We're all going on a British holiday

Luxury yachts? Borrowed palazzos? Glitzy Caribbean hideways? Not in the current climate. The great and good are holidaying at home this summer. DJ Taylor celebrates

The critic who declared that where people went on holiday was an infallible register of the national psyche always seemed to me to be on to something.

Certainly, this year's destination of choice for a huge number of British holidaymakers – namely, Britain – looks to be uncannily reflective of the prevailing national mood. Adventure has been replaced by caution; conspicuous consumption by frugality and prudence. Gone, apparently, are those month-long sojourns along the Loire: suddenly brisk fortnights in the Wye Valley are the order of the day and the quiet charm of the Lincolnshire Wolds is everywhere discussed.

Tent sales are booming; caravan parks gloat over their order books; all along the A11 (gateway to East Anglia), the A303 (ditto the West Country) and the M6 (Lake District and beyond) the convoys are in flight. And a surprising number of grand public eminences – perhaps constrained by fear of seeming profligate or ecologically unsound – are letting it be known that they, too, have decided to go, well, nowhere in particular.

In its wider context – the history of British leisure – all this represents a fascinating reversion to type. Anyone over the age of 40 will remember the classic "English holiday" of the 1970s, for it was as redolent of its time as Harold Wilson's pipe or The Benny Hill Show. Those holidays! Picnicking in the corner of some windswept wheatfield as the storm clouds massed along the horizon. Pulling up in a lay-by for a child to be sick. Bleak, rainswept days on the front at Southend, Bognor Regis or Blackpool. Frowsting in down-at-heel south coast boarding houses while the landlady, wily Mrs Furbelow, schemed to add another £1.50 to the bill for "cruet".

This is an exaggeration, of course, which ignores the hours spent traversing Lakeland paths or watching Hadrian's Wall loom up from the mist of a late-summer morning. The charm of England lies, on the one hand, in its predictability, and, on the other, in its unexpectedness – significantly, the next arrival after ourselves on that long ago morning at Hadrian's Wall was a coach-load of American tourists, the first of whom, on descending the steps and peering around her, remarked to her husband: "Jeez, Elmer. Must be some kinda fortifeecation."

At the same time, the lasting memories of those days are of irretrievable grimness; a terrible sense of longing to be somewhere else (not necessarily abroad, then well beyond the specimen middle-class holiday budget), and guilt at not appreciating parental effort.

Very probably hell will turn out to be (to itemise one or two scenes from childhood) a Carmarthenshire traffic jam, the sands at Whitby in high season or Great Yarmouth pleasure beach – all that willed, raucous communality on which the capacity to enjoy yourself supposedly depends.

There was an oddly dutiful aspect to the way in which people of my parents' generation approached the business of going on holiday. It was something that, for reasons of status and habit, they had to do. Not to have gone on holiday; not to have taken your statutorily enjoined fortnight by the sea or down the dale would have been a kind of crime against one's deepest spiritual instincts.

There was, or so it seemed to me, a sort of masochism in this, similar to the impulse that drives people to support football teams that are always going to lose, or follow rock bands whose records are never going to dent the top 40, where the pleasures of affiliation and participation always come by default. As it happens, we are going to France this year, but I shall be surveying the Tamar-bound calvacade and Peak District-prospecting hordes with deep fellow-feeling. It is here, you feel, that the spirit of British nationhood truly resides.

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