Holidays are odd things. They derive from exhausting pilgrimage where sedentary, medieval folk would up-sticks and walk hundreds of miles on muddy tracks, in unsuitable clothing, at the mercy of thieves, brigands and weather, to reach a distant shrine. Equally, holidays also derive from peaceful rest cures at spas and seaside towns, where instead of getting foot sore you’re more likely to get foot massage. This contradictory ancestry ends up combining a long physical ordeal in search of spiritual meaning with the beach resort experience, reclining on a lounger, watching waves lap on smooth sand, cool drink in hand.
Both the pilgrimage and sun lounger aspects of holidays are explored in Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome’s nineteenth century account of a Thames boating trip. The nineteenth century was the time when holidays came into being for people generally. You no longer had to be religiously earnest, or be wealthy enough to sit around drinking mineral water in Bath or Tunbridge Wells. People were earning better money, had more free time and, thanks to the railways, could travel more easily. The three men who take Jerome’s boat trip are regular chaps. George works as a bank clerk. It’s not clear exactly what Harris and Jerome do, but you don’t get the sense that they are government ministers, captains of industry, or deep-thinking academics. They are the new holiday makers, embarking on a journey of ancient contradictions.
In many ways this boat trip is a spiritual pilgrimage, an attempt to leave behind the humdrum and find something more profound. Against a background of arduous effort and spartan living conditions, there are reflections on life and extravagant descriptions of nature in all its comforting, uplifting beauty. But the attempted profundities are always punctured by various down-to-earth mishaps involving ill-behaved dogs, poor boatmanship, bad cooking, vengeful steam launches, forgotten tin openers. While this journey might be seen as a kind of physically demanding pilgrimage, it is also an indolent escape from stress and strain. Each man takes it in turn to pull tricks to get out of rowing. Jerome avoids tours of churchyards containing historically significant graves. There is much lounging around in riverside meadows, and laughter at the memory of conscientious old school fellows who threw themselves into French irregular verbs.
So where does this physically demanding, yet languid – profound yet commonplace – journey take us? Without giving anything away about the “denouement”, it takes us somewhere significant, while allowing us to escape heavy significance. It takes us somewhere new, while also taking us home again with a new appreciation of our daily lives.
That’s what the best holidays do for us.