Lecture / Workshop 11

Hunter S. Thompson (1971)

Lecture 11:

Anthology texts to read:

The Town and the Country

Let's start with a brief history of Western civilisation. It's a bit of a tall order, of course, but I guess somebody's got to do it, if only to be shot down in flames immediately afterwards.

We begin with a fairly straightforward contrast between the City and the Countryside: urban and rural values -- the civilised and the wild. This basic paradigm for understanding the world around us lasted through classical antiquity right up into the modern era.

The eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope could therefore state with confidence:

The proper study of mankind is man
- An Essay on Man (1733)

while his near-contemporary Dr Samuel Johnson famously remarked:

"When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford."
- Boswell's Life of Johnson (1791)

It's not that these writers were unaware of nature, or even indifferent to its charms - it's just that they saw civilised life as some kind of an achievement, and therefore intrinsically praiseworthy and desirable. Like ancient Romans, they loved novelty, but assumed that novelties should be brought back to the metropolis to be exhibited.

Fast-forward slightly. Here's a quote from William Wordsworth:

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
- "The Tables Turned" (1798)

Wordsworth's poem was written only a few years after Boswell's book, but it represents nothing less than a revolution in values and assumptions: that great watershed in Western culture we generally refer to as the Romantic Movement.

In essence, Wordsworth is saying that the town / country divide needs to be rethought in terms of the country: that there's an inherent nobility and beauty in natural processes which is intrinsically superior to the values of the city.

We can quibble about just how and when this transformation took place. Clearly Wordsworth was harking back to Rousseau's idea of the Noble Savage ("Your book made me want to go about on all fours" as Voltaire remarked to the author of The Social Contract (1762)). Rousseau, in his turn, was summarising arguments advanced by Montaigne in "On the Cannibals" (1580). Nevertheless, these ideas first became dominant in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and this instinctive preference for natural values over urban, sophisticated ones has stayed with us to this day.

It certainly dominates travel writing, which is a genre which really took off in the nineteenth century, as it gradually achieved emancipation from largely educational accounts of that aristocratic European rite of passage known as the "Grand Tour." Instead, a new taste for the exotic, the strange, the wild and uncultivated overtoook readers and thinkers alike. Rugged explorers supplanted courtly sophisticates as the new heroes of the genre.

And so it went on, well into the twentieth century: the best traveller was the one who can encounter a strange tribe which has "never seen a white man"; the best writer was the one who had suffered most, knew the greatest number of obscure dialects, was prepared to go over the edge into the illimitable Outdoors:

As another great Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, put it:

from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii &c &c -- my mind had been habituated to the Vast --
- Letter to Thomas Poole (16 Oct 1797)

The 1960s were perhaps the highwater mark of this Romantic addiction to the purity and simplicity of nature over the deviousness and treachery of city-life. What is a hippie but an enthusiast for the (imagined) love and peace of the wilderness?

The (alleged) failure of hippiedom to achieve anything much beyond a lot of psychedelic music and a big rock festival at Woodstock (the most enduring images of which are probably the heap of rubbish left behind when the tribes departed) is one of the predominant themes of the post-modern era. Woodstock, after all, was followed the debacle of the Rolling Stones' free concert at Altamont Speedway ...

So where do we go now? Back to Pope and Johnson and a kind of conservative classicism? Or back to Coleridge and Thoreau and their evangelical enthusiasm for the Vast? Where is this "Vast" to be located, anyway? In Space? (Another unfortunate casualty of the sixties ...)

Little of Hunter Thompson's work makes sense without some appreciation of this dilemma, however localised his angle on it may be (Las Vegas and San Francisco are, for him, virtually the two opposing poles of the human spirit). He takes final refuge in the Rocky Mountains, the reclusive sage of Woody Creek, with the folk-singer John Denver as his nearest neighbour.

Iain Sinclair, by contrast, takes his cues from the Science Fiction "New Wave" of the 1960s - a reaction to the 40s and 50s "fiction for young engineers" Sci-fi of the Campbell era. The fiction of British writer J. G. Ballard is one of the few reliable guides he can find to these explorations of so-called "inner space."

Scott Hamilton prefers to explore that wasteland of the spirit known as Marxism - not so much the Master's own writings, as the various misinterpretations and misapplications of them which have resulted in our contemporary mediascape of "left" and "right"-wing values (another legacy of the Romantic era). For Scott, then, travel writing is a way of recuperating vanished histories, unearthing submerged proletarian traditions.

In other words, he too is a dyed-in-the-wool Romantic. Marxism is a Utopian creed, after all, and the problem with Utopias is that they're so difficult to find.

You can, however, do the next best thing, and try with all your might to go nowhere instead. Utopia, is, after all, Greek for "nowhere", but it can also be read as "Eu-topia", the good place.

