I don’t like reading about other people’s holidays, especially in fictional pieces acting as a thinly disguised love-letter to a location recently visited. I can’t help but get the sense of a writer showing off, perhaps wishing themselves to appear worldly or worldlier than they really are. How do we pick apart posturing from a genuine connection to place?
Correspondingly, and hypocritically, the intense curation and mapping of our visits abroad via social media channels – mainly Twitter and Instagram – makes me uneasy. I have a nagging sense of something being off, like distracting white noise barely perceptible in the background, but very much there. Of course I participate in this myself, compelled by something that also repels me.
Luckily for me, unease and disquiet are emotions that lend themselves very well to weird fiction.
In the summer of 2018, my girlfriend Nina and I took a trip to northern Italy, taking in Milan, Bergamo, Malcesine on the shores of Lake Garda, Verona and finally Venice – nothing particularly remarkable but a very enjoyable trip. There are a few photos on my Instagram account should you wish to see what poses I pulled in front of different buildings.
Venice is a beautiful city, fascinating, unique and full of history; I am glad that I have been there and seen the place with my own eyes. But what struck me about the city more than anything, and the image that kept coming back to me was a crowded bridge over the Canal Grande that looked as if it had erupted in a row of white bristles, shaking the like the excited spines of a porcupine. Selfie sticks, hundreds of them held aloft in the bright sunlight, as people from the world over posed and preened with Venice spread out behind them. Pictures posed, reviewed, rearranged, reshot, until the perfect capture of the great time we were all having was made.
To record one’s existence, to capture proof that we were here, is nothing new and an innate human impulse. I get it. It’s not an original point, but the disconnect between the recorded lives we present online and what is really happening around us was stark in Venice. We stand in the present taking misleading photos, imagining a future where we’ll look at these photos and remember a false past. There’s a selfishness to it all, standing in a crowd of hundreds and paying attention to only ourselves.
The true image of that bridge over Venice’s central canal would be as I have described – a sea of people waving sticks attached to mobile phones in the air. That, to me, is of far more interest than an edited and ultimately false presentation of the city.
I am not the first person to have moaned about tourists in Italy – the brilliant weird fiction writer Robert Aickman (who was most definitely a culturally elitist snob) had tackled this issue in his story ‘Never Visit Venice’ where the old and beautiful city has become ‘rotted with the world’s new littleness’ and trashed by tourism. Aickman died in 1981, so one can only imagine what his reaction would be to the place now.
I wanted to write about this issue, using the sense of unease it creates in me as the fuel for a piece of weird fiction. I wanted to set a story away from my usual landscapes of London and the Thames Estuary, and I wanted to write something that engaged with Italian culture without being touristic, or simply crap and misjudged.
I didn’t want to write about Venice, though, and so the setting of the story became the city of Verona – a place I enjoyed a great deal more, though still affected by the issues I had seen in Venice. With its coliseum, and its Shakespearean fame, how could it not? I won’t lie, I loved the place, struck by the beauty of the Adige river surging under the Castelvecchio on a riverbank where hummingbird hawk moths fed themselves on nectar. The abandoned military arsenal from the days of the Austro Hungarian empire. The bar for punks and skins covered in SHARP graffiti. It was a great place and I hope to return.
So, Verona became the setting for ‘We Rip Holes in Their Paper Faces to Give Them Sight’. Not as a disguised love letter to a city but as a different way to address the issues that concern me: the double-edged sword of mass tourism, representation versus reality, Brexit, my own fear of climate change and the feelings of depression that have accompanied it, the sense of a world becoming increasingly selfish and self-regarding. Perversely I wanted to turn a place I responded to with overwhelming positivity in to a place of strangeness, sick heat and anxiety; seeing if I could set a weird fiction story in the bright sunshine and different culture of a city barely-known to me, and fit into the connected worlds I have mapped out in Hollow Shores, Judderman and other upcoming works.
Hopefully it works.
Gary Budden is a writer, editor and the co-founder of award-winning independent publisher, Influx Press. His book of uncanny psychogeographies and landscape punk, Hollow Shores, was published in 2017 by Dead Ink, and his novella Judderman (as D.A. Northwood) was published in 2018 by the Eden Book Society. His story ‘Greenteeth’ was adapted into a short film by the filmmaker Adam Scovell. He lives in London.
You can read ‘We Rip Holes in Their Paper face to Give Them Sight’ in Issue Eleven of The Lonely Crowd, available here.
Banner image by Jo Mazelis.