Howard Jacobson: Beaches and books just don't go together

Holiday reading

Share
Related Topics

Will somebody please explain to me what "Holiday Reading" is? I'm not asking for recommendations.

I want to know what's meant by it. Is it a specific genre, like the misery memoir, only presumably the very opposite to the misery memoir? Is it determined by a congenial subject: a happy-ending romance cooled by summer breezes? Or by congenial place: a grown-up version – though not too much of a grown-up version – of Five Go Doolally in Dorset? Is holiday reading about holidays, or is it a promise that nothing will be demanded of the reader that will take his/her mind from a holiday which anyone would think, given the spirit in which lists of holiday reading are compiled, is invariably a thing of sunshine, lovingness and bliss.

But that's not a truth about most holidays, is it? Aren't holidays essentially opportunities to break up with the people we thought we loved? Don't we realise how much we hate our children on holidays or, if we're the children, how much we hate our parents? There are photographs in my mother's possession which attest to the living hell I made of every family holiday. In snap after snap, there are my mother and father making the best of the lousy weather and the appalling food – we're talking the 1950s when the sun never shone and all we ate was peas – and there I am with the same long face, not wanting to be there, but then again not wanting to have been left behind. That's me bawling in Blackpool; that's me moping in Morecambe; that one's taken the time I sulked myself into the measles, chicken pox, whooping cough, and very nearly, had I got my way, malaria in Anglesey.

And why? That's easy to answer. Sex. I needed sex. I might have been no more than seven or eight with not the slightest idea of what sex comprised, but I needed it. Holidays do this. They heat your blood and turn your head. I saw men strolling down the promenade hand in hand with their girlfriends and I longed for a girlfriend of my own. To be honest, what I think I longed for even more than a girlfriend was a mistress. I'd heard the word, formed a dim conception of what it meant, imagined kissing had something to do with it, and hankered for one of my own. That's me at Middleton Towers Holiday Camp stamping my foot and shouting "I want a mistress".

Nothing I've observed of other people on holiday leads me to believe they have a better time of it than I did. I used to help run a craft centre in a clapped-out water mill in Cornwall. The usual thing – a Delabole slate etcher specialising in hunchbacked blue-tits, a reclusive wood-turner who wouldn't turn if anyone was watching, two tatooed jewellers of indeterminate sex who squabbled in front of the public, a glass blower who was the subject of predictable ribaldry, about which she could hardly complain as she would get pissed blind on hot days and take her top off regardless of the families streaming through.

Awful glass she blew, but nice breasts, as I recall. Had I encountered her when I was seven or eight I'd have screamed the place down until my parents persuaded her to be my mistress for the afternoon. Working there, whatever its attractions, taught me how horrible holidays are for most families, even if they aren't cursed with a boy-pervert like me. Because it's on holiday that couples get to re-acquaint themselves with one another and discover how little there is left to like or talk about. Parents who've been working hard all year and have barely seen their offspring now wish they didn't have to see them at all and can't wait for work to begin again. Through the craft centre these poor souls would troop in their dripping kagools, pushing prams, squabbling, skint, each one's idea of a good time clashing with the other's – not that there was a good time on offer for any of them – like the damned in Dante's Inferno.

You take my point. Shouldn't that be what they're reading when they come on holiday – Dante's Inferno? There's powerful stuff on cruelty to children in The Brother's Karamazov. Death in Venice is good on art and fatal sexual obsession on the Lido, and you could always skip the art and get quickly to the fatal Lido bit. Wouldn't that make ideal beach reading, whatever beach reading is?

Help me here. What's a beach book? I assume it's similar to a holiday book but with the specific requirement of being sand-proof, water-repellent, and not so heavy in physical form or emotional content as to spill you out of your deck chair the minute you open it. Explain it to me: why would you want to read on something as uncomfortable as a deck chair on something as unconducive to concentration as a beach? All those distractions, all those echoing shrieks, people jet-skiing and paragliding, babies crying, children drowning – unless it's a lonely beach but then you'd want to walk along it, wouldn't you, hand in hand with your mistress with whom you might indeed want to share a book later on in your hotel room, when the moon's up, but it wouldn't be anything on the routine holiday reading lists: it would be Antony and Cleopatra, Les Liasons Dangereuses, Lady Chatterley's Lover or, if you're ready for a little intimate abstraction, L'érotisme by Georges Bataille.

Holiday reading, beach reading, summer reading – what next? Winter equinox reading, midweek reading, Sunday reading, middle-aged reading, death-bed reading? Books to read when you're wearing a frock as opposed to when you're wearing jeans? Books that go with your trainers? Books to read on clifftops, books to read while you're snowboarding, books to read while you're fighting in Afghanistan?

According to his wife, the critic F R Leavis took Othello and that other great work of sexual jealousy The Kreutzer Sonata away on their honeymoon. We laughed, we students of Leavis, when we heard that. But we laughed with a sneaking regard. It was an example to us all. Stay serious. Serious is more fun than not serious. And if you want a holiday from serious, try being more serious still. The dichotomy between great works of literature and the books we "secretly" enjoy is a false one. Trashy novels are less enjoyable to read than good ones. The greater the book the more pleasure it gives. Holidays are hideous enough already: why make them even worse with dross?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Election catch-up: Blairites for and against a Miliband victory

John Rentoul
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in debt to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before