Western civilization is becoming universal, the race a homogenous one. And before we die, half the variety of the picture will be gone; as if a showman had sold his swing-boats, his hoop-las, his fat women, and even his merry-go-round, and invested in the proceeds in one superlative chairoplane. The view is enlarged, the motion more poignant. And then: all is dull.
The Station Robert Byron, 1931
Bruce Chatwin just left a postcard, off to Patagonia, he wrote. No such anonymity now: I’m deliberately visible on Google Earth, another speck moving slowly and nervously to France; and who knows what GPS signal my new passport gives off.
Several months ago a friend brought her son around for dinner; they came with the son’s exchange student, a poised 17 year old from a large new city in Northern China I’d never heard of. We asked where he lived and two minutes later were looking at the roof of his house on Google Earth. The boy wanted to go to business school and was interested particularly in becoming something solid, like a Master of the Universe.
The world is smaller now; and we know so much about it – even in the seventy-five years since Robert Byron wrote the quote that begins this entry. The huge success of online multiplayer games set in violent mythical worlds of conquest (and simple quest) should be no surprise to those of us lucky enough to be jaded by the apparent futile fertility of 24/7 culture in the real world. Not when an Easyplane can take us to Istanbul in a few hours, and holidays in the Antarctic or the deserts of the Wadi Rum are so relatively easy for those with money. Of another online game a friend’s son recently told me “I’m fourteenth century Egypt, the Pope has just issued a Fatwah against me so I’ve aligned with the Vikings.” It made sense to him – he was winning though his alliance – but I found myself thinking of A.J.P Taylor, the historian, spinning in his grave. I felt like a grunty Caliban to my gaming-playing all-powerful Prospero – who was enabled not by Arial, but The World of Warcraft.
What’s new? That’s the question, in travel as well as everyday life at the breakfast bar or in front of the laptop. For every one of us wants a new, a shake-up, even if it is just a hobby for the weekend. A new car or a new wife; a new job or a new experience; new nose or novel. “Are you going on this trip because you’re having a mid-life crisis?” Prospero’s brother asked me last week at half-time in the Chelsea Manchester game. “I’m in my fifteenth year,” I said.