The travel group Thomas Cook, which went into compulsory liquidation this week, may have invented mass tourism, but it failed to embrace technology and convert to a modern online model. It stuck with its one-stop-shop philosophy of summer and winter travel bibles, backed by an expensive chain of increasingly empty high-street shops.
Like the Church, the firm was hit by a series of scandals, the worst being the death in Corfu in 2015 of two children by carbon monoxide poisoning due to a faulty boiler. The company was found to be “in breach of its duty of care”.
After speaking to a number of priests in the United States last week, where the ever-increasing polarisation of the Church between orthodox and liberal Catholics has led to a loss of faith in the old “one-stop-shop” model, I did wonder if the Church had any lessons to learn from the demise of this once-great travel firm, founded in 1841 by a young Baptist leading “shilling” tours for teetotallers.
The collapse of Thomas Cook reminds me of the fate of my own family’s company, Cash’s of Coventry, which used to hold a royal warrant and have factories producing woven products in the US. Like Thomas Cook, it was Midlands-based and founded by Nonconformists who favoured teetotalism.
My ancestor William Cash was even chairman of the National Temperance Society, believing that alcohol was at the roots of society’s evils. (He died of cholera contracted from a glass of water after he refused to drink beer at a board meeting.)
But what caused Cash’s of Coventry to fail was not actually the failure to embrace the online god – or compete with Asian mass-market textile factories – but rather a lack of self-belief as religion ceased to become part of its corporate identity.
Unlike when tours were led by the firebrand young Baptist, Thomas Cook no longer really believed in the very idea of an “all-inclusive” travel faith. In this, its demise is not dissimilar to the crisis of confidence in the Church today.
How a person’s childhood Catholic faith can be transmuted into a different form of faith – faith in art as truth – has been on my mind ever since I read a wonderful memoir called Composed by my American “cousin” Rosanne Cash, daughter of country legend Johnny Cash. Bizarrely, I am related to the Man in Black, whose Anglo-Scottish ancestor settled in America after being the captain of a pilgrim boat called The Good Intent that shipped Nonconformist pilgrims – including Johnny Cash’s family – to New England in the late 17th century.
This pilgrim captain, who owned a travel business that transported pilgrims to New England, was directly related to the Quaker Cashes who ran our silk-weaving factories in Coventry. As the Guardian wrote in a review of a BBC documentary about Johnny Cash’s Scottish roots, “The American connection was established when mariner William Cash sailed from Scotland to Salem, Massachusetts.”
William Cash died a prosperous man with his will not only setting out the division of his Virginian plantation lands to his sons and Quaker wife, Elizabeth, but also making clear his strong religious temperament. “In the name of God, Amen!” his will began, “I give my soul to God which gave it.”
The Cashes were often preachers. Johnny’s grandfather, another William, “rode a horse and carried a gun”, and never charged a dime for his preaching. Preaching and God were in Johnny’s religiously dissenting family blood.
Meeting Rosanne for lunch in Atlanta earlier this year, we explored our shared identity and what it was to be born with the Cash surname, where religion has always been part of our DNA.
As Rosanne and I agreed, there is something in the often wayward Cash genes that strives to make order – or sense? – out of destruction and chaos. Light from darkness. Redemption from regret. Art from failure – or “personal catastrophe”, as Rosanne put it.
She was fascinated to know that the Cash pilgrim family from which she is descended were to become strict Quakers and radicals (such as the Liberal statesman John Bright) who took up various populist anti-Establishment causes, including the abolition of slavery and the Corn Laws.
I asked if she felt there was something almost spiritually self-flaggelating about the Cash line. “I think that the Cashes are full of longing,” Rosanne said. “I think that that’s definitive to our DNA and our nature, and that longing sometimes leads us down a rocky path.”
From our Celtic side? “Yes, and I think it leads us also to some kind of spiritual, artistic, creative redemption. But some of them don’t get off that path of longing that leads to self-destruction, and some do.”
As she has got older, she said she had come to the view that “art is a more trustworthy expression of God than religion”.
When I mentioned our family’s Quaker background, Rosanne said it didn’t surprise her. Her father, she explained, was very much a pacifist and tried to be temperate: “His instincts were for that, but he couldn’t.”
I replied: “Your father isn’t the only Cash who has struggled to live temperately. In fact, I’ve struggled for most of my life.”