The schools are breaking up and politicians are 'in recess', but taking a break is a complicated business

Those awkward photographs in unlikely outfits can reveal more than maybe we realise

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And here I am, on a blistering mid-July forenoon in the pine-crossed verdure of the Elveden Center Parc, a dinky little holiday village carved out of Thetford Forest, a whisker beyond the Norfolk county line into the debatable lands of north Suffolk. An ecological hardliner might wonder why so many woodland glades must yield up their sap to colonising concrete in order to appease the vacationing hordes, but the Elveden holidaymakers – thirtysomething mums and dads, rampaging tinies celebrating their release from school, genial grandmothers and besingleted old gentlemen – are clearly having a whale of a time.

What is there for them to do, here among the Suffolk pine cones? Well, there are fun-pools to splash about in. There is nature to admire, up to a point, in the shape of broods of ducklings scrounging for left-overs. There are arrows to send whizzing about the archery range and shuttlecocks to knock back and forth on the staggeringly humid badminton courts. There are cycle paths to navigate and menus to examine in the Bella Italia, but not, mysteriously, behind the darkened doors of the Cafe Rouge (closed for refurbishment) or takeaways to summon up from the fast-food restaurants. What there isn’t very much of are those thoroughly desirable qualities, beloved of the sensitive tourist since Keats first sauntered out into the Attic dawn: silence and solitude.

Random and chaotic at first glance, the Center Parcs experience is actually a finely calibrated holiday offering. The people who come here want a certain amount of structure to their stay, and something – lots of things – to amuse the children, but they don’t want outright regimentation: a holiday camp, with its enforced jollity and communal knees-ups, would be a step too far. They want, on the one hand, to be left to themselves and, on the other, to intermittently participate, and in doing so they are binding themselves to a ritual that is about to enter its third century of existence: the rite of the bourgeois holiday, an annual (or these days bi-annual or even tri-annual) jaunt undertaken for a number of reasons, of which the desire to see new sights and meet new people is perhaps only one.

The early Victorians codified so many aspects of British life that it is easy to forget the brisk, authenticating stamp they brought to the idea of leaving your hearth for a fortnight’s absentee leisure. Yet the evidence lies strewn all over the cultural landscapes of the 1840s and 1850s, runs through the fiction of the period like the lettering through a stick of rock, and very soon sets up home in the hitherto untilled field of middle-brow art. W P Frith’s Life at the Seaside, also known as “Ramsgate Sands”, a sensation at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1854 and eventually bought by Queen Victoria, is always supposed to be the first realistic study of an extended group of middle-class British people, and it is significant that the thing that brings them together is the holiday.

But what exactly is a holiday? Naturally enough, it takes a variety of forms: a physical reality; an ideal; a prophylactic; a symbol (of wealth, aspiration, correct behaviour and so forth); even a projection of one’s personal or collective myth. The smart young men in Trollope’s novels who take cottages by the sea for their burgeoning families – shifty Mr Lopez, say, in The Prime Minister – do so on health grounds (the benefits of sea air were a feature of the Victorian medical manual) but they are also transporting themselves in Frinton or Leigh-on-Sea as a way of advertising their status. All through the later 19th and early 20th centuries, the holiday – at any rate the aspiring bourgeois version – was a spiritual caste-mark, and, as such, a source of endless fascination to social commentators, who amused themselves by trying to establish exactly why the people swarming along the south-of-England seafronts had persuaded themselves that they ought to be there.

Fifty-two years ago next month the novelist Simon Raven filed some particularly caustic reportage to The Spectator from what looks very like his home town of Deal, Kent. This “respectable resort” is now a magnet for “tight-faced and genteel couples in their early thirties who are doing rather well out of the affluent society”, who “sit for hours in their parked Austins on the finest day” and “putt without interest on the municipal putting green”. So why are they there? Eavesdropping in a beach-side cafe, Raven suspects that the goad is social – or rather familial – pressure (“You know bloody well why we came. Because your bloody mother wouldn’t let me rest until I’d arranged what she calls a proper holiday for you.”) The citizens of a mass society must be where others are, Raven breezily concludes, or else the world might end and they not know of it, and the citizens of an affluent society must have somewhere they can show off their careful acquisitions ...

