I was in London last week, marvelling at the efficiency of its underground rail service, the aesthetic coherence of its built landscape, and the unrelenting rush of its denizens. Quite a place.
As I wandered through some of the most popular tourist attractions — the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral among them — I got to thinking. At the Tower of London, I, like most of the visitors, queued to get in to the former prison. I couldn’t wait to be set loose on the relics of its grim history: the armoury, stocked with the best contemporary weapons for hacking chunks from your enemies; the courtyard where royal heads had rolled; the windowless room in the basement of one of the towers, where prisoners had been broken on the rack and into which other unfortunates had been bundled and left to wither, die and rot. “Bring it on!” I thought.
As I slowly shuffled forwards in the queue of eager tourists, I wondered how the experience could be improved even more for us. Wouldn’t it be more realistic to have cadavers delivered to the Tower, then dress them in rags and scatter throughout the prison? Some could even be mutilated and decapitated for added verisimilitude. After all, it is a place of misery and death that we are visiting, no? Shouldn’t the sense of horror and outrage at the punitive measures that were deployed in the Tower of London be the focus? Shouldn’t we leave a place like this shaking and traumatised, instead of feeling satisfied that we’ve chalked off a major tourist attraction on the standard ’10 Things To Do In London’?
Parents mingled with the Tower of London crowds on the day that I visited. They chaperoned their children through the sites, watched with pride when they were well-behaved in the torture section, and explained with relish how the rack worked. Good, wholesome, family fun all round, it seems.
Things were similar in St Paul’s Cathedral. I always thought that places of worship like this were supposed to be quiet, but instead, a hum of tourist babble echoed through the huge building. We tourists filed dutifully downwards, towards the crypts, where we blithely strolled over graves, slowly wearing away the deceased’s details etched there on stones, as we sought out the resting places of ‘famous’ people. When the families of these people interred them in St Paul’s, did they have any premonition that the graves would in time become no more than flagstones to carry curious tourists from one side of the crypt to the other?
Is it a rule of thumb that respect for the dead ends after an appointed time; say, a century or more? Once the appointed time elapses, it presumably becomes an open house for marauding tourists. Give it a few more centuries, and your humble remains might even be the focus of an archaeological dig. Your bones might be unearthed, scrubbed and assembled for display in a badly-lit museum. Things of significance that might have been buried alongside you could end up elsewhere, cleansed of their once-precious relevance.
Some people argue that places like Auschwitz should be obliterated once the last survivors of the place die. They say that the structure should be razed to the ground, for fear that, over time, it would become stripped of the immense injustice that it symbolises, showered in toxic tourist credentials, and enjoyed by visiting families looking for no more than a pleasant day out. Sometimes, I am inclined to agree. Auschwitz will not be forgotten if its physical remnants are removed. Destroying it would also save it from the fate of becoming divorced from its context and bedevilled by banality, a mere tourist site to be exploited. In a much smaller scale, places like the prison cells of the Tower of London — where the misery of its inhabitants is literally etched on the walls — show what happens when they become significant primarily as tourist destinations.
Or maybe I just need to lighten up, don an ‘I love Science’ t-shirt and plan a summer visit to Chernobyl…