Redeeming the time

Feb 18th, 2009 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Hastily gathering together the remnants of the weekend’s papers prior to the arrival of Gina, who, in four hours, achieves a weekly transformation of the house, Harry Eyres’ Financial Times column caught the eye.  It had not seemed inviting reading – reflections on memories of snow and on a delay in Malaga airport when the budget airline flight didn’t go.  Having similar memories of snow and having once been delayed by sixteen hours at Girona, there seemed not much that would be inspiring, but Eyres is in a different league, only he could wrest a sublime moment from an airport delay:

Later, as we were bussed to a hotel on the airport perimeter, I made the acquaintance of Peter (I have changed the name), a quiet, beady-eyed pensioner who had spotted, and approved of, my choice of airport book: the Loeb edition of Horace’s Odes. I spent many of the next 24 hours in Peter’s company, and felt the better for it.

As a disconsolate bunch of Brits gathered to drink beer in the hotel lobby, Peter suggested an excursion. He knew a village within walking distance, which rather surprised me as the whole area seemed made up of dual carriageways and industrial estates. As we picked our way over drainage ditches and crossed a bridge over the dual carriageway, Peter pointed to a small eucalyptus grove. “I used to live there.” I wondered whether he meant in a tent, or a teepee village, but he said he had lived under two pieces of perspex, with just a cat for company. A relationship had foundered, life had seemed empty and he had dropped out, about as far as it is possible to drop. The conversation continued in a bar (a former wine cellar, by the look of it) in the village of San Julián, where a normal, friendly, sociable Andalucian life carried on a kilometre away from one of Europe’s busiest airports . . .

. . . Back at the hotel, I found myself smiling, warmed by a kind of internal glow that had not been there a few hours before. Between us, Peter and I had wrested something good from the jaws of what might have been a dismal day, or a non-day. The excursion had saved the day, even though there were moments, dashing across sliproads, when I thought it might have been my last. Horace would have been proud of us, I think: as he says in one of his greatest poems, addressed by the humble poet to the careworn statesman: “All power and joy to that man who can say, ‘today, in this day, I have lived’; tomorrow may bring rain or sun, but nothing can undo, or render worthless, what the fleeting, unrepeatable hour has brought.”

Never having done classics and never having read anything by Horace, I have no idea of the occasion of his words.  Perhaps they are at some moment of high drama, like Shakespeare’s Henry v before Agincourt, perhaps they are at some more mundane moment.  It would be hard to think of anything more mundane than endless hours in an airport departure lounge; yet the day is redeemed by the encounter described.

“All power and joy to that man who can say, ‘today, in this day, I have lived’”, Horace’s words should be pasted across the top of computer screens and office desks, and I certainly should have them stuck to the outside of my diary.

Philip Larkin’s Days expresses the imperative to be able to say, “today, in this day, I have lived”:

What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

And it is 9 o’clock and time to do the mundane.

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  1. This reminds me of a debate I once had at a dinner party about ‘when does ones vacation begin, when you arrive or when you set off?’. I don’t mind the travelling TO my destination, but am never to keen on the return journey.
    But I am lucky to be married to a man who sees everyday as an adventure, so even when delayed at Dublin airport for 9 hours (complete with 3 kids in tow) and then diverted to Lisbon instead of Faro, followed by 4 hour bus journey, I was still able to smile because of his attitude. It’s actually quite good to be around someone who always sees his glass as half full and never half empty!
    This piece reminded me that the people you meet, however fleetingly shape your outlook on life. It reminded me of a couple that Rob and I met in a roadhouse bar in upstate NY who were from N.Ire and were over with an organisation (whose name escapes me) that brought under-priviledged children from Belfast on holiday to America, they were such nice people and even though we only met them once we still remember them.

  2. Of course, the vacation really begins sitting in a neighboour’s garden the night before!

    I have a load of bizarre rituals surrounding holidays to emphasise the specialness of the days – including waltzing around the car park at the Little Chef at Saint Cleer’s in South Wales and ordering bangers and mash at a pub in Portsmouth. There was word at one time of Little Chef closures and I was afraid that the one we stop at might close – holidays would not be the same without it!

  3. Yes we have those rituals too. I hate the packing but once the bags are by the door and I know that I can’t possibly stuff in another pair of shoes I can relax. I love airport bars, you meet the most interesting people in airports (and sometimes you end up marrying them!)
    There’s something about Little Chef, it’s a British institution. I recently saw on TV that Hester Blumenthal was doing a “makeover” show of a Little Chef, he put up a great fight for changing the menu to his signature elaborate food (exploding ice cream and seafood complete with ipod playing beach sounds!) but the regulars just wanted steak and chips and he had to buckle under the pressure to keep the ring of pineapple in the burger!

    Looking forward to sitting in the garden the night before your next vacation, we can start a new ritual.

  4. Airport bars can bring nasty shocks as well as nice surprises! Back in 2001, I was travelling with a colleague to the Philippines to see development projects. We were in the bar at Frankfurt airport, waiting for a night flight, when we started talking to an Irish businessman. “You’re safe”, he said, “if you stay away from Mindanao”.

    “We’re not going there”, my friend said.

    “Yes, we are”, I said. He hadn’t checked to see where some of the places actually were and it was far too late by then.

    Little Chef makeover? Sounds like something that would have endangered the Olympic Breakfast – which I always have.

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