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How travel narrows the mind Instead of mourning cheap flights, we should celebrate the opportunity to simply stay put

Do you miss this? Credit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Do you miss this? Credit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images


May 14, 2020   4 mins

This morning I received an email from Ryanair, describing the precautions they have put in place to deal with Covid-19. Far from reassuring, these precautions indicate what an even more miserable business flying is going to become. On top of all the usual indignities of flying — the cramped conditions, the endless waiting around in soulless airport lounges — everyone will now have to wear a face mask at all times.

For those of us who find the recycled air of the airplane cabin already disturbingly artificial, this will feel like a suffocation. And no, my kids won’t keep theirs on. And yes, the people sitting next to us will have a go at them for this. Also, there will be no queuing allowed for the toilets — maybe we will have to take a numbered ticket — so it’s probably best if you just hold it in. And if, on the morning of travel, you wake up with a temperature, they are going to send you home.

What was already a pretty hellish experience is about to become doubly so. Presumably, with demand collapsing, we are all going to have to pay more for the pleasure. And who knows what you are going to catch cooped-up in some metal petri dish for hours on end. Social distancing? In economy class? I don’t think so.

Flying was supposed to be freedom. Our access to a few days of sunshine. An escape to other worlds, a chance to broaden the mind. Well, if this is freedom you can stick it where the sun don’t shine. I will shed no tears for the demise of cheap flying. You don’t have to be a member of Extinction Rebellion to care about the effect that mass air travel has had on our planet. There will be much to celebrate when these polluting monstrosities are grounded.

But what of that cliched assumption that travel, and air travel in particular, is a mind-expanding experience — that travel is inherently educational, a chance to experience new cultures, different food and languages, a way of coming to appreciate that the way you think about things is not the only way to think about things? Before air travel, such experiences were the preserve of the rich, going on their grand tours. With cheap air travel all this was democratised. And so, for many people, the world has become a bigger place. This mind expanding aspect of travel is fundamentally moral. As Mark Twain put it in The Innocents Abroad:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

The problem here is that Twain died in 1910 and the world’s first commercial flight didn’t take place until four years later. And air travel has not fulfilled much of the moral mission he ascribes to travel in general. If anything, it’s done the opposite.

There is a paradox here. People often travel to experience difference. But by travelling, they create sameness. From the ‘Fish’n’ Chip’ shops of southern Spain, to Disneyland Shanghai, to the increasingly ubiquitous culture of the international hotel, with their near identical menus and styling, the more we travel, the more that genuine difference is eradicated.

Furthermore, locals know that the tourist dollar flows to those who present themselves as the tourist expects them to be, not as they really are. Far from broadening the mind, quick in-out air travel often just serves to cement the preconceived ideas of the tourist. As GK Chesterton avidly observed “travel narrows the mind”.

Of course, part of my agenda here is a hostility to globalisation, of which the commercial aircraft has long been at the vanguard. In 2005, that would-be prophet of globalisation Thomas Friedman wrote a book called The World is Flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. The flatness he sought was a level playing field created by free trade. In this flat world of global trade, differences and divisions between people become increasingly meaningless. The power of the nation state recedes as the needs of global commerce break down all barriers to its final hegemony. The price paid by this flat world of global commerce is the homogenisation of culture. Everything becomes the same.

But there is a deeper, almost spiritual problem with the ‘globe-trotting as freedom’ philosophy that is embedded in the lure of commercial air travel. “Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything” was the advice of one of the most famous of the fourth century desert fathers, Abba Moses. The idea is that staying put is a way to face your demons and deal with them.

In this tradition, those who are constantly restless for new experiences are suspected of trying to run away from the things they should be facing. If you are dissatisfied with life, you will probably be dissatisfied wherever you are; if you find relationships difficult, you will do so in China or Scotland; if you are cynical, a new view from your window won’t change that. The thing about travel is that you have to take yourself with you.

In the monastic tradition, ‘stay put’ is not about confinement. It is a liberating invitation to explore where you are and who you are. In an age where ‘somewhere else’ always seems to be the answer, this desire to settle needs to be recovered and rehabilitated.

Perhaps this is just a little too abstract. There are many — including my family — who are divided by considerable distances. Only air travel will allow my children to see their grandparents. Nothing is ever quite as clear cut as we want it to be. But the need to address our global restlessness is another matter.

