With a bank holiday weekend almost upon us, followed in most schools by a week of half-term, tens of thousands of British families will, Icelandic ash clouds permitting, be jetting off today and tomorrow for some guaranteed Mediterranean or perhaps more distant sunshine. At the same time, tens of thousands of others will be risking the vagaries of the British weather, and setting off for hotels, rented houses, B&Bs, caravans and campsites in our own islands. The latest edition of The Good Beach Guide, published yesterday, shows that no fewer than 461 British beaches now meet the guide's gold standard, so unpolluted seas at least await those brave enough to wade in.
Also published yesterday, if you'll forgive the plug, was my own book, Cream Teas, Traffic Jams and Sunburn: The Great British Holiday (Simon & Schuster, £12.99). It is a book which, to paraphrase my own prologue, celebrates the holidaying British, both at home but also abroad, with their quirks and their quinine tablets, and their blithe assumption that the elderly man selling oranges at the roadside in Corfu, so photogenic with his walnut face and three teeth, must surely understand just a few, uncomplicated English sentences.
It is rarely wise to make sweeping statements about an entire population, but always tempting, and certain generalisations clearly apply to the Brits on holiday. I consulted lots of friends during the writing of my book, and all had stories about our linguistic inadequacy or plain laziness when overseas. One of them reported overhearing an English woman, sitting with a cup of tea in a café in Madrid, summon a passing waitress and say, with no evidence that the waitress spoke anything other than Spanish, "can you just pop a drop of milk in here, love?"
I don't really know why this should be. After all, our island status has made us anything but insular, indeed our willingness to strike out over the horizon is what gained us an empire. But then our influence has always travelled on the back of our arrogance.
Jerome K Jerome once percipiently pointed out that Anglo-Saxon culture made inroads into practically every Alpine valley thanks to the 19th-century English traveller's inability or unwillingness to learn a single word of any language but his own. "One may be shocked at his ignorance, annoyed at his stupidity, angry at his presumption," wrote Jerome. "But it is he that is Anglicising Europe."
He was right. We have subjugated all other languages with our monstrous assumption that English is best, even though the Latin languages in particular are so much more pleasing on the ear. In a Sardinian restaurant I once ordered crema tipela di piselli con molluschi profumati alla menta, words you can imagine whispering to a lover. Yet their English translation was "Lukewarm green peas cream with molluscs flavoured with mint". Try whispering that to a lover and the romance is almost certainly doomed.
I am aware, of course, that it is wrong to see the Brits on holiday as a single coach-party writ large. But at the root of my generalisations there is manifest truth. On the whole, we are rubbish at other languages, bad at tipping, terrible at haggling, and the family with the worst sunburn on the Benidorm beach is much more likely to come from Bolton than Berlin or Bergen.
Yet I mustn't be too negative. I also think we know how to have more fun on holiday than most other nationalities, and I don't just mean the fun that ends up with stomachs being pumped in Spanish hospitals. Look at a fine British beach on a warm, or frankly even a slightly chilly, summer's day. Even though it includes people frantically erecting windbreaks, you won't find a similar kaleidoscope of beach activity anywhere else in the world.
When imitation is the sincerest form of stupidity
It's not often that the 10 o'clock news makes me laugh out loud, but it did the other night when the BBC's arts editor, Will Gompertz, reported on the eve of Bob Dylan's 70th birthday that the great man had taken heroin in the mid-1960s. The amusement didn't arise from the conviction that the bigger story would have been the revelation that Dylan hadn't taken heroin in the mid-1960s, but from the way Gompertz told it, solemnly holding up cue cards bearing the words "Drug", "Problem" and "Heroin" in a hilariously misconceived stab at apeing Dylan himself, looking cooler than cool in the celebrated footage shot for "Subterranean Homesick Blues".
Anyway, there I was hooting with laughter when it came back to me with a shudder that I had once tackled a journalistic assignment, for this very newspaper, in a similarly daft way. Ten years or so ago, after an enthralling couple of hours interviewing PD James at her home in Holland Park, I had what seemed like the brilliant idea of writing it up in the style of one of her own crime novels. The memory of it makes me wince; Commander Adam Dalgliesh, I fear, would find Mr Gompertz to be the victim of a stone attack from inside a glass house.
Obama's appeal – are there still some who don't see it?
My wife and children have poked relentless fun at me this week for what they unfairly assess as "drooling" over the TV footage of Barack Obama. And I do know that one should never allow oneself to be too smitten by a politician's charisma and eloquence; lots of countries have got themselves in a pickle that way. But at the same time, I am mystified by those polls that show that 70 per cent of the British public think Obama is simply marvellous. Don't the other 30 per cent watch the telly?
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