Joan Smith: Put your pecs away, Mr Putin – relax and read a book

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The Independent Online

He's been swimming in lakes, riding in mountains, camping in Siberia – and that was just one day of Vlad-imir Putin's summer break. A few days earlier, finding himself at a loose end, he dived in a mini-submarine and attached a transmitter to a whale.

I don't know how the whale felt about it – personally, I try to ensure that no animals are harmed when I'm on vacation. But it's an improvement on last year when the Russian prime minister spent his hols invading Georgia. I can see that posing in an "Ibiza 2009" T-shirt doesn't have much appeal after that.

If I were one to show off, I might mention that I recently had dinner in Tangier with – no, I'm sorry, some things just have to remain private. You don't want to know what I've been up to in Morocco and Andalucia, any more than you need another opportunity to gaze on Putin's man-boobs. If he's going to keep up this action-man thing, he might have the decency to cover his chest instead of stripping to the waist and proclaiming "mid-life crisis".

Slow down, for God's sake! I don't trust people who can't relax, whether they go into hyperactive mode like Putin or announce – the finger is pointing at you, Gordon Brown – that they're going to devote part of their summer break to volunteering in Fife. He'll probably wear a suit, sparing us the manly Brown torso, but this is a guy who's spent the last year struggling with a worldwide financial crisis, fighting off attempts to force his resignation and (I'm told) poring over other people's expense claims.

He looks dreadful. In some recent photos, he's so exhausted he actually seems to be holding his head on with his hand. He needs a break, his family needs a break, the country needs a break. When I hear the words "prime minister" and "volunteering in Fife", I don't think, "Hey, what a great guy!" What I think is that here is someone who doesn't even begin to understand human nature. If you work all the time, if you have the kind of driven personality which is totally unable to switch off, you are incubating serious problems. Your body suffers and so does your mind, which never has a moment to reflect, recharge and learn from past mistakes.

The great psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, whom I have been reading on holiday, believed that in the modern world people have lost the ability to concentrate – to be alone without distractions. He described what happens to people unused to spending time doing nothing: how they become restless, fidget and start to feel anxious. Intelligent politicians know this, which is why past prime ministers used to take long holidays: Churchill spent weeks in a small town on the coast of Madeira, Harold Wilson favoured the Scilly Isles. Even Tony Blair was sensible about taking time off, even if his annual summer holidays were overshadowed by what appeared to be an undignified search for cheap but luxurious lodgings.

All of this goes against the contemporary demand for 24/7, all-year-round politicians. David Cameron (France, Tuscany) is resisting it more than Gordon Brown, who can't even plan a family break without volunteering to clear someone else's allotment. That's a cry for help, not a holiday. So here are a few tips for world leaders. Things to do on vacation: swimming, walking, taking siestas, reading novels, shopping and eating wonderful meals.

Photo-opportunities, if you absolutely can't do without them, should be confined to the first day. Things not to do on holiday: cleaning out gutters, invading other countries, and anything involving submarines. Got all that? Excuse me while I get back into the pool.

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