Charlie Higson: The parent trap

You want your children to experience the idyllic summer of your youth. They want to play Counter-Strike on their PC all day. Charlie Higson looks forward to a long, hot summer
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The Independent Online

At last the summer holidays are upon us, and not a day too soon. The children are tired, stressed and fed up after months at school. Now we can look forward to six weeks of summer holiday that will leave them tired, stressed and fed up. Actually, if they are at private school, they will have broken up about two weeks ago. It is an odd thing, but the more you spend on your child's education the less time they spend at school.

We put a lot of store by the summer holidays in this country which is odd, considering we give our children such short ones. Six weeks is nothing. In America, they get between nine and 11 weeks, and in the Mediterranean they get pretty well the whole summer, which allows them to help out in family tavernas or work as pickpockets on the streets of Rome.

All right, so we do not have the excuse in this country of sweltering summer heat which makes it impossible for children to study, and, yes, I know there are a lot or working parents who find it a struggle to organise childcare, but if they can manage it in other countries, why not here? Why can we not go back to the old system of simply turfing the kids out on to the streets and letting them fend for themselves until teatime? It was a staple of children's literature. The Famous Five would be stuck today, having to stop their bikes every five minutes to call home on their mobiles. All those smugglers and thieving Gypsies would never have been a caught. Most children's stories happen in the summer holidays. Just William existed as an 11-year-old on a permanent summer holiday for about 50 years. The summer holidays are what we all look forward to, what work and school are all about, in some ways the most important part of the year. When we look back on our childhoods, what we remember are glorious summer holidays, when the sun was always shining and we played outside and went to the beach and ate ice creams. Summer meant swimming pools and lawnmowers and finding a wasp in your Coke can. Summer meant watching Wimbledon with the curtains drawn to keep the sun out, not because I had any interest in tennis, which I do not, but because it was the only time you were ever allowed to watch television during the day.

The summer holiday is used as a symbol of innocence. Summer is childhood. The rest of our life is one long, bloody winter. There are countless books and films that take as their theme "The Last Summer", the last summer before leaving for college, the last summer before going to war, the last summer before losing your virginity, the last summer before you drop dead.

Even the most serious grown-up can be transported back to childhood simply by putting them on a beach with a bucket and spade, a picnic basket and a wasp in their Coke can. In fact, I spend more time on the beach building castles and damming streams than my children do. They prefer to spend their time saying they are bored and asking if they can go back and watch a DVD.

Did they ever really exist, though, those mythical summers of our childhood? Was the reality of summer actually traffic jams, airport queues, family rows and nothing decent to watch on the telly? Whatever the case, modern parents are bending over backwards to try to re-create these picture-postcard summer holidays. They want to give their children experiences they can look back on fondly when they are parents and have kids of their own.

I am not sure our own parents thought hard about all this. Things just happened then. But now everything is analysed and planned and dissected and fretted over. There are endless magazines articles and supplements and TV programmes and bloody articles like this one, making us question what we are doing and wonder just how on earth we are going to make our children's lives perfect.

Apparently, a survey has shown that the average working parent spends on average 19 minutes of the average day with their average kids. Nineteen minutes? I cannot quite believe this. It takes me on average at least an hour to put the little buggers to bed every night, mainly because they are incapable of carrying our the simplest of tasks without having to be told on average 27,000 times. God, I must spend on average 19 minutes a day just telling them to clean their teeth.

Nineteen minutes. I suppose we're meant to be horrified, but surely in the past the ideal was to spend exactly zero minutes of every day with our children. I mean, they could not hold decent conversations, or discuss politics; they could not play bridge or drink port or appreciate a dirty joke. Why on earth would you want to spend time with the little brats? No, they grew up in nurseries with their nannies; they were packed off to boarding school when they were seven, and that was that.

