no more tourist sites to visit.
My relationship with travel and tourism is complicated. My parents never expressed a desire to travel, I cannot remember waving farewell to extended family members heading overseas holiday, so the idea of travel was not part of my childhood. There’s no question that my recent trip to Europe was a powerful, pleasurable and deeply important experience but while writing the last few posts about the trip my discomfort with the politics of travel has rekindled. This is the first of two posts reflecting on tourism as a phenomenon. I intend to look outside my personal experience and examine the impact tourism has on the planet and on individuals’ lives.
I understand the human need to peek over the back fence, peer around the next corner or look past the horizon but when I read recently that everyone wants to travel I had to disagree. Some people like to travel, others are vagabonds for whom settling in one place is an anathema, but there are many who refuse to traipse around the world because they find planes, railway stations and sleeping in a different bed every night a challenge they cannot face.
Since my trip I fall into the crack between the two; I enjoyed and I disliked the experience at the same time. I believe this is normal. I also believe there are many ways a person can learn about the world and most of them do not require stepping past the front door.
A tour is ‘a journey for pleasure in which several different places are visited,’ but tourism is ‘the commercial organization and operation of holidays and visits to places of interest’. (OED) Despite the obvious distinction, tourism – visits to celebrated cities, art galleries, museums, sacred sites and geographical wonders – is usually described as a moral ‘good’ and ‘tourists’ as benign consumers of the world’s bounty. But is tourism always for the good?
Australians, in particular, feel the need to experience the wonders of the Northern Hemisphere. From the late fifties through to the seventies droves of Australian Baby Boomers made an almost obligatory pilgrimage to the United Kingdom and Europe. Many, who despite being born in Australia, declared they were ‘going home’, if only for a visit.
What are the personal and cultural advantages of wedging oneself into a plane and leaving the comforts of home for exotic, unfamiliar or ancient sites? I believe there are three main claims to support tourism:
Tourism exposes us to different cultures, beliefs, food, customs and ideas and creates a more informed, rounded individual. Travel enhances education and exposes us to different values, all of which leads to a better understanding of the self and of diversity
Humans need a holiday. They need to escape from the pressures of life, to relax and have someone cook and clean for them. This is tourism as a mental health break, something to anticipate and, more importantly, to earn
Tourism enhances the economy of a country or city. If tourists stop traveling, economies will suffer.
What counter claims can be made to the above?:
The idea that tourism is a form of education is all very laudable but it risks objectifying the ‘other’ as, different, odd, cute, or even strange, thus confirming the tourist’s superiority and belief that their way of life is ‘better’ than the one they witness when away from home. Is this the origin of many an Australian tourist’s comment, upon return from an overseas holiday, that, ‘We’re the lucky country, all right, you’ll learn that when you go overseas.’ Does tourism reinforce racial prejudice, commodify other cultures, and risk imposing white Anglo-Saxon lifestyles on others races, cultures and classes? The notion that, ‘you’ll be a more rounded, better informed, less insular person once you’ve traveled,’ makes me wonder how and why travel per se grants entry to the august club of ‘travel improved citizens’? If overseas travel were truly educative, why the need to advertise it? The claim that travel exposes us to other cultures begs the question, ‘What really drives a desire to travel? Is it self-enhancement or a form of cultural prestige? An airline ticket merely confirms that tourists have the skills to plan and organise a trip, the good fortune to work in an industry that provides vacation pay, and the means to afford an overseas holiday. It doesn’t automatically grant the individual an open, curious and reflective attitude to the countries they visit
A mental health break is certainly important but who caters to tourists’ needs while they escape the tribulations of everyday life? This question is better addressed by examining the third claim: tourism enhances the economy of the areas visited
Is the claim that travel is motivated by benevolence justified? Who actually benefits from the injection of tourist dollars into the economy? Is it the person who picks towels up from the hotel bathroom floor? The manager of a cheap resort in Bali? Or is it the company that owns the hotel chain? Does the tourist dollar go to the wait staff in a French restaurant or the Travel Agency who planned and managed the traveling experience? Does a visit to Thailand include considering the resort hotel’s impact on the local infrastructure and environment? Where does the rubbish left in hotel garbage bins end up? Next to the hotel, or in the rubbish dump behind the hill alongside the village where the hotel cleaner lives? And what about the carbon footprint incurred flying millions of tourists across the world?
While writing this post, I read that residents in Venice and Barcelona have declared they have had enough. The unrest incurred by tourism seems to be spreading, and may not be just a reaction to terrorism. In the next post, I will examine why some citizens of Europe are wary of the current state of the tourism industry.