I have on my shelf a wonderful little book by Madeline Bunting called The Plot. It’s the story an acre of Yorkshire land on which her father built a chapel. It’s a beautiful account of the importance of place, and staying loyal to place: staying put. It begins with a quote from the Western Apache that has long stayed with me: “Wisdom sits in places”.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

Giles is clearly being contentious in taking a shot at one of our sacred cows. But it needs doing.

He could also have taken a shot at the role of travel in status displays, it’s obvious closeness to consumerism, the way it turns culture from something owned by the people it belongs to, to a spectacle to be gawped at by tourists, it’s superficiality, it’s stage managed “experiences”, it’s snobbishness. The way even people get turned into tourist attractions by it (the Greek fisherman, the Scottish highlander).

And the main culture it exposes you to is the culture of travel itself with its dreadful clichés. Who doesn’t cringe to hear someone tell them of the place they visited – where their aren’t many tourists – or the naive insistence that they are travellers not tourists.

In comparison to the posher variety, the annual trip to the costas to drink and eat fish and chips seems almost attractively honest.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
4 years ago

I have mixed feelings here. My wife is Italian and I like to visit Italy occasionally and my brother is a pilot and I certainly would not like him to be out of work. However, I think travel, for most, is overrated. Yes, some people have a sincere interest in perhaps architecture or landscapes only found abroad and some really love languages and try to learn. I’m not sure most do. For me, when in Italy I like to wander and sit in bars; nice, but I can do that here.
Two photographs bothered me. One was of the Mona Lisa gallery, packed with tourists. Another was of a long line of about 100 people walking along a ridge on Everest. I don’t think I could enjoy such experiences and everywhere is like it now.
It’s not for everyone and those for whom it is important will dedicate their lives to find opportunities to travel, they’ll save, they’ll try to get jobs abroad. It seems to be, for most us, a big con.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

Yes – I’m not against it – but it does seem to play a bigger role in some people’s lives than it really should.

And it’s not just that places are overrun, it’s that the relationship changes when you are en masse. You cease to be a guest. It’s just another kind of shopping.

And Everest loses all meaning if you are queueing up with a lot of other dickheads just to get on it.

amatijaca
amatijaca
4 years ago

I love travelling, but mostly to places where there are no other tourists. I’ve done all the West European places, so now we concentrate mostly on Eastern Europe and Latin America…

Simon Adams
Simon Adams
4 years ago

Every CV seems to have “travel” listed under ‘interests’, which does indeed often seem to mean finding a replica of home with better weather now and then. A one or two week visit to a hotel isn’t the best way to steep yourself into another culture. That said, there is surely a place for a holiday that doesn’t involve eating sheep testicles and sleeping with fleas and various biological aromas.

I think that can be separated from the bigger question of people searching for happiness externally, through other people, places, activities, substances etc. Contentment surely comes from within, in finding silence in the mind, and is rarely related to geography.

Alex S
Alex S
4 years ago
Reply to  Simon Adams

“I think that can be separated from the bigger question of people searching for happiness externally”

Yeah, I think this is what the author should be getting at instead of advocating a parochialism that people simply will not contend with as long as they are given the opportunity to fly. That ship has sailed, or rather, that plane has flown, and not even the current intermission will stop flying in its tracks in the long term. Perhaps this kind of parochialism _should_ have a place in the current world given what climate change could do to us, but it won’t.

As you say it would be more interesting to read some of the author’s musings on how mass-tourism relates to searching for happiness, meaning, being insatiable etc.

pavlam1710
pavlam1710
4 years ago

If “travel narrows the mind” then I can only assume you are much traveled.

Flying is not, as you claim “…. was supposed to be freedom.” but is just a mode of transport and most travelers are not holiday makers but either people visiting family and people traveling for business reasons.

I most certainly will shed tears for demise of cheap flying and for the millions who will be financially restrained from visiting their international loved-ones.

Jean Redpath
Jean Redpath
4 years ago

Traveling to the US, the thing I most noticed was how little it was like the movies.

Pablo Escobar
Pablo Escobar
4 years ago

Some people may travel the world and in their mind they have remained enclosed at home, whereas others who never leave home have travelled the world in their minds and enhanced it with foreign cultures.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago
Reply to  Pablo Escobar

Kant? Heidegger?

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

The last word on this must surely go to the cretans, who have a curse:

“May your children grow up to be tourists”.

