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Leaving behind electronic urgency

28 July 2010

Paul Vallely learns the lessons of recreation

We ran out of space on the family camera less than halfway through our holiday in France. My first response was to regret not having brought my laptop. I could have down­loaded the pic­tures to the computer, and started again with an empty camera.

There was a great deal to photograph. We had gone for three days to Puy du Fou, a history theme-park set in woods in the Vendée, in which you repeatedly come across clearings containing a Roman am­phitheatre, Viking settlement, medieval castle, 18th-century village, or belle époque town. In each setting, costumed gladiators fought, Vikings ram­aged, knights jousted, and falconers flew hawks.

It was distinctively French. Although the spec­tacles were slick, there was a bumbling charm about the content. Shot through with a Gallic romanticism and over-poetic rhapsody, it man­aged at one point to muddle the Three Musket­eers, Cyrano de Bergerac, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and a character called Bouton d’Or into a 36-minute extravaganza. A bombard­ment of the senses was shamelessly pre­ferred to historical accuracy.

There were other little irritations of being computerless, such as being unable to send a chambre d’hôte an email about my wife’s lost glasses — and not being able to Google stuff every time my ten-year-old asked me a question to which I didn’t know the answer, which seems to happen with increasing frequency. But, as our holiday pro­gressed, the decision to leave the laptop at home created an increasing sense of liberation from a daily existence characterised by stimulation over­load.

The computer is a chief culprit in this. The internet is a beckoning cornucopia of distraction — disguised by a specious connectedness that is ultimately purposeless, unlike real surfing, where the waves eventually hit a beach. Emails entice us to elevate the immediate over the important. Of course, the telephone has long done that. But computers add an additional addictive quality to that false urgency.

Holiday should be an antidote to that. So, when we got to our holiday cottage, we played games in the garden and then inside when it got too hot. We ate in a dining room with no television set. We “lost” the charger for the Nintendo DS. We chose DVDs that we all wanted to watch together. We even turned the solipsistic business of books into a communal activity by reading aloud. It was a re­minder that, in recreation, we can recreate not just ourselves but our relationships.

When I got home, there were 232 emails wait­ing for me, not including my work ones. I have a friend who has instituted a new regime: send him an email, and you get an automatic reply inform­ing you that he looks at emails only twice a day, at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.; so you don’t expect an instant response. That would be unrealistic for a working journalist, but I have now decided that I don’t need to open emails from people I don’t know un­less they look interesting. Volume long since put paid to the old courtesy that everyone must get a reply.

A personnel manager once told me that her rule of thumb was that employees were allowed one day of daydreaming, when back in the office, for every week that they had been away on holiday. This means that, by the time you read this, I may well have forgotten the lessons of the past fort­night. So I am sharing them with you before the madness reasserts itself.

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