Tuesday, November 9, 2010

British puzzles

 So, I have been living in London for about ten weeks now (not counting various forays abroad), and much as I am enjoying myself (and I am indeed!) there are still some foibles of the British that have me puzzled. Some things are just mildly puzzling (why do they drive on the left but stand on the right in the tube?); others are universal annoyances not confined to the British (the use of jargon: in today’s Guardian letters: “...it is possible to support Sure Start, EMA, FE and comprehensive education” – I hope that is not an example of the comprehensive education in question); still others are plain naff (political cartoonist Steve Bell depicts the Prime Minister with a condom on his head, complete with a little teat on the end). But now and then I come across a discussion which leaves me frankly bewildered.

Take the strange little furore that ignited when Lonely Planet brought out its list of ten great places to visit in 2011: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/egypt/sinai/travel-tips-and-articles/76174 Just for the record, they are:

1.       Sinai, Egypt
2.       Istrai, Croatia
3.       Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia
4.       Cappadocia, Turkey
5.       Westfjords, Iceland
6.       Shetland Islands, Scotland
7.       Great Barrier Reef and Whitsunday Islands, Australia
8.       West Coast, USA
9.       Chilean Patagonia
10.   Gili Islands, Indonesia

Now, what would you predict might be the reaction of the people of a place which rated a mention on this list? After all, Lonely Planet is rather influential, and a tourism boost with its attendant economic benefits might be welcome. Some places might take a little pride in being selected in a ‘top ten’ list. Or there might conceivably be a reaction against the list because the locals want the place to remain ‘hidden.’ None of these understandable reactions was evident from the British press. Instead, the inclusion of the Shetland Islands was considered “bordering on the deeply patronising”   ???????

Just so you know where Shetland is.

I quote from Lesley Riddoch’s column in the Guardian on 3 November:

Of course Shetland is beautiful in a (very) windswept way...But that’s true of almost all the outer islands in Scotland – the scenery and living cultural tradition is unbeatable. And while it’s always great to bathe in the limelight, it’s even better to get the focus right.

So is she arguing that the Shetlands should not have been on the list because they are too windswept? Is ‘limelight’ a bad or good thing?

Lonely Planet contributor Tom Hall, who singled out the islands after summer visits last year, argued: “We are seeing a return to wild tourism...There’s that ‘nobody you know has been here’ element to visiting Shetland. This might just be the last untamed corner of the United Kingdom.”

Note the pejorative words ‘singled out’, ‘argued’. Surely poor old Tom was trying to give a boost to the place, not run it down? But Lesley becomes even more offended:

This borders on the deeply patronising, and mines a long and irritating tradition of northern places being “discovered” by southern folk – who invariably conduct their researches during the summer and on expenses, so the blood-curdling price of air and ferry transport doesn’t dampen their exotic revelation.

Can anyone explain to me what it is that has deeply offended this columnist? Because I can’t figure it out. She goes on to talk about the difficulties of living on remote islands. Perhaps she wants development not wilderness?

This might sound churlish [it does, Lesley] but do we want “wild” places or functioning ones? So do such accolades help locals voice their needs? Or are they double-edged swords – awards that demand feelings of gratitude towards southern benefactors as day-to-day problems are swept swiftly under the “untamed” carpet?

“Feelings of gratitude towards southern benefactors”? Lonely Planet? Gawd.

Shetland coastline. Looks pretty damn gorgeous to me.
In the same issue, the Guardian editorialised on the same subject. The editor took a different tack altogether, but was equally ungrateful. And perhaps we find here a little clue to the antagonism towards Lonely Planet:

The company caused predictable and unjust astonishment by including the Shetland Islands at number six. But why only Shetland? The British Isles include many others that are just as good but which have been overlooked, so far, by Australian guidebook publishers in search of a media plug.

Ahh! I see! Lonely Planet is Australian. We can’t be seen to be in any way ‘grateful’ to it then. That would be unbecoming to the role of coloniser, or something. Anyway, not on, old chap. Apart from anything else which might be said about this narky little comment in the editorial, there is the point that in October 2007 the British company BBC Worldwide, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the BBC, acquired a 75% share in Lonely Planet.  http://www.lonelyplanet.com/about/ Which only deepens the puzzle, doesn’t it?

