Ben Zapherelli: Last Chance To See
Raphus cucullatus is no more. He has ceased to be. Bereft of life he rests in peace. In fact, one of his kind, better known to you and me as the dodo, isn’t resting. He’s nailed to his perch at South London’s Horniman Museum, a quaintly bizarre tourist attraction that serves as a superannuated version of a Victorian gentleman’s wunderkabinett.
Among the collections of every musical instrument ever made and African tribal items, he sits in his own case, next to tragically badly taxidermied dogs and a giant walrus. Now recognised to be a weirdly evolved ground-dwelling pigeon, as far as the dodo is concerned, things took a turn for the worst in 1598. Dutch sailors, the first human settlers of the island of Mauritius, mentioned a strangely tame endemic dinner source – fearless of humans, flightless of, well, flight and not that tasty. One of them critiqued that: ‘These we used to call ‘Walghvogel’, for the reason that the longer and oftener they were cooked, the less soft and more insipid eating they became. Nevertheless their belly and breast were of a pleasant flavour and easily masticated.’
And there we have Raphus cucullatus’ Achilles heel. Being rather too easily hunted and then easily masticated, by 1662 the dodo had been utterly masticated into oblivion. With ease. Today, like the passenger pigeon, whose biblical flocks used to blackout the midday sun across the American midwest and the Lewis Carolesque Great Auk, the passing of the dodo into legend stands as a symbol of our rather myopic approach to our planet’s resources.
Whereas trade routes and empire building used to be the driving force of our environmental and cultural follies, today tourism and global capital is having to take a look at itself as its galumphing big footprint stomps over even wider territory. The question we need to ask ourselves is: ‘At what point do we want places to retain the qualities that we first valued in them?’. There is a fear that the property hotspot cities of the west – New York, London and Paris – are in danger of masticating themselves as the stand-off between development opportunity and existing culture (and fauna) becomes ever more one sided. The Crossrail East-West train service that is being constructed through the heart of London currently has necessitated the destruction of parts of old Soho.
Capital investment and change is to be expected. What is to be questioned is the sheer paucity of ambition of replacement architecture – yet more homogenous glass boxes – and, more poignantly, the barriers erected around the construction sites in the area. They are like a tourist brochure, showing the scenes, characters and venues that made the area famous – in the very buildings that are now rubble. Irony, anyone?
The homogeneity of our modern cities is a major issue. Technocratic regimes may feel like they have little choice in ‘austere’ times, but do we really want to live in places that destroy the very things that brought us here? Boris Johnson may well justify selling land on the Victoria Embankment to create high-end condos that generate investment and lure foreign residents, but when they destroy the view of the Thames for anyone not living in them, logic begins to break down.
A recent report indicated that spending on London’s fabled local parks (which comprise the 40% of the city’s surface that’s actually green space) has shrunk 18% in four years. One expert predicts privatisation by 2025, leading to potential members-only entrances. ‘Backward step’ doesn’t even cover it. The rich can drive a city forward. But they can’t populate it.
One suspects that even cities previously considered undevelopable are about to get the re-glazing treatment. Recently, I was crouching in a gutter on Naples’ Via Tribunali in the old historic centre and struggling to tidily ravage the utterly mystic pizza from Di Matteos. This historic restaurant is surrounded by yet more history going back from the Romans to the Greeks. The area is grimy and chaotic and at night, peppered with a piquant hint of mild threat. And it’s glorious. However, an Italian friend confided that the place has been cleaned up in recent years, which though it makes for tidier streets and less traffic, also leads locals to fear gentrification when the Sauron’s eye of international property lands on them. This is also the bind that the tourism industry finds itself in. Or rather, really chooses not to.
The World Travel and Tourism Council proudly estimates the total global contribution to GDP of the industry was $7,580.8 billion in 2014. That’s 9.8%. Investment was just over $800 billion. That’s a lot of pillow chocolates. But consider the giant tortoise. Living over a century in your own mobile home doesn’t necessarily inure you from the forces of change. On their home of the Galapagos Islands, where Darwin first began to observe his theories in action, a change in the law that has allowed foreign investment might be the final act that gives the go-ahead for nine acre golf courses, spa hotels and construction in areas that have, until now, been protected.
Riot police with tear gas have been on the streets of the islands, with residents believing that the Ecuadorian government is more interested in exploiting their potential wealth than preserving them. All of this is merely a choice, of course. Progress is part of our existence. It would just be sad if the epitaph for our labours reads merely: ‘Now extinct. Was easily masticated’.
Ben Zapharelli is from a family of Genoan ice cream makers who settled in Watford by mistake and is a former barrister who between journalistic assignments works for major financial corporations. He still likes ice cream.