Pursuits of happiness - Issue 155 - Magazine | Monocle

thumbnail text

Quick on the draw


Shantell Martin (as told to Sonia Zhuravlyova)

Known for her stream-of-consciousness line-drawings, US-based British artist Shantell Martin shares the power and pure joy of creating.


I encourage everyone to pick up a pen and just draw. You don’t have to be an artist. That mechanism of connecting your head to your heart to your hand is so powerful. There’s a reason that we all draw as children. We’re given this gift that allows us to calibrate ourselves to the world. But along the way, perhaps by design or just through bad luck, it is trained out of us by society.

I never knew that being an artist was a career option so I studied graphic design because at least I would be in the creative space. When I graduated I went to Japan. I wanted to be in a place that was completely unfamiliar. I found a job teaching English and didn’t draw for a while; I pushed it away but it came back to me.

A friend who organised avant garde concerts asked whether I would like do some of my drawing on an overhead projector when one of the bands was playing. That experience changed my life because it was the first time that I found peace within myself. While drawing live, I switched off and it gave me complete focus in the moment. Initially I froze but then I just started drawing. Then, 45 minutes later, I lifted my head and saw that the show had finished. I looked down and there was this magical drawing. “Wow,” I thought. “That’s me. I did that.”

After that it was about finding technical clarity, wanting that line to be as crisp and perfect as possible. In Japan  there is a craft-based culture focused on attaining mastery over a lifetime, which I absorbed. Drawing for a live audience was about being present and creating an experience. That gave me a foundation of who I am as an artist and accelerated my career.

We all have a style within us, a creative fingerprint, and I’ve been able to extract that through the process of live drawing. You could say that it’s a kind of performance. What’s wonderful about it is that it doesn’t give you time to be anyone else. You can only be yourself. So it’s the most honest way to find your style – you don’t consider what someone else might do. 

For every new work or show, I think about what I want to say. I’m always asking questions. I want to put a wish, hope or an intention out with my work. For example, for my latest show at Subliminal Projects in Los Angeles, I spent weeks just thinking and writing a 27-point manifesto about the future of art, then created a show around that.

I also use words. But words are made up of lines too; it’s just that we give them more power or they come with more baggage. I’m a very proud dyslexic. As an artist I have creative freedom to make all of these lines and also the freedom to create words as I hear them. I see this as a superpower, a way of seeing things from a different perspective. But words have a power over us. I use them to pull people into the drawing because I rarely use colour.

When I create a show or an installation, although the scale might be big there’s nothing in there that you couldn’t do yourself. All of the tools and the media that I’ve used are accessible. I love showing that a simple line can be so powerful that you can use it to create installations that are larger than life.

Creativity is finding yourself in environments and situations where you can forget about time. When that happens you put yourself in the moment. You can have honest actions and reactions. It’s the freedom to know that you can create when you want, where you want, how you want, without any judgement, assumptions or pressure. It’s also about the experience of making a mark and seeing what it looks like. And when I say “mark”, that doesn’t have to mean a physical mark. It could be cooking, dancing or moving your body – whatever sort of creative expression that works for you. So do it. Make your mark.

About the writer: British visual artist Martin grew up in southeast London and attended Camberwell College of Arts and Central Saint Martins. Today she divides her time between New York and Los Angeles, where she has worked on everything from live drawing installations to designing and choreographing a ballet.


Walking the walk


Annabel Streets

Author Annabel Streets explores what makes cities a pleasure to perambulate and how to get the most out of your stroll.


Most people decide to visit a city based on what they might see and do there. Not me. Because of my personal and professional interest in seeing things on two legs I seek out walkable cities. In my decades of pounding the pavements in hundreds of cities around the world, something struck me: the ones that properly revive me are those around which I can easily and pleasurably walk.

