God be with the days when we knew our place, vis-à-vis tourists.
Our place in Ireland was to sell them postcards of little boys and girls with artificially reddened hair, standing outside thatched cottages filling the panniers of their donkey with potatoes. Our equivalent, in Venice or Rome, concentrated on convincing female tourists that they were the most beautiful human ever to float along their canals or walk their historic streets.
Somewhere along the line, everything changed. In the caves at places such as Lascaux, those in charge of the prehistoric drawings and their presentation to millions of tourists began to have second thoughts.
Second thoughts about encouraging that number of modern visitors to breathe heavily on artwork that for millennia went unbreathed-on. All that condensation mightn’t be good for the big bulls and the stick-figure humans. When this was first articulated by the curators, it was felt to be just a little over the top. Until photographic evidence proved massive deterioration in some of the drawings and caused local tourist promoters to try to figure out ways of coping with the unintended damage caused by visitors they desperately needed.
Variants on the Lascaux doubts began to surface everywhere in the last ten years. Tourists began to be seen as a double-edged sword. On one hand, they brought money. On the other, they breathed on things, willy-nilly. Or nicked souvenirs out of the walls of tottery buildings.
Or made the canals of Venice even more putrid than they naturally are. Or destroyed the Trevi Fountain in Rome by jumping in it, having first mucked up the Spanish Steps in the same city by sitting down to eat sandwiches on them.
Part of this new censoriousness comes from the behaviour of tourists. Historic venues are weighing up the financial gain of the equivalent of a concentration of stag parties against the damage done to what first attracted the stags. Most of the problem comes, however, not from behaviour, but from the sheer numbers, congregated into perhaps eight weeks of the European summer. Way too many people traipsing through locations built for way fewer people.
Last week, I was in Edinburgh for the Tattoo. A tattoo is a celebration of military music, uniforms, explosive cannon fire, and precision marching. Heaven. Show me a brass band made up of red coats, bearskin hats, and shiny boots (or spats), playing tribal threats and musical declarations of war, goaded on by sergeant majors bellowing instructions nobody can understand, and a great sense of peace comes over me.
All went well until, too late to do anything about it, I learned that the Tattoo is not a standalone event, but an integral part of the Edinburgh Festival, which combination turns a small, elegant city into a teeming infestation of humans from every part of the world.
The Tattoo alone attracts just under a quarter of a million attendees a year, and the Festival countless more. The end result is a town overwhelmed with visitors, blocked solid with tour buses and decorated with stacked-up riot barriers everywhere.
Visualise the following. Take one tall bloke dressed to the nines with a tartan cloak fetchingly falling away from one shoulder, his tartaned legs ending in spats — spats being those white buttoned shoe covers that should never have died out as a fashion item and been preserved only in military uniforms.
Put a bagpipe under the bloke’s arm and position him up against a wall on a busy street. Put a kind of a flattened-out black doctor’s bag, wide open, six feet away from him on the edge of the pavement into which passersby can cast their pennies. Now, let him start playing and the passersby start passing by, and that is the point at which the passersby make one of two choices, each of them bad.
The first is that some of them respectfully stop to listen to the music. The others either cannon into them or have to make a wide half-circle around him, his money bag, and the onlookers. What’s that you say? True. Now that you point it out to me, I realise that the first bad-choice-makers didn’t stop to listen to the music at all.
They stopped to make mobile phone videos of him playing the music in order to bore the ass off relatives and friends when they went home. Some of them did it backwards, using selfie sticks.
So Captain Spats is playing away, halfway up a street which belongs in a Spielberg movie of 19th century Scotland, all cobbles and with a steeper incline to it than the south face of Everest, creating traffic and moral chaos to a level that makes the Dunkettle Roundabout look like a triumph of traffic management.
It is at this point that sturdy fearless women in hi-vis waistcoats arrive and start yelling:
They have such an inborn air of authority that nobody stops and says: “Tell me how. How the hell do you expect that number of people to walk on a narrow footpath?”
Add the possibility that one human being might be present who neither wants to listen to Captain Spats — no offence to him and his piping — nor go down the hill, which is what the overwhelming majority of those present want to do.
This poor fool has a desire to get to the top of the street. Given the terrifying oncoming wave of humans coming toward them, unless they’re a dead ringer for the Incredible Hulk, they’re not going to make it.
It would be like arguing with an oncoming avalanche. They’re not going to even try. Instead, they’re going to convince themselves that going sideways and nipping down seven hundred steps of a laneway will bring them to an alternative route which is not filled with tourists.
It doesn’t, but turns out, pleasingly, to be named the Miss Jean Brodie Steps. The reasons most of the myriad of foreigners were in Edinburgh conflicted with the enjoyment by others of the reasons they were there.
So, just as the hi-vis traffic bullies would sort the queue for the Tartan Weaving Experience so that it didn’t get in the way of tattoo-goers climbing the incline to Edinburgh Castle, six of the hop-on/hop-off buses would arrive, disgorging scores of newcomers.
In fairness, everybody was incredibly courteous to everybody else. The atmosphere was good- humoured. And, because of proximity, you got to listen to a wild variety of languages and the occasional snippet of new stuff, like the fact that tartan socks were found on a mummy who died three thousand years ago, thousands of miles from Scotland.
Which might make you assume, for just one mad moment, that a version of the Edinburgh Festival and Tattoo existed, back then, and that Cherchen man — a definite Celt, even if you don’t count the socks — crossed Europe to farthest China to get away from the tourist crowds. Captain Spats is playing bagpipes halfway up a street which belongs in a movie, all cobbles, and steeper than the south face of Everest