Someone once said that it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive. I can’t remember who it was and, to be honest, such obviously contrived, car-sticker-like philosophy doesn’t really appeal to me, and so I can’t be arsed to look it up.
You see, whenever I travel, hopefulness doesn’t enter into it. I usually expect to arrive at a destination, though in what mood I prefer not to think about. I’m not foolish enough to assume that there’ll be a seat in which to park my weary bones, neither do I suppose that I’ll be refreshed and enervated by the journey; nor even do I believe that I’ll necessarily arrive at the time advertised – but eventual arrival would seem to be a reasonable requirement and at the risk of sounding immoderately demanding, I shall always insist on that.
I don’t mean to be flippant because this is a serious matter. To put it bluntly, I wouldn’t have bought a bloody ticket in the first instance if there wasn’t at least a fighting chance that I’d get to the place I’m heading.
Ernie Bevin had the right attitude in my opinion – “My policy is to take a ticket at Victoria Station and go anywhere I damn well please.” I know he didn’t specifically say that arrival was a pre-requisite but I think we can take that as read.
Mind you, I wouldn’t want you to get the idea that reaching every destination is an unalloyed joy or anything of that nature. There are lots of places that I’ve had to get to at various times in my life that I wouldn’t have chosen as journey’s end if it had been entirely up to me. I mean, have you ever been to Croydon or Swindon or Milton Keynes, say? And talking of Milton Keynes, if you did get there, would you be able to find a way out of that bleedin’ grid-road system thingy before losing your sanity? Now, that is a moot point.
But beside all that, I do maintain that hopefulness has absolutely nothing to do with it. On the other hand, desperation, ennui and futility – they’re words I can handle with a certain amount of equanimity, or at least have a realistic expectation of their being fulfilled.
Perhaps I suffer from a dearth of something or other that most people either possess, or rather, pretend that they do. A lack of some indefinable essence and devoid of a spirit of adventure perhaps (as well as being subjectless and unverbed, as it were). Or is it just that I’m an old cynic? I don’t really know but I’ll tell you this for certain; my definition of cynicism has nothing to do with knowing the price of things or their intrinsic value, and it absolutely does not depend on measuring what proportion of a glass is filled.
No, indeed! To me, cynicism is an ancient form of reason and right understanding; a philosophy one could call it, particularly if you know something of my hero – Diogenes of Sinope. Just like that old dog, who spent his nights searching (in vain) for an honest man, I believe that a cynic is not someone with an unjustifiably negative take on things, but rather someone who has observed the manner in which people behave and has made a wholly accurate assessment of the way this bloody world works.
Anyway, enough of that; I was talking about journeys but more especially, the way some people seem intent on investing the entirely mundane activity of ‘travel’ with all sorts of almost metaphysical and sacred qualities. To listen to them, you’d think that journeying is, of itself, an unconditionally virtuous endeavour worthy of praise and, in some cases, deserving of ennoblement or even, may the saints preserve us, of canonization. Either that or they regard it as a kind of quaint metaphor for life or as the method by which they can unravel the mysteries of the universe, or something equally bloody bizarre and absurd.
I mean, take these proverbs for instance – “He that travels far knows much” and “Travel makes a wise man better”. Honestly, what a load of old bollocks, if you’ll pardon my Anglo-Saxon. In my experience, the further you go the less you understand, as any sensible person would admit if they wound up in Glasgow or some far-flung outpost of Welsh Wales and had to ask for directions. As for the other saying … well, alter ‘better’ to ‘bitter’ and maybe you’ve got something that I can relate to.
I understand that the Japanese are fond of the curious little aphorism, “When you have completed 95 per cent of your journey you are only half way there.” Quite apart from the questionable arithmetic and the meaninglessness involved in that statement, I’d suggest it gives the lie to the oft delivered observation that the Japanese have the best transport system in the world. Leaving aside that it’s most likely to be purely a piece of inscrutable orientialism, if I were inclined to give the benefit of the doubt here, I suppose I could squeeze out some sort of interpretation that might make sense. It could be just a polite and subtle way of explaining to the ordinary Japanese person on a ‘Bullet-Train’ what it must feel like to be travelling on British Rail when there’s a bus replacement service in operation.
But it isn’t just amateur philosophers who indulge themselves with insincere drivel about how journeys are an allegory for life. Poets and other writers have long been guilty of coming up with execrable analogies concerning the issue of ‘love’ as well. Take the following; “The longest journey a man must take is the eighteen inches from his head to his heart.”
The question that immediately sprang to my mind is – why the long face? No wonder the bleeding thing is anonymous.