Strangely, these aren’t always the places that are lauded in studies or rankings of the world’s most walkable cities. So I put one foot in front of the other to find out a little more. Like many of us I have a sedentary job so a break means getting moving – no lying by a pool for me. I also want the chance to see, hear, smell and taste new things. A walkable city should provide a sense of escape and novelty while you’re on foot. I want to stroll from market to museum to monument, while eyeing up beguiling buildings and flamboyant fashionistas along the way. Herein lies the problem: many cities deemed walkable aren’t pleasurably walkable.

Paris, Venice and Athens, for example, regularly top the league of Europe’s most easily strollable cities. Their attractions are in close proximity and their pavements are generous in size. Yet these are among the most polluted places in Europe. Time spent inhaling exhaust emissions (vaporetto fumes in Venice), accompanied by the screech of motorbikes, does little for our health or mood. A study published last year described air pollution as a bigger killer than Aids, hiv, tuberculosis and malaria combined, not to mention being more deleterious to public health than smoking or war. The last time I visited Paris, which was once my favourite city, I felt as though I was inhaling diesel and vowed never to return.

But if you must hit the bucket list of big-city locations, don’t despair because I have a few tips. Air pollution and traffic noise fall at certain times of the day and in certain weather conditions. The best time to walk larger, polluted cities is in the rain, which disperses harmful emissions, muffles noise and reduces the crowds – just remember to take an umbrella. Wind is similarly effective at cleaning the air, so breezy days are good for a city ramble. Try to walk when traffic is at its least busy: avoid rush hour or opt for early mornings or evenings. Even better, take an old-fashioned map and plot out routes that avoid arterial roads or download one of the newer mapping apps, such as Go Jauntly, which can plot green routes that are less polluted and frequently more interesting. If you still can’t avoid traffic-clogged routes, walk at the furthest edge of the pavement and breath through your nose – our nasal cavities contain a remarkable air-filtration system.

“I want to stroll from market to museum to monument, while eyeing up beguiling buildings and flamboyant fashionistas along the way. Herein lies the problem: many cities deemed walkable aren’t pleasurably walkable”

Instead of big, blockbuster cities, I now prefer to walk in smaller, quieter cities with cleaner air. So I’d rank Salamanca over Barcelona, Toulouse over Paris, Tallinn over Kraków, for example. But my real favourites are the handful of cities that have banned traffic altogether from their centres, such as Dubrovnik and Ghent. I have a hunch that we’ll see many more of these in the coming decade. I also like larger cities with extensive pedestrianised areas, such as Munich, Stockholm and Oslo. Nordic cities have among the cleanest urban air.

Alongside uncrowded pavements and traffic-free zones, a joyfully walkable city also needs plenty of green, open spaces, which is one of the reasons why London routinely appears in the top five of the world’s most walkable cities. But it’s not just bounteous greenery that makes a city enjoyable for pedestrians. Cities with plentiful water, be it a coast, canals or a river, often overflow with walking opportunities. Some of my favourite places have miles of beautifully reclaimed river frontage designed solely for walkers: think Brisbane and Bordeaux.

Good public transport is perhaps paradoxically vital for a properly walkable city as it enables pedestrians to take short cuts or carry home their shopping. It also allows those living or staying outside the city to visit without their wheels. Even the old-fashioned idea of a network of trams, which produces significantly less air pollution than cars, is coming back into fashion. As I write, I’m just back from a working visit to Sydney, where the original tram system was ripped out in the 1960s to make way for cars but is now being reinstalled. On this trip I used the tram when I wanted to discover walking routes that were often further afield. A study carried out during the pandemic found that walkers who sought out diverse routes reported feeling happier than those who trundled along the same well-walked paths. A change of scenery is often all it takes to shift our perspective and our mood.

About the writer: Streets is the author of 52 Ways to Walk, published by Bloomsbury, and Windswept: Why Women Walk (under the name Annabel Abbs), published by Two Roads.

Great expectation


David Robson

Author David Robson holds forth on the psychology of expectation and how small changes in the way we think can help create a brighter future.


Whether you want to lose weight, get stacked, write a novel or learn to play a musical instrument, almost all positive life changes ultimately come down to willpower. Do you have the self-control and focus to stick to your goals? Will you avoid the temptations that will lead you astray?

