Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Dum spirat, hora gustat

Why are you sitting there?

According to some of the most popular book titles over the last couple of years the last thing you should be doing is sitting in front of a computer.

I think (though I stand to be corrected) that it is all the fault of Patricia Schultz travel writer and producer of an American Travel Channel’s reality show. In May 2003 her book “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” was published and became an instant best-seller. Not, I hasten to add, because it was treated as a travel guide and target by any of its purchasers. No, people who bought it simply wanted to dream about what they might do one day. A dream with pretty pictures, clever text and novel ideas. A dream which was also ideal at fuelling the great demand for that wonderful concept known only to the species homo sapiens – the Guilt Trip!

Since May 2003 it has been totally inadequate to sit quietly and enjoy the moment. One had to be up and doing things. How could you just sit there while you could be watching whirling dervishes in Turkey, visiting Japan's Sapporo Snow Festival, or having coffee in a former Hungarian brothel that's now a cute artisan’s bakery run by tiny singing lesbians. Now there are even “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” calendars with a daily picture. Each month features a dream journey with one large picture at the top of the spread, a map and list of highlights, plus dozens of smaller photographs in the grid below (all in full colour, of course). The castles and breathtaking scenery of Bavaria's Romantic Road, a tour of the Imperial Cities of Morocco, a ride on the Trans-Siberian Express, a nostalgic trip along Route 66. One review I saw said “Every destination is inspiration to stop dreaming and get going!” I assume that meant get off your backside and go there. (The alternative interpretation of leave as soon as you get there is an even more depressing concept!)

And, to round it off, there’s a “1,000 Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler's Life List” which is simply a blank notebook for you to insert your own travels in. I’m not sure that – “Pensby Post Office for Pension; Heswall to get light bulbs from Woolworths” really merit using it so I don’t think I’ll bother.

Even staid British nature programmes now keep urging one to stop watching the television and ‘get out there’... The programme might have been designed for you to watch in the comfort of your armchair with a glass of wine and the log fire crackling but unless you are actually freezing your reproductive parts off on some moorland plateau in the vague hope of seeing a Capercailzie at 2.5 miles you are, implicitly, a failure.

Life has become a check-list. What you want to do and the fact that you can get your kicks reading blogs is irrelevant. Instead you should be rushing round ticking off one of your lists. But, of course, your lists aren’t to be found on that old reporter’s notebook in the kitchen or even on some clever little computer program. They are to found in some of the copycat books... There’s “1001 Paintings you must see before you die” by Stephen Farthing; “1001 Albums you must hear before you die” by Robert Dimery, “1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” by Peter Ackroyd, “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” by Steven Jay Schneider, “1001 Foods: You Must Try Before You Die” by Frances Case and even “1001 Wines You Must Taste Before You Die” edited by Neil Beckett. To those you can also add “1001 Natural Wonders: You Must See Before You Die “ which became “1001 Natural Wonders: Places You Must See in Your Lifetime” by Michael Bright - a clever little tweak to the theme.

There’s also “1000 recipes to try before you die”. The fact that there’s no 1001st recipe suggest that perhaps that is the one that kills you. “I told you not to try the puffer fish”. By the time we get to shopping as an objective we come down to a mere “101 Things to Buy before you die”. Mind you, I suspect if your tried buying 1001 exotic things there would be a danger of your partner killing you for being such a spendthrift before you could make your target.

Best of all though – at least so far as the title is concerned - is undoubtedly the New Scientist’s “100 Things to do before you (plus a few to do afterwards).

On the web you can even have a go at "1001 Lists to Read before you die".

For me the whole “...to do before you die” phenomenon has two major flaws. Firstly, no matter how you view death, the concept of having to complete something before you die is a bit depressing. You might as well start a list of jobs to do about the house with “stay alive”. I want to get all my slides scanned into the computer before I die. I also want to take photos of all the resident butterflies and dragonflies in the UK. Whilst I’m not going to get worked up about it on my deathbed and lament my shortcomings I certainly don’t need the added pressure of not having drunk 1001 wines or played golf on 50 courses (especially as a non-alcoholic non golf-player). 'Take guilt trip' does not need to be the top of any of my lists.

My second objection is the idea that the moment we are in is never considered to be enough. You cannot be enjoying place 17 on your list because you’ve got to be on your way to place 18. It reminds me of how upset I got with some American tourists who had ‘done’ the Lake District’ on 12th August 1966 (by visiting Wordsworth’s grave) after ‘doing the Cotswolds’ the previous day by seeing Birdland in Bourton-on-the-Water. I felt that no matter how many months I spent walking the fells I would never have 'done the Lake District'.

This moment is really all that matters in the whole of your life – after all no matter how old you are there’s no way of knowing how long you’ve got ‘before you die’. So if you want to be sitting in front of the screen reading my blog and you are enjoying yourself just forget the pressure to be up and doing. Never mind carpe diem (seize the day) try dum spirat, hora gustat (enjoy the hour – as long as you breathe!)


Scriptor Senex said...

Just found the ultimate book of this type - Can’t Be Arsed: 101 Things Not to Do Before You Die by Richard Wilson (Portico Books, £9.99). Illustrations © Jack Noel.

Hadriana's Treasures said...

Dear Scriptor Senex..I do believe that this is one of the best things I have read in such a long while. I do so agree with you. I agree with you so much that I am going to switch off the computer. Go to bed and re-read my Colin Dexter book on Morse. "Death is now my neighbour". I like how that man writes and I will indeed enjoy the moment rather than rushing around trying to catch up on 1001 blogs. "itaque dum spiro, hora gusto".

(Came to you via "a woman of no importance"...a very misleading title...if I may say so...)

Scriptor Senex said...

Dear Hadriana,
Thanks for the kind comments and I agree entirely about 'A Woman of No Importance' (Allegedly). Fhina is super.
Hope you enjoyed Morse and Lewis doing their thing.

Anonymous said...

We could learn a lot from crayons. Some are sharp, some are pretty and some are dull, Some have weird names , and all are different colors, but they all have to live in the same box . ....................................................