“Serious Things in Holiday Time London”

gkweeklyIllustrated London News – October 14, 1905


I cannot imagine why this season of the year is called by journalists the Silly Season: it is the only season in which men have time for wisdom. This can be seen even by glancing at those remarkable documents, the daily papers. As long as Parliament is sitting, the most minute and fugitive things are made to seem important. We have enormous head-lines about the vote on a coastguard’s supply of cats’ meat, or a scene in the House over the perquisites of the butler of the Consul of Port Said. Trivialities, in a word, are made to seem tremendous, until the Silly Season, or the season of wisdom, begins. Then, for the first time, we have a moment to think – that moment to think which all peasants have and all barbarians, the moment during which they made up the Iliad and the Book of Job. Few of us have actually done this. But the fact that the Silly Season is really the serious season is very clearly shown in our newspapers, for all that. In the Silly Season we suddenly lose interest in all frivolities. We suddenly drop the drivelling problems of the coastguard and the Consul at Port Said, and we suddenly become interested in controversies of which the contributors may be drivelling enough, but of which the problems are not drivelling at all. We begin to discuss “The Decay of Home Life,” or “What is Wrong?” or the authority of the Scriptures, or “Do We Believe?” These really awful and eternal problems are never discussed except in the Silly Season. All the rest of the year we are light and irresponsible; now for a few months we are really severe. While the Whips are clamouring for votes we only ask “Do We Vote?”; when they have for a space left us alone we have time to ask “Do We Believe?” In the ordinary seasons we are always asking “Is this Government a Failure?” It is only in the Silly Season that we have the seriousness to ask “Is Marriage a Failure?” Yes; it is only during this fleeting time that we can really think of the things that are not fleeting. The time of our holidays is the only time in which we can really manage to turn our minds to these grave and everlasting riddles that abide behind every civilization. The holidays are the only times when we are not carried away by every chance occurrence or staggered by every startling post in the streets. The holidays are the only time in which we can judge slowly and sincerely like philosophers. The Silly Season is the only time when we are not silly.

This solemn character in holidays is, of course, implied in their very name: the day that is made a holiday is the day day that is made holy. And in practice it will generally be found that holidays are opportunities for the emergence of the more serious side of man. He has been kept during the rest of the year at trifling and passing matters – the writing of articles or the canvassing of soap. Now he rushes away to the things that are most eternal, sports in the simple country, hunting on the great hills. He is a clerk spending all the rest of his time in the newest and most changeable of all things – the suburbs. What does he do for his holiday? He rushes away to the oldest and most unchangeable of all things – the sea.

Of one thing I am quite absolutely convinced, that the very idlest kind of holiday is the very best. By being idle you are mixing with the inmost life of the place where you are; by doing nothing you are doing everything. The local atmosphere finds you unresisting and fills you, while all the others have filled themselves with the stuff of guide-books and the cheerless east wind of culture. Above all, refuse – refuse with passion – to see any places of interest. If you violently decline to see the Castle of Edinburgh, you will have your reward, a delight reserve for the very few: you will see Edinburgh. If you deny the very existence of the Morgue, the Madeleine, and the Louvre, the Luxembourg, the Tuileries, the Eiffel Tower, and the tomb of Napoleon, in the calm of that sacred clearance you will suddenly see Paris. In the name of everything that is sacred, this is not what people call paradox, it is a fragment from a sensible guide-book that has never been written. And if you really want me to give the reasonable reasons for it, I will.