You might know some rather irritating people who can truthfully answer this with a resounding “yes”. These are the folks who seem to be able to effortlessly achieve whatever they turn their mind to. For others, the temptations of junk food, phone-scrolling or trash TV seem too great and so their goals fall by the wayside. These decisions aren’t trivial either: scientists estimate that up to 40 per cent of premature deaths can be attributed to lifestyle decisions stemming from low self-control (a fatty feast here, another drink or cigarette there).

It might be comforting to assume that these differences are hardwired into our brains. Some people just have better willpower than others. Research, however, suggests another alternative: that our willpower is shaped by our beliefs, which in turn are learned from people around us. Our ideas can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. They determine how easily we lose mental focus or give in to temptation. And by changing their ideas, anyone can improve their self-control.

These findings build on emerging evidence that “expectation effects” can transform our lives. The most famous is the placebo response, in which our belief in a medicine’s effectiveness can actually increase its benefits.

“For many people, a single setback can be taken as evidence that their willpower is weak. As a result, people abandon goals and give in wholeheartedly to vices, a phenomenon pleasingly known in psychological literature as the ‘what-the-hell effect’.”

So are you ready for an experiment? First  let’s establish how you frame challenges. Do you feel that as challenging situations accumulate, it gets more and more difficult to resist the temptations? Do you feel the need to refuel with snacks or TV or a treat after something strenuous? Do you need time to recover your mental energy after strenuous mental activity? If so, you have what psychologists, including Veronika Job at the University of Vienna, Austria, call a “limited” theory of willpower.

By contrast, people with a “non-limited” theory of willpower take another view. They might feel energised by strenuous mental activity and seek out new challenges (rather than chocolates) as a result. When they resist temptation they feel strengthened to withstand new ones. They are also more likely to believe that mental exertion helps build cerebral stamina so they can continue hard tasks for longer. These are the effortlessly purposeful people.

In laboratory studies, people with a limited willpower mindset tended to be more easily distracted after tasks requiring deep concentration. Those with the non-limited willpower mindset remained focused for far longer. Indeed, in many situations, their willpower actually increased over time, like a muscle toned by repeated use. Their mental stamina becomes self-perpetuating.

The long-term consequences of these findings are profound. Whether they devote themselves to study, eating healthily or exercising, people with a non-limited mindset tend to be far better at sticking to their goals. Intriguingly, Job found that these differences are especially visible at times of stress, precisely when people are most likely to abandon their goals.

Our mindsets tend to be shaped by the people around us as well as our upbringing. One cross-cultural study by Krishna Savani at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore found that, based on their performance in laboratory tests on focus and self-control, people in India are more likely to endorse the non-limited viewpoints than people in the US. Indian respondents tended to welcome challenges to their willpower and gave in less often than Americans.

Fortunately, and wherever we come from, our mindsets can be changed. Even reading about non-limited willpower was enough to shift some participants’ beliefs. This very essay might have already given you a head start (you’re welcome). Evidence also shows that finding a role model and reminding yourself of their iron will can galvanise your determination.

But we also need to rethink our attitudes to failure. For many, a single setback can be taken as evidence that their willpower is weak and they are doomed to repeat the stumble. As a result, we abandon our goals and give in wholeheartedly to vices, a phenomenon pleasingly known in psychological literature as the “what-the-hell effect”. We need to avoid this all-or-nothing way of thinking and focus on the overall progress leading up to that point.

The past three years have yielded plenty of stress that was beyond our control but the latest neuroscience shows that we all have the power to change our habits for the better. The question is, what are you expecting?

About the writer: Robson is a science writer and the author of The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Change Your World, published by Canongate in the UK and by Henry Holt in the US.

The big retreat


Petri Burtsoff

There is no better way to de-stress than to take yourself away from the distractions of daily life. Here’s what the Finns do.


