There’s nothing more valuable in the world than human conversation. History, after all, is largely made up of conversations that have gone well or badly wrong. Marie Antoinette’s remark about cake was an inexperienced faux pas that eventually led to her losing her head. Cordelia’s naïve, sweetly inept counterblast to the sensible remarks of her sisters, the admirable, rational, pragmatic Goneril and Regan, didn’t do her or anyone else any good, either, though of course King Lear isn’t strictly history. The Reformation was one person saying one thing, and another one another, neither of them true, but it might have been something different if they’d taken tea together and talked it through. A good conversation (at Reception or the Check-In counter, for example) can gain you the world, even love if charm is all you possess.
The absence of conversation engenders prejudice, misunderstanding, hostility and war. The job of the diplomat, I am assured by my friend, diplomat and travelling-companion Federico, is to ensure that conversation never ends, however bitter the words. Bullying tyrants, sneering oligarchs, braying bureaucrats, never listen to a word you say. For them, conversation is simply command. Let’s not forget Churchill’s dictum that ‘Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.’
And what are books other than conversation? As someone once put it, literature is simply gossip written down, a remark that doesn’t disparage the finest of the finest literature (even the dreary stream of consciousness monologues of Virginia Woolf are a form of one-sided interiorised gossip). Gossip is the forensic examination of human motive, intent, and moral value. What would hairy cave dwellers have had to discuss other than other people, and who was going out with whom? And what, otherwise, explains the success of Facebook? The great glory of books, though, is that we can be witnesses to the gossip of people of many different kinds in faraway places, remote from our own particular cave. If your head is stuck in a book, you’re not distancing yourself from the world, you’re immersing yourself in it.
Well, perhaps I exaggerate a little, but it isn’t utter nonsense and I’m putting forward this thesis in defence of another one – that one shouldn’t do too much on holiday.
I am no philistine, and I’ve trudged through the greatest galleries in the world, the most important cathedrals, mosques, synagogues and temples, and the most challenging ruins. I know my Prado from my Prada. But one can have too much of a plan. One mustn’t see too much and do too much. Not for me the early morning start for some faraway temples. Far more important is conversation, and every proper holiday should contain a lot of it, conversations with taxi drivers (always the most politically informative), conversations with waiters and waitresses, ticket inspectors, barbers, masseurs and shop assistants, and above all conversation with one’s friends, especially those with whom one is travelling. There is much more to learn from people than from the inanimate, and it’s very much less tiring.
I was struck by two of your comments in this piece, the first the allusion to a Shakespearian fantasy of King Lear, the other about Churchill.
To counter King Lear, I chose the film I saw the other night on Czech TV which was West Side Story. Another fiction, based no doubt on the Shakespearian play of Romeo & Juliet.
The war between the Jets and the Sharks was the catalyst where two well-meaning people tried to talk sense into the protagonists. Maria, a good soul, brother of Bernardo, leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks wants to stop a fight between the two gangs and tries to persuade her new love, Tony, to intervene with his influence on Riff, the leader of the “American” Jets and stop the impending fight.
The other good soul is “Doc” the owner of the bar where the Jets hang out. He is appalled at the violence and behavior and constantly admonishes the gang members for their violent stupidity.
Tony manages to talk down the all out gang fight into a one on one fight with no weapons, and when he tells Maria what he has done, she is still unhappy and presses on Tony to stop any violence whatsoever, which he swears to do.
We all know how it all ends, with Riff killed by Bernardo after Tony tries to step in between them, then an enraged Tony killing Bernardo, thus setting in train a series of misinformation being sent out first by Maria, then Bernardo’s girl friend Anita, then by Doc himself, which finally leads to the death of Tony.
The catalyst to all this death was one person, Maria. In trying to avoid any violence at all, and misreading, in my opinion, the visceral hatred between different cultures, where “jaw jaw” simply falls on deaf ears her interventions made a bad state of affairs even worse.
And so back to Churchill. He may have preferred Jaw Jaw, but that was the miserable route Chamberlain took with his Munich visit.
In the end, it was War War that stopped Hitler in his tracks. Some people just cannot be persuaded with words.
As a man who travels extensively, you no doubt know that Japanese have many words for saying “no” without using that word. Different cultures have different ways with words, and I believe many of the problems besetting the world today are because people spend a lot of time talking to each other but they each take something different from what they hear the other side saying.
Sometimes it may be best to go back to that expression “actions speak louder than words.”
Yes, indeed. War war is sometimes the only option.