Lurid: The Rip Van Winkle section of Rock City's fairy-tales tableaux. Photo: K Tempest Bradford/Flickr
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A visit to Rock City on Lookout Mountain is a bad trip through a kitsch fairytale grotto

In front of me was the most lurid tableau I’d ever seen: a vast glass case housing myriad individual little scenes from fairy tales, each one illustrated by posed figurines and ditsy bits of model-making.

The breakfast waiter at our hotel in downtown Atlanta asked us where we were headed; we said Nashville, and I asked him if there was anything in particular we should check out along the way. He said that as we’d probably be taking the interstate, the obvious place to break our journey was at Lookout Mountain just by Chattanooga. Then he said a whole lot more stuff about the Last Battle of the Cherokees, and also a famous civil war bust-up on the flanks of this notable acclivity. (I use the term “acclivity”, I hasten to add, not out of wilful obscurity, but because it’s a favourite of the writer Ambrose Bierce, much employed by him in his celebrated civil war stories.) I began to get the impression that our waiter was something of a history buff, but I didn’t let that deter me from being an ignorant tourist. “What exactly is there to see there?” I pressured him.

“Well,” he rejoined, “there are seven states to be seen from the summit, for a start.” “And from what vantage point exactly,” I persisted, “can you apprehend this magnificent vista?” Here the waiter began to demur a little: “Well, truth is, you have to go into this place Rock City, which is kinda corny – though the kids might like it.” The kids, who closely resemble extras from the Planet of Apes movies (the originals, not the remakes), looked as if they might like to dismember this talkative human, but I spoke for us all, I think, when I said, “Cool, Rock City it is, then,” because I’d been trying to convince the kids (and by extension myself) that European ideas of folk authenticity existing only in contradistinction to crass commercialism are quite inapplicable to the American scene. “You have to appreciate,” I’d lectured them, “that this is the country where popular culture was invented, so no matter how cheesy something seems, it’s still rooted in the American soul.”

Eight hours later, standing in an underground cavern hacked out of the stuff that gives Rock City its name, I had cause to reconsider this judgement. In front of me was the most lurid tableau I’d ever seen in my life: a vast glass case, some 60 feet long, housing myriad individual little scenes from fairy tales, each one illustrated by posed figurines and ditsy bits of model-making. Here was Little Boy Blue tending his sheep, and over there was Rapunzel letting down her golden hair; Cinderella bent to try on the glass slipper and Jack bartered for the magic beans. It would all have been perfectly unsettling in the clear light of day, but lit with fluorescent lights the colours had a hallucinogenic intensity – this was the fairy tale repurposed as a bad LSD trip.

Just as Rock City itself was a perfectly acceptable, thousand-foot eminence repurposed as a new kind of landform, one beyond mimsy, beyond whimsy, beyond even the outermost event horizon of Hitlerian kitsch, what with its crazily paved paths, its Lover’s Leap and Wishing Well. There were goblin caves and trolls’ bridges, magic grottos and prosaic pinnacles; all right, I made that last one up – but the point is, that not one inch of the hilltop had been left unaltered. Where some might wish to experience untrammelled nature, the creators of Rock City had chosen the most plangent form of artificiality there is: landscaping.

Of course, it ill behoves the English to criticise such behaviour, given that we invented the landscape garden. Indeed, such was the etiolated condition of the English bon ton in the 18th century that the only place they felt comfortable strolling about was in a simulacrum of the natural world, rather than that world itself. I suppose Rock City might fulfil the same function for tourists of our own era: terrified by the prospect of coming face to face with the very real beasts of the Southern wild, they opted instead for a close encounter with Little Boy Blue. And had been opting for this since 1932 (a year before Hitler’s election as chancellor), which made this not just any old kitsch, but rather yet another example of classic American folk art.

