D J Taylor: Ah, the joys of the summer holidays. Chips, suntan oil, acute boredom...


The pop songs of my formative years nearly always seemed to be about summer. "Here comes the summer," the Undertones boyishly proclaimed.

The pop songs of my formative years nearly always seemed to be about summer. "Here comes the summer," the Undertones boyishly proclaimed. "Won't be long before the summer comes", Thin Lizzy chipped in, apropos a warning that the "boys" (another essential part of summer) would soon be back in town. There would be summer breezes, summer nights, summerlove sensations, the latter taking place in an abstract "somewhere in summertime" or more specifically in summernight cities, long hot summers when school was out spent walking on the beaches looking at the peaches. The vista they conjured up was infinitely remote and infinitely alluring – a kind of endless burnished horizon over which you strode like a molten god towards the pier-end girl with her polka dot bikini and enticing smile.

All the more enticing in that it – the girl, the smile, the burnished horizon, the whole package – offered such a stark contrast to the reality of the average British family holiday of 25 years ago. Plenty of male confessional writers have elegised the football matches, the music and the TV shows of the 1970s. No one, oddly enough, has got round to the '70s holiday, that grim jaunt by fitfully goaded car – siblings chattering beside you on the back seat – to some godforsaken seaside resort or benighted Yorkshire dale, and a prospect of wormcasted beaches, brisk walks through slanting North Sea winds, rain, and eternal games of Monopoly.

It is no disrespect to one's parents to say that some of the most tedious hours of early teenage life are spent on holiday: dragged away from private pursuits by the mysterious necessity of finding something to "do" (I just wanted to read) to fetch up in some dreadful communal dustbin stinking of chips and sun tan oil. The great advantage of Kubla Khan's stately pleasure dome, I swiftly divined from Coleridge, was that it was reserved for Kubla Khan.

Curiously enough, the advent of self-determination – those university vacations when one was supposed to be able to fashion one's own existence – was even worse. Even now, two decades later, I can still remember fragments of the conversations exchanged in college bars on October evenings by bronzed 20-year-olds back from God knows where. "Of course, you can only see the llamas in the highest passes ... I had to have antibiotics for the saddle sores ... Two thousand drachmae to the pound etc". A girl I knew even went so far as to found a university Globetrotters society. This seemed to me an extraordinarily futile gesture, on a par with collecting bus-tickets. I never wanted to trot globes: I simply wanted to go home.

At the heart of this engrained dissatisfaction with the idea of the holiday lay not so much that traditional puritan mistrust of the exotic ("Travel narrows the mind" Malcolm Muggeridge once famously remarked) as an awareness of some of the terrible ironies with which the leisure process is invested. Given three months' holiday aged 20, without the money or the intellectual resources to make use of it, one just went away and moped. Given a well-funded adult trip 20 years later one simply gets on with the childcare before some agreeable scenery.

Inevitably, there are distinctions to be made. Spain with three pre-teen children is still Spain, after all, rather than the Gothic boarding houses of Southsea, Hants. There are also, it turns out, compensations to be had from this trip from bored adolescence to harassed adulthood. This week, for example, a gesture of unparalleled wifely philanthropy will find me alone in the house while Rachel takes the children to her mother's. Entire Hollywood films, whole English adultery novels, have been predicated on the home-alone-husband and what he gets up to in wifey's absence. According to all the laws of abandoned manhood, I should be ordering up the six-packs, checking the sports channels and eyeing up Miss Barbara Bedworthy in Channel 5's It's Nicer Lying Down. But there are other, less flagrant, kinds of self-indulgence. Come Tuesday night, the dutiful phone call made, I can practically guarantee that having spent a long, sequestered day defiling the virgin page with two or three thousand fondly chosen words I shall have drunk half a bottle of Waitrose Liebfraumilch and be listening to a 20-year-old Siouxsie and the Banshees CD while doing the washing-up by hand rather than using the wretched dishwasher. Not quite what Feargal Sharkey and the boys had in mind, perhaps, but there are worse destinies.

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