Trials? I wonder whether show-trials wouldn't be more apt. Although I'm usually able to conduct myself without suffering too much ignominy, I retain the ability to put my foot in it. Take the other evening when the conversation turned to Venice. Ah, Venice. Watery, famous Venice. I've never been there. And I happened to say so. Not out of pride, not out of perversity, but merely in passing. The capacity of this casual admission to prompt a rich mix of reactions cannot be exaggerated. Incredulity swept over the table. You're not in earnest? You must be joking. Then pity crept in – poor you, never been to north-east Italy's most beautiful city? Suppressed anger bubbled under the surface (how dare I sully this table if I've never visited Venice?), mixed with concern, almost alarm, for my philistinism. And so on. I was the culprit in a modern Bateman cartoon. Why haven't you been to Venice?
I then made the mistake of replying with a list of some of the better known Italian cities I have been to: Turin, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Siena, Rome, Naples, Bari, Catania, Syracuse. This simply compounded things. The point I had missed – and it had, genuinely, never occurred to me – is that the bien pensant tourist (who dignifies him or herself as a "traveller") has every right to visit such left-field destinations as Bari and Turin but only after acquaintance has been made with the fully accredited first-division sites.
When a place’s fabric is more precious than its everyday life, that place is in stasis, and so in trouble
Itineraries are there to be conformed to. Parochially this means Bath, Edinburgh, York, Stonehenge. These places have to be ticked off before you can even think of catching a train to Durham or Sheffield. To fail in this regard is akin to boasting that one has never read Shakespeare but keep the complete works of John Clare on your bedside table; or that you have never listened to Beethoven but adore Vaughan Williams: there are classic sites – and then there are the rest.
My clearly quaint belief is that it is from the rest that we have something to learn. Why? Because classic sites tend to uniqueness. They are very likely sui generis. They cannot but shout about how special they are, how different, how caught in their magnificent past. They are trapped in the amber of heritage and the aspic of history. Beauty is their burden. Monumentality is their undoing. When a place's fabric is more precious than its everyday life, that place is in stasis, and so in trouble. Its livelihood comes to depend on its immutability – which is the very obverse of the quality that is a living city's fuel. Its options for reinvention are limited. It is obliged to live off its past. The coarser fabric of non-touristic cities is appealing because they are susceptible to the often crude stratagems of renewal and regeneration and speculation.