#bhamathay – Day 2 – Mike Robinson

As part of the ‘Birmingham Speakers at Hay’ series, Professor Mike Robinson (Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage) spoke about the complex relationship between two long standing interests of his – tourism and literature.

The talk covered a number of interesting aspects, including how the practices and performances, memories and the material culture of being a tourist come together with the literary world and how these are deeply entangled in ways that we still don’t fully understand.

Professor Robinson has been researching tourism for thirty years. During the talk he described himself as a professional tourist watcher – a sort of David Attenborough specialising in the observation of one species – that of Homo Touristicus, and the session continued onto how Robinson has engaged with the process of observation, interested in the performances, the practices, the histories, the geographies, the languages, the literatures, the behaviours, the motivations, the memories of the tourist and the way that tourism is always transformative.

Being at the Hay Festival, the world’s largest literary festival, the talk had to touch on the way in which literature and the idea of literary heritage feeds into our practices and performances of being a tourist, and the intriguing ways in which tourism intersects with literature and shapes our touristic experiences. Professor Robinson covered a range of texts – travel writings, guidebooks, holiday brochures, maps, tourism-oriented websites and blogs, fictional texts and creative writings.

Here’s an extract from Professor Robinson’s talk – here he talks about his experiences of Dracula’s grave…

On a sunny bank holiday, but with a cold northerly wind blowing directly into my face, I sit on the wall of the old graveyard of St Mary’s church, in the shadow of the mighty ruinous St Hild’s Abbey, on top of the windswept cliffs of Whitby. For those that don’t know, Whitby is a small port and harbour on the North East Coast of England, its ancient houses straddling the River Esk. For most of the holiday season its streets are crammed with thousands of holiday makers, day trippers and international tourists. High above the town I’m watching numerous small groups of tourists meandering through the wind eroded graves, occasionally pointing, chatting, stopping and taking photographs. It is clear they are in search of something. Three young women come up to me. It turns out they are from Sweden. They ask me if I live in Whitby. They tell me I look like a local. I tell them I’m only visiting for the holiday weekend. “We are looking for Dracula’s grave” one of the women tells me. They all have fairly serious looks on their faces. I immediately point toward a small huddle of boys near the edge of the graveyard and suggest it may be near to there but that I’m not sure. They then smile and thank me and head toward the boys. I lose track of them amongst the other wandering groups of people. I know what they mean when they refer to Dracula’s grave. It’s a weathered grave – so weathered by the salty wind that no names are visible – surmounted by a skull and cross bones – a common motif for gravestones throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Bram Stoker visited Whitby in 1890 and stayed in a house on West Cliff. During his stay he examined a book at the local library – William Wilkinson’s ‘An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’ and it is almost certain that it was from this book that he took the reference to the historical figure of Dracula. In the novel Dracula is shipwrecked off the Yorkshire coast on his way to London. He comes ashore in the guise of a black dog – again, most likely a re-working of a local legend about a wild, shape-shifting dog – and in human form Dracula effectively becomes one of the town’s more interesting international, ‘oriental’ tourists. The ruin of Whitby Abbey is clearly referred to in the novel and the houses of the old town are described thus – “all red-roofed, and seem piled up one over the other anyhow, like the pictures we see of Nuremberg.”

I have visited Whitby many times but I cannot remember visiting – even as a child – without this shadow of another imagined place. Despite my proclivities for anything to do with Vampires and Zombies, the Dracula connection is not a motivation for me to visit Whitby and yet for others it is. And while I smile to myself when I think of these literary pilgrims, or mere curious tourists, bizarrely searching for the grave of the fictional undead, I can appreciate what Umberto Eco terms the intangible power of literature. I am reminded also of the ways in which knowledge of the world circulates. If I ask you, in all seriousness, how you would kill a vampire, you would be able to tell me. You’d put a stake through their heart. And, you would also be able add something about vampires being in fear of the cross and garlic. And one or two of you may also think about silver bullets as a way of killing werewolves. The fact that you, and I, know this begs two central questions. First, how do you know this? I can’t remember this being taught in school – at least not in my day. Second, and more profoundly, why do we know this? Are our lives so in danger of the constant threat of vampire activity? I would invite you to mine your own memories and work your way through your own fictional encounters with vampires, be they in the form of the black and white Bela Lugosi, the colourful Christopher Lee, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to name a mere few. Not withstanding your obvious literary credentials, my guess would be that relatively few will have absorbed this knowledge through the reading of Stoker’s novel.

Professor Robinson’s talk was very informative, certainly giving food for thought about how what we read can feed our prior knowledge of the world that we carry with us as tourists.

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