When you’ve been diagnosed with cancer (a phrase I still can’t think of a good euphemism for, even though everyone I meet can think of a bad one),one of the most annoying books in the world suddenly turns out to be 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.
Have you come across this?
It’s a fat American paperback which lists a thousand of the most remarkable sights in the world, natural or man-made, from canyons to cathedrals.
We have had a copy of this book knocking around our hall for a year now, on the shelves where we tend to keep the travel guides. It was certainly there before the oncologist drew on his little black cap and pronounced sentence. Until that moment I quite approved of the idea of the book. Here we all were, with twenty or thirty more years to live, and it was about this time we started concentrating on using those fallow years to get to places we have been too lazy, poor or blasé to have a look at so far.
1,000 Places to See Before You Die.
Ha ha. But very useful, and full of ideas.
When I learnt I’d got cancer, the book suddenly looked very different.
1,000 Places to See Before You Die.
‘We know you are going to die,’ it seemed to say, ‘and we know you haven’t got anything like enough time to see a hundred worthwhile places, let alone a thousand, so you are up against it, aren’t you, pal? A lot of drastic choosing and travelling to do, haven’t you? You’re going to have to decide what to see next while you’re already en route to the previous place. And every time you browse through the book, trying to make up your mind, you’re wasting the time and chance to see somewhere. Get a move on, because while you sit there dithering… Oops- there goes the Taj Mahal!’
It would be immensely satisfying if I could round up a few fellow sufferers to mount a law suit against this preposterous volume, put together by one Patricia Schultz, and dubbed a ‘No.1 New York Times Bestseller’, on the grounds that it caused intense suffering to those who are about to die and haven’t a hope in hell of seeing all those places. Luckily for her, I have many enticing things to do with my remaining time: taking money from Miss P. Schultz and then handing it all straight over to my lawyers is not one of them. Are not one of them. Are not two of them.
Having browsed grimly through ’A Traveller’s Life List’, as la Schultz subtitles her remorseless catalogue of treasures, I am relieved to find that, were I to take this over-inflated travel magazine article seriously, I could do some crossing off the list already and reduce the number from a thousand to nearer nine hundred and ninety. Yes, I have been to one or two of Schultz’s Sights already. Machu Pichu. Salisbury Cathedral. Wells Cathedral, The Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. Loch Ness. The Moscow Underground… (Starting to run out now…)
Two of these I can even bracket together. In 1980 I was lucky enough to be taken by the BBC to Peru as the presenter of ‘Three Miles High’, one of the programmes in the Great Railway Journeys series. Our trip passed through Machu Pichu at one point, and allowed me to see the Lost City of the Incas and the legendary craftsmanship that fitted those great massive stones together so snugly, and all that without the use of any adhesive.
‘Is it not remarkable,’ said an expert to me as we stood and surveyed the remains, ‘that six hundred years ago another civilisation unknown to ours could construct something so brilliant?’
If he hadn’t have said it, I might have agreed with him.
As it was, the spirit of rebellion suddenly moved within me.
‘No’, I said. ‘Not really. At about the same time as they were building Machu Pichu, or even earlier, we in Britain had pretty much finished Salisbury Cathedral. Give me Salisbury Cathedral any day. It makes Machu Pichu look like a child’s toy.’
How smug I felt. And I was right, of course. The main reason that Machu Pichu looks so good, apart from its dramatic position, is that you don’t expect people in the South American jungle to be building stonework like that six hundred years ago, certainly not up a mountain, and you don’t expect it to be lost for centuries until American adventurer Hiram Bingham blinks in the middle of a wood, and realises he is surrounded by some nice old remains and that from now on Yanks won’t have to go to Europe for all their historical kicks any more.
It’s still pretty basic stuff, Machu Pichu.
Imagine you were stumbling through the forests of Peru and came across Salisbury Cathedral standing there, whole and entire, brightly maintained, with a notice at the door saying: ’While we do not charge for admission, we hope for a contribution of at least £5 from each person’, then you would be entitled to say ‘Holy Moley’, have a small nervous breakdown, clasp cold flannels to your forehead, and phone everyone at home saying ‘Look at this little photo I’ve just taken!’ or whatever is your preferred reaction to joyous shocks.
Salisbury Cathedral beats a full house, four queens, five aces and Machu Pichu.
(It was stressed to me in Peru that Machu Pichu was not actually the only Lost City of the Incas. I was also taken to see a place called Sacsahuamán, which is full of similarly amazing stonework and, being much less frequented by tourists, is much more tranquil and atmospheric. Oddly, it is not nearly so remote as Machu Pichu, being almost within walking distance of Cuzco. It reminds me that in Wiltshire local people will always advise you against going to the full tourist horror of Stonehenge and urge you to visit Avebury, which is not quite so sensational a Stone Age site but more attractive and, being enmeshed in a village, much less like a museum site, and - hey! I wonder if there is a pattern here? Do you think there are enough places throughout the world which are as good as their more famous counterparts to justify a book on them? A book called 1,000 Places to See Before You Die which are Pretty Much as Good as Patty Schultz’s Top Thousand and Not Half as Crowded? Just a thought…)
The odd thing is that I do live in Wiltshire myself and am barely an hour from Salisbury, yet I think I have been inside Salisbury only once in my life. I have often seen it from the distance, and occasionally from close up, if you can ever properly see a cathedral from close up, and it really is the most extraordinary, floating, extra-terrestrial, perfect, fantastical stone space ship you could want. And that was while I still lived in London and was just passing through Wiltshire!
That’s the other thing they say, of course, that people who live nearby never go. It is legendarily rare to find a Londoner who has been to the Tower of London (and then if only taking a visitor there). I have in-laws called Keith and Belinda who live less than an hour’s drive from Niagara Falls. They couldn’t care less if they never see the Falls again. When people come to stay, they now tell them: ‘Go and see Niagara Falls if you like, but don’t expect us to come along to see the bloody thing!’ (Things? Thing?)
There might be an idea for a series of books here, introducing people who live in a place to what they should go and see. London for Londoners. The Billericay That Nobody Knows. The Liverpool That Nobody Likes…
Anything in this letter appeal to you?
PS How about A Hundred Things to Do Before You Die?
How Shall I Tell The Dog -