26 May 2016
The danger of guidance from beyond the grave
by Chin Chin
As the holiday season approaches, the big decision looms. No, not whether to stay at the Gritti or the Danieli; nor even whether it should be the Pyramids or Center Parcs. You can flip a coin for all that. What is far more difficult is to choose which books you are going to take with you when you go.
Selecting the right book is like dressing for dinner. There the right choice of clothes depends very much on where you’re going. If it is the City, black tie may be required, or even white at the Mansion House or the Livery Companies. Around clubland jackets and ties are normally needed, even for a quiet dinner at the table in the corner. Move up to North London and ties are out. There bare Adam’s Apples rule the day as do bare chests and medallions out in Essex. Actually, there are places where nakedness goes further than that, but they tend to be very expensive indeed.
Books too have to suit their environment. To begin with they mustn’t jar with it. If you are going to Transylvania, it is probably better for your peace of mind to leave “Dracula” on the shelf at home. Don’t take “Airplane” for reading on your long haul flights and, if you take the wrong Agatha Christie for your cruise down the Nile, you will find yourself edging away from your fellow passengers.
Of course there is a positive side to choosing books too. If you decide to tour the battlegrounds of Spain and Portugal, you could do worse than to take some of the Bernard Cornwall’s “Sharpe” novels. J R Link’s guidebook “Venice for Pleasure” will transform any visit to that glorious city. In the end, though, the most important thing about your book is not so much what it tells you about its subject matter but what it tells other people about you.
Many years ago I went on holiday to ancient Greece. That does not mean that I was a time traveller but rather that I went to Greece in order to see the ancient bits. Before 2008 you could tell which bits those were because they were more ruined than the rest of the place. Anyway I didn’t let that put me off so I set off with my floppy hat and sandals, every inch the amateur British archaeologist abroad.
Now, in terms of vanity, there is nothing to match a young unattached man going on holiday. It’s Darwin’s fault, of course. Once upon a time some bachelors took trouble over their holiday clothes but others didn’t. Over the generations the second type failed to breed and become extinct while the first lot have been left as an ornament to the world, something which leaves them under a moral obligation to keep up standards
It was thoughts like these which afflicted me as I walked round the bookshops trying to find the right accompaniment to my getup. There were light books, of course. They would be the pleasantest to read but if some charming young lady were to look over my shoulder to see what I was reading, I did not want it to be some piece of chick lit. Then I could go for something serious and rather European, Clausewitz, perhaps, or even Machiavelli’s “The Prince”. The trouble is that reading books like that requires the right pose as well and sitting, chin on hand, in some Rodin inspired attitude could get quite tiring after an hour or two. Simply reading Homer was too obvious unless one did it in the original. After all, it would be a shame to be thought a poseur.
When you are in this sort of dilemma you need a guide and, after a few minutes, the ideal chap came to mind. Lawrence of Arabia, of course. It is true that, even then, he had been dead for some time, but wasn’t he once an archaeologist as well as a military hero, a fellow of All Souls and one of the finest ever writers of English prose? Yes, the answer was to work out what Lawrence would have taken on holiday to Greece; then I would know what to take myself.
Lawrence, of course, was a brilliant classicist. His translation of the Odyssey is still readily available. What would he have chosen? Well, being a practical man, and he could hardly have organised the Arab revolt without being that, probably a guidebook; no doubt an authoritative and distinguished one. What about the one written by Pausanius in the second century A.D?
So there I stood at Epidaurus, my Penguin copy of Pausanius in my hand and my floppy hat set to the right “serious yet attractive” angle, surveying the ruins. I kept my brows slightly furrowed as one who may be a little puzzled in fitting the guide to the remains but who, nonetheless, clearly had a real feeling for the importance of the site. It was a perfectly pleasant way of standing for a little while but, after a bit, it felt like time to move. All right then, book clasped behind back and eyes looking out below the brim like Lawrence himself surveying the desert. Twenty minutes of that was quite enough and I decided to go to the tearoom.
While I was there, in came an attractive girl, clearly English and clearly tired after surveying the remains. I tried hard to look like Lawrence of Arabia on vacation and it must have worked because she sat down at my table. “Thank goodness you’ve got a guidebook”, she said, “perhaps you can tell me what I should be looking at here”.
I opened my guidebook and we looked at Pausanias’s map. There was a particular imposing building in the middle and I pointed at it. “That is what you should see,” I said knowledgeably. She thought it sounded interesting so we began to work out where it was must be. Draw a line across from the edge of the Theatre and then an intersecting line from the entrance to the old medical shrine.
“Yes, I said, it must be about …. Here”. We looked about but alas the building referred to by Pausanius had been demolished more than 1000 years ago and, nice as it was, the tea room didn’t quite measure up to it. She looked at me oddly, stood up and walked off.
Nowadays I take more up-to-date guidebooks on holiday but I still like them to have a bit of pizzazz. That will be quite challenging if I decide to go to Center Parcs.
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