To Willing Conflators Of Jamaica Kincaid And Jeremy Todd (sixth letter)

If you go to Vancouver as a tourist, this is what you will see. If you come by airplane, you will land at the Vancouver International Airport. George Vancouver was an English officer of the British Royal Navy, best known for his 1791-95 expedition, which explored and charted North America’s northwestern Pacific Coast regions, including the coasts of contemporary Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. He also explored the Hawaiian Islands and the southwest coast of Australia. You may be the sort of tourist who would wonder why an 18th Century English naval officer would have an airport named after him, along with the city that you have come to visit and holiday in — why not a school, why not a hospital, why not some great public monument?  You are a tourist and you have not yet seen . . .
You decide to venture from the sanctity of your condo-cum-ski lodge compound. You see natives. You marvel at the things they can do with shopping carts and found clothing. The things they collect from dumpster diving. Squatting on the side of the road. Hanging out with all the time in the world. You might look at them and think: “They’re so contented, so indifferent, they’re never concerned.”
Every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour.
But some natives — most natives in the world — cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go — so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.
It is as if, then, the beauty—the beauty of the sea, the North Shore Mountains, the air, the trees, the wildlife, the glass towers, the beaches and beach-goers, the sounds they make—were a prison, and as if everything and everybody inside it were locked in and everything and everybody that is not inside it were locked out. And what might it do to ordinary people to live in this way every day? What might it do to them to live in such heightened, intense surroundings every day?
This then is Vancouver’s cultural specificity.  Let me just tell you something about Cultural Services: in places where there is a municipal Cultural Services department there is no culture…  In cities that have no culture or are afraid they may have no culture, there is a municipal Cultural Services department. And what is Culture anyway?
The English don’t seem to know that this empire business was all wrong and they should, at least, be wearing sackcloth and ashes in token penance of the wrongs committed, the irrevocableness of their bad deeds, for no natural disaster imaginable could equal the harm they did. Actual death might have been better. And so all this fuss over empire — what went wrong here, what went wrong there — always makes me quite crazy, for I can say to them what went wrong: they should never have left their home, their precious England, a place they loved so much, a place they had to leave but could never forget. And so everywhere they went they turned it into England; and everybody they met they turned English. But no place could ever really be England, and nobody who did not look exactly like them would ever be English, so that you can imagine the destruction of people and land that came from that.

 

jeremy