Coincidentally enough, my own holiday experiences began almost at the moment when Raven set down his pen. Seen in the round they offer a sort of paradigm of late 20th-century bourgeois self-advancement, undercut and deviously illuminated by an element of class tension. Which is to say that though my mother came from a genteel middle-class home, with a tradition of equally genteel seaside holidays, my father, lately detached from the council estate, had fond memories of 1930s charabanc rides along Great Yarmouth seafront, raucous pier-end entertainment and kiss-me-quick hats. These oppositions reached melting point on a trip to Blackpool sometime in the late 1970s, when the expression on my mother’s face, as we trekked through a mile-long shanty town of primary-colour burger bars and amusement arcades, gulping in sea air that tasted of hot fat and spun sugar, would have done credit to Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Where did the Taylors go on holiday in the age of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath? In the modestly financed late 1960s, the destination tended to be a flyblown boarding house in Portsmouth and Southsea, from which you were evicted at 10am and let back in at supper-time. Come the slightly more affluent early 1970s the range expanded to more enticing and picturesque locales such as the Lake District and North Yorkshire. Finally, as the Thatcher era loomed across the horizon, there came the prospect of that fabled Elysium, not contemplated by my father since his wartime travels across occupied Europe – foreign travel.

But all these trips, enjoyable or otherwise, at home or abroad, bred up in me a suspicion that the Briton, or rather the middle-class Briton, doesn’t enjoy his (or her) holidays, that he embarks on them for the wrong reasons, that – to use a piece of academic jargon – the poetics of the holiday are beyond his capacity to decipher. One can see this in the photographs dutifully sent back to news agencies from the Prime Minister’s summer hideaways, in which our man, though clearly doing his best and relishing the company of his family, looks horribly uncomfortable, his smile forced, his clothing inappropriate. He knows there is something wrong, that some behavioural code hovers in the air above him demanding to be cracked, but he hasn’t the fortitude, or the historical awareness, to rectify the fault.

And what, to return to the family paradigm outlined above, has been the pattern of my own holiday experience once I grew old enough to detach myself from the family unit? Well, first there was a halcyon period of raised spirits brought about by courtship and early marriage when, for a brief year or two, it was possible to go more or less where you liked, followed by a rather less halcyon period when the children began to arrive and a trip to France straightaway reduced itself to childcare with nicer scenery, followed by an annual search for an agreeable venue for five people (plus grandparents) in conditions of reasonable comfort without absolutely bankrupting yourself.

It is not that the holiday has failed to develop in response to changing social demand. The varieties of the 21st-century vacation are almost infinite. You can go practically where you like. You can take the children or leave them. Or you can take them with you and give them to someone else to look after. But this proliferation of forms does not mean that the warped psychological impulses that course beneath have changed. It merely proves that as the middle classes have extended their demographic hold, so the leisure process has adapted itself to suit their increasingly fragmented needs. Not long ago, wanting to test my theory of the middle-class British holiday, I asked my 13-year-old son what would be his ideal trip. After a certain amount of thought he came up with a fortnight in a Norwegian forest in accommodation so lavishly supplied with DVDs, CDs and personal computers that he need never go out.

All this confirms another suspicion about the modern holiday. This is that, with certain exceptions, the average holidaymaker doesn’t want adventure, or excitement, or even a change of scene. He, or she, really only wants a slightly more glamorous version of what is already to hand. One of the most depressing moments I ever experienced on a holiday came while sitting in a Sri Lankan hotel room and listening to a rich Milwaukee accent inform “Mom” that the coach was waiting while Mom hollered back that she couldn’t get any hot water. On the other hand, I spend holidays in dogged search of a newspaper and am just as bad. Meanwhile, here in Elveden, as the sun rises in the sky, everyone is no doubt getting exactly what they came for. Frith, were he able to find space for his penny farthing in the cycle racks, would be setting up his easel on the spot.

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