Scratching the surface

Looking at a city beyond tourism, tourists and a picture postcard

The ways of tourism departments are often difficult to fathom, but their choices of promotional literature are always placid and anodyne. A gumshoe traveller would be well served, therefore, to look to a few seamier books to get a handle on a city. Life happens outside the picture postcard, he will learn, and he will go his way the wiser for it.

Not everybody in Venice is a beetle-browed gondolier-singing &lsquoNessun Dorma&rsquo, he would realise, for instance, upon reading John Berendt&rsquos The City of Falling Angels. Some are potential arsonists, some are antiquated bureaucrats, some are unscrupulous expatriates, and many are gossiping backstabbers. A couple are shockingly, even bores. Bores in Venice How can that possibly be Haven&rsquot they been outlawed already

Chuck Palahniuk, on the other hand, seems to have almost created his very own Portland, Oregon in Fugitives & Refugees. It includes a self-cleaning house, a session of groping in the Shanghai tunnels, naked mannequins, the I-tit-a-rod Race, the Santa Rampage, and Palahniuk&rsquos tonsils&mdashnone of which, you may be assured, features on the first page of the gushing &lsquoVisit Portland&rsquo brochures.

Only one city, I imagine, would pass itself off as portrayed in literature, specifically in Hunter S. Thompson&rsquos Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Vegas&rsquo tourism officials may not actually press blotter acid, mescaline and amyls upon wide-eyed visitors, but the city revels in its reputation for iniquity. And why not It is, after all, iniquity that its tourists seek.

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