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On Holidays by Arthur Machen


It may sound unpatriotic, even now, almost four years since the ending of the war, but I cannot help it: there is a certain German with whom I am in the most cordial sympathy. I am sure that he and I would have got on very well indeed, on one point at all events.

He is not an actual German. He lives in a book, The Caravaners, by the Countess Russell, the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden. And I do not deny that there was a great deal to be said against the Baron von Ottringel, of Storchwerder in Prussia. He was a bore of the deadliest kind. He was a snob of the purest water. His selfishness stuck out of him in lumps. He was, as one of the characters in the book declares, 'a very grievous bounder.' He was utterly deficient in all the decent amenities of life. He was a mean cad. But I like him all the same. For he would not pretend that caravaning was a pleasant holiday. It fell out like this. Some of the Baron's friends near Storchwerder had English connections, and were making up a caravaning party for the summer holidays. They told the Baron how cheap a plan it was: how a caravan could be hired for fourteen pounds a month, how there would be no hotel bills to pay, no waiters to tip, no railway tickets to be taken. The Baron was a saving man; he was tempted; he became a caravaner. And he disliked it thoroughly. He didn't like helping to get doubtful dinners which took so long to prepare that they had to be eaten by lantern light 'in a gusty place, vainly endeavouring to hold our wraps about us, our feet in wet grass and our heads in a stormy darkness. The fitful flicker of the lanterns played over rapidly cooling eggs.... This was not a holiday; this was privation combined with exposure.' And then the poor man had to help to wash up in a rainstorm; and he didn't like that either.

And in spite of the many differences that have separated England and Prussia, I cordially shake hands with the Baron von Ottringel. It is not in the least amusing to anybody but a fool to eat a bad dinner on wet grass in the dark and then to undertake a job for which you have had no training in circumstances of the extremest discomfort. For there is a right way and a wrong way of doing the most trifling tasks, and the right way has to be learned. Even in washing up there are mysteries, as any man can find out for himself if he care to enter his own well-found back-kitchen, with a special washing-up geyser to help him; let him try the experiment on a blasted heath in the dark, with water half warmed over doubtful oil lamps and the heavens emptying themselves upon his head. The Baron was perfectly right; all this is beastly discomfort, and to pretend that it is a pleasant holiday is merely one of the many forms of cant. Of course the only way to enjoy caravaning would be to do in the caravan as the real caravaners do; that is to make oneself into a gipsy. The gipsies, no doubt, get on well enough; they lay no elaborate tables; they have their own modes of cooking suited to the life and the circumstances; they have no passion for spotless plates or for polished knives and forks. They know nothing of the many refinements, delicacies, niceties that have been invented, wisely or unwisely, by people who have had the habit of living in houses for hundreds—or thousands—of years. It is like enough that Mr. Petulengro would be as unhappy at a London hotel as was the Baron von Ottringel in the caravan. But Mr. Petulengro is too sensible a Romany to try to live like a gipsy in a London hotel; he would not attempt to bake a hedgehog in a clay oven on his bedroom floor. It is only the foolish gentile who is capable of playing the impossible part of drawing-room gipsy. Again and again the Baron was right—on the matter of caravaning, at all events.

