“Where are you going?” “Nowhere.” “I mean, where are you going on your next trip?” “I repeat, I’m not going anywhere.”
At this point, a look almost of panic enters the interlocutor’s eyes: what is the matter with this person?
In some circles, being constantly on the move has come to be seen not only as a badge of success, but as proof of membership of the human race. The stay-at-home person belongs to an inferior species.
The odd thing is that this has coincided with the dire transformation of travel – especially air travel – from something glamorous and exciting into a penance and a humiliation, governed by the philosophy of sadistic meanness brought to a fine art by Irish low-cost airline Ryanair.
Those on the status treadmill of constant travel are victims of a delusion, or are simply behind the times: this was the conclusion I came to in a discussion with a wise Spanish diplomat friend – “people think there is something wrong with you if you are not travelling,” he said, “but you are the lucky one.”
This applies especially to summers in London. A mass evacuation of the capital occurs around the middle of July, leaving the city’s roads blessedly free of traffic (parents transporting kids a few hundred yards to school in troop carriers are nowhere to be seen – presumably they have decamped to Sardinia, or Kefalonia). The whole place is bathed in a serenity that otherwise can be experienced only for a few days around Christmas, or when there is a heavy snowfall.
Leaving London in late July and the first three weeks of August nowadays (this was not always the case) seems to me unnecessary. The weather is usually fine – we had a blazing July and are enjoying a lovely temperate August – and frankly far more pleasant than the unbearable heat of Andalucia or the burning, blowy Greek islands (better in May or September). The days are perfect for swimming in the Hampstead ponds (almost soupily warm this July) or in the Thames at Walton, bracing but not icy. This is the ideal time for picnics and even barbecues. The mildness of our climate means that it is hardly ever too hot for tennis – and the courts are empty – in fact rather too empty at our club – after the excitement of the July tournament.
You might think that everything grinds to a halt, culturally, in July and August. Certainly this is not the best time for theatre. But this is the Proms season in London, the time of the world’s greatest and most democratic classical music festival. For almost two months you can pay just £5 to stand and stamp in the arena in proximity to some of the world’s finest musicians, or to enjoy the different experience of chilling out in the gallery at the very top of the Royal Albert Hall, further removed from the action, and with peculiar acoustics.
I had the chance to enjoy two of our finest contemporary pianists (both London-based, as it happens): Stephen Hough displaying his refined, insouciant virtuosity in Rachmaninov and Lutoslawski on the first night, and Dame Mitsuko Uchida bringing her crystalline sound and spiritual depth to Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, with the magnificent Mariss Jansons conducting the brilliant Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.
Their performances could hardly have been more different but I reckon that it is as difficult to weight the chords as perfectly as Uchida did in the quiet, solo opening of the Beethoven as it is to bring off the fiendish cascades at the end of the Lutoslawski piece with Hough’s sparkling panache. As for Jansons, he seems able to bring out a wider palette of sounds and colours from whichever orchestra he is conducting than any other contemporary conductor.
Even if you can’t get to the Albert Hall, you can listen to the Proms on BBC Radio 3 in the comfort of your home or (if you have understanding neighbours) garden. Surely summer is the time to enjoy your home, not to abandon it. The other evening we sat out under the vine on two newly acquired fold-up garden chairs, at the rickety table I recently got around to repainting, sipping glasses of a venerable champagne, left forgotten in my father’s cellar for decades, which had reached a perfect stage of golden richness.
Without thinking about it, we were following the advice of a poet who, 2,000 years ago, wrote of the pleasure of “drinking beneath the thick-leaved vine.” That poet was Horace, patron of stay-at-homers – those who realise that “people who rush across oceans change only the colour of the sky, not their state of mind”.
Horace was writing to a globe-trotting young friend, on a grand tour of the eastern Aegean and determined to visit every famous beauty spot. You can be sure that Horace himself had done all that as a young man; in middle age we know he still made the odd trip to the Bay of Naples. But on the whole he is happy to stay in his shady valley, where he has learnt to make friends with himself.
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