My heroes of the week are Mike and Josie Chapman, of Wimblington in Cambridgeshire. They have, it seems, the summer-holiday question sewn up for good. While the rest of us are flinging ourselves halfway across the world in order to wonder, at the end of the journey, what the hell we are doing here, they take their summer holidays in a more rational spirit. They get in the car and drive to the Fenland Caravan Park and Camping Club in March, which is two miles from where they live.
What a brilliant idea. Mrs Chapman said "It's away from the kids, away from home, and when the weather's like this you could be absolutely anywhere." Mr Chapman added that "we can nip home if we've forgotten anything." To confirm the excellence of this idea, the story was ornamented with a delightful picture of the Chapmans, looking thoroughly handsome and relaxed, Mrs Chapman seductively leaning out of her caravan in her best black slip. I take my hat off to them, I really do.
Summer holidays were invented by the German intelligentsia in the course of the 18th century, all hacking off to Italy in search of poetic enlightenment. Unlike other ideas which come from this source - communism, 12-tone composition, and Lederhosen - the summer holiday isn't something we regard with any scepticism. We just do it: setting off in vast numbers for places where the climate makes us feel ill, where the beds are appallingly uncomfortable, where the cultural highlights are about a tenth as interesting as the British Museum, where we never go anyway, and end up having the worst row imaginable with our partners, children and best friends.
I freely admit that I do it too, but, I suspect, like most people, from time to time when looking at the sea, or wandering round some provincial museum laboriously assembling an appreciation for some painting by Guido Reni, or lying in a darkened room moaning whenever the sheets touch my thermo-nuclear sunburn, I do slightly wonder why. There are lots of places in the world one loves, and plenty more that one would love to visit. But sometimes, when in some historic town overrun with pilgrims just like you, like a discarded kebab crawling with ants, or when landing on a bare and remote island where you don't know anyone and which would have looked to the 18th-century traveller like an appallingly bare and wretched spot, you do wonder whether this is what one actually wanted.
My partner lives in Florence, just by the youth hostel, and the bus stop always presents exactly the same spectacle: a group of young people of different nationalities, all wearing the same slightly exhausted, baffled expression and reading their guide books over and over. In any group, there will be an argument going on about money. The thing they are all thinking, you suspect, is, "Why did we come here again?"
It's difficult to know the answer to that. Young people go to Ibiza to take drugs and have sex with each other - but frankly, you could do that in Macclesfield. Others go to Islamic republics in the Indian ocean to do absolutely nothing behind the high walls of hotel complexes; much the same experience could be had by visiting your mum for two weeks and staying in bed. Trips to Italy weirdly expand into the two weeks you are prepared to devote to culture in a year - why not stay where you are, and go and look at the Piero della Francescas in the National Gallery rather than the one in Montevarchi?
In short, given the huge cultural, environmental and economic impact visited on large parts of the world by mass tourism, and the questionable personal reward of pleasure which many people get in return for their two thousand quid or whatever, I think we should all make an effort to remember the most traumatic holiday we ever had. Recall, in agonising detail, that fortnight in a shared villa with that family you always thought you got on with, and shudder. Live by the Second World War slogan, "Is Your Journey Really Necessary?"
There is a myth which perhaps every culture in the world possesses, told in different terms. In it, a hero leaves home in search of a treasure or a secret, which, he believes, will bring him great happiness and fortune: he travels fruitlessly from place to place and, in the end, returns home empty-handed. Only then does he discover that without him knowing it, he held the secret and the treasure within himself the whole time.
It's a universal myth, and a true one. That's why one reads the story of this cheerful and sensible Cambridgeshire couple with admiration: because someone who knows that they don't need to travel further than a caravan park in March for their summer idyll is someone whose life will be happy. That's why, too, I'm seriously considering taking my holidays next year in north London. It might be rather nice, up there on the other side of the river.Reuse content