Once, in London, I stopped to briefly look at the houses of parliament. An American tourist was squinting up at the clock tower with a strange look on his face so I asked him what he thought of it. “It’s not very big,” he said.

I’d never thought of “bigness” as a quality the clock tower was supposed to possess, but later it occurred to me that “Big Ben” might in fact promise bigness.

It left me wondering if tourists come from all over the world to visit what I see as a symbol of democracy or Imperialism, expecting to see “a big clock.”

I’m working on a travel book at the moment, part of which involves transcribing and learning from the travel journals of a friend, Wentworth, who has been to all manner of places including Myanmar, Iran, and North Korea. From Washington DC he writes:

I have read complaints that the White House is underwhelmingly small but I found it to be a rare example of restraint in the USA.

There it is again! The tourist expectation of bigness. I now wonder if an assumption of bigness comes from a reverence for powerful institutions (since my sample concerns only UK and US government buildings) or if a sense of awe comes, like an optical illusion, from sheer distance or the promise of pilgrimage.

Answers on a postcard.


  1. I think when you see something on TV a lot, you tend to take a rough mental calculation of its size and then are surprised by the reality.

    Quite fancy seeing this chap

    1. Maybe. I’m trying to recall if that’s ever happened to me. Statue of Liberty maybe. But even then I was mainly thinking “Bloody Hell, it’s the Statue of Liberty! From Ghostbusters II!” I’m starting to think that size is an unimaginative thing to look out for or even be especially aware of. Unless we’re talking about a “World’s Biggest Ball of Twine” something.

  2. The planet Venus is frequently mistaken for a star in the night sky. In fact, your President of the United States of America, James Earl Carter Jnr, once thought that he saw a UFO but it was later proven that he had actually seen Venus.

  3. Rob, L and I had occasion to be in Toronto and while there, nothing would do us only get on a coach and visit Niagara Falls. We did what tourists are encouraged to do, board a little ferry-boat and disappear into the incredible banks of mist the falling water creates, and explore caves behind the falling water, marvelling at the unbelievable weight, presence and, I suppose, perpetuality, if that’s a word, of this great roaring, plunging wall of vertical river. But, nagging at me throughout the day, especially when viewing the Falls all at once from street level, was of course the notion: they’re not THAT big. I blame the fact of growing up in the seventies, a time of the Guinness Book Of Records and of Roy Castle on Record Breakers on TV, all this emphasis on vastness, fastness, not coming last-ness…And when you are a child, next door’s collie can seem like a werewolf – things do seem large. Even now, seeing elephants in the zoo,if I can overcome my sadness and take the kids to the zoo, I look at them and think, shamefully: They’re not all that…

    1. I’ve been to the Falls as well and they are impressive but it was the early days of dating Samara so I barely gave two shits about where we were. You’re right though. Factually! They’re not the biggest in the world either by height or by flow rate. Annoying that they’re sold on terms of bigness or that anything is really, aside perhaps from roadside attractions along the lines of “world’s biggest ball of twine” or whatever. I mean why focus on bigness when we’re talking about a functional building or a natural wonder? I mean, bigger than what? Bigger than you? Bigger than God? Who cares? I guess “beauty” or “intrigue” are qualities too sissy to market or something.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *