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The Death of Travel Writing

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The city I love is in Eastern Europe, but other than that shall remain nameless. I hope you won’t be able to guess from this article.

Because travel writing is dead. What was once a pioneering report from the frontline about a place we would (probably not) be lucky to go once in a lifetime is now simply an invitation to blunder off on a cheap flight and impose all your values on the few remaining places not homogenised by an influx of travel readers.

The city I love wears a threadbare cardigan from one of its many secondhand shops. It wears its poverty on its sleeve, not intentionally like some rich kid London slummer, but like an alcoholic battered wife on the long slow road to recovery. Dignified as the bruises heal.

The city I love has a McDonalds of course. It had closed last time I was there, prompting a naïve leap in my heart until the refurbishment sign came into view. It also has a new shopping mall, is building a shiny new hotel and is expanding the (presently tiny) airport as more cheap flights begin to target it. The mechanical diggers of ‘progress’ loom into sight like Martians in War Of The Worlds.

But for now, the city I love is still largely untouched by the plague that has hit places like Prague. Close your mind and you could still be in the Cold War days, waiting for the Communist call. Now this I like.

In the five times I’ve spent here, I’ve been lucky enough to hear the English people / language only three brief times. With a heavy heart, I know it won’t last – like a snowdrop welcoming summer, the locals will welcome the tourists – they’ll welcome their money and what they perceive to be their glamour. Within ten years, English could become the main language and the city I love will look and feel more and more like Croydon.

Yes, the tourists are coming over the hill, and it’s enough to make me weep. So I’m certainly not going to hasten that process by naming the hill, lest travel writing speed up the death of any point to travelling in the first place. Put simply; if there are any places left worth writing about, then the last thing anyone should be doing is writing about them.

So, by way of consolation, let me give you a whistlestop tour of Brussels, as a whistlestop is surely all you’ll need. Brussels has a little fountain statue of a little boy peeing, surrounded by tourist shops selling related paraphernalia and chocolate, lots of chocolate. It’s near the only place truly worth seeing – the magnificent Grand Place, a square surrounded by awe-inspiring architechture. It also has a wonderful café restaurant called Falstaffs, which transports anyone with the slightest imagination back to the 1920s.

And unfortunately, that’s about it.

There was a beautiful moment: in a park on a bandstand on a blazing hot Saturday afternoon, a single clarinettist stood playing classical classics. All around people sat in silent contemplation, no doubt feeling the same cleansing of the soul as I was. Touched by some kind of purity, knowledge of beauty, in itself rare. Busking is the only honest music left.

On the subject of which, Brussels also has a Jacques Brel building, which provided the photograph for the banner on this page. And which was closed on a Sunday. So we walked over to the bar opposite only to hear them playing a tape of U2. Which is also enough to make me weep.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
George Berger’s latest book is The Story Of Crass. His previous one was a biography of The Levellers. His next one is under contemplation. He also fronts Flowers In The Dustbin and writes a blog from there.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 22nd, 2007.