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

Photo: Getty
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The New Statesman 2016 local and devolved elections liveblog

Results and analysis from elections across the United Kingdom. 

Welcome to the New Statesman's elections liveblog. Results will be coming in from the devolved legislatures in Scotland and Wales, local elections in England, and the mayoral contests in London, Salford, Bristol and Liverpool. Hit refresh for updates!

23:25: Tory mole in Wales tells me that things look bad for them - potentially worse than the losses shown in YouGov's poll. The election has become "a referendum on steel", apparently. 

23:20: Early results from Sunderland show Labour doing fairly badly (you know, for Sunderland) and Ukip doing very well. But one swallow doesn't make a summer and we need more data before we know anything. 

23:15: We should get our first result from Scotland in 45 minutes or so. Rutherglen, Labour-held since the Scottish Parliament's creation in 1999, and highly likely to go to the SNP. 

23:13: And what the results mean so far, according to ace numbercruncher Matt Singh:

23:07: Those numbers from Sunderland, where Labour have held in St Anne's ward. Labour down 15 points on 2012, when these seats were last fought, Tories down 3. It's Ukip who are making the headway (they didn't stand last time and expect them do post performances like this throughout the United Kingdom tonight and as results roll in over the weekend). 

23:04: Back to Wales - YouGov's poll "looks about right" according to my Plaid Cymru source. What does that mean? Labour could go it alone and do deals on a vote-by-vote basis - they govern alone now with just 30 seats. If the poll is even a little out - let's say either Labour or the Liberal Democrats get one more seat - they might do a deal if they can get a majority with the Welsh Liberal Democrats. 

23:01: Pallion Ward in Sunderland is the first to declare, and it's a Labour hold! More on percentages as I get them. 

22:58: Why isn't it an exit poll, I hear you ask? Well, an exit poll measures swing - not vote share, but the change from one election to the next. People are asked how they've voted as they leave polling stations. This is then projected to form a national picture. Tonight's two polls are just regular polls taken on the day of the election. 

22:57: The Sun's poll - again, not an exit poll, I'm not kidding around here - of Scotland has the SNP winning by a landslide. (I know, I'm as shocked as all of you) But more importantly, it shows the Conservatives beating Labour into second place. The Tories believe they may hold onto Ettrick as well. 

22:55: What news from Scotland? Labour looks to have been wiped out in Glasgow. Liberal Democrats think they might hold at least one of Orkney or Shetland, while the seats in Edinburgh are anyone's game. 

22:52: Hearing that turnout is low in Waltham Forest, Lewisham, Hackney and my birthplace of Tower Hamlets (the borough's best export unless you count Dizzie Rascal, Tinchy Stryder or Harry Redknapp, that's me). Bad news for Labour unless turnout is similarly low in the Tory-friendly outer boroughs. 

22:47: YouGov have done a poll (note: not an exit poll, it should not be taken as seriously as an exit poll and if you call it an exit poll I swear to god I will find you and kill you) of the Welsh Assembly. Scores on the door:

Labour 27

Plaid Cymru 12 

Conservatives 11

Ukip 8

Liberal Democrat 2

There are 60 seats in the Assembly, so you need 30 seats for a majority of one. 

22:40: In case you're wondering, how would closing a seven point deficit to say, six, compare to previous Labour oppositions, I've done some number-crunching. In 1984, Neil Kinnock's Labour turned a Tory lead of 15 per cent at the general election to a Conservative lead of just one per cent. In 1988, one of 12 per cent went down to one per cent. (He did, of course, go on to lose in both the 1987 and 1992 elections). In 1993, John Smith's Labour party turned a deficit of eight points at the general to a Labour lead of eight points in the local elections. William Hague turned a Labour lead of 13 points to one of just six in 1998, while Iain Duncan Smith got a Tory lead of just one point - from a Labour lead of nine. In 2006, new Tory leader David Cameron turned a 3 point Labour lead to a 13 point Tory one. Ed Miliband - remember him? - got from a Tory lead of seven points to a two point Labour one. 

22:35: John McDonnell is setting out what would be a good night as far as the party leadership is concerned - any improvement on the 2015 defeat, when the party trailed by close to seven points. Corbyn's critics say he needs to make around 400 gains.

I've written about what would be good at length before, but here's an extract:

"Instead of worrying overmuch about numbers, worry about places. Although winning seats and taking control of councils is not a guarantee of winning control of the parliamentary seat – look at Harlow, Nuneaton, and Ipswich, all of which have Labour representation at a local level but send a Conservative MP to Westminster – good performances, both in terms of increasing votes and seats, are a positive sign. So look at how Labour does in its own marginals and in places that are Conservative at a Westminster level, rather than worrying about an exact figure either way."

22:31: Oh god, the BBC's election night music is starting. Getting trauma flashbacks to the general election. 

22:22: A few of you have been in touch about our exit poll. Most of you have been wondering about that one vote for George Galloway but the rest are wondering what happens - under the rules of the London mayoral race (and indeed the contests in Salford, Bristol and Liverpool), 2 votes would not be enough for Sadiq. (He needs 2.5). However, all the other candidates are tied - which makes it through to the second round. What happens then is the second preferences are used as a tie-break. Of the tied candidates, Sian Berry has the most second preferences so she goes through to face Sadiq Khan in the final round. Final round is as follows:

Sadiq Khan: 3

Sian Berry: 2

3 votes is above the quota so he is duly elected. An early omen? 

22:19: Burnham latest. A spokesperson for Andy Burnham says:

"Approaches have been made to Andy Burnham to give consideration to this role. It is early days and no decision as been taken. Whatever the decision, he will continue to serve the leader of the party and stay in the shadow cabinet."

22:17: Anyway, exit poll of the office. We've got:

Sadiq Khan: 2

George Galloway: 1

Caroline Pidgeon: 1

Sian Berry: 1

22:15: Update on Andy Burnham. He has been asked to consider running. More as we get it. 

22:13: People are asking if there's an exit poll tonight. Afraid not (you can't really do an exit poll in elections without national swing). But there is a YouGov poll from Wales and I am conducting an exit poll of the four remaining members of staff in the NS building. 

22:11: It's true! Andy Burnham is considering running for Greater Manchester mayor. Right, that's it, I'm quitting the liveblog. Nothing I say tonight can top that. 

22:09: Rumours that professional Scouser Andy Burnham is considering a bid for Greater Manchester mayor according to Sky News. Not sure if this is a) a typo for Merseyside or b) a rumour or c) honestly I don't know. More as I find out. 

22:06: Conservatives are feeling good about Trafford, one of the few councils they run in the North West.

22:03: Polls have closed. Turnout looks to be low in London. What that means is anyone's guess to be honest. There isn't really a particular benefit to Labour if turnout is high although that is a well-worn myth. In the capital in particular, turnout isn't quite as simple a zero-sum game as all that. Labour are buoyant, but so are the Tories. In Scotland, well, the only questions are whether or not the SNP will win every single first past the post seat or just the overwhelming majority. Both Labour and Tory sources are downplaying their chances of prevailing in the battle for second place at Holyrood, so make of that what you will. And in Wales, Labour look certain to lose seats but remain in power in some kind of coalition deal. 

22:00: Good evening. I'm your host, Stephen Bush, and I'll be with you throughout the night as results come in from throughout the country. The TV screens are on, I've just eaten, and now it's time to get cracking. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.