Long before “mindfulness”, “going offline” and “switching off” became part of our language, the Finns had a simple antidote to the stress of city life. They leave and head to simple cottages in the countryside. In a country of five million people, there are more than 500,000 such cottages, almost all of them in the woods, beside a lake or by the seaside. Finns retreat to their cottages en masse during the summer holidays, often spending weeks living a simpler life, some voluntarily foregoing even the basic luxuries of electricity or running water.  

The Finns aren’t alone in retreating somewhere for the summer break either. Italians flock to the sea during the ferragosto holiday in mid-August and many inhabitants of the cooler corners of northern and western Europe make for the Med. Many Parisians are rarely seen in Paris in July and August. But, in my humble and highly partisan opinion, it doesn’t compare to the benefits of disconnecting the Finnish way.

Research shows that recovering from work stress takes time and it only happens when your mind and body are removed from the cause of stress. The recovery can be hastened when you move to a place that’s disconnected from work and where you can occupy your mind with something else (I suggest mushroom picking and skinny dipping). 

Finnish cottage holidays aren’t at all sedentary. Potatoes, onions, tomatoes and herbs need to be planted, tended and harvested. That wood for the lakeside sauna won’t chop itself. Come to think of it, that picnic table could do with a quick sanding down and varnishing and woe betide the holidaymaker who falls behind on maintaining his or her fishing boat after the ravages of winter. 

This might sound stressful to some readers but rest assured, when there’s no one breathing down your neck, no deadlines to meet and no client to please, chores become leisurely pastimes that help you shift your focus. And that’s really the key. When your brain focuses on a new activity you’ll quickly feel a sense of disconnect from common concerns such as a bulging inbox.

But this isn’t a self-help book, more a piece of shared wisdom. In my opinion there are no quick fixes to help you achieve meaningful and effective rest. That said, Finns have learned that disconnecting properly takes time – the idea of a measly week or two off every year, as is the standard in Japan or the US, sounds rather disagreeable to our ears. Summer houses prove that disconnecting is possible – even in the age of email – and it does not even have to mean switching your phone off. 

After a few days of rusticity, surrounded by nature and living a simpler life, you’ll find yourself forgetting where you left it. Or, with a little luck, the battery will die and you’ll find yourself without the electricity to charge it.

About the writer: Monocle’s Helsinki correspondent Burtsoff has contributed countless reports to the magazine and Monocle 24 radio. After embedding with Nato’s Cold Response forces in northern Norway recently we decided that he’d earnt a break. 

Advantage set


Michael Booth

Monocle’s Copenhagen correspondent excels at many things but his lamentable tennis skills are something from which he draws both comfort and amusement. Even, that is, if he was beaten to the baseline by a 12-year-old girl.


One of my best friends is a life coach. I was visiting her in her life-coachy home in a converted bakery in the north of England recently when she asked me, “Michael, what makes you happy?” I suspect she was hoping for something like “seeing my family flourish”, or “pushing beyond my comfort zone” or “my volunteer work”. My response, however, was to focus on me. I’ve always thought that “comfort” is the best of all the zones and I don’t do any volunteer work. So I found myself answering, “Hitting a tennis ball.”

Not much for a life coach to work with there: an uncomplicated, almost brainless pursuit, something a labrador retriever might choose. But, for me, hitting a tennis ball is far from simple because I am completely shit at it. Whether playing in the garden as a child, loping around the municipal courts as a teenager or on the rare occasion when I’ve had chance to pick up a racket as an adult, my game has been lamentable.

But recently I began talking about joining the local club and playing again. There was scepticism from some members of my family because of my perceived decrepitude and lack of fitness but, for some reason, my wife had faith and for my 50th birthday she booked a week of intensive training at a club in Mallorca as a gift.

“Even someone of almost wilful physical ineptitude can shrug off the shackles of lifelong rubbishness and find joy in hitting a ball”

We were a mixed group of men and women, ranging from our early twenties to properly elderly. On the first morning, the scowling, leather-skinned Spanish ex-pros charged with our instruction told us to warm up by jogging around the court so they might also assess our fitness and place us in the various ability groups.

