Philip Hensher: When a trip to Spain is a piece of theatre

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When Peter the Great visited Holland and then England in the late 1690s, it was ostensibly to study the latest shipbuilding techniques. He deliberately avoided the usual trappings of emperors, making a point of living among ordinary people and working as a carpenter.

In London, he rented a house from the diarist John Evelyn, and became one of the first nightmare gap-year tenants, burning chairs for firewood and using paintings for target practice.

Despite his honourable intentions of going down among the people, the Tsar quickly became conspicuous – not that surprising, considering that he was nearly 7ft tall. There are still pubs in London today called the Czar of Muscovy. His attempt to reach out to the ordinary people quickly became a spectacle in itself.

And so it has always been. One always thinks that Prince Hal's drinking expeditions with Falstaff were probably not as incognito as Shakespeare pretends – I bet, in reality, there were hundreds of eager onlookers outside and inside the Boar's Head once word got out in Eastcheap. There is nothing more blatant than a ruler casting off the trappings and descending to experience our daily drudgery, our simple pleasures.

The Prime Minister's two-day holiday to Granada was lavishly covered this week, with a series of mesmerisingly strange photographs. Mr and Mrs Cameron – they were celebrating Mrs Cameron's 40th birthday with a mini-break – paid for the holiday themselves. It started at Stansted airport, and proceeded via Ryanair, according to reports, to Malaga. Then, they are said to have gone to a three-star family hotel in Granada, visiting the Alhambra, which, the Daily Mail explained to its less sophisticated readers, is "a magnificent palace and fortress built by the region's Moorish leaders in the 14th century".

Keen observers of performed behaviour will find all of this of the highest interest. Leaving the kids at home places the trip into the category of "romantic break". Visiting the Alhambra reaches out to Muslims by paying homage to the highest cultural achievement of Islamic – sorry, "Moorish" – civilisation in Europe. The three-star family hotel is an almost parodic staking-out of the middle ground of holidaymaking. Stansted airport gestures to the Squeezed Middles. And, if the Camerons did indeed travel on Ryanair, they are evidently pretending to be the sort of people who will put up with a degree of discomfort and inconvenience to save a few quid. I hope they remembered to print out their own boarding cards, or Ryanair will have charged them £40.

Put it like this: if my husband took me off on a surprise birthday trip, and it meant going on Ryanair, I would indicate that there had better be a bloody expensive present in his hand luggage, 55cm x 40cm x 20cm maximum dimensions.

There are so many stories about rulers descending into the marketplace to hear what the people are saying, that some of them eventually come true. Since Jeroboam's wife disguised herself to go to Shiloh in 1 Kings 14, the fantasy has preyed on their minds. The present King of Jordan, Abdullah II, has made rather a hobby of it, in 2001 disguising himself as an old man in a fake beard to discover how ordinary people are treated by the income tax authorities. Last week, he paid a similar unannounced visit to his Health Ministry's Patients' Affairs Department.

No doubt if photographs existed of Abdullah's visits to the masses, or Jeroboam's wife's, or Prince Hal's, they would have a quality of agonising awkwardness. It will be remembered that Tony Blair, in December 1999, took the Tube from Waterloo to the new Millennium Dome, attended by dozens of photographers, minders and journalists. He sat down, and turned to the woman next to him, saying hello. She ignored him.

Reality had proved insufficiently authentic, and the woman, Georgina Leketi-Solomon, was afterwards "invited" to have a cup of tea with the then Prime Minister at 10 Downing St, where a chummy reality could be more satisfyingly constructed in a controllable environment.

A similar air of dreamy strangeness hangs over David Cameron's descent into ordinariness. The couple are depicted waiting for their flight. But around them, there is a sea of empty chairs. Did no one like to sit near them? Had they farted? Or did Special Branch clear a space for them? And the same is true of all the other images – Cameron using a cashpoint machine, the couple walking down a Granada street. They look, not like an ordinary couple doing ordinary things, but like an extraordinary couple playing at anonymity. And there is nothing more conspicuous than that.

There doesn't seem much likelihood that the Camerons' holiday was undertaken with much expectation of pleasure. After all, the poor man had only just the day before finished a 36-hour trip to Pakistan: a nice sit-down in the back garden might be more of a pleasant break. Is it too awful to think that one motivation for the trip was in response to Oliver Letwin apparently remarking that "he did not want to see more families in Sheffield able to afford cheap holidays"? Here we are, the photographs say, having a lovely cheap holiday, courtesy of Ryanair and a three-star hotel in Granada. And, we might continue, there is nothing wrong with that, and I expect Oliver didn't really mean what he said, anyway.

Rulers always do lose touch with the people, despite every best effort, and after a few years of protection, have literally no idea how ordinary people outside the furthest limits of their own families actually live. There was no probability at all that the Camerons were ever going to have a relaxing cultural mini-break in Granada. I don't suppose they expected to achieve one. Still, they might as well produce a performance of ordinariness for everyone's entertainment. How they must long for the end of office, and never again having to pretend to enjoy sitting in Stansted airport for your Ryanair flight to be called.

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