Every account of a Utopia - and New Zealand's English-language literature effectively began with one: Samuel Butler's Erewhon, in 1872 - seems accordingly to inspire an equal and opposite reaction: a Dystopia, or bad place ... Perhaps you can only imagine the good place by drawing a portrait of a bad one (so much easier to find), and then simply reverse it! Imagine Heaven by describing Hell, in other words.

When Scott Hamilton came here to give a guest lecture in May 2008, he said:

For me, anti-travel writing is about rejecting falsified images of New Zealand, and falsified images of other parts of the world. It’s about digging into the present to find the past which can help explain that present. It’s about ripping brands off the landscape.

... In the piece which Jack put in your coursebook, and in a lot of other things I write, I’m arguing for the right of New Zealand to be ugly, or at least complicated, rather than the theme park paradise which the Tolkien films and the tourist industry seem to want to create. I’m fascinated by the Huntly district, and by the Waikato area in general, because of the very particular, very legible marks that history has made on the landscape there. Instead of airbrushing the landscape, and removing the history written on it, I want to read the messages in the coal shaft openings and canals and terraces and gravel quarries.

Underneath the streets of Huntly, and underneath the Waikato River that divides the town, lie a tangle of half-collapsed tunnels built a century ago by coal miners armed with shovels and dynamite. Every time I walk down the main street of Huntly I tread lightly, because I know I’m treading on hollow ground. Like the drained swamps and ghostly forests of the Hauraki Plains, these half-forgotten passageways are metaphors for a history which has often been repressed.

If you visit the coal mining museum in Huntly you may learn the names of the members of the miners’ wives lawn bowls team in 1951, or see a photo of the manager of Ralph’s Mine in 1911, but you will not be informed about the explosion that killed nearly fifty men at Ralph’s in 1914. You will not be told about the great strike of 1913, when drunken farmers on horseback, named Massey’s Cossacks, after the right-wing Prime Minister of the day, fought pitched battles with miners. You will not learn about the strange ‘riot’ of 1932, when the whole town of Huntly formed an orderly queue in front of the General Store, a group of housewives smashed the store’s windows with their handbags, and family after family calmly helped itself to the food its members could not afford to buy.

The fact that some of the uglier – or, perhaps we should say, more complicated – aspects of Huntly history have been kept out of the local museum may have something to do with the fact that a big mining company is funding the upgrade and relocation of that museum. But if you drive through the broken-backed countryside to the west of Huntly, on the wrong side of the river, then you’ll find the signs, the more or less cryptic messages left by history, like decaying mine entrances, blackened and condemned by explosions and fires, or derelict miners’ cottages the size of sheds, huddled in the shadow of the fine houses of the managers, or heaps of slack coal bleeding blackly into streams blocked by dynamited bridges. The past is a landscape waiting to be read.

I'm not sure that Scott understands the term "anti-travel" in precisely the same way I do, but we certainly agree on the desirability of a type of writing which is anti-cliché, dismissive of lazy conventions within the genre - knee-jerk responses, casually contemptuous guying of the "foreign."

Funnily enough, we were both under the impression that it was a well-known term for an established genre when Scott first wrote his piece. However, there may be some justification for the view that it isn't - or rather wasn't. It's rather exciting to be in at the birth of a new genre. Let's hope that the results live up to the opening fanfare.

At the very least, it's one more possibility in your smorgasbord of possible voices to try out.

Mark Goff: Woodstock (August 15, 1969)


Sharing plans for final projects

“How long can the exotic remain exotic?”
Granta 26: Travel (1989): 258.

(Excerpts from the resolutions passed at the first international congress of Anti- Tourists at the Shymkent Hotel, Shymkent, Kazakhstan, October 1999)

As the world has become smaller so its wonders have diminished. There is nothing amazing about the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, or the Pyramids of Egypt. They are as banal and familiar as the face of a Cornflakes Packet.

Consequently the true unknown frontiers lie elsewhere.

The duty of the traveller therefore is to open up new zones of experience. In our over explored world these must of necessity be wastelands, black holes, and grim urban blackspots: all the places which, ordinarily, people choose to avoid.

The only true voyagers, therefore, are anti-tourists. Following this logic we declare that:

The anti-tourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable.

The anti-tourist eschews comfort.

The anti-tourist embraces hunger and hallucinations and shit hotels.

The anti-tourist seeks locked doors and demolished buildings.

The anti-tourist scorns the bluster and bravado of the daredevil, who attempts to penetrate danger zones such as Afghanistan. The only thing that lies behind this is vanity and a desire to brag.

The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year.

The anti-tourist prefers dead things to living ones.

The anti-tourist is humble and seeks invisibility.

The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art.

The anti-tourist believes beauty is in the street.

The anti-tourist holds that whatever travel does, it rarely broadens the mind.

The anti-tourist values disorientation over enlightenment.

The anti-tourist loves truth, but he is also partial to lies. Especially his own.


Discussion of Anti-travel texts.

  • The politics of travel to a deliberately non-exotic destination: in this case, Huntly
  • Is this an approach that lends itself particularly to video or photographic representation?

Sharing plans and ideas for your final projects.

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