It turns out I excel at gently shuffle-jogging around a tennis court because I was put in a group of men in their early thirties, all of whom had that lean, mean look of club tournament players. I knew even before we started that I would be hopelessly out of my depth but a tiny voice in my head told me to go with the flow. What if I wasn’t actually that pitiful after all? 

We were told to start knocking the ball to one another. And I was as atrocious as I’d ever been. It took the instructor less than 20 seconds to realise his error and direct me to a far court, where I was told to start hitting with a Spanish man, Olivier, who I later discovered was 72. (He was good but I destroyed him with the drop shots.)

At one point during my third day my instructor, visibly agitated with my slow progress, invited a 12-year-old girl onto the court to demonstrate where I was going wrong with my backhand. She was amazing. A champion in her age group, apparently. He didn’t do it to humiliate me; it was just an effective way to show me a great backhand. Still, a 12-year-old girl.

But you know what? I absolutely loved my Balearic boot camp. I loved the potential energy of that ball in my hand, the eternal hope in defiance of all the evidence that I wouldn’t shank it to the moon or once again plop it straight into the net. I loved the gratifying “thwock” when it hit the sweet spot. And is there anything more exhilarating than executing a proper top-spin backhand, concluding with your arms spread, head turned to the left as the ball describes a sleek parabola into the opposite corner?

I managed it for the first time ever on the third day. Slowly, I was becoming slightly less rubbish. The instructors introduced tiny adjustments to my swing, my positioning, my grip, which had a transformative effect. I found that it was possible to change, to improve.

This was a revelation to me. If you are prepared to open yourself to new ideas, to sacrifice some dignity and learn from 12-year-old girls, even someone of almost wilful physical ineptitude can shrug off the shackles of lifelong rubbishness and find joy in something as simple as hitting a tennis ball. Turns out it wasn’t a life coach I needed. 

About the writer: Booth is an award-winning, best-selling author of seven non-fiction books. He is Monocle’s Denmark correspondent, and contributes to numerous newspapers and magazines.


Just for the joy of it


Hannah Lucinda Smith

What can Istanbul’s cats and that eccentric gentleman with his feet in the Bosphorus teach us about taking time to enjoy urban life? Hannah Lucinda Smith decodes the ancient Ottoman art of ‘keyif’.


When was the last time you did something simply for the joy of it? Not to learn anything new, nor develop a skill, not for the likes on social media but just for the delectation of the moment and pursuit of sublime sensations washing over you? I would wager it has been a while. If so, you need to get acquainted with the concept of keyif.

The word translates from Turkish as “pleasure”, but in practice it is much more than that. Keyif can be found in the feeling of the sea lapping around your toes as you smoke your hookah pipe, having dragged your deck chair and plastic table out to paddling depth. It can be found in an hours-long breakfast that meanders through courses of cheeses, eggs, jams and honey and keeps you full until dinner. It is there in the delight of rocking in a hammock, watching the clouds and listening to the cicadas. For a pastime to count as keyif it must involve minimum effort, maximum gratification and achieve nothing more than a pleasing state of mind.

Here in Istanbul, the Bosphorus is the main source of keyif. Sometimes it is enough to simply watch the waves from the deck of a passenger ferry on a sunny day or from the window of a top floor apartment in a storm. If the weather is clement, find a spot on one of the city’s corniches, park a camping chair and simply stare out into the water. Find one of Istanbul’s public beaches and dive in if you’re feeling more daring or, if you’re lucky enough to have one, take your fishing boat out and simply bob around for a few hours to enjoy solitude in the middle of a city of more than 15 million.

Walking aimlessly, hands clasped behind your back and brow knitted in contemplation, was a traditional Turkish way to find keyif but these days many of Istanbul’s young men prefer to drive around in cars garlanded with Turkish flags and alloys, pumping music through boom boxes at window-rattling levels. Keyif for them, maybe, but not for the rest of us. As a rule, though, this pursuit should be conducted at low speed and low volume. Nature, food, chatter and idleness: these are the key ingredients of keyif.

