Joanne P. Sharp
Recently in the West there has been much lamenting of the demise of cultural difference, a public dismay over the closure of the Age of Exploration and the initiation of an age of homogenization. Despite this fear, the phenomenon of travel writing—a literary form apparently dependent upon difference and therefore doomed by its disappearance—is as popular as ever. Indeed, there appears to be something of a ‘boom’ in travel writing, especially in contemporary English society. Rarely have there been so many television programmes dedicated to all aspects of travel and tourism, from the cheapest package tour to the most adventurous ‘rough guides’ and expensive tailor-made affairs. Print culture also exhibits the English love of travel, with glossy colour supplements in the Sunday papers offering images of exoticism and romance.
Of all recent popular travel accounts by English writers, perhaps Peter Mayle’s depictions of his move to and socialization into Provençal culture have been the most commercially successful. Although his account is of a less modernized way of life than most of his English audience would have experienced, his is not a narration that relies upon a naïve vision of unchanging rural ways. There are images of change and modernity in his accounts but, whereas he acknowledges the potential danger of these external influences upon the way of life he so admires, unlike other travellers, particularly anthropologists, he does not see the loss of local difference as being in any way certain. For Mayle, Provence engages with modernity in its own way to produce idiosyncratic, rather than homogenizing, results. This allows Mayle to go so far as to highlight the advantages of tourism and change when managed well: he contrasts his appropriate stance towards Provence against caricatured figures of culturally insensitive mass tourists whose influence he does consider to pose a potential threat. His is thus a therapeutic discourse that eases the anxiety of people self-conscious of their impact as travellers, giving them an assurance that local character and distinctiveness can— and will—be maintained in the face of global flows of tourism.
However, this therapeutic discourse is couched within a ‘paradox of tourism’: although Mayle’s account self-consciously presents an image of tourism that does not destroy the cultural integrity of Provence, his books’ popularity have led some to fear that his work has begun to change the imaginary and physical landscape, as more people seek the place and the experience that he describes.