Yesterday I put forward the idea that literature wasn't really about the art of fiction, or Booker prizes, or education, or examinations. It wasn't really even about keeping Malcolm Bradbury harmlessly employed as a professor. The art of fiction was all to do with tourism.
It sounds like a joke. I wish it were a joke. But the proof that it is not a joke lies in all those tourist maps of Britain which allure the visitor with such labels as " Hardy's Dorset "', " Shakespeare's Stratford ", " Wordsworth's Lake District ", " Jane Austen's Bath " and so on. The message is: You have read the book, now see where it was set ( or writ ). Well, in the case of Shakespeare, you probably haven't read the book but just pretend you have and we will do the rest....
There is hardly a spot in Britain which is not without some literary connection, whether with Walter Scott or Dickens or Kipling, and the marketing is measured out accordingly. Sometimes it goes tragically wrong. The town of Rye, I read, is divided bitterly between the supporters of Henry James and E F Benson, both of whom by bad management lived in the same house, though not simultaneously. The house seems to have fallen into the hands of Henry James supporters, who won't let the Benson supporters in. But of course I could be wrong. Maybe the tourist people in Rye have deliberately decided to stage a James v. Benson ding-dong as a way of attracting people...
People go to Laugharne on the Dylan Thomas trail, and they visit Lorna Doone country. They descend on obscure Welsh towns in the steps of George Borrow, or if they don't they damn well ought to. They may even for all I know go to Harrogate to inspect the hotel where Agatha Christie vanished or the bank where T S Eliot is said to have worked. (There might even be a connection between these two. Can one perhaps imagine Mr Eliot at the bank getting a call from a hotel in Harrogate and being asked if Miss Christie's cheque can be honoured, and Mr Eliot saying, rather worriedly, that she is actually a bit in the red at the moment, just as Miss Christie skips out of the hotel back door ...? I think one can.)
I don't think they have this sort of literary trail in other countries. Does any of us ever think of going off to pursue Proust's Paris or Cervantes's Spain? Do the French tourist people try to tempt us to Pierre Loti's Brittany or to Maupassant's Normandy? Not that I can remember. I once went to Pere Lachaise cemetery to spot Oscar Wilde's grave, but apparently it had been hit by a bomb in the War. Damn bad tourist management, I call that.
By contrast, I once spotted a plaque on the wall of a bank in Hyderabad, in India, the kind of plaque which is used by the British to commemorate the residence of a writer, and I crossed the street to read it, narrowly avoiding being run over by a buffalo. The plaque said: "In this branch of this bank, Mohammed Azruddin, the Indian batsman and captain, was for a while a cashier ".
So, in India, they honour living sportsmen while here we honour dead writers. Which is fair enough, as long as the market holds up and the product remains fresh. What worries me is that so few modern writers are being marked in on the tourist trail. Yes, a few people may go to Lyme Regis to see where John Fowles trod, or treads, rather, but why is London still Dickens's and not Martin Amis's? Where is the push for Fay Weldon's Somerset? Have there been no significant writers in Canterbury since Chaucer, for heaven's sake? Has there been nobody good in Bath since Jane Austen, who hated the place anyway? I once urged Bath City Council to commission some modern literature which showed Bath in an exciting light - in the wake of Chris Patten's exciting exit from Bath, I suggested getting Jeffrey Archer to turn the saga into a novel called " The Man From Conkwell " - but of course they took no notice.
And now the good news is that the Booker Prize has at last come to its senses and recognised that fiction is all about tourism and have decided to give the prize to Roddy Doyle. One can almost see the travel posters already - Come to Doyle's Dublin! Take a vacation in Commitments country....!
He won' t be the first Doyle to make it big on the tourist trail, of course. People are still flocking to 221B Baker Street on the trail of Conan Doyle's detective. And I suppose in a way it's a pity that we in Britain won't benefit financially from Doyle's Dublin being put on the map, and you might say that James Joyce had already done more for tourist traffic in Dublin than Melvyn Bragg ever did for Carlisle, but still - well done, Booker Prize! I take it all back. You've come to your senses at last. You've realised it's all about tourism, not literature.
oct 28 1993