It is a shame that such a concept has come to be seen as alien, or even sacrilegious. At some point, leisure became a commodity, a product to be sold, rather than a lack of anything dull or pressing to do. And if something is to be sold, then it must have a value: it has to promise to improve you in some way. Sports to make you live longer, travel to broaden your mind, creative hobbies to make you more interesting and marketable; we have managed to turn our time off work into yet more work. Pleasingly, keyif offers none of this. It will not give you a killer body, nor things to brag about to your friends. There is nothing to make you fitter, better, faster or stronger. And that’s OK too.

Another rule for recognising the concept is that if something calls itself keyif, then it is probably not. In Turkey, you’ll find countless restaurants and cafés of this name, and most of them will be stressful and overpriced. The concept is far too nebulous to be utilised like that. Even Turks can’t fully explain it, nor very often tell you whether an experience can be classed as keyif or not. Only you can decide that and only in the moment that it is happening. It might be found as you sip from a cheap flute of tea on a plastic stool in a pavement café or as you observe the beautiful people going about their day in an upmarket neighbourhood. There is no set price range for keyif.

Neither is it something that can be captured and shared. Your keyif location is probably photogenic but the spell will be broken as soon as you even consider taking a picture. If you are thinking of the future, of how your photograph will turn out and how much attention it might garner, then what you are experiencing is no longer keyif. You have allowed the banality of your ego to sneak in and break your connection with the moment. Stop. Switch your phone off along with your brain and try turning yourself into a sensory receptacle – a human being – rather than a content creator.

For inspiration look to the street cats, Istanbul’s real masters of keyif. Note the expressions on their faces as they stretch out in the sun, snoozing as everyone else hurries around them. Watch how they ascend to ecstasy as a passerby stops to tickle their ears. Then see how they immediately disappear as soon as someone whips a camera phone out. Cats do not care about life hacking. They are not bothered about how many times their photo is liked and shared (although that will probably be more than any photos of you). They don’t even care about being liked in real life. Their existence is dedicated almost entirely to the pursuit of sensory pleasure and the joy of lazing.

Holidays are the perfect time to explore the concept of keyif. If going to a beauty spot and posing for endless photos or doing extreme sports really pleases your soul, then congratulations: you have found your path to keyif. But before you start, take a moment to ask yourself where the pleasure really lies. 

Is it in the moment of doing those things or is it in the anticipation of what benefits they will bring you? If it’s the latter, then you might need to keep searching. Because most of us, whether or not we would ever admit it, are happiest when we are doing not very much at all.

About the writer: Smith is a journalist who has lived in Turkey for the past decade, reporting on everything from conflicts and coups to culture and street cats. She is also the author of Erdogan Rising, a biography of the Turkish president, and co-author of Zarifa, a memoir of Afghan women’s rights activist Zarifa Ghafari.

Passage of time


Joseph Pearson

Historian and author Joseph Pearson traces the history of the European summer holiday from Roman roads to Romantic rogues and today’s knights in silicon armour on smartphones.


The summer holiday is a recent invention. More often in human history, voyagers have travelled long and far to find new shores and bounded along beaches in search of riches rather than for the sheer sunny joy of it. Well, mostly.

The closest antecedent of the modern beach break can be found among the ancient Roman holidaymakers – and it was the success of their cities that helped. With some 400,000km of road, a common gold currency to trade in and relative peace for 200 years, this enormous, prosperous empire allowed – perhaps for the first time – an untrammelled mobility for the purposes of hedonism for people of (almost) all classes.

This might mean nipping down to your beach villa on the Gulf of Naples to hobnob with the Caesars at Baiae, Campania. Those wealthy enough to head farther afield for a Greek beach vacation – say a tour of the Homeric lands – or an Egyptian Nile cruise would have been gone for much longer and paid much more than the package travellers of today. In fact, the “father of the guidebook”, the early geographer Pausanias, developed and honed his skills in the 2nd century AD. That said, the fruit of his work, the first-ever tourist guide (to Greece, in Greek) was notorious even in its time for its misleading directions and digressions – sure proof of both the fact that the Ancients had much to learn about the art of tourism and that getting a guidebook right is hard work.

