My grandmother used the word ‘gravedigger’ to mean ‘undertaker’. I don’t think there have ever been any famous or important undertakers, except for one: William Banting. He was famous not as an undertaker, but as the inventor of one of the most important activities of the modern, contemporary world: dieting.
Born in 1796, Banting came from a family of London undertakers, who had more than once had the prestigious task of arranging the funerals of British kings. The job of an undertaker is to escort people to the grave, but William Banting was in danger of going to the grave himself if he did not cure his obesity in time. It was this that led him one day to turn to Dr William Harvey to improve the situation. The doctor, who had attended lectures by the French physiologist Claude Bernard in Paris, advised him to limit his intake of carbohydrates, particularly starches and sugars. Bernard’s advice was aimed at combating diabetes, but Banting also benefited aesthetically.
His enthusiasm for the results led him to recount his experience in 1863, publishing his Letter on Corpulence, addressed to the public, which contained a detailed plan of the diet he followed. It consisted of four meals a day, with meat, vegetables, fruit and dry wine.
The pamphlet was a huge success, and it became the model for all subsequent publications on the subject. So much so that in some countries, the word ‘banting’ still means ‘dieting’ today.
Also in England, at the same time, another fundamental phenomenon of today’s world was born: mass tourism. The first travel agency in history was founded in 1841 by Thomas Cook. He organised the first ever such trip for a group of 500 anti-alcohol activists, who were driven from Leicester station to Loughborough (11 miles away). Each of the participants paid a shilling for the journey there and back.
But before Thomas Cook made a business of it, the Grand Tour already existed: a practice in use during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by wealthy European families – mainly English – which consisted in taking an educational trip to Italy, the cradle of ancient Roman civilisation and then of the Renaissance. Typically, this Grand Tour was undertaken on reaching the age of majority (21), and was more common for young men.
On 2 June 1819, a bizarre white carriage in the ‘Napoleonic’ style, made in London by a famous carriage-maker, left Venice for Bologna. The vehicle was equipped with a bed for sleeping, a table and provisions for eating – practically a camper van – and was followed by another car carrying the owner’s servants and pets. The owner’s name was Lord George Gordon Byron, or simply Lord Byron, and he arrived in Bologna after a four-day journey, staying at the Albergo del Pellegrino in Via dei Vetturini – today Via Ugo Bassi, where a plaque still bears the memory of the event. The poet stayed here for about ten days, and despite the unbearable heat, he managed to visit various places in the city, in particular the Certosa and the Pinacoteca, before leaving for Ravenna.
The main cities on the Grand Tour were Rome, Florence, Naples, Pompeii, Turin, Milan, Cremona, Siena, Vicenza, Paestum and Urbino.
More or less the same as today, a time in which the seemingly unstoppable touristification makes the risk of a city emptying itself of its local communities ever more real, and becoming a mask of itself, a still beautiful but now inert shell. The paradoxical end point of this process would be a city with no more residents, inhabited only by people passing through and their hosts.
And it would seem that, all things considered, there is not much difference between tourism and desertification.
I am reminded of a 2016 noir by Massimo Carlotto, which tells the story of a serial killer called ‘the tourist’, because he strikes his victims in complete tranquillity thanks to the anonymity guaranteed by the places that are always crowded with visitors. In fact, the story is set in Venice.
I am always fascinated by the relationship between music and geographical space. When I visit another city, I find it easier to discover artists I don’t know, even if it is simply by browsing through the lists of concerts scheduled in the place.
Years ago there was a network called Last Fm that allowed you to do this from a distance, keeping an eye on live music venues in any city in the world. Today there is another one called Songkick, which does much the same thing.
Let’s try to do a search on the most active city, London. For example, I can see who’s playing day to day in the various venues: Cafe Oto intento, which is my favourite and I even went there a few years ago. Then the Barbican Centre, The Dome, the legendary Fabric, the EartH (Hackney Arts Centre), the Elektrowerkz, the Islington Assembly Hall, the Jazz Cafe, the Lexington, the O2 Academy Brixton, the Oslo Hackney, the Rough Trade East, the Roundhouse, the Sebright Arms, the Union Chapel, the Wigmore Hall (classical music).
Or we can follow the concert calendar in Paris: where we find Pont Ephémère, Olympia, New Morning, La Cigale, Cec, Le Gaité Lyrique, Les Etoiles, Centre Cultural Paul Bailliart, Le Bataclan, Le Pop-Up du Label.
Another nice thing about Songkick for a music tourist is that being a social network, you can see which users are interested in seeing a concert, and then all the concerts that user is interested in. This will help us make new discoveries.
Speaking of tourism in general, there is a song by Ratafiamm from 2018 that is precisely titled Tourist and represents this condition as a metaphor for our whole existence. “Holding a map and the usual question: which way do you look?”.« Glamping Harvey Specter »