I have lived and worked for some forty years at a distance of thirty odd miles north of Stratford-upon-Avon, and I can say with a clear conscience that I rarely visit the place, unless it is to attend a production at the theatre. A visit the place for its own sake would be unthinkable. The place to my mind is drab, uninteresting and generally fails to deliver anything you might expect from a so-called historic town.
So I for one welcome the Germaine Greer’s mischief-making rant in today’s Guardian in which she gives a no-holds-barred account just how appalling the place can be for the unwary visitor. She writes that the place is the worst kind of tourist trap. While I have to wonder what she thinks is the best kind of tourist trap might be, I have to say that I agree. Although I come from Ireland, a country so cluttered up with pretty dodgy tourist traps that I occasionally blush to think about them, I’d still say Germaine is pretty much right about Stratford.
The dreariness of Stratford seems to be deliberate, as if “grab their money and get rid of them” were the town’s motto. Perhaps we should be glad that there are not stalls up and down the precinct selling Bardkügeln, polychrome versions of the shonky bust and parti-coloured hats with bells; glad there are no sturdy beggars with tethered dogs and droning didgeridoos. But what we get instead is emptiness.
But, come on Germaine, tourists flock to the place. It must have something to offer. Why would they do that otherwise?
It is because the Bard is such a draw that the “world-class destination” that is Stratford-upon-Avon will remain a dump. The poor old tourists will keep coming, dutifully staring at the things they can’t go home without seeing, while the food gets worse, the hotels and boarding houses get shabbier and smellier, and the environment is further degraded.
Of course there are these stories of various developments that will, in the long term, bring the place into the 21st century.
To read the official descriptions of these projects, which are not yet even in their infancy, is to realise that the city planners have forgotten where their historic centre is. The riverside is where Shakespeare’s poorer contemporaries grazed their pigs and geese. It has its own heroic tale to tell, which has nothing to do with the theatre and everything to do with the town that made Shakespeare. It would be a bitter irony if the greatness of Stratford‘s greatest son should be the direct cause of this little town’s ultimate undoing. Of course, in that little last sentence Germaine reveals her true aim. She has all along been ranting against the town’s failure to do justice to its own history while grubbing about in what she sees as the rather unsavoury business exploiting the fact that it happens to be Shakespeare’s birthplace.
Celebrate Stratford for its own sake, and give up the money-cow that’s the Bard industry. What a suggestion? Didn’t I say Germaine was mischief-making? It’s mischief-making of a high order, but then you’d expect nothing less from her.