On Vacation

British Summer VacationThis will be my last post for an extended period, as I intend to go “on vacation” from my blog for a time. The reasons are personal; however, I will not be actually evacuating the scene, rather, I will be concentrating on my reading and my studies. If my motivation levels go higher, I will do some of this down at Brighton pier, or find time to go to the Isle of Wight to cast stones into grey waters of the English Channel.

In many respects, now is the perfect time to disappear. In one week, it is officially summer. Elections are over for now as is the aftermath; Gordon Brown has survived and will continue to bore the British public into submission for a time. Apart from the dreadful theft of a democratic dream in Iran, most thoughts in the Northern Hemisphere are turning to sunlight, deck chairs and sunscreen. The halls of my university are empty; the corridors hushed not of their own volition, but by absence. Despite the work of the custodians and the academics that remain, the heartbeat of the institution will only return with the autumn leaves and the bite of chill in the air.

Just for fun, I looked up “vacation” in the dictionary. It is defined as:

1. a period of suspension of work, study, or other activity, usually used for rest, recreation, or travel; recess or holiday.
2. a part of the year, regularly set aside, when normal activities of law courts, legislatures, etc., are suspended.
3. freedom or release from duty, business, or activity.
4. an act or instance of vacating.

It is interesting that in my instance, all four variants have an application.

Vacation and “free time” is a concept that has grown up only relatively recently. It was considered normal by most people to work almost every day of the week (apart from the Sabbath) until one dropped dead. However, changes in productive relations made a rupture with the old way inevitable; as mass production and the assembly line took hold in the early 20th century, workers began to organise themselves into unions in order to better negotiate the terms of labour. I recall seeing a film of a strike in the 1930’s at the Renault plant in France; the labourers occupied the factory and shut the gates and bolted the doors. Their families sent them food by delivering it in baskets, which they then raised up to the second-floor window. The film further showed the nocturnal activities of these strikers: they organised impromptu dances. I remember how they showed burly car workers spinning gently around a dusty shop floor with their wives dressed in gossamer floral print dresses, turning what was once a place of science and industry into an area lit more by romance and joy.

The Renault workers eventually won. Management even granted them paid holiday. This is perhaps where the most striking element comes into play: one of the strikers was later interviewed. She confessed that she hadn’t ever been on a holiday, and despite living in Paris, which by no means is distant from the ocean, that the hard-won holiday was her first opportunity to go to the sea. She mentioned that her colleagues were just as pleased by the spectacle: she stated that they could be seen on the shore, “playing like children”.

Those early victories were trampled underfoot by the cruelties of the Great Depression, though they were restored by the dawn of prosperity after the Second World War. Vacation is perhaps now one of the most under-threat elements of our present era: if my recent sojourn in London was anything to go by, at least half the populace could do with one, yet there is an element in the city’s demeanour of being driven grimly on, even if it means to breaking point. The drive never ends, the in-tray always fills up, but vacation is there, in part, to remind us that there is more to life than incessant struggle. Quite frankly, the only company that appears to have gotten it right in terms of balancing free time and cutting costs is Honda, which sent its workers away on a long, paid (at reduced rates) holiday; when the break ended, the labour force was motivated and revived. I have no doubt that they will prove to be one of the winners once the smoke clears.

My reasons for needing a break are admittedly not labour-related; I am one of those individuals who doesn’t know what to do with free time except to fill it with other tasks. Nor does vacation solve anything in particular, it merely provides respite, a breathing space, a temporary diversion by losing oneself in the pages of a book and by going on search and destroy missions for typos. There will come a point, to be sure, when this will not be particularly satisfying; time will turn, there will be more politics to which to attend, more philosophy to expound upon, more crises bubbling up from the entrails of the earth which require explanation. But for now, bon vacance.

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