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'Culture is not your friend'

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

Living in Granada, with its attendant places of interest, I’ve never had much time for the throngs of visitors who flock to its world famous tourist attractions. I’ve always seen them as a bit of a nuisance. For starters they get in my way as I try to cross the city. They walk too slowly, often whole groups of them at a time blocking the pavement, giving no consideration to us locals going about our business. I make a point of avoiding the places they go to eat because I can’t stand the noise they make. They endlessly photograph things and they wear terrible clothes. It’s fair to say I’ve got a lot of unresolved issues, so on this extended holiday it’s done me no harm at all to walk a few miles in their shoes. When I return home I will do so with more respect for the humble tourist. I’ve enjoyed being one myself, though perhaps it’s fair to say I haven’t always enjoyed being seen as one. And that serves me right, I guess.

All around Spain, up and over the Scottish Highlands, and back down to the ancient sites of southern England, the boots have indeed been on the other feet. Ambling about moorland, street and cathedral interior, camera slung around the neck and queueing up for overpriced attractions, only occasionally have I felt like the sucker I must have seemed to the locals. By and large I’ve gone willingly to the slaughter and pretty much loved every minute of it. I’ve even worn terrible clothes. And yet, here I am, with my holiday drawing to a close, wondering about the validity of all those things I’ve seen and done.

Sure, it’s been fun soaking up the sights (and not traipsing into work every day). It’s just that I’m starting to feel a little vague about the nature and purpose of this thing we blithely call ‘culture’. What is it exactly? We assume that to be cultural is a beneficial thing, good for the soul, and something to be pursued, but I found myself sitting in a café in the historic city of Bath yesterday musing on the words of the late Terence McKenna who once famously said, “Culture is not your friend.” I’d never fully appreciated his observations until now.

He went on to say: “Culture is for other people’s convenience and the convenience of various institutions, churches, companies, tax collection schemes, and what have you. It is not your friend. It insults you. It disempowers you. It uses and abuses you. None of us are well treated by culture.”

We see what we’re allowed to see, experience what we are steered towards. There is no real freedom. I was disappointed to discover the Roman bathhouse in Bath was largely a modern construction, piled on top of the original ruins. All very well done, but you know, sort of fake. Stonehenge has one of its pillars propped up by concrete. Parts of the Alhambra’s ornate decoration is the work of modern craftsmen. I’m not sure any of this matters but I think it should.

The thrust of McKenna’s argument was that culture locks us into a controlled way of thinking, a particular way of behaving that negates the need to question. It shapes what we eat and drink, influences the things we buy and colours what we aspire to, the type of cinema and theatre we choose to watch and the music we listen to. We are so inculcated with the moral dictates of those who rule over us that true freedom of exploration and of expression is virtually non-existent. Tourists are often a visible manifestation of this, buying tickets, crossing off sights as they go, taking the money shot at the annointed places. A lot of this behaviour appears mindless. And I’m not trying to take any high ground here. I’m guilty too of being a mindless tourist. That’s my whole point. In the heat of battle for that knock-out view self-awareness can take a back seat.

I didn’t feel this so keenly as I travelled through Spain, not because it wasn’t true of me. The thought just never occurred, even during the quiet moments of downtime. And though I was familiar with McKenna and his work I’d felt he was guilty of an over simplification of the facts. All societies have to have some kind of culture don’t they, a set of values and aesthetics that is wholly agreed upon within the group? It’s just how the world works, how human beings function.

Well, I don’t think it’s necessarily a universal truth. Nor do I think that all tourists are empty headed and selfish. Certainly there were moments when I was in Bath when I felt that the UK had finally been turned into one gigantic theme park, designed purely to soak even more money out of people who are already up to their eyes in debt. But I’m telling myself this is simply the by-product of seven weeks of touring. Normal service, and normal thinking will resume shortly.

Visiting Neolithic sites in Scotland and England really stirred in me a desire to take a wider perspective on so-called culture. For example, no one is sure what many of these ancient societies were up to when they constructed their stone circles and it’s refreshing to hear an increasing number of commentators say so. At Avebury, some 25 miles north of the more famous Stonehenge site, you can walk amongst the stones and form your own theories. Some people scoff at the visitors who hug the stones or who claim to feel ‘energies’ pulsing through the earth here. I found it oddly life affirming to see the absence of a recorded history forced upon visitors, the lack of some agreed narrative for what happened there. I saw artists literally drawing their own conclusions, children clambering over the stones, and others simply gazing in awe. As at many of the sites on Orkney there is magic and wonder at being allowed to simply ponder the possibilities.

Aldous Huxley, another advocate of counter-culturalism claimed that “History is the record, among other things, of the fantastic and generally fiendish tricks played upon itself by culture-maddened humanity.” It does one a power of good to visit a place where no official history has been laid down and force fed to you, where nothing has been faked to fit someone else’s agenda. That’s not to say that ignorance is to be cherished but it does remind you that there is a liberating freedom in not knowing. We should revel in that more often.


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