“Lord Byron’s shacking up with a Venetian mistress, complete with pet fox and two monkeys, is just one example of the Romantic-era idea of the package holiday”

The fall of Rome in the 5th century AD led to the deterioration of the roads that had so reliably borne holidaymakers to their escapes. The summer holiday, in its Roman format, was put on ice for a millennium and a half. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, only the truly dedicated crossed the continent and swimming trunks and a towel were the last thing on these intrepid ramblers’ minds. Purposeful voyages were undertaken by journeymen and artisans, religious pilgrims and, naturally, knights rescuing fair maidens. Some travelled to improve their health. Michel de Montaigne, for example, turned to horseback riding to forget his bouts of potentially fatal kidney stones, travelling as far as Italy in search of curative waters. That said, in a rather modern spirit of the holiday, Montaigne drank rather more wine than water. His 1580s travel journal memorably warns that his favourite tipple was “rather undrinkable in Florence and diluted in Rome”. All roads, it seems, return here.

The most epic continental journey was the Grand Tour of the 17th to 19th centuries – a sprawling itinerary taking one to three years and not simply confined to a single summer. Wealthy young men were chaperoned through the Swiss lakes down to the crumbling ruins of Ancient Rome. The trip was, ostensibly, educational – an opportunity to dally with aristocrats, brush up on languages and “come of age”. Lord Byron’s shacking up with a Venetian mistress, complete with a pet fox and two monkeys, is just one example of the Romantic-era idea of the package holiday. 


If the Romans both invented, then killed, the summer holiday, it took an enterprising British Baptist, teetotaller and cabinet-maker called Thomas Cook, to resuscitate something like it in 1841. His idea to herd 500 people to a railway excursion from Leicester to Loughborough (for a shilling each on the newly opened Midlands Counties Railway) inadvertently invented the world’s first package tour. This was just the beginning. By 1855, Thomas Cook & Son offered a tour to Europe and, by 1872, the first round-the-world all-inclusive.

The British Industrial Revolution and the attendant railroads and steamships opened up transport in a way unknown since Roman times. Adventurers zipped overseas for novel, if not dangerous, purposes: swimming between continents (after Byron in the Dardanelles) or climbing the Matterhorn (the Londoner Edward Whymper). The first Alpine Club in the UK dates from 1857, just as Swiss railway engineers conquered the vertiginous mountain passes. French writer Marcel Proust, an insomniac, read the train timetables to put himself to sleep. Travel was in the collective consciousness. By 1906, with the opening of the Simplon tunnel, Paris to Venice on the Orient Express took less than a day. Swish.

Even as late as the 1970s, the countries boasting the most summer travellers were those that had industrialised first and grown wealthy from it (up to 80 per cent of Northern Europeans went on summer holiday, while only 25 per cent of Italians did). Meanwhile, from the 1970s, the rise of affordable air travel took over from the railroads, a path leading to the unimaginably cheap flights today.

The summer holiday is therefore a rather recent reinvention thanks to Cook and the railways. But could it also disappear, just as suddenly as with the destruction of the Roman Empire? Surging fuel prices and responses to the climate crisis could both be causes. And holidays could once again become less common and, sadly, less pleasurable, for another reason: now that our devices follow us everywhere, people are abandoning our cubicles to become remote workers. The machines they service and the work they do are no longer bolted to the factory floor. Rather, laptops and phones fit into our carry-on baggage. These knights in silicon armour stay away for longer – and for work. Ironically enough, the rise of the digital nomad, on a warming planet, could make us rethink the value of those long but purposeful journeys perfected in the Middle Ages. 

About the writer: Canada-born Pearson is a Berlin-based author and historian. His latest book, My Grandfather’s Knife, is published by Harper Collins and The History Press. He also writes for the BBC, Newsweek, and the New England Review.

Share on:

X (formerly Twitter)




Go back: Contents

The Monocle Guide to Dallas


sign in to monocle

new to monocle?

Subscriptions start from £120.

Subscribe now





Monocle Radio


  • Monocle Weekends