The literal meaning of therapeutic, according to this definition on Dictionary.com, is “of or relating to the treating or curing of disease; curative”. Many of us use it in the more vague sense of something that makes you feel good, something that improves your peace of mind. I used it earlier this month when a friend gave me a lift after a reunion at our old Cambridge college. He didn’t give me a lift home, or anywhere near home, it was simply a lift away from Cambridge. He was heading home to Oxford and dropping another friend to Banbury Station on the way, and I cadged a ride too. Our old college wanted everyone attending the reunion out of our rooms by 10am. I didn’t need to be back in London till early evening (my children were at a matinee of “School of Rock: The Musical”) so could happily take the scenic route, 50 miles in the wrong direction, via Oxford. I had bought a single rather than a return ticket for my train journey from London, thinking that I might take the coach home, and relive my preferred way of travelling from my days as a student. I could therefore travel back from anywhere without wasting a return ticket.
Sitting in the back of a car, on the way to Oxford for the first time in many years, being driven by an old friend, and not having to deal with an unfamiliar sat-nav, all of this was very therapeutic. So was the absence of a timetable. On Saturday afternoon I had caught the train to Cambridge with less than a minute to spare and right up to 10am the next morning our weekend’s activities were clearly marked out: an update from the Master at 4pm, time to change into formal attire before Evensong at 6pm (which I missed in favour of spending some time in the college bar), official photograph at 6.45pm, formal dinner at 7.30pm, and so on.
I first used the word therapeutic in earnest in the 1990s, when I visited Cannes for a holiday during the annual Film Festival. For five successive years I had attended the festival in a professional capacity and spent the entire week or ten days rushing around trying to fit in all the things that had to be done. The phrase “in a professional capacity” in the previous sentence is accurate in that I was paid for the time I spent at the festival, but not paid very much. I was involved with a Film Festival and a small group of cinemas in the UK, a long way down the movie pecking order. Actors, directors and producers were at the top of the hierarchy, journalists were somewhere in the middle, exhibitors were a long way down. Our aim was to see as many movies as possible in the week to ten days that we were there and negotiate (often unsuccessfully) for the pick of them to come to our festival in July. Each day had to be planned around the screenings in any of the 50 or so venues available, making sure that there was time to get from place to place and to eat lunch and dinner without missing anything. The simple business of paying your lunch bill (catching the waiter’s eye, requesting “l’addition”, waiting for it to arrive, counting out the right amount so that you wouldn’t have to wait for change) could set your whole afternoon off track. I am reluctant to call this stressful considering how unimportant it all seems now, 30 years later, but you were, fundamentally, not in control of your time. A delayed screening would have an effect on the rest of that day’s plans.
When I returned to the festival on holiday I was able to observe, and catch up with, my former colleagues, still hurrying between screening rooms and eateries the way that I used to. To be on holiday and relaxed in a town full of people who are also on holiday and relaxed is one thing. To be on holiday and relaxed in a town full of people rushing from place to place is something else: it’s highly therapeutic.