Do the ‘scandalous’ scrums at Europe’s tourist attractions this summer herald the end of Western civilisation itself?
WOULD YOU put up with a two-hour, six-queue, wait for just 30 seconds with the Mona Lisa?
Would you fancy being ‘treated like cattle’ by staff at The Louvre – in order to squint at the tiny 77 x 53cm painting from three metres away, before being ushered away seconds later?
I wouldn’t either – but it’s what the 30,000 souls who queue each day to see the Da Vinci masterpiece have been enduring, according to Trip Advisor and The Guardian.
Recent feedback described visitors’ experience of the world’s most popular museum as stressful and shocking, “horrendous”, “scandalous”, and “a letdown”.
“Just skip it,” concluded another – which is a phrase that is, increasingly, is becoming a mantra for surviving modern life.
Anyone who has been a tourist in Paris in the summer quickly learns that they have let themselves in for a testing time.
Putting up with the heat, the stress of extreme queues and staff that aren’t in the least sympathique is the trade-off you make for being part of the city’s overall marvelousness.
I’d had my disappointing experience of the Mona Lisa back in the 80s, so it was scarcely-believable queues at Versailles, the Eiffel Tower and Les Catacombes that part-soured our family visit a couple of years ago.
We just about hacked it for the first two but – faced by the prospect of queuing all day and still not getting into the last one, we skipped it.
Because it’s not just Paris in the summer that is becoming unbearable. For example, when I visited the Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen a few summers ago, it felt more like a battlefield than a tourist attraction.
The tiny bronze was the subject of a frenzied pincer operation.
Already assailed on land by hordes of bodies freshly decanted out of cruise liners and coaches, fast-moving tourist boats roared in simultaneously from the harbour.
The dinghies pulled in close: chock-full of passengers capturing their own golden memories and fucking up the selfies of the gawpers – me included – facing them from the shore.
It’s not just tourist destinations that are becoming too much, however.
The other day during morning rush hour, they had to close the Bakerloo line at Paddington Station because of overcrowding again, leaving hundreds of commuters locked outside.
I was there, dodging round the crowds and feeling a sense of relief and cleverness because I’d cycled for 40 minutes up to Paddington, specifically to avoid the Bakerloo.
Although I’d had to cope with the odd iffy driver, my journey hadn’t made me feel angry, frustrated and insignificant, as so many encounters with the wider world seem to do these days.
Perhaps some context would be useful here: I was at Paddington on my way to the funeral of Audrey, a wonderful old lady who’d lived in a very different world from ours.
In 1925, the year Audrey was born, the population of the world was about 2 billion – and it had taken 123 years for it to add the last 1 billion of those souls.
But when Audrey died this year, there were 7.7 billion people living on Earth – meaning that a net six billion people had been added to the global population in her lifetime.
And the last billion of those had been added in just 12 years – meaning that the population is now growing ten times faster than it was when Audrey was born.
Britain alone has added about 13 million to its population since I was born in 1965 and – frankly – it is starting to show.
To paraphrase Phil Collins, there’s too many people making too many problems and not much resource to go round. And it’s not just when we visit cities or tourist attractions, because we’re also short of housing, school places, seats on trains…
We each of us want to believe that our lives are meaningful and special – but when we find ourselves constantly in the midst of crowds of people just like us, feeling stressed and disregarded and treated like cattle, are we not doomed to disappointment?
Another article in The Guardian last week quoted US sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who writes about the current tendency for “People (to) reduce the time they spend in public spaces and hunker down in their safe houses.”
The trend is partly because our infrastructure is increasingly crap but, I would argue, it is also because our public spaces are so bloody unpleasantly crowded.
People need some elbow room and some solitude, otherwise they feel insignificant and then sad – so it’s unsurprising that they stick to their rooms and their video games in search of some self-fulfilment.
And I can’t help but feel that – faced with such pressure of numbers – even the ideals that we live our lives by might have to change.
The other night, I was watching a documentary about Princess Margaret, who was a kind of Poster Girl for the switch in people’s aspirations after the Second World War – away from duty and sacrifice and towards a life of individual self-fulfilment.
But when World War Two ended, the population of the world was two-thirds smaller than it is now.
Nowadays, how can we still hold on to the illusion that we are all different, or unique, or important when we are confronted constantly with such overwhelming evidence that we are commonplace?
These days, when I see seething crowds of commuters and museum-goers, I wonder if our individualistic dreams and our very Western Empire of self-centredness are still tenable at all.
The idea that we can – all eight billion of us – lead lives of individual brilliance is breaking down so badly that, sometimes, I can almost sense the Vandals and their new and brutal ways massing at the gates.
We’re already fighting the philosophical challenges of radical Islam and nationalism; but it may be sheer pressure of numbers that is going to kill western individualism as stone dead as Soviet Russia and Ancient Rome.