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The snobbery of Brits abroad Tourism thrives on class anxiety

A tourist is always that other fellow. Bryn Colton/Getty Images


July 13, 2022   5 mins

Few of the many holidaymakers photographing their artisanal breakfast for a sunlit post on Instagram will have heard of Albert Smith. But they owe him a moment’s reflection: for if anyone can be said to have perfected the packaged visuals of a holiday abroad, it is Smith, a showbusiness titan of mid-Victorian London. Smith’s wildly popular panoramic spectaculars of his travels across Europe drew audiences of thousands. He was a prolific journalist, a bestselling novelist, a man-about-town, a mountaineer, and a dandy, but it was Smith’s innovative talent for boiling down his adventures abroad into a collection of vivid and memorable images that proved his biggest crowd-puller. Panoramas — vast paintings showing a 360-degree view of a landscape — had been part of the London scene since the turn of the century, but Smith took the panoramic experience to new levels of immersion: he was the self-appointed star of his own show, dramatising his own adventures against a sliding background of tableaux complete with music and props.

Smith’s most celebrated panorama relived his ascent of Mont Blanc in 1851 — which had been an astonishing physical feat for a clubbable bon viveur (though he had to be dragged to the summit barely conscious, he claimed to have celebrated by drinking a bottle of champagne and smoking a cigar). He pulled out all the stops to recreate Mont Blanc on the stage of the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly in 1852, importing woodcarvers from Chamonix to recreate a Swiss chalet. St Bernards roamed the aisles and during the interval hot baked potatoes were dispensed for those in the audience feeling a glacial chill from the buckets of cold water placed around the hall. The stage was decked with alpine plants; there was a waterfall with real water, a mill wheel and a lily pond; the walls of the theatre were hung with chamois skins. “The Ascent of Mont Blanc” ran for six years and 2,000 performances, and on top of the fortune he made in ticket sales, Smith cannily expanded his repertoire by selling colouring books, fans, board games and miniature models of Mont Blanc.

Smith, an unrepentant populist (he liked to shock Thackeray by saying that Shakespeare was “all rot”), knocked the high culture out of the touristic experience. He made the adventure of foreign parts bite-sized and accessible — if not in reality, at least in dreams. He called it “the Alps in a box”. Figuratively speaking, Smith’s panoramas boxed up the great sights of the classical Grand Tour and sold them in miniature form, building them up with a dramatic flourish then cutting them down to size with a knowing dig in the ribs. Smith’s success runs parallel with the emergence of photography, the industrial manufacture of souvenirs, and the “I was here” frame of the postcard. After Smith, it became possible to think of “buying” the travel experience without actually going very far, framing it, and taking it home with you. Antiquarian high-culturists looked for quiddity and oddity when abroad but Smith encouraged a joyful appetite for mass-produced kitsch. His own apartment off Tottenham Court was a riot of knick-knackery from his travels. There was a figure of a Swiss peasant with a clock-face in his waistcoat, Venetian glasses, miniature Swiss chalets, soap from Vienna in the shape of fruit and a working model of a guillotine.

The tourist boom in Chamonix inspired by Smith was viewed with horror by those who thought the mountain were theirs to command. Ruskin found the “white leprosy of hotels” and souvenir shops that followed the visitors into the Alps was a blasphemy against “all the deep and sacred sensations of nature”. Everywhere the new tourists went, reported a journalist in 1856, they brought with them “Cockneyism, Albert Smithery, fun, frolic and vulgarity”. The rise in popular tourism to Europe, sparked most importantly by Thomas Cook, had highlighted a divide which has characterised British travelling ever since. In this paradigm, the tourist is the new bug and the traveller is the old soul. And even when they are gazing at the same view, the latter thinks the former is spoiling the view. The distaste is notable in how often crowds of tourists were, and still are, described in terms of mindless cattle or insects — they come in “herds” and “swarms” and “flocks”.

Naturally as most people like to think they are an old soul, the tourist, as Evelyn Waugh put it, “is the other fellow”. Wherever the crowd goes, it is sure to be perceived by those in another crowd to debase the special spirit of place. Quite what the original spirit of place is often hard to define, but traditionally the British tourist thinks that their fellow countrymen are trampling on it. Newlywed Emily Birchall in 1870 found her visit to St Peter’s ruined by the sight of a British tourist reading his guidebook under the high altar and one feels her pain. The more expensive and bespoke the tourist experience, the more it will sell itself as being particular and unconventional, off the beaten track, away from the throng; until the throng reaches Easter Island or Lapland or Everest. Which of course it almost always does.