Su O.
Su O.
4 years ago

The core of his argument may be cliche, but it’s nonetheless true. The bigotry of your “churchman” response is unfortunate. The objection to mass tourism is based on the observation that most who indulge in it don’t seem to become in any way more enlightened or more knowledgeable as a result. They seem to realize this themselves, and address it by trying to consume yet more and more historic sites, exotic places, museums, etc.

David Brown
David Brown
4 years ago

Aeroplane n a can of germs travelling under pressure.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago
Reply to  David Brown

Too anthropocentric.

A can of hosts, packed up ready for easy infection and worldwide distribution.

Chris Thorogate
Chris Thorogate
4 years ago

Dear me. What a lazy set of cobbled together ramblings. I am particularly incensed by the boring, but shamefully not untypical assertion amongst the chattering classes, that ®southern Spain® is one huge Fish and Chips emporium. Indeed, if the writer wants to don his Union Jack shorts, shout for a beer and expose his fleshy gut to all and sundry, then do go to the strip just west of MÃ¥laga airport. Luckily for me living here, ®southern Spain® that is, you stay down there listening to ®Viva España` and I®ll enjoy the other 80,000 sq km of historic Andalucía with its assorted bars, restaurants and, not forgetting, the Andaluz.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

I sincerely doubt Giles does any of those things. And your stereotype of British plebs – you know, the sort who couldn’t afford to move to Spain – is a little dated.

I won’t stereotype you, as you have done Giles, but there are plenty of retired British ex pats, who scarcely mix with the locals, don’t learn the language, and having dedicated their lives to money and drink, find, post retirement, that only the drink remains.

Basil Chamberlain
Basil Chamberlain
4 years ago

If we’re going to insist on a spiritual interpretation, it’s certainly true some may now, as they did in the past, find liberation through monasticism. But let’s not forget that others found spiritual meaning through pilgrimage. Of course you don’t learn much if you eat fish and chips on the Costa del Sol. But travel in the right spirit is one of life’s truest teachers.

williamritchie2001
williamritchie2001
4 years ago

It comes down to choice. Personally I find this post modern asceticism slightly doctrinaire.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

Pomo asceticism? I thought all the Pomo crowd had houses in Tuscany.

Martin Terrell
Martin Terrell
4 years ago

I have always enjoyed travelling but see the point. It’s about balance and appreciating where we are, which is also making the most of things when we can’t go anywhere.

georgeguyfolger
georgeguyfolger
4 years ago

Hopping in the car and driving into France via the ferry or channel tunnel will probably become the done thing for the next few years. Maybe taking a longer two week holiday to factor in bit more driving, or also turning the holiday into a kind of driving trip.

The middle class obsession with owning a villa in the south of France now seems very sane. Drive down in a day, bring half your food in a box and buy your fresh veg and fruit / bread the local village shop and relax in your villa for a few weeks before driving home again. Seems like the most rational way to do it.

The ‘fast’ holidays are going to get hit hard from this in other words. Holidays are going to require a bit more time and a slower pace. Maybe this will kill the foreign ‘stag’ and ‘hen’ dos finally. Every cloud.

Jeff H
Jeff H
4 years ago

Villa in France good!
Stag and Hen do’s bad.
Well off middle class rational.
Working class oiks unmentionable!

xanthoptica1970
xanthoptica1970
4 years ago

This seems to actually be a critique of the traveler who is not really traveling out of genuine curiosity, but rather novelty. If you find yourself exploring because you’re really enjoying things you didn’t understand before, you’re following Twain’s lead. If you have to tell others about your trip (selfies on Instagram, anyone?) then you’re just ticking exclusivity boxes. Both qualify as “travel.” And both predilections show up just as clearly at home.

Jeff H
Jeff H
4 years ago

‘Only air travel will allow my children to see their grandparents.’ Why is that essential but not very well off working families can’t enjoy having a week in the sunshine once a year? They arent running away from their inner demons but having a holiday.

Has Giles any idea just how bloody awful many low paid workers lives are?

Also the Desert Fathers (dont forget the Desert Mothers) rolled in burning sand to quell their sexual desire and lived. on bread and water. Dont see many Clergy doing that these days.