So, as I grow longer in the tooth and shorter in the patience, I’m increasingly conscious of the perceptiveness of my dad’s old adage, “The most satisfying journey a man ever takes is the one to the bathroom in the morning to empty his bowels.”
To be fair, I must admit that I didn’t always feel this way about travel. Like many a discerning passenger I once used to get a feeling of ethereal contentment just from sitting in a railway carriage and watching the world go by. And although I was never a believer in the unbelievable, or one of those who seems to think that travel is a spiritual experience, even so, I too have known and enjoyed the unwonted serenity that surfaces when coming to an unscheduled halt and for a magical moment, hearing the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
But now I am an older and a wiser man and recognise this to be a cruel chimera, a whimsical yearning for those childish days spent in the back of the family Morris Minor, when, if I spotted a ‘1’ on a cherished number-plate it might lead to the reward of a tanner. Of course, it was a form of bribery, a clever ruse to encourage me to resist the temptation to prod and poke my younger sister towards her, I always thought, delightful and entertaining tendency to be sick down the back of dad’s neck. No, the real truth is that there is a much more astute judgement lying beneath the child’s more urgent pre-occupation when travelling; the one expressed so eloquently by the phrases, “Is it very much further?” and, “Are we there yet?”
In any event, an epiphany descended upon me one spring day in the place that I have designated Perdition but which is officially named Stansted Airport. My destination on this occasion was Toulon in southern France.
The more intelligent among you, and I do include myself in that august company, might well have wondered what was I, a good honest Englishman, thinking of by travelling to the land of our most ancient and bitterest foe. You might say, and I’d not demur, that the only good reason would be if I were carrying a longbow, had my two fingers primed for action and was looking for the opportunity for a little light rapine and pillage.
Well, there’s the rub as you might say. Generally, I’m with Nancy Mitford on this, “Abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends,” but the weather is undeniably more congenial and fags and booze are still cheaper; so there you have it.
Returning to my tale, I was at Stansted trying, and I use the word advisedly, to get a plane. My error, a cardinal one I now realise, was to book with a ‘carrier’ (ha ha) that shall remain nameless but only because you all know exactly which one I mean.
Anyway, there were a dozen planes due to leave within the next hour or so but there was only one check-in desk operating. Have you ever had one of those dreams when no matter how fast you run, you seem rooted to the spot? Or the one where your heart’s desire is tantalisingly visible in the far distance but the way is barred by an infinite number of monkeys engaged in writing the complete works of Shakespeare? You haven’t? Well, perhaps it’s just me then, but the experience was remarkably similar and you’ll simply have to take my word for it.
I made the plane – but only just. I boarded with shoe-laces flapping, and still feverishly re-buckling the belt that Security Men take a delight in forcing you to remove for some reason known only to them and perhaps malicious imps in the ninth circle of Hell. Up until then, my sole entertainment had been the twenty minutes I’d spent arguing uselessly about the weight of my case. It’s funny, but after that, the act of leaving behind all your spare pants and socks, along with your favourite shoes seems like a kind of victory.
I have to say though that there was one piece of serendipity about the otherwise sorry affair. As a consequence of the delays caused by the carrier’s penny-pinching failure to employ sufficient staff at the airport, so many poor sods had missed the plane that I got a row of seats all to myself. The journey wasn’t any more comfortable of course but at least I could spread my discomfort over a greater area. A minor blessing but I’ve learned not to question small mercies when they do arise as they seem to present themselves all too rarely.
So, in an attempt to draw all these things together; from the incontestable evidence about the painfulness of travelling to the rose-tinted spectacles of the easily amused, via the commentators who have, over the centuries, sought to give voice to all that foolishness, I’ll point up the benefits of taking a more scientific approach to the issue.
First of all, I would cite Huskisson’s Law which properly reads, “The ultimate cost of a journey rockets up (or down) a track of no return,” although it is often simplified to “Keep off the tracks”. Deriving from this splendidly prescient deduction is the Haji-Ioannou Corollary, “The pleasantness of the journey is inversely proportional to the promised economies of the mode of transport chosen.”
For those of you who desire a method of calculation to help when planning to embark on a journey, I would counsel that you take into account O’Leary’s Constant. Put in mathematical terms, this can be defined as, “That quantity which, when added to or multiplied by the advertised price of the journey, causes the true cost to tend towards infinity.” Incidentally, an eminent Russian mathematician has demonstrated in what is now called ‘Soddov’s Theorem’, that this crucial but unnatural number must be irrational.
Oh, perhaps just one more thing. Journeys rarely end in lovers meeting whatever wise men’s sons might think. I’m convinced that they’re much more likely to begin lovers’ partings and to end in tears.