Or so I’d tried to convince my apes as they swung from branch to branch, chucked peanuts at the other visitors and generally did their best to ridicule the entire experience. However, the acidic tableau was the bendy straw that broke the cuddly camel’s back – when we’d arrived at the ticket booth I’d assertively queried the prices: “Jesus Christ! Seventy bucks just to take the family for a walk to see a view!” The woman inside was sincerely aggrieved: “Please, sir,” she implored me, “if y’all don’t feel your money was well spent in Rock City I’ll be truly surprised.” Surprised she duly was: I wanted to save her tender heart, but she spotted me hightailing for the exit and called out: “Didja enjoy yourselves?” I couldn’t help myself, and called back: “I want my money back! This place sucks like dog shit!”

I suspect she’s still reeling – but then so am I; to this day, if I close my eyes, I can see a Little Boy Blue-shaped after-image. And as for the view of seven states, that turned out to be hogwash; you can descry only three from Lookout Mountain: the view comprises mostly Chattanooga’s world-famous choo-choo museum. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Let's face it: supporting Spurs is basically a form of charity

Now, for my biggest donation yet . . .

I gazed in awe at the new stadium, the future home of Spurs, wondering where my treasures will go. It is going to be one of the architectural wonders of the modern world (football stadia division), yet at the same time it seems ancient, archaic, a Roman ruin, very much like an amphitheatre I once saw in Croatia. It’s at the stage in a new construction when you can see all the bones and none of the flesh, with huge tiers soaring up into the sky. You can’t tell if it’s going or coming, a past perfect ruin or a perfect future model.

It has been so annoying at White Hart Lane this past year or so, having to walk round walkways and under awnings and dodge fences and hoardings, losing all sense of direction. Millions of pounds were being poured into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. The new stadium will replace part of one end of the present one, which was built in 1898. It has been hard not to be unaware of what’s going on, continually asking ourselves, as we take our seats: did the earth move for you?

Now, at long last, you can see what will be there, when it emerges from the scaffolding in another year. Awesome, of course. And, har, har, it will hold more people than Arsenal’s new home by 1,000 (61,000, as opposed to the puny Emirates, with only 60,000). At each home game, I am thinking about the future, wondering how my treasures will fare: will they be happy there?

No, I don’t mean Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Kyle Walker – local as well as national treasures. Not many Prem teams these days can boast quite as many English persons in their ranks. I mean my treasures, stuff wot I have been collecting these past 50 years.

About ten years ago, I went to a shareholders’ meeting at White Hart Lane when the embryonic plans for the new stadium were being announced. I stood up when questions were called for and asked the chairman, Daniel Levy, about having a museum in the new stadium. I told him that Man United had made £1m the previous year from their museum. Surely Spurs should make room for one in the brave new mega-stadium – to show off our long and proud history, delight the fans and all those interested in football history and make a few bob.

He mumbled something – fluent enough, as he did go to Cambridge – but gave nothing away, like the PM caught at Prime Minister’s Questions with an unexpected question.

But now it is going to happen. The people who are designing the museum are coming from Manchester to look at my treasures. They asked for a list but I said, “No chance.” I must have 2,000 items of Spurs memorabilia. I could be dead by the time I finish listing them. They’ll have to see them, in the flesh, and then they’ll be free to take away whatever they might consider worth having in the new museum.

I’m awfully kind that way, partly because I have always looked on supporting Spurs as a form of charity. You don’t expect any reward. Nor could you expect a great deal of pleasure, these past few decades, and certainly not the other day at Liverpool when they were shite. But you do want to help them, poor things.

I have been downsizing since my wife died, and since we sold our Loweswater house, and I’m now clearing out some of my treasures. I’ve donated a very rare Wordsworth book to Dove Cottage, five letters from Beatrix Potter to the Armitt Library in Ambleside, and handwritten Beatles lyrics to the British Library. If Beckham and I don’t get a knighthood in the next honours list, I will be spitting.

My Spurs stuff includes programmes going back to 1910, plus recent stuff like the Opus book, that monster publication, about the size of a black cab. Limited editions cost £8,000 a copy in 2007. I got mine free, as I did the introduction and loaned them photographs. I will be glad to get rid of it. It’s blocking the light in my room.

Perhaps, depending on what they want, and they might take nothing, I will ask for a small pourboire in return. Two free tickets in the new stadium. For life. Or longer . . . 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times