As to the other islands that the editor thought should have been included in the list (ten places in the world to list and twelve of them should be British Isles?) I will mention them, because all this kerfuffle doesn’t in anyway put me off wishing to go and explore the “wild” and windswept northern islands, and it is a good geography lesson too:

Isles of Scilly, especially St Agnes: lighthouse, beachside pub, a few cottages
Lundy in the Bristol Channel
Skomer, off West Wales
Rathlin Island, off Northern Ireland (Robert the Bruce hid in a cave here)
Jura – whisky and odd-shaped twin peaks called ‘the Paps’
Barra, in the Hebrides – planes land on the beach
Rockall (but it might not count as an island)
St Kilda – ‘lonely’
Horsey Island in Essex – ‘muddy’
Isle of Sheppey – ‘perhaps only for specialists’
Channel Islands - Fort Clonque off Alderney is cut off at high tide
Sark – gaze across to Brecqhou

I find this a very exotic and enticing list, although the descending order of merit reflected in the descriptions (from the ‘beachside pub ‘to ‘perhaps only for specialists’) may indicate a tongue somewhere in the region of the cheek.

Who would have thought that the British would be so mysterious? To an Australian? Hmm...perhaps that’s part of the problem.

On the other hand, the people who keep the official Shetland Islands website http://www.shetland.org/ seemed more conventionally chuffed at the inclusion of Shetland in the 'top ten'. After all, their job is to attract tourists and settlers. Amongst the interesting about Shetland they tell us that it has:

19 hours of midsummer daylight
138 sandy beaches
567 square miles of islands
639 miles of good roads
1697 amazing miles of coastline
6,080 archaeological sites
6,000 years of history
22,000 people
54,000 gannets
200,000 puffins

I think I would like Shetland, and I appreciate Lonely Planet bringing it to my attention. I only hope the locals are friendly. And the ponies.
Shetland pony - you always wondered where
they came from, didn't you?
In another ‘amusing British anecdote’ I must tell you about the opera tickets I ordered from the English National Opera (‘La Boheme’). The tickets never arrived in the mail, and with no trouble at all the ENO helpfully reprinted them and I collected them from the box office (with the admonition that if any malefactors who had ‘intercepted’ the original tickets were to be found sitting in our seats, we should alert the usher. I was relieved that no such drama ensued). But today an envelope turned up, kindly marked ‘urgent’ by someone who had received it incorrectly. The ENO had correctly addressed it, but the Royal Mail http://www.royalmail.com/portal/rm had delivered it to Carlton Mansions in somewhere called Weston-Super-Mare, which has an entirely different postcode to St Pancras. The only thing that was the same in the two addresses was the apartment number. It is a pretty clever postal system (human or machine) that can find another three-digit apartment number in an entirely unrelated town with a different postcode, and deliver my tickets to it. And apparently an apartment containing a theatre-goer who understood the urgency of the matter. Good heavens.

The delightful seaside resort of Weston-Super-Mare,
on the other side of the country, where my opera tickets
enjoyed an excursion.
And while we’re on the Royal Mail: the stamps here are not printed with their value. They just have names like “First Class Mail” or “Worldwide Postcard”. I’m just saying. 

I fond this amusing - and probably very useful - sign on
the blog of a disaffected Royal Mail customer

But lest you dismiss this blog post as a whinge about the dear old Brits, let me list some things I like about the British:
- The way they love their countryside (apparently it has been one of the prettiest autumns in years)
- The thought-provoking pub names (this week's favourite: "The Red Lion and Pineapple")
- Birkbeck College (George Birkbeck, the founder, believed that every citizen had the right to understand and contribute to scientific, economic and social change)
- Black cabs
- being able to fly direct from Heathrow to Phoenix, Arizona (which I am about to do)

Let me also say that I was pleased to get home to St Pancras yesterday after two wet days in Paris. Paris is divinely beautiful and has much better coffee, but St Pancras and Bloomsbury have managed to insinuate themselves sufficiently to feel like home. And you can’t ask more than that of a place, can you?

Images from:

1 comment:

  1. Of course some TV watchers have seen quite a bit of the islands of Britain already:
    http://www.itv.com/Lifestyle/MartinClunesIslandsofBritain/. I think I would like Sark.

    And as for driving on the left but walking on the right; that's correct. Took me a long time to get used to walking on the left again, sometimes I still forget. Not that it really matters in Canberra, there's enough space to walk wherever you want.