Antitours – the Antidote?

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This is a polemic, by someone who has more questions than answers. No slur or offence is intended to all the smart people employed in ‘conventional’ tourism, (like myself with my other hats on). I’ve worked in that field for 14 years now and learned a phenomenal amount from some fascinating, entertaining educators. There’s room – and a role – for everyone.

A trade email arrives: “Anti Tours are the New Black”. It would seem that since 2012 in Hackney, I’ve been doing antitours? I thought it was just looking at what’s interesting locally. Although when I first started, it was only curious locals and German broadsheets who were interested in where the London 2012 missile defences were located.

I can tell you all about the bonkers scenario that marked the accession of the House of Hanover to the British throne. And that’s a great story that slightly beggars belief. But there’s so much wonder to be found in your own backyard (travel as a state of mind, psychology types?).

Okay, in Hackney we are especially lucky. I can’t think of anywhere else in London with this mix of contemporary culture and radical history – and all with its own unique twist in a borough known for centuries for being ‘bolshy’ because of its religious and political dissenters and subsequent subcultures.

Is that alternative? What does alternative even mean these days, when street art is mainstream and anything leftfield is eventually recuperated by the market? Ask your mates in Berlin. The marketing departments want to put things in a box. People, let’s be fair, sometimes like things in boxes too. It makes a complicated world a little easier to process, like handles on boxes or cups around the water of data we swim through every day.

But life is messy. And complicated. And that’s where ‘antitours’ have the potential to get really interesting. That’s where I got pulled back into a little social activism. Because when you dig a little, you find out way more than you bargained for. All the stories come out…

Sometimes they’re positive and inspiring, like the social enterprise issues I talk about on things like this experimental sustainability walk. But sometimes they’re stories of social injustice or frustration with gentrification issues, like this post on Hackney Wick. On walks covering this area, people leave with a sense of the competing pressures in an urban space. And often they leave me with something to ponder too.

NB this is not the same as antitourism, which is a reaction by fed-up locals against ‘overtourism’ in places like Venice or Barcelona. Tourism is a big industry, but it’s problematical: it relies on oil to move people around and consumption for revenue. It often also implies a power differential: how many times have you heard someone say they love going somewhere because it’s so ‘cheap’?

Wick Award Aug 8 walk family ad

Perhaps anti-tours or antitours, however you want to write it, are the antidote to the invisible line that conventional tourism often stays one side of (and there are some decent arguments to be made for that too, of course).

Brexit won’t be in your script, but almost every American I’ve worked with recently in ‘conventional’ tourism wants to know about it. I try to be reasonably nonpartisan and give two opposing arguments: the old ‘some say this, some say that’ line. That complexity thing again. Because I know I don’t speak for London, never mind Britain. And if the likes of our own ministers don’t really understand it properly, I’m unlikely to 🙂

Or perhaps the point is not that antitours are some kind of partisan tourism, but that conventional tourism is partisan and lies by omission. Clive of India anyone? Everything is mediated, we all have our own minds, agendas and way of seeing the world. Neurolinguistic Programming claims we operate on our own systems of deletion, amplification and distortion. I gave you a whiff of my own mindset by describing the Hanoverian accession as ‘bonkers’. Is the Changing of the Guard a piece of harmless pageantry, or a reassertion of medieval ideas and a reminder of who’s boss?

And anyway, since when did ‘tourists’ get such a bad name? Since when do we scorn people for wanting to come here and know more about the world around them? Why are tours only for visitors? Do we really think it’s ‘cool’ to be blasé and ignorant about our own surroundings? I’ve led walks with some smart foreign visitors who’ve left knowing more about London than many of the people I know who live here. And our history is epic, from year dot to just yesterday.

Perhaps on a personal level ‘antitours’ (this time in quotation marks, to make a postmodernist point) are the inevitable symptom of a more discerning tourist, who’s done enough trips to now see past the more obvious sights and want to be a little more challenged by what they see? They want to grow a little, from the experience. They want to learn something that’s not in the history books? Insert your own Maslowian triangle here, btw: from hedonistic tourism to experiences of self-individuation etc.

Lots of very smart people work in ‘conventional’ tourism and tell some very interesting truths about the way the world works without ever branding themselves as anything other than an accomplished guide who gives good tour.

Perhaps antitourism is really just another product wrapper? Although, if you’ve ever done a tour that starts with sitting motionlessly spellbound in the back of a van while someone spends an hour telling you how they barely escaped ethnic cleansing – that’s a little unconventional. Unconventional and unforgettable.

On a macro level [guides exit stage right; cultural theorists enter stage left] perhaps it’s an inevitable slide into fragmentation and complexity of the modern world?

Perhaps with the advent of public history, it’s also the recognition that the lives of ordinary people can be just as interesting of those of kings and queens? Possibly. Or maybe it’s all in the telling – and everything is interesting if you have the right mindset?

[Guides re-enter stage accompanied by teachers, mentors, professors, elders etc]

Whatever your job description, educators of the world take a bow.

Caveat:

Hackney Tours is acutely aware that Hackney was here before me. I stand on the shoulders of world-changing giants like the Dissenters of Stoke Newington and today the social enterprise innovators and the artists and all the other creators who make for great content. But also on the shoulders of the many unknowns who built this city (eg Stuart peasants, Georgian traders, Dickensian factory workers, Windrush generation, East Enders, Jews, Muslims and all the other flavours of Londoner) and continue to populate with the things that provide such great tour content in East London. I have listened to guides, docents, museum staff and educators etc all across the world and been charmed, entertained and enlightened. Thank you.

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