But no, the modern parent has a guilty need to spend more time with their children, and the summer holiday is the best way to remedy this. It is the perfect time for parents to make their offspring's childhoods more worthwhile and enriched and downright memorable, even though it is entirely futile. If you were to ask an average child to write down all the things they would like to do in the summer holidays I doubt that "spending more time with my parents" would come very near the top of the list.

I know exactly how my three boys (seven, 11 and 13) would like to spend the summer holidays; it would be six blissful weeks in front of their computers with the curtains drawn, playing Counter Strike (terrorists try to kill counter-terrorists, and vice versa).

But that will not be allowed. Instead, they will be forced to do a lot of things that they really do not want to do, but which will, with luck, imprint some lovely childhood memories in their empty minds. Just like the theatrical sham of the modern white wedding, we will all try to act out the idyllic summer holiday. The alternative just will not do: "Ah, do you remember that great summer when we shot 7,000 terrorists with an M4 carbine (with suppressor) and 2,000 of them were head shots! Ah, those were the days."

So how do you go about manufacturing the perfect textbook summer holiday experience? Personally speaking, we take our lot to Cardigan in Wales. South-west Wales is still old-fashioned British seaside holiday country, with fish and chip shops, ruined castles, slightly desperate amusement parks, ice-cream shops, sandy beaches and a sea that is absolutely bloody freezing at all times of year. I never cease to be amazed at a child's capacity to spend hours on end in ice-cold seawater with their whole body slowly turning purple and their teeth chattering. It is a marvellous spectacle.

The beach at Mwnt is just about ideal. It is a sheltered, sandy cove with steps leading down from a beach shop selling footballs and windbreaks. There is a stream to dam, a mountain (actually a mount) to climb, and waves just big enough to occasionally knock the smaller children over (which is always a laugh. Nearly drowning is, after all, an essential part of the Summer Holidays Experience pack). Plus, on most days you can see seals and dolphins, which you only normally get in picture books.

We have been taking the kids there since they were born. So they should have a composite memory of all the holidays rolled into one. And what do they think of Wales? Boring.

My own memory of childhood summers is, well, hazy. Not hazy as in a heat haze lying on a field of golden wheat nodding in the afternoon sun, but hazy as in completely wiped. In fact, if you were to say to me, think of an image of summer all I can picture is a little girl in a floral dress blowing a dandelion clock in a meadow. I have no idea who the girl is; it's certainly not me, and I grew up with three brothers and no sisters. I think I probably saw her advertising something a few weeks ago.

Actually, if forced, I can dredge some stuff up. I can see myself in the garden with our dog; I can see myself looking at a stuffed otter in a glass case in a hotel on the Isle of Wight; I can see myself eating battered squid in the Mediterranean, and that is about it. No, I tell a lie, a very vivid memory has just come back, as clear as if it were yesterday. I am in a beach bar in Spain and I am playing a crude early video game. I am in control of a submarine that moves left and right and fires torpedoes up the screen at passing battleships. I'm not wearing shoes, and there is a bottle of something fizzy by my side. Fanta, perhaps? It is all I want to do every day. I live for a pocketful of coins. I get on to the top scoreboard. Bliss.

But the rest of it has all gone. I wondered if it was only me who had such rotten recall. I asked my wife what she remembered of childhood holidays and she said what she recalled most vividly was being made to get up at five in the morning by a stressed and grumpy dad so they could catch the first ferry.

That is the sad thing; when I think of all that we have done for the kids, all the places we have taken them, the things they have seen, the holidays they have had, and I know they will not remember any of it. At all. Oh, they will recall odd, mostly random bits and pieces (what was that place we went to where there was a brown dog?) but for the rest of it, we might just as well have kept them at home and let them play Counter Strike. At least, like my torpedo game, they would have a memory that would instantly transport them back to their childhoods.

That being said, I am sure something has sunk in, at some deep level, so when they have children of their own they will experience a strange primal longing to take them to Wales and sit on a beach the rain eating gritty sandwiches and drinking from Coke cans filled with wasps.

Charlie Higson is the author of the Young Bond series of books