Island of dreams

I’m just back from a week in the pleasant company of my teenage son, visiting Sorrento, on the Amalfi coast of Italy.

We had a lovely holiday – we saw the ruins at Pompeii, went to the archaeological museum in Naples, took a boat trip to Capri and relaxed by the hotel pool. We were welcomed and treated very well by everyone we met – rather more so than I was really comfortable with.

I find tourism a fascinating process. As everyone who lives in a tourist town knows, tourists are both a blessing and a curse. In my day to day life in Brighton, I don’t have much to do with them. I don’t work in an industry that depends directly on income from tourism, though the economy of the city as a whole does rely heavily on it. They don’t bother me much, and I generally avoid them when I can.

Nevertheless, there is something double-edged about tourism. We want visitors to come to our city, to enjoy and appreciate it, and to spend their money in local businesses. But the work of providing food, accommodation and entertainment for tourists is often poorly paid and has punishing hours. Work of this kind – that is reminiscent of domestic service, or housework (“women’s work”) – is usually pretty badly rewarded and has very low status in society.

On the other side of the coin, the experience of being a tourist – what I went to Sorrento looking for – feels a bit like being a king, or lord of the manor. No need to cook or wash up, an invisible hand cleans your room, makes your bed and brings fresh towels while you are out, and new delights are on offer every day, just to please you.

You can be a tourist – or a tourist town – in a variety of ways. I don’t think there’s a right way, nor that any of them are wrong. It’s quite a responsibility, being the place where people go to escape, to find their dreams. How a town approaches the task can make a big difference to the kind of place it becomes.

In Sorrento, the town centre has only five types of business: hotels; restaurants and cafes; shops selling souvenirs (bottles of limoncello, mainly); shops selling clothes, shoes or handbags; and places offering tours – Pompeii, Vesuvius, Capri. Every single enterprise in the town centre depends entirely on the business of tourists. Everyone speaks English and all written information (shop signs, menus, tour brochures) has an English translation.

Sorrento knows exactly what you like and is prepared to go to some lengths to show you a good time.

According to our tour guide at Pompeii, Sorrento was a holiday resort, even in ancient Roman times. So they have had plenty of time to settle on a winning formula.

Business was booming last week – the town was packed, Capri was even busier, all the buses and trains were heaving with tourists. Tourism is clearly a thriving industry in the whole region. I have no idea how well people can live, running or working in a shop, restaurant or travel agency in Sorrento. I imagine some people are doing very well from the industry and others are working flat out for little pay, just like in Brighton.

Andrea, who took us on his own boat to Capri, said he couldn’t imagine a better job to have – he rents out a self-catering apartment in the town and takes small groups to the island, where he too can swim in the sea and have a nice drink and a chat in the afternoon sun as the party returns to port. He is fluent in English and Spanish (at least) and can afford to holiday in the Caribbean himself. His 9 year-old daughter had just returned from a few weeks in Brighton, learning English.

I don’t think I was exploiting Andrea, nor was he ripping me off. Being a tourist brings responsibilities too. Your role is to hand over the money and appreciate the effort people are making to please you.

I’m always haunted by the memory of my fellow holiday-makers in Zanzibar when I was a young woman, complaining about the $1 dollar charge for visiting a particular island. We were staying in a hotel, right on the beach, with running water – a luxury that hadn’t been extended to the local villagers who worked there. My feeling is that it’s a bit rich for people who are being treated like kings to complain about how much that privilege costs.

So I am not at all ungrateful for the welcome I received in Sorrento. I had only a few words of Italian, and would have found the week much more difficult if so many people had not taken the trouble to learn my language. A break from cooking and washing up was just what I needed, and the landscape and history was wonderful.

But I am pleased to be home. It’s a little bit overwhelming to be playing a role all the time, even if it’s the role of someone with nothing to do.

In Brighton, we do tourism a little differently. Though we do, of course, have hotels and tourist tat shops, we also have plenty of other strings to our bow. And even as a destination – especially for the queer ones, the outsiders and misfits who wash up here – we have a subtext that is different from the straightforward tourist transaction.

Brighton doesn’t know what you are looking for, exactly, but you may well find it here. Whatever it is, we’ve probably seen it all before and you can rely on our discretion.

In some ways, what we’re selling is the opposite of the tourist experience. We say – you’re not the king, but here you can be yourself, whoever you are. You can be one of us for a week, if you like, or maybe you’ll stay longer – we take all sorts here.

I arrived back just in time for Brighton Pride, which has become one of the city’s biggest events of the year. I volunteered to carry one of the placards in the parade, bearing the names of the 78 countries in the world where homosexuality is criminalised. Watching the reaction of the crowd was very interesting. Many people were simply bemused – the placards didn’t explain clearly enough what they were about, and so there was something of a missed opportunity to share information about this injustice.

After so many years in which Pride had become nothing other than a commercial opportunity and a fabulous spectacle, it’s perhaps not surprising that many of the people who lined the streets to watch the parade were not aware of the significance of this collection of country names. Much more unforgivable was the ignorance of the commentator as the parade passed by the VIP viewing stand (er, wtf?)on the seafront – who called out the names of several countries from our placards and then said “amazing support from around the world”. I kid you not.

But all along the route of the parade, there were people in the crowd who did understand, who stood and applauded, with anger and defiance on their faces, or who simply wept. For the sake of those people, I am proud to have been able to help restore a tiny bit of content to our celebration of diversity.

One other welcome development in the official Pride event was the return, for the second year, of the Literature Live tent in the park. I spent the afternoon there, listening to a range of fascinating prose, poetry, reminiscence and autobiography by queer writers from Brighton and further afield. People shared their stories, made each other think, laugh and cry, listened to each other and tried to understand. It was a precious space of meaning and connection, offered free of charge by our local library service.

Brighton hasn’t been a tourist town for as long as Sorrento, but being an island of dreams is part of our city’s story from its beginnings. Listening to some of the readings in the literature tent, I was reminded of how important Brighton has been over the decades for queer people of all kinds, not just for those who live here but also for those who come here to escape, to dream, or to disappear.

I wish Brighton Pride were more like Brighton and less like Sorrento. At Brighton Pride, outside the literature tent, there’s only one way to be and only one thing to do. We are kings for a day, but that means we are expected to do nothing but eat, drink, drink some more, dance and spend money.

For the rest of the year, Brighton knows that queer people come in all varieties and bring all kinds of knowledge to our city. Why don’t we bring some of that diversity to our special day?

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