S. P. B. Mais on Leisure and the Herd Mentality

‘ It is quite obvious that in the years to come we shall have to tackle this business of employing leisure much more scientifically than has hitherto been the case. For about 150 years men have been struggling to obtain leisure, and now that they have got it they don’t know what to do with it. Education has been no preparation for it. When the average working man gets any leisure he spends it in the purely passive pursuit of watching films, dog-racing or football. Leisure, which surely ought first and foremost to be an opportunity for giving vent to mans passion to express himself, to create something, is wasted  in serving commercial interests.

Our first mistake is to spend our leisure in herds. It has been wisely said that religion is what a man does with his loneliness, and one result of modern civilisation has been to make men afraid of being by themselves. They look upon loneliness as a state to be avoided. In a word they fight shy of it exactly as they fight shy of the word religion.

Too much obedience of the herd extinct has gone along way to destroy our liberty of action and liberty of thought. We follow the dictates of convention and society quite blindly without stopping to think whether we are wise in applying them to our own case. “ It isn’t done,” is our parrot-like remonstrance when someone suggests a convenient but unusual mode of behaviour, like walking coatless in the street on a hot day or drinking tea out of the saucer to cool it. 

Our first duty to ourselves is to is to learn to know ourselves, and we shall never do that by always keeping with the crowd. The world is far too full of leagues and societies and clubs and associations. There ought to be an Association for those who vow never to belong to any association. 

The three great formative influences on my life have been places, books and people. And I have always enjoyed books best alone, people singly, and places,  in solitude or in the company of only one other person. The spirit of beauty invariably vanishes at the approach of a multitude. I have always been a strong advocate of walking by one self, and used some very hard words about rambling associations without having proved their truth.

I was accused of being unfair, so I consented to take out as many people as liked to turn up in a series of rambles arranged by the Southern Railway. They came in vast quantities. On one memorable cold night 1,400 of them accompanied me to the top of Chanctonbury Ring to see the moon set and sun rise. They saw neither, but they seemed to have been happy. My complaint is that their enjoyment lay rather in the novelty of the excursion and in each other’s society, than in the beauty of the scene.

I have led scores of these rambles and watched the walkers pretty carefully. They look and round at the view, trees, flowers, birds, rivers, and so on just for a second, murmur “ Isn’t it pretty ? ” , and then return to an interrupted conversation that might just as well have taken place on a bus. They carry their cares with them. The very fact of having a companion keeps their minds on a workaday plane. If they were by themselves they would stand a chance of really being taken out of themselves, of hearing, of seeing, of smelling, of touching, of communing with themselves and being still…

Can we any longer see as our father’s saw? Too many people have eyes only for the makes of cars as they have noses only for petrol. The delicate scent of wild thyme crushed under foot or of wet leaves in damp green rides in November never seem to reach the senses of the majority. They never seem to intoxicate them as they should.

While as for the touch of the dew on the grass in the early morning on one’s bare feet as one runs over the meadow to bathe, who in these days derives ecstasy from that? To throw oneself own in a bed of heather with fresh fronds of ferns smelling sweetly all around, and then to embrace one’s mother earth is to get a sense of spiritual exaltation that soothes our fevered senses, cools our brows, and enables us to regain a proper sense of values.

But all this demands solitude. It cannot, I think, be shared at any rate with more than one person. So the right use of leisure demands as a preliminary that we learn to avoid parties and groups, and stand alone, think alone, feel, taste, see, smell and live alone, or in a partnership, at most of two. I am convinced that as far as holidays are concerned we should go alone, avoid comfort, avoid noise, and get into contact with nature. Then will come a clarifying exalting experience that will fit is for the work to come… 

 From Weekends in England (1933), pp. 11 – 15.

According to his biographer, in 1927 Mais, following teaching posts at Cranwell and at a public school, became a freelance writer, broadcaster and advertising copywriter:

‘ More lucrative than his books was the advertising copy Mais wrote for Southern Railways, which also paid him a fee to accompany ramblers on walks in the countryside. He would stride up hills, declaiming like a TV historian, as his flock of off-duty clerks and shop assistants, scurried along in his wake. The enthusiasm was real enough. Paid or unpaid, he was passionate about England. He didn’t have to fake it…’

Maisie Robson, An Unrepentant Englishman (2005), p.89.   

[R M Healey]

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