/ 15 January 2010

The tourist tat trap

The oddest restaurant I ever ate in was Lenin’s Mating Call in St Petersburg. The said mating call — an electronic screech delivered by a waist-high silver bust of Lenin by the door — erupted whenever anyone entered the restaurant.

Stalin’s bust was there, too, tastefully enough, and the waitresses scurried around in sexed-up versions of old Soviet Youth uniforms. The walls were swagged with red curtains and communist memorabilia, and giant flatscreen TVs played footage of old Soviet rallies intercut with not-particularly-softcore porn. Don’t even ask me about the toilets. The borscht, on the other hand, was very good, if overpriced.

It was, in short, the culture of Soviet Russia rendered in tat. I was reminded of Lenin’s Mating Call while wandering past all the tourist shops that line the Waterfront of Cape Town, where I am staying for a while. As the sound of Ladysmith Black Mambazo hits drifted out across the water (“Moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake …”), I found my eye drawn to all the tat for sale: wooden sculptures of shiny-cheeked black women with headscarves and figures like inflated loaves shared space with knock-kneed giraffes and majestic lions — fragments of South African culture reduced to tat, to adorn keyrings and bum bags. Among all this were guitars made out of old Castrol GTX oilcans. Don’t ask me why.

I’m interested in tat — fond of it, even. Culturally, it’s interesting stuff, even when it’s at its most banal. The way a nation represents itself to itself is one thing; the way it represents itself to the outside world is another. And, in its tourist knick-knacks, rip-off restaurant designs and commercial “folk art”, you see something different again: you see, driven by the pressure of commerce, how a country imagines its visitors think of it. By a nation’s tat shall ye know it.

Consequently, tat is always shaped by expectations: folk art aimed at tourists is most successful when it conforms to what they imagine local folk art to be like — an instance of what you could call “self-orientalising”. Whatever the authentic cultural forms and folk art of Africa are, the ones I’m most likely to come across as a Cape Town tourist are the ones in which the women resemble Mma Ramotswe from the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, the animals look as if they’ve stepped out of The Lion King and the music all sounds like Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Before the end of communism, Westerners who visited Russia came back loaded with busts of Lenin, enamel badges for caps, military gear and what have you. Russia sold them in earnest, and they were consumed ironically. Post-communism, the story has changed, but only slightly: Russia now sells them ironically, and they are consumed in earnest.

I have on my mantelpiece, thanks to a friend’s recent visit, a white-chocolate bust of Lenin, and I drink whisky out of a tumbler etched with the already-forgotten face of Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin’s right-hand man. When I was last in St Petersburg, I was accosted by a kid flogging T-shirts bearing the letters CCCP. As the lad waved his tat around, he was calling out: “T-sheert! T-sheert! See-see-see-pee!” Clearly, he knew his market and the fact that it was shaped by Western expectations: in Russian, those initials would be pronounced “ess-ess-ess-err”. So, out of perfect courtesy and canny business sense, the T-shirt vendor had already made your mistake for you.

Every country does a version of this, as far as I can tell. Well, every country with a tourist industry, I should say — that great distorting mirror of identity politics. Even the proud French aren’t above a bit of beret ‘n onions action, Edinburgh’s Royal Mile is filled with tartan teddy bears and shortbread, and there isn’t a bar in Havana that doesn’t boast live music from the Buena Vista Social Club. I don’t know if they sell a lot of cuckoo clocks in Switzerland, but I have a hunch.

If your total exposure to British culture was centred on the tourist shops of Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, you’d come away with some funny ideas, wouldn’t you? You’d imagine the British army consisted entirely of beefeaters, and that the pinnacle of British cultural output was Agatha Christi’s play The Mousetrap (you might conclude that such a country would be a pushover to invade, but then wonder why anyone would want it). Who knows, you might also, woe betide you, end up eating in an Angus Steak House.

Swings and roundabouts. Soviet communism was a horrible thing — but, as both performance art and catering, Lenin’s Mating Call beats the Angus Steak House hands down. — © Guardian News & Media 2010