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.