Yet, though the practice is absurd, the theory is sound. For I suppose that the root of this uncomfortable caravaning business is the desire to take a holiday that shall be as great a change as possible; and this, no doubt, is the real end and benefit of holiday-making. It is not chiefly change of air that we want; change of everything else is much more important. From the mere physical point of view, the London air is good enough for anybody; and our great city, monstrous as it is with its infinite wilderness of houses, is one of the healthiest places in England. It is not our air that we require to change as the summer draws on, but the whole habit of mind and body, of the mind rather than of the body. And, no doubt, a farmer living somewhere Careg y Wastad (Rock of the Wilderness) way, near St. David's (which is sixteen miles from a railway), should take his holiday at Charing Cross. An analysis of the air blowing over Careg y Wastad from the Atlantic Ocean might show it to be purer than the air of the Strand; but the change would set up Mr. Caradoc Owen Morgan, of Llangadwaladyr Fach, for the rest of the year. And here we have the justification of the practice of 'going abroad' for a holiday. We are often told that it is a pity to go to France before we have exhausted the many and exquisite beauties of our own country; that we should explore our own mountains and lakes and moors before we roam in Touraine and Gascony and Provence. And, indeed, it is quite true that there are beauties and delights enough in England, Scotland and Wales to last and outlast the holidays of most lives; and yet there is a great deal to be said for the Continental holiday. Things may not be better nor more beautiful across the Channel; but they are so utterly different. The whole aspect is changed; even a tree on a French hilltop is a different object from a tree on an English hilltop. In our driest, hottest weather the world is presented to our eyes through faint veiling mists; in France the outlines of visible things are shown clearly in an air which is so luminous that the objects seen appear to be illuminated. And then there are the differences of architecture, the strange shock of finding that even small children seem able to speak French quite fluently, the sound of a strange tongue all the while in our ears, the novel aspect of the cafes with the people on the terrasse drinking their beer and their coffee in the open air, the queerness of a lunch that has garlic sausage, omelette fines herbes and pieds de porcs grillés in it instead of roast mutton, mashed, and Cheddar; all these things and many more combine to make a French holiday a very admirable holiday. You have been for a while in another world, you are immensely refreshed and delighted—unless you are like the gentleman I once saw at the Hotel de France at Bordeaux. It was the hour of déjeuner, and all the company were beginning the hors d'œuvres save this true Briton. He was pouring out tea from a Britannia-metal teapot, and ham and eggs were on the plate before him. But I believe this sturdy fellow to have been at Bordeaux on business, not pleasure; anyhow, his was not the way to enjoy the chief benefits of a holiday; change and new experiences. And that brings me to the puzzle of the average Londoner's holiday. I have just been saying that when Mr. Caradoc Owen Morgan, of Llangadwaladyr Fach, Careg y Wastad, Pembroke, feels that he wants a holiday his best course is to spend a week or two in the heart of London; and clearly the reverse treatment should apply to the City man who is feeling 'fed up' with the City. But somehow it doesn't. He ought to take his holiday at Careg y Wastad; but in fact he very rarely does anything of the kind. He seeks no solitudes, no wild places. He goes to Penzance, Brighton, Eastbourne, Folkestone, Margate, Southend, Cromer, according to his pocket or his tastes, almost always to some place where he will be in the company of crowds of people, where the life of London will be reproduced as nearly as possible, with fresh sea air thrown in.

This is queer; but so it is; and I am afraid the explanation is that the true Londoner hates the true country. It says nothing to him; he is bored by it, he is more than bored by it. I believe that he is frightened of it; that a deep, dark lane at night is almost as terrible to him as is the dark passage to the little child at bedtime. It is a repetition of history. They were just like that in the Augustan age of Rome. The authorities were alarmed. They couldn't prevent the country people from flocking into the great city, and once there, they never went back to the fields. Horace and Virgil, at the high desire of the Emperor, wrote beautiful poems about the delights of farming, and the joys of a country life in summer and winter, of piling the logs on the flame when the snow lay deep on Soracte, of the cool shade by the well of Bandusia in the heats of summer, of the good old days when the Romans loved the land. They wrote these delightful things, but I don't think that they troubled the country much themselves, or Virgil would never have told farmers that the way to get a swarm of bees was to kill a calf and bury it, and Horace would not read so absolutely as a finished man about town. And the country people still swarmed up to the city; and stayed there. So with our Londoners; they agree profoundly with that great Londoner who said a long time ago that he who is tired of London is tired of Life. Perhaps, indeed, like the children, we feel that we are all in the dark and love to keep together and make a noise to raise our spirits; and will not, even for a month or a bare fortnight, leave the cheer of the friendly lamps and the noisy, crowded streets.


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