David Bell
David Bell
4 years ago

This article is all over the place, so I would like to bring at least a bit of clarity:

1. Ryanair are a private company, they need people on their planes to survive. Michael O’Leary is doing what he does best, generate PR to try and get people on his planes. He knows if he does not start taking books, people will make other arrangements and Ryanair will have a disaster this summer
2. Travel for business and travel on holiday are two very different things.
3. Travelling on holiday for a bit of sun or skiing is very different to travelling with a bag pack or a gap year.
4. If we did not have travel we would never have had Live Aid because we would never have known about that famine.
5. Before the “dreaded” package holiday Greek Islands, the Costa Del Sol, Algarve, etc where very poor regions. We complain that they have been “commercialised” but we forget that commercialisation has brought clean water, better roads, jobs and vastly improved heath care to these regions. You can argue about the commercialisation but I bet the majority of the population would accept that on balance travel has been beneficial to them.
6. There is no one more hypocritical than an Extension Rebellion activities. They only protest after posting photographs of facebook of themselves skiing in the winter and sunning themselves on foreign holidays in the summer.

We need to stop being “snotty” about travel. It may not be the true “authentic” experience of the country but everything changes and a lot of that change has been for the better. Think of London, was cleaning the River Thames beneficial or should we have kept it as a stinking mess as that was more “authentic”?

Su O.
Su O.
4 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

The truth is that excessive travel of the kind so many people indulge in now is just not warranted in a polluted world running short of resources. If we are not to be entirely hypocritical about trying to save the planet, we will need to become much more localized. I’m not talking about the trip of a lifetime that you’ve saved for, or the occasional cruise, but about people who travel extensively every year. We just can’t sustain that any longer.

Clay Bertram
Clay Bertram
4 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

You make some fair points that are hard to dispute in regards to the raising of living standards as a result of tourism in Souther Spain/Portugal etc. How long can that model of tourism endure for? Is it sustainable in an era of climate change? Maybe you can educate me as to how it is sustainable? I have not seen any evidence in my research that mass air travel is sustainable long-term (but I concede, as a lay man, that I may be wrong). I think a lot about sustainability now in middle age. I never used to.

Walter Lantz
Walter Lantz
4 years ago

I believe Monty Python covered this topic many decades ago ……..

And spending four days on the tarmac at Luton airport on a five-day package tour with nothing to eat but dried BEA-type sandwiches and you can’t even get a drink of Watney’s Red Barrel because you’re still in England and the bloody bar closes every time you’re thirsty and there’s nowhere to sleep and the kids are crying and vomiting and breaking the plastic ash-trays and they keep telling you it’ll only be another hour although your plane is still in Iceland and has to take some Swedes to Yugoslavia before it can load you up at 3 a.m. in the bloody morning and you sit on the tarmac till six because of “unforeseen difficulties”, i.e. the permanent strike of Air Traffic Control in Paris – and nobody can go to the lavatory until you take off at 8, and when you get to Malaga airport everybody’s swallowing “enterovioform” and queuing for the toilets and queuing for the armed customs officers, and queuing for the bloody bus that isn’t there to take you to the hotel that hasn’t yet been finished. And when you finally get to the half-built Algerian ruin called the Hotel del Sol by paying half your holiday money to a licensed bandit in a taxi you find there’s no water in the pool, there’s no water in the taps, there’s no water in the bog and there’s only a bleeding lizard in the bidet. And half the rooms are double booked and you can’t sleep anyway because of the permanent twenty-four-hour drilling of the foundations of the hotel next door – and you’re plagued by appalling apprentice chemists from Ealing pretending to be hippies, and middle-class stockbrokers’ wives busily buying identical holiday villas in suburban development plots just like Esher, in case the Labour government gets in again, and fat American matrons with sloppy-buttocks and Hawaiian-patterned ski pants looking for any mulatto male who can keep it up long enough when they finally let it all flop out. And the Spanish Tourist Board promises you that the raging cholera epidemic is merely a case of mild Spanish tummy, like the previous outbreak of Spanish tummy in 1660 which killed half London and decimated Europe – and meanwhile the bloody Guardia are busy arresting sixteen-year-olds for kissing in the streets and shooting anyone under nineteen who doesn’t like Franco. And then on the last day in the airport lounge everyone’s comparing sunburns, drinking Nasty Spumante, buying cartons of duty free “cigarillos” and using up their last pesetas on horrid dolls in Spanish National costume and awful straw donkeys and bullfight posters with your name on “Ordoney, El Cordobes and Brian Pules of Norwich” and 3-D pictures of the Pope and Kennedy and Franco, and everybody’s talking about coming again next year and you swear you never will although there you are tumbling bleary-eyed out of a tourist-tight antique Iberian airplane…

