Three cheers for the holidays. Across the land, the children have run home from school for the last time and glorious freedom stretches ahead of them. No longer need they worry whether they are doing enough work to get five good GCSEs, or five bad GCSEs. They are on holiday: that blessed state in which they are beyond the reach of Dr Arnold, Cardinal Newman, Michael Gove and other leading educationalists.
Yet some of us are unable to give more than two cheers for the holidays. Far be it from me to cloud the brow of anyone, young or old, who says, with Nat King Cole, "Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer/... You'll wish that summer could always be here...".
The summer holidays will, in fact, be with us for about seven weeks, which seems to me to be long enough. The convention, if one is lucky enough to be able to afford it, is to go away for at least a week or two during that time.
That is where the trouble starts. Even a couple may have radically opposed views of what is desirable. She may crave heat: may regard the rest of the year as pretty much unendurable if she does not get away somewhere hot. He may be fond of walking, which is only possible in a cool climate.
Cheap air travel (not that it is quite so cheap during the school holidays) has made us absurdly fussy about the absence of sun, or a few drops of rain. Delightful places on the coast of the British Isles, which can be reached without passing through the horror of an international airport, have been spurned in favour of concrete developments in sunnier climes. For those of us who do not want to burn ourselves to bits, and would like to be able to climb a hill, explore a ruin or swing a racquet without feeling intolerably hot, this is a very bad thing.
Actually, the trouble often starts even before the showdown between hot and cold. Some of us detest making any plans whatever about going on holiday. We dislike the idea of compulsory fun, and feel more free if we have not decided where to go: have not yet filled that vacant patch of time. There is still a sense that anything might happen to us. At the beginning of many of the best adventure stories – The Riddle of the Sands, say, by Erskine Childers, or The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan – the hero is hanging about in London with nothing much to do, before being precipitated into a thrilling adventure.
To check whether I am the only 21st-century man who detests making holiday plans, I asked my friend Philip what happens in his household. Philip said: "I don't like planning. It limits your options. Serendipity is the answer."
In Philip's case, the answer is, in fact, his wife, Angela: "I don't argue with Angela. She makes all the plans and often neglects to tell me what they are. This is partly because, thanks to the internet, I don't know how to buy a train ticket, except by going to a station with some notes in my pocket.
"I remember a few years ago, on the first day of the holidays, Angela sat the whole family down in the kitchen and asked all six of us where we wanted to go: France, Italy, Wales, Cornwall or Scotland? We got in the car a few minutes later and headed for Skye."
How prudent of Philip to leave it to Angela. In my case I exacerbate what is already a tense situation by telling my wife, Sally, that my idea of a good time is walking along Offa's Dyke in the rain. She knows this and has no wish to be reminded of it. She is working out how to get somewhere hot without spending an impossible amount of money on air fares and accommodation for a family of five. If necessary we will drive halfway across Europe in order to get there, camping at various points along the way.
I have to admit that I have enjoyed almost all the holidays that have resulted from Sally's decisions. Even the photographic record seems to suggest that people enjoy themselves more on expeditions devised by her than on the rare occasions when I have taken the initiative. It is true that when we were driving from London to a campsite on the Atlantic coast of Portugal, I led a mutiny as we crossed the Pyrenees, but the uprising was suppressed and we continued to our objective, which turned out to be delightful. We were afterwards permitted to return to England by boat.
One summer, I got my own way. Money was especially short, and I persuaded everyone that to go camping in North Wales. Somewhere round about Betws-y-Coed it began to rain and we stopped to buy extra waterproofs. Sally and the children often remind me that it rained every day, to which I reply that it did not rain all the time. A strange man wearing military fatigues camped next to our tent, and some of the more impressionable members of the party imagined he was going to murder us in the middle of the night, but he turned out to be a very pleasant fellow who presented us with his camping chair when he left. By this point we had the camp site pretty much to ourselves: most of it was under water.
North Wales has some of the finest mountain country in the world, as well as many other attractions, and every day we saw something beautiful, though not from the summit of Snowdon, which was in heavy cloud. Our younger daughter, who was at that time six years old, lay down during the ascent and was with difficulty persuaded to start moving again. Her mother told her how pleased she would be in later life to have got to the top while still so young, but four years later the girl still refuses to take pleasure in this achievement. We had a better day on Cnicht, sometimes known as the Welsh Matterhorn, though I was reproached by our elder daughter when she discovered on getting back to the car that we had gone on a circular route which was about five times as long as a direct ascent and descent would have been.
So while it can be difficult to please two adults holidaying together, it all becomes even more complicated with children. If they are not enjoying themselves, you will not enjoy yourself. When they are young, you can exercise a degree of compulsion, but a friend described the difficulty of having older children: "They don't often want to come on holiday unless it's somewhere exotic. They always want to bring friends and that becomes expensive. We went to Sicily a few years ago, which seemed a good combination of beaches and sightseeing. But they always wanted to stay in one place, rather than moving on to new vistas. And driving with children all plugged in to their iPods is like going round with a busload of pensioners. They don't hear anything you say and then they shout at you."
It was partly because our children were so excited by the idea that we committed the almost unpardonable extravagance of flying all five of us to New York, where Sally was clever enough to find a cheap flat to rent in Brooklyn. It was far too hot, but the children turned out to be able to identify a surprising number of buildings in Manhattan thanks to having seen them in films.
Much the worst bit of going on holiday is thinking about it beforehand. When you get there, it sometimes turns out to be not quite so bad as you expected.Reuse content