By Lynda Goetz
Many, many years ago when I was still a teenager, I found a quote from Maurice Maeterlinck in a collection of quotes and aphorisms in my parents’ bookshelf. To this day, I do not know the context of the quote, nor whether it is attributable to one of the Belgian playwright’s characters or is from one of his poems or essays, nor whether the way in which I interpreted it bore any relation to Maeterlinck’s own intended meaning. I suspect not. Nevertheless, following the incarceration of the population due to Covid-19 and the current obsession with the idea of being allowed to get away on holiday, I thought it might be time to revisit Maeterlinck’s opinion that “the living are just the dead on holiday”.
My immediate thought all those years ago was that Maeterlinck considered most people not to be really alive or living fully, except when they were on holiday; in other words that they sleepwalked their way through life except when they were given the chance to step outside their everyday lives and go on holiday. This was almost certainly the thinking of an arrogant teenager unimpressed by what the adult world appeared to offer. Today I am pretty sure that this was not what the author meant at all, particularly as the holiday habit had not been acquired by that point. In this country, the Bank Holidays Bill was not passed until 1871 (nine years after Maeterlinck’s birth) and it was not until the Holidays with Pay Act passed in 1938 that workers became entitled to just one week’s paid leave in addition to the dedicated Bank Holidays of Easter Monday, Whit Monday, the first Monday in August and Boxing Day. The granting of paid holidays to workers in Belgium likewise became an issue in the 1930s. By this stage Maeterlinck was quite an old man – although that could have been what prompted the remark, of course.
What Maeterlinck is generally believed to have meant by his quote, was that life was a holiday from death (the former sadly pretty short in comparison to the latter). As I am no expert on Maeterlinck, having never studied his works (he was born Flemish, but wrote in French) I have no idea why or at what point in his life he was prompted to make it. It is certainly recorded that he suffered from depression for at least two years, which might have been the time when this rather nihilistic comment (whichever way you look at it) was made. What, though do holidays mean to people in the third decade of the 21st Century?
One ‘broadsheet’ columnist, slightly tongue-in-cheek, said never mind vaccine passports, she would be prepared to be micro-chipped if that meant she could “take to the skies” for a holiday abroad – preferably with sea and sunshine. Is it really simply those latter two requisites which drive us Brits and our need for holidays? Is that what a holiday means? The chance to be somewhere, anywhere, where we can be certain the sun will shine for at least 90% of the time we are there? This though does not explain why other people from sunnier climes wish, in spite of knowing how bad it is for the environment, to ‘take to the skies’.
Humans have clearly always had curiosity. It is curiosity which has driven scientists to discover and explorers to trek to and through far-off lands; curiosity at the way other cultures worked; curiosity at the way others lived and curiosity to see and find out about landscapes very different from those they were used to. Until the 20th Century this required major planning and usually fairly major supplies of money – either provided by family, if you were lucky, or raised from companies, societies or governments if they could be persuaded that the cause was worthy and would add to the sum of human knowledge.
Since the middle of the 20th Century there has been a great deal less to explore, although plenty of things still to discover. This however was the beginning of the age of mass travel; the point at which the annual holiday was not just a couple of weeks in a campsite in the Lake District or a hotel in Cornwall but a trip to Spain, or France or Greece and increasingly to more exotic destinations such as the Caribbean or the Indian Ocean. Young Aussies and Kiwis came over to Europe for a year or two of O.E. (Overseas Experience), whilst many young Brits took a “gap yah” before settling down to three years of fun and study at university. Families on modest incomes could book package holidays at a fraction of the cost of such holidays in the past, as the age of global travel opened up the world to the many rather than the few (in the developed world at least).
This has been fantastic for those in a position to take advantage of it. Many of us have had wonderful experiences in countries around the world. We have met new people with different outlooks, beliefs and traditions. We have been able to visit temples and tombs, participate in fiestas, and festivals, see wildlife and wildernesses. We have enjoyed sports events and cultural events and had our eyes opened to the many different ways humans and animals live on this planet. However, we have also trampled over other people’s sacred sites, viewed their centuries-old traditions as “quaint”, “weird” or “fascinating”, whilst failing to see that our own way of life can appear equally bizarre to others. We have disturbed wildlife, polluted seas and waterways as well as the air we all breathe. Massive cruise ships disgorge huge numbers of ogling spectators who add little to local economies and have too little time to learn much about the places they drop into. All this we miss. All this we demand the right to continue doing. It is part of modern living.
I do not for one second suggest that the march of progress can or should be stopped. The airline industry is in crisis. The cruise industry which has had ships parked offshore for almost a year is likewise in difficulties. In Europe, governments are taking airlines back towards state ownership as they buy up shares in gestures of support. These are all issues which are going to have to be addressed in our post-Covid world. Do we need to fly half-way around the world to lie on a beach in a resort hotel once or twice a year for a holiday? Greta Thunberg would thunder that this is “bullshit”. Holidays have become a part of modern life, but are the living just the dead on holiday or is life itself the holiday? Either way, perhaps we should or could be making more of our everyday lives so that we are not so desperate for a holiday from them? That perhaps is one of the messages we ought to be taking forward from this year of lock-downs.
In reality however, in spite of our growing awareness of climate change, is not going abroad on holiday something we are ready for? Or is this now not only a freedom we are not prepared to forego, but one that is so much a part of the way we live and an integral part of our lives and our economies that there is no going back?