The Englishman abroad: aspects of the typical British tourist over two centuries

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The Englishman abroad: aspects of the typical British tourist over two centuries

The Englishman abroad: aspects of the typical British tourist over two centuries

In the 18th and 19th centuries, two kinds of Englishman ‘went abroad’, or left Britain for a period. The first of these was the young man on the Grand Tour: He was between 19 and 25 years old, fresh from the University (which was invariably Oxford of Cambridge); rich because he had been born rich, travelling in his own coach with a driver, possibly two grooms and a valet. He may have been accompanied by friends, and a tutor who had befriended him at university. He carried at least two pistols in a case, for protection during long journeys in savage countries like France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Austro-Hungary or Spain. He aimed to stay in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Venice, Budapest, Madrid and Constantinople. His valet was usually of the same age, better looking, worse-dressed, more intelligent, cunning and always critical of ‘the young master’. He was trusted by the young man’s parents to bring the traveller back alive.

Someone always rode ahead of the carriage to prepare rooms in respectable taverns or lodging houses. The young man would carry letters of introduction to consuls and vice-consuls, as well as instructions to bankers. On his travels he would take luncheon and dine at embassies and consulates, in the castle of his parents’ friends, or  (only) the best restaurants. He keeps a daily diary of his adventures, not including his misadventures. He has love affairs, and will probably fight a duel. If he survives the duel he will travel on through Europe, He will dance a great deal after being invited to balls, again by friends of his parents.

This boy will return to England with trunks full of expensive presents for his mother, sisters, aunts and cousins, as well a dose of venereal disease. Various pieces of not very notable sculpture in bronze will travel back with him to the great house in Gloucestershire or Hampshire, where they will be unpacked, placed on the second floor at the end of a forgotten passage, and never more seen. The young man will take care not to experience the Grand Tour again, but he will ensure that his friends know that he has undergone it. In fact he will bore the whole of his friends with mostly imagined tales of his Grand Tour, for the rest of his days, unless his life is curtailed by that dose he met in Sofía, or a duel that he does not win.

With the coming (at last) of middle-class prosperity in the period 1860 – 1900, plus greatly improved methods of mechanised transport, the middle-classes began investigating Europe and the Near-East. Husbands travelled with their wives but without their children, left in the care (?) of nannies and tutors (see Henry James). Other adults, wrapped in scarves in case any Mediterranean country turned out colder than England, accompanied the couple. He went armed with a paintbox, some virgin canvasses, and cod liver oil in case he met any garlic. She went with her daily diary. In hot Greece he wore a heavy raglan overcoat and sneezed. In colder climes she wore yards of material, a huge and uncontrollable hat, and impregnable cami-knickers should rape be intended by the natives.

This new class of over-seas traveller does not know where anything is, but has a Baedecker guide to tell him. The couples treat hotel managers abruptly, and embassy and consulate employees with scrupulous etiquette. All ‘foreigners’, by which they mean the natives of the country they are presently visiting, are treated with suspicion. They do not speak any foreign language, but the man remembers a little Latin, beaten into him at school. She writes in her diary that all foreigners attempt to rook you every minute of the day, as well as speaking languages you cannot make head or tail of. In fact, for her, foreign places are Hell, and she only comes on holiday for her husband’s sake. He, on the other hand, especially in Cairo or Port Said, would prefer to be without spouse. In the latter place, when confronted by an urchin with filthy postcards, she faints and must be treated with sal volatile. In Athens, the husband must ride a donkey so small his well shod feet scrape the ground.

After the Second War the great masses, never having left their village before, are delighted so much by the new Package Tour that they decide to investigate foreign places, as long as they have coasts. They count Venice as ‘coast’ but shudder at the prices. France and Spain have endless coasts and are most popular. In the 1960s the lower middle class are at first shocked to find that many hotels they have booked at Cook’s Tours are unfinished blocks of already crumbling cement with dubious balconies. After a while they become accustomed. But they never, to this day, manage the difficult thought that in Spain, for example, and Portugal, the people insist on speaking a language that is not English. This can be overcome by shouting at the top of the voice their request: “SAUSAGE, EGGS AND CHIPS!” “PINT OF BEER, YOU FOOL, I SAID A PINT OF BEER!”  “WHERE’S THE BLOODY TOILET YOU SILLY MUCKER!” “I FEEL SICK, YOU IDIOT, WHERE’S THE CLARZY?”  The Spanish, not always so tolerant, learn to accept the eccentricities of the English tourist. After all, tourism en masse means massive employment. The Latin races only become intolerant when the pot-bellied runt from Epping takes leave from vomiting in the street, to seduce a daughter. At this the Latin reaches for his knife.

By the Noughties, every Briton worth his salt has stayed in Venice, Copenhagen, Barcelona and Tangier. He has left the ancient English seaside resorts of Frinton, Padstow and Southport to the families descended from the original eighteenth century Grand Tourist, who admits he ‘simply cannot go this year’ to Monte Carlo because of the ‘vulgar crowds’. The circle is thus completed.

By | 2012-01-09T11:09:33+00:00 January 9th, 2012|English History, Humour, Today, World History|0 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.

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