Monica Elrod
Monica Elrod
4 years ago

I’m amused by all the quotes from American writers – where would we be if the British had decided to stay home and not explore/travel?
Yes air travel is a pain in the a** and likely to involve more brain dulling time in the airport and maybe the need to wear adult diapers to avoid using toilets. Still better than a catheter.
I am planning to leave the work force and travel. But I am a hiker, backpacker, lover of nature. I go to see the last of the glaciers and icebergs in Patagonia and the natural wonders of the world. I go to touch the sands of the Sahara, and to see the beauty of Yosemite national park. I love how every country smells different, whether cooking smells or fragrances of local plants, or burning rainforest. In most cases I can’t get there without a plane. My trips involve talking to locals as much as possible, sharing a meal, a vista, a conversation about family. I get to see how delightfully different and similar human beings are. If there are fewer mobs wandering over Macchu Picchu turning it into another Disneyland, I won’t be upset. More judicious tourism with a focus on preservation and not overwhelming local resources can only be a good thing.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

A video is worth a thousand words. And this one epitomises everything I find so cringy about travel culture.

https://youtu.be/0d7xv-PGRWM

Lars Lööf
Lars Lööf
4 years ago

Travel is not just air travel. The general gist of the article is not against travel but against international co-operation. Useless if you believe your corner of the world knows everything it needs to know already, but fatal if you think, as I do, that we all have a lot to learn and a lot to teach far beyond the present horizon – bright or dark as it may seem at any given moment. I miss that time already when views of diverse cultures met, and I hope that we can soon find ways of exploring hitherto unknown territories and thinking again.

Clay Bertram
Clay Bertram
4 years ago

Great article.

Jeff H
Jeff H
4 years ago

Why are visits to grandparents necessary but holidays for people with not much money not?

martin.n1977
martin.n1977
4 years ago

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.”
T.S. Elliot

This article is fairly poor as either a journalistic piece or thought provocation, and betrays the premise upon which UnHerd proclaims itself to be based: “…we strive to be always thoughtful rather than divisive”.

Each will find their own in travel, and when weighing all considerations, its cessation would provide undoubted assistance to our environment and untold damage to our souls and minds.

Fuck off Fuck off
Fuck off Fuck off
4 years ago

A completely fatuous article. Post liberal parochialism.

tmglobalrecruitment
tmglobalrecruitment
4 years ago

The arguments presented re travel are at best weak, and the examples would seem to suggest the writer has not been further than Spain, and no further there than the Costa’s.

The idea that we never venture further than where we are born flies in the face of the human spirit and the great explorers of history.

There are many places without MC D’s, Starbucks and Pizza Hut, perhaps with a bit more ambition the writer could find them.

Whilst he may dream of a life cut off in a village lost in time, where you marry your cousin, I do not.

The real issue with travel has become the frequency, where ever you go in the world flights are many and they are full, a scaling back of the volume of air travel is no bad thing. Looking at your wife and noting the family resemblance would be.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

” the great explorers of history”

I think this is the point. Modern tourists are not anything like the great explorers of history, nor even the more minor explorers of history. Wordsworth walking through the alps say, or RLS with his donkey.

But please, please, please – don’t reply by saying you are a traveller not a tourist!

tmglobalrecruitment
tmglobalrecruitment
4 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

Actually worked on 4 continents, so sadly for you not a tourist

Su O.
Su O.
4 years ago

The writer in no way said that we should “never venture further than where we are born.” You should consider responding to the points he has actually made, not the ones you have invented. Further, he said nothing whatever to indicate he wanted to live someplace so backward that you would “marry your cousin.” Again, try making an argument based on what was actually said, not on what you invented.

There is a middle path. Many people greatly enjoy continuing to live in the place where they were raised, making lifelong commitments to people and place. These commitments and, yes, love for a given place, are very much a part of the human spirit and have been so for as long as humans have existed. The point will become somewhat moot in the immediate future, as the opportunities for constant travel – whatever its disadvantages or benefits – disappear. There is little justification, in a world that is dealing with climate catastrophe, for this kind of pollution and waste of dwindling resources.

tmglobalrecruitment
tmglobalrecruitment
4 years ago
Reply to  Su O.

i do not need your advice matey, your dull as dishwater never venture anywhere personality, would drive anyone with character mad. You may of course be a victim of interbreeding and no doubt sit and watch the BBC all day long to learn your opinion.