Northern Advocate Column

The art of travel in these Covid times

17 April 2021

Not being able to do something can give us the chance to reflect on that thing, weigh it in our minds, examine again its value to our lives. That’s the case with overseas travel, no longer possible for most of us thanks to Covid. 

Even if you’ve never been out of the country, an overseas holiday is likely to be something you’ve dreamt of. All of us have probably got travel to a special city, country or region of the world on our bucket list. Mine is Greece. It’s quite possible, though, I’ll never go to Greece. That won’t stop the idea of going to Greece looming large in my imagination. This is a point made by best-selling English writer Alain de Botton in his 2002 book The Art of Travel.

A big part of the joy of travel, argues de Botton, is the anticipation. We can daydream about visiting far off places while stuck in traffic after work. The thought of drinking ouzo at a white-washed Greek Taverna on the island of Hydra (where Leonard Cohen once lived with Marianne Ihlen) is a nice palliative to the everyday routine. Enjoy the idyll because the reality, de Botton stresses, may fail to live up to the idea in our heads. We build up a picture that leaves out the smog and congested traffic in Athens. Or the desperate street hawkers pestering you to buy cheap souvenirs.

The reality of travel may disappoint in other ways. De Botton humorously recounts how while in Barbados, he got into a major sulk-fest with his girlfriend over who got to eat the perfect crème caramel rather than the ugly one that had toppled over on the plate. Petty, obviously, but not unfamiliar to anyone who’s had a fight with their partner over something innocuous. Even in a beautiful place, trying as hard as possible to have a good time, you can end up grumpy and irritable. De Botton’s realisation was that you can’t escape yourself, and all your faults and foibles, by travelling to another location.

On the flipside, de Botton eulogises the experience of transit places, like hotel lobbies, airport lounges, ferry terminals and roadside cafés. When experienced as a solitary traveller, these places can generate feelings of tranquillity. Alone in a transit place, we are freed from the masks we wear in various everyday settings. We have to be a certain person at work or with different family members, with our spouse. Everyday life has many expectations. Sitting in an airport lounge, those expectations are removed. We can take a break from worrying about what people think of us. Here de Botton nails why travel is often enjoyable. Because it affords us the chance to escape, if only for a short time, the roles in life we normally have to play. This suggests we don’t have to spend a lot of money or go far away to access this “me time.” Sitting at the bus stop on a beautiful autumn morning might do the trick. 

De Botton writes chapters in entertaining prose on landscape, the sublime, on curiosity, on the exotic—all part of the complex motivations for travel. One particularly interesting chapter is about how artists can essentially create a place. This is what Vincent van Gogh achieved for Provence in the south of France with his expressive paintings of wheat fields, orchards, peasant farmers and cypress trees. For de Botton, Provence was inseparable from his love of van Gogh’s paintings of the region. It was the reason he wanted to go there. On arriving in Provence, however, he was underwhelmed. The landscape he observed was kind of boring compared to van Gogh’s paintings. Which raises the question: is viewing a beautiful painting of a place, reading a book about it, in some way more satisfying than actually going there? Experiencing great art, de Botton concludes, can be a substitute for physical travel.

In the last chapter on habit, de Botton urges us to break out of our routines and adopt each day a “travelling mindset”. To consciously observe with wonder the world around us, as we often do when we’re on holiday in a place we’ve never been before. In these times of Covid, perhaps we can work harder on the art of travel, seeing more while moving less. 

Northern Advocate Column, Uncategorized

Dead monarchs and the cancelling of debts

17 November 2022

When the kings of the ancient Sumerians died or were overthrown by a rival, it was customary for a time to cancel debts for ordinary citizens. The wiping of debts was like a society reset. A necessary one in those early days of civilisation, when the cultural memory of more egalitarian communities still lingered.

Four and half thousand years ago, in the land that’s now modern-day Iraq, debt and early forms of money were relatively new, as was control or ownership of land. In these centralised economies, Sumerian peasant farmers could get into difficulty and incur debt. If it got unpayable, they might be forced to hand over land to creditors or the state. Often then having to sell themselves or family members into slavery. A drought, declining yields, invasion by another regional power, raids by nomads, or high taxes, could all see a peasant family’s fortunes and status in society plummet. Meanwhile, those lucky or in a position to play the system could amass a greater share of wealth.

The problem was, hierarchy and inequality weren’t good for society’s morale. When there are winners and losers, what reason do the losers have for sticking around to defend the winners from an invading army or nomad raiders? Some might prefer to join the nomads or engage in some banditry instead. Hence the practice of cancelling debts when a new monarch came to power. It was a practical way of maintaining the allegiance of commoners to the state and to the privileged hierarchy at its centre.

I tell this tale from the ancient world because there are parallels with today. In many countries, personal debt is high, fuelled by a house price boom and the spiralling cost of living. Wealth disparities have only grown since the Covid pandemic hit. Young people who aren’t from wealthy families are feeling aggrieved. Inequality is stoking political tensions in every country, whether mature democracies or oligarchal states like Russia and China. And it’s contributing to military tensions between nations. Rather than deal with the inequalities, one response is to try and unite a country by drumming up nationalism or even starting a war.

This is the world in which New Zealand might start looking at constitutional change following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. There will be different ideas about what we should do and at what speed. But regardless of who our head of state is (or whether one is even needed), shared allegiance to the state is undermined by inequality. The Sumerian rulers understood this. That’s why when one monarch died and a new one ascended the throne they tried to heal society by cancelling debts. The goal was to restore some equality (and political stability) which had been eroded in the previous years.

Skip forward a few millennia. On September 26, New Zealanders will get a one-off public holiday to mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth. A surprising move perhaps in these supposedly modern times. The Labour government has been smart (some might say calculating) in realising the opportunity to try and unite us in mourning, no matter how forced it feels.

While we’ll take the paid holiday, I’m sure many of us would prefer our debts were cancelled, like in Sumerian times. And maybe that idea is not so far fetched. Word is, if Matthew Hooton writing in the NZ Herald can be believed, Labour is considering cancelling student loan debt as its big election year promise. In the United States, President Biden already has plans to cancel $10,000 worth of student debt for low-to-middle income borrowers. At least some in ruling circles understand that you can’t have a functional society when citizens are overburdened with debt and wealth inequalities are left to grow unchecked.

The vast stretch of time and geography between an ancient Middle Eastern civilisation ruled by kings and modern New Zealand seems, on the face of it, enormous. It’s tempting to think we share nothing in common with those people and their attempts at state management. And yet old problems persist, giving rise to the demand for old solutions.