There is a very plain and sensible reason why nobody need visit places of interest in foreign countries. It is simply that all over Europe, at any rate, places of interest are exactly the same. They all bear witness to the great Roman civilization or the great mediaeval civilization, which were mostly the same in all countries. The most wonderful things to be seen in Cologne are exactly the things that one need not to go to Cologne to see. The greatest things that there are in Paris are exactly the sorts of things that there are in Smithfield. The wonders of the world are the same all over the world; at least, all over the European world. The marvels are at all our doors. A clerk in Lambeth has no right not to know that there was a Christian art exuberant in the thirteenth century; for only across the river he can see the live stones of the Middle Ages surging together towards the stars. A yokel hoeing potatoes in Sussex has no right not to know that the bones of Europe are the Roman roads. In a French valley the Roman camp is exactly the thing we need not to see, for we have Roman camps in England. In a German city the Cathedral is exactly the thing we need not see, for we have Cathedrals in England. Exactly the thing we have not in England is a French open-air café. Exactly the thing we have not in England is a German beer-garden. It is the common life of the people in a foreign place which is really a wonder and delight to the yes. It is the extraordinary things we know quite well already. They have been thoroughly explained to us by the insupportable cicerones of Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. The man who refuses to be moved out of his seat in a Parisian cafe to see the Musee de Cluny is paying the grandest tribute to the French people. It is the same, of course, with the foreigner in England. There is no need for a Frenchman to look earnestly at Westminster Abbey as a piece of English architecture. It is not a piece of English architecture. But a hansom cab is a piece of English architecture. It is a thing produced by the peculiar poetry of our English cities. It has never, for some mysterious reason, really been domesticated abroad. It is a symbol of a certain reckless comfort which is really English. It is a thing to draw a pilgrimage of the nations. The imaginative Englishman will be found all day in a cafe; the imaginative Frenchman in a hansom cab.

The hansom cab is a thing marvellously symbolic, as I have said, of the real spirit of our English society. The chief evil of English society is that our love of liberty, in itself a noble thing, tends to give too much prominence and power to the rich; for liberty means sprees, and sprees mean money. To break windows is in itself a large and human idea; but in practice the man who breaks the most windows will probably be the man who can pay for them. Hence this great power of an aristocratic individualism in English life; an aristocratic individualism of which the great symbol is the hansom cab. The chief oddity of the English upper class is the combination of considerable personal courage with absurd personal luxury. A foreign army would conquer them best by capturing their toilet-bags. They are careless of their lives, but they are careful of their way of living. And this combination of courage and commodiousness, which runs through innumerable English institutions, can be seen even in the hansom cab. Compared with most other vehicles, compared more especially with most foreign vehicles, it is as once more sumptuous and more unsafe. It is a thing in which a man may be killed, but in which he may be killed comfortably. He may be thrown out, but he will not really want to get out.

When I was going down the river on the L.C.C steamer the other day, a man standing near me pointed out the piles of great buildings on either bank (it was by Westminster and Lambeth) and said, “This is calculated to impress a foreigner.” Why should it is impress a foreigner? Has the foreigner never seen a building more than one storey high? Do Frenchmen and Germans live in mud huts? Have they no abbeys in their countries or no bishop’s palaces? No, if you wish to impress a foreigner, cling convulsively to your hansom cab. Never let him see you except in this vehicle. Drive round your back-garden in it; drive it up the centre aisle when you go to church. When the British Army advances into battle, let each private soldier be inside a hansom cab, and its enemies will flee before it.

I am deeply grieved to see that Mr. Max Beerbohm has been saying that he does not find London beautiful or romantic. Not only is London really full of romance, but it is full of a peculiarly delicate and old-world type of romance. Every other city is singing and buzzing with modern methods; especially the cities we commonly call decadent. Rome is smart and Yankee compared with London. Florence is Chicago compared with London. The old Italian cities are ringing with electric cars and marked our into great maps of hygiene. Only our London retains its fascinating, crooked high-streets. Only our London keeps its own dreamy and deliberate omnibus. Adorable dreamer, whispering from its turrets the last secrets of the Middle Ages! Somebody said that about Oxford (if you think I don’t know, it was Matthew Arnold); but it really applies to London and not to Oxford in the least. If you really wish to have your ears and soul filled with the song and imagery of the past, go into the Underground Railway at Victoria Station and ride, let us say, to the Mansion House. Close your eyes, and listen reverently for the names. St. James’s Park – pilgrims with staffs and scallops… Westminster Bridge – the English Saints and Kings… Charing Cross – King Edward… The Temple – the fall of that proud, mysterious league of Templars… Blackfriars – a dark line of cowls! I beseech you, do not destroy London. It is a sacred ruin.

–G.K.Chesterton

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