One of the most distinctive features of the developed world is how ugly it can seem. What a good mood one has to be in not to be saddened by the appearance of the majority of airports, shopping centres and housing estates. Our way of coping with the ugliness is generally to keep our eyes half-shut, then on holiday scurry to certain unspoilt pockets of the earth where we can, for a few days at least, gain relief by looking at, for example, the hills of the Lake District.
But before we settle too comfortably into this narrative of modern ruination, from Grasmere to Brent Cross, it's worth remembering that when it comes to a fitting holiday destination, there isn't in truth anything inevitable or natural about what we describe as "beautiful" and "ugly". For example, it was not until the end of the 18th century that anyone ever thought of describing the Lake District as beautiful. For most of human history, mountainous regions had been thought of as frightful places which must have been overlooked by God during his Creation. It was only a selection of great artists, and in particular Wordsworth, who persuaded the British public that there might in fact be something to revere in the northern English hills. It was Wordsworth who taught us to be charmed and even recite by heart hymns to butterflies and sonnets on celandines.
So we overlook certain places because nothing has ever prompted us to conceive of them as worthy of appreciation. We could conceive of many works of art as immensely subtle instruments for telling us what amounts in effect to: "Look at the sky of Provence, redraw your notion of Amsterdam, do justice to motorway service stations at night." And in so far as we travel in search of beauty, works of art may in small ways start to influence to where we would like to travel.
Knowing how flexible humans can in truth be in their sense of a good destination, some friends and I have started a new kind of holiday company, whose chief aim is to get us to look anew and with greater sympathy at the landscapes of modernity. The company won't take you to the Austrian Alps or the shores of Barbados, but it will try to interest you in the neglected charms of a range of locations of modern life. For example, you're offered a chance to enroll on a two-day journey around the Isle of Wight with the photographer Martin Parr, who will encourage you to look at the British seaside through his eyes (as Wordsworth taught us to look at Windermere through his), and to find poetry in windswept piers and blinking neon arcades smelling of old beer and chips. Alternatively, you can book to go on a journey up the M1, marvel at embankments and bridges, take in the Hopper-esque beauty of Travelodges and, from the vantage point of a service station cafeteria, gaze out at passing lorries, carrying in industrial quantities items one tends to think of only on a domestic scale.