Thomas Cook, progenitor of the modern package tour, was a much more serious character than Smith, a former printer and temperance campaigner whose package tour business started as an effort to keep working men away from the pub on the holidays (more properly known as holy days) that constituted their only days off. By the time Smith had conquered Mont Blanc, Cook had been running tours to the Continent for several years. He had become used to the jibes about “Cooks’ Tourists” with their aspirational itineraries and their guidebooks, with points of interest rated by stars or exclamation marks. But Cook was proud of his groups and of what he was introducing to people unaccustomed to travel. “Practical people from the provinces and representatives of the better style of the London mercantile community” is how he described his tourists and he loved them. And they loved him too — a Thomas Cook tour became a byword for trustworthiness and paternal consideration. What Cook offered was something new: the holiday as a collective as well as an individual experience. And it brought with it all the expansions and limitations of the group itself.

From Lawrence Sterne’s fastidiously risk-averse Dr Smelfungus to a coach tour of larky cockneys in Carry on Abroad, the humour that can be squeezed out of the comical figure of the Brit abroad still seems inexhaustible. One of Albert Smith’s many insights was that tourists like laughing at their fellow countrymen. The ingénue, the know-nothing, the stuck-up type, the travel bore, the vulgarian and the gullible lady traveller all make appearances. They were a satirical speciality of comic novelists like Thomas Moore (The Fudge Family in Paris) and Thackeray (The Kickleburys on the Rhine). The one defining feature is that the reader does not recognise herself in these hopeless embarrassments: they are other ones, the noisy passengers in the overcrowded night train or the ones (snigger) demanding a cup of tea in bad French. Those for whom maintaining social distinctions was important have found plenty to criticise in their fellow tourists but increasingly, others were delighted by the general flattening of class signifiers. By the Thirties, a passenger on a cruise noted: “The thing about cruising is that everyone is dressed in the same kind of light and bright clothing, and so you cannot tell the dukes from the dustmen.”

In the end most people, it appears to me, are after the same thing. British tourists of all types are surely at heart seeking a slice of pastoral, however mass-produced it might be in reality. It doesn’t seem to matter how inauthentic the peasant culture or the artisanal breakfast may be, for tourism simultaneously kills and preserves the thing it seeks. Even the hermetically-sealed world of the beach resort offers its own version of a lost arcadia. So what if the price of arcadia is other people?


Lucy Lethbridge is a British journalist and author. Her book Tourists: How the British Went Abroad to Find Themselves, will be published by Bloomsbury on 18 August.

LucyLethbridge

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Philip Tisdall
Philip Tisdall
2 years ago

In America, this would call for a quote attributed to Yogi Berra, a cultural icon here, ‘Nobody goes there anymore – it’s too crowded.”

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
2 years ago

As a general rule I find the British strangely self-effacing when abroad…and they don’t colonise the beaches with their towels like ze germans.

Warren T
Warren T
2 years ago

Interesting read. I recently read a story about how the local shopkeepers and bar owners in Brugge lament the fact that when the cruise ships dump their passengers at the nearest port, thousands of tourists descend upon the streets of the ancient city, take pictures on their phones incessantly and then return to the mother ship within hours, usually not spending a dime while in town.
I can’t think of a more obnoxious scene.

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
2 years ago

Put more simply –
I am a traveller
You are a visitor
He/she is a tourist.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Mark Gourley

To the locals we are all tourists. I remember once being told that ideally the locals would like us all to stay at home and just send our money to the town/country.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 years ago

Well I like tourists much more than ouanker “travellers”.

Sophy T
Sophy T
2 years ago

I can’t remember who said “it’s a paradox that the more people who go somewhere to enjoy themselves, the less fun it is for everyone”.
We have just been to beautiful and fascinating Korea where we saw about 6 westerners during the fortnight we were there.
Our charming guide said the country was planning to encourage more tourism which made my heart sink – though what were we except tourists.
I just hope it doesn’t become like Thailand.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Sophy T

We rented a canal boat and took our two young children for a ten-day excursion on the Shropshire Union Canal – an unusual vacation for Americans, but we wanted to experience the countryside as many native Britons did. It was April, and even though it rained every day but one, it remains one of our favorite family memories. The only unpleasant moment we had involved encountering a group of dentists from North Carolina and their obnoxious wives, who left everyone from Llangollen to Whitchurch with stories of epic American rudeness. I adopted a vague English accent for the rest of our trip out of sheer embarrassment.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

One’s counrtymen can often be an embarassment, it’s difficult to know how to eal with it though. However, we can be over5-sensitive to them sometimes; I was with a visiting Australian friend in the UK when we ran into an Australian woman that my friend found extremely embarassing, but I didn’t actually find her too much of a problem.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

Yes, but you’re obviously lovely. When we came upon the dentists in Llangollen, I tried to help them unblock the canal, which involved negotiating a sort of watery cul-de-sac emptying into the lane surrounded by rock and backed up with leisure boats. As an American, I’m too embarrassed to describe what ensued.

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
2 years ago

You can’t leave that story at such a tantalizing place. Please tell all!

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 year ago

How exactly were they rude?

jane baker
jane baker
1 year ago
Reply to  Sophy T

But it sounds like you weren’t the falling down drunk ones. But the tough bit is that they tend to part with the most money.

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
2 years ago

The writer suggests that disdain for ones fellow Brits abroad is just snobbery. However, when one reads of the drunken barbarity of some groups of – mainly young – British tourists in Mediterranean resorts (public copulation, shouting, fighting, assaults), disdain, along with a sense of shame and sympathy for the locals, are surely the only appropriate responses.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Alan Tonkyn

In the early 1970’s 2 young Coldstream Guards Officers, skint and desperate for a free holiday in The South of France, managed to get the MoD to pay for a trip there, under the auspices of ” Adventure Training” so their hosts were less than pleased when they turned up at the villa in Villefranche with 3 x 3 tonner Bedford trucks, 2 x Landrovers and a platoon of thirsty Guardsmen and Non Commissioned Officers.

The horrified hosts, on night 2 of their stay suggested that said Officers took ” the boys” into Menton, lost them in a bar, and then came on to dinner at the then exclusive ” Le Pirat” seafront night club on Cap Martin.

Unfortunately, said Officers stayed drinking in Menton, and rocked up at Le Pirat, 3 sheets to the wind, with the entire platoon and vehicles.

It did not take long after the Guardsmen had taken to the dance floor, and started approaching the lissome females,?for the petrified regulars to call the CRS…

The punch up that ensued was legend itself, and post to a night in the cells, the adventure training ” exercise” was terminated… as later were the Officers commissions!

O F
O F
2 years ago

What a great piece. I recommend How To Make Friends And Oppress People by Vic Darkwood for some insights into Brits abroad in times gone by.

O F
O F
2 years ago

What a great piece. I recommend How To Make Friends And Oppress People by Vic Darkwood for some insights into Brits abroad in times gone by.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

Oh gawd, a Daily Mail type diatribe of cliches about the British. Why are journalists allowed to trade in such stereotypes about the British when it’s deemed offensive to do the same for anyone else?

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 year ago

We like tourists here in Alaska. I have told visitors “we like you and we like your money!”

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 year ago

I spent considerable time 1990s – 2000s in Whittier, Alaska, a village on Prince William Sound. It is a big summer cruise destination because it does have (long) tunnel access to the outside world. Winters there are very severe and the town becomes very isolated. I asked a full time resident what the Whittierites thought of the tourists. She said “in the spring we’re glad to see ‘em come and in the fall we’re glad to see ‘em go!”

Last edited 1 year ago by Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 year ago

I spent considerable time 1990s – 2000s in Whittier, Alaska, a village on Prince William Sound. It is a big summer cruise destination because it does have (long) tunnel access to the outside world. Winters there are very severe and the town becomes very isolated. I asked a full time resident what the Whittierites thought of the tourists. She said “in the spring we’re glad to see ‘em come and in the fall we’re glad to see ‘em go!”

Last edited 1 year ago by Betsy Arehart
jane baker
jane baker
1 year ago

Its funny that I’m reading this in Paris. I’ve come for the architecture and the history but oddly enough I haven’t been in a single museum today but I did spend €73 euros in a Monoprix!

jane baker
jane baker
1 year ago

Its funny that I’m reading this in Paris. I’ve come for the architecture and the history but oddly enough I haven’t been in a single museum today but I did spend €73 euros in a Monoprix!

Antony Hirst
Antony Hirst
2 years ago

The right crowd and no crowding. We pay dearly for it!

J. Hale
J. Hale
2 years ago
Reply to  Antony Hirst

Yes, but for those of us who can’t afford to “pay dearly,” if we want to travel, we have to go with the wrong crowd.