Terence Blacker: A walk on the wild side with Margaret

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The Independent Online

How the caravan industry must have cheered when it heard that a senior politician was an enthusiast of holidays on wheels. How it must have groaned when that politician turned out to be Margaret Beckett. Somehow Mrs Beckett fits the role rather too perfectly. To imagine her brewing up a cup of tea , parked in a lay-by in her Bailey Pageant Champagne, requires little imaginative effort. She has the air of a natural-born caravanner - practical, careful with money ("No, honestly, I prefer baked beans on toast"), contemptuous of luxury.

As the Foreign Secretary prepares to shift her attention from the Middle East to stocking up teabags, sausages and loo rolls for the holiday (the Becketts are going to France), there have been the usual cheap shots in the press. Because, rather extraordinarily, she is now a player in international politics, the caravan will be escorted by special branch. The presence of men with reflector glasses and ear-pieces will be likely to cause alarm, the Telegraph suggested, because "caravanners are not know for their love of excitement."

What lazy nonsense this is. It takes a peculiar kind of snobbery to assume that other types of holiday - sitting pinkly on a beach, getting drunk beside a swimming-pool in the Dordogne - are somehow more adventurous than travelling across Europe, setting up home where you wish, dealing with the logistics of food, hygiene and general survival.

Anyone who has lived in a caravan, as I did four years ago, will know that a life on wheels is, in fact, full of excitement. By sloughing off the domesticity of the house-dweller, one soon adapts to a simpler, rougher lifestyle. Meals are no longer a big deal but a matter of what can be chucked on the barbecue. Ablutions are straightforward. Living most of the day in the open air, we found that we both slept soundly, disturbed only by a family of tawny owls which seemed to be calling to one another a few inches from our heads.

It was not a normal caravanning experience - we never actually moved from the corner of a field - but that six months was a revelation. The new, wilder way of living seemed to infect our friends, who took to turning up announced to share a few gypsy moments around a bonfire.

Over time, we changed. We became less hung up on appearances, more generally relaxed in our personal habits. Our manners took a dive. Scruffier and, yes, smellier, we felt more alive. We had become latterday cave-people - wild-eyed, feral, apt to fall upon one another when the mood took us - and would have reverted still further had not winter closed in around our little Sprite Musketeer cave.

Mrs Beckett will probably not go quite that far while touring provincial France - her husband Leo is 79 and has a heart condition - but she will doubtless remember that, for all the scoffing, the life on the open road has a true, deserved glamour. A caravan is not so far from a motor-bike; it is what happens when the hips become too arthritic to swing over the saddle of a Harley Davidson.

Hitching up the caravan and heading for the ferry, the Becketts offer a more mature version of the culture celebrated in films like Girl on a Motorcycle and Easy Rider. They may be on four wheels not two, their hairstyles may be rather different, but, as they hit the road, Margaret and Leo are the Marianne Faithful and Dennis Hopper of New Labour.

How to quit with dignity

It is probably too early to think too much about the Today programme's Personality of the Year, but two significant contenders have emerged this week. Mark Oaten resigned from politics with dignity and humour. In spite of the scandal which scuppered his chances in the political big time, he has said that he is happier today than he was when he was a contender to lead his party.

Similar bravery was shown by George Michael, caught cruising by a Sunday newspaper. There is nothing shameful about an activity for which he felt no shame, the singer said on TV. When people like Oaten and Michael can face up to the media, defying its dirty-minded elements to do their worst, we are moving towards a saner, more grown-up society.

* A publican has been accused of giving beer to pigs. A jockey has been cautioned for head-butting his horse. A killing-farm for superannuated greyhounds has been discovered. According to the RSPCA, Britain was 77 per cent crueller to its animals than in the previous year. We are in a profound muddle about animals. Those which suffer out of sight to provide food are ignored. As for the animals we do see, we are concerned to the point of neurosis about them (personally I have some sympathy with the head-butting jockey), but nonetheless treat them as adjuncts to human leisure. Everyone, it seems, has the right to own a pet, whatever their circumstances or character. Who can be surprised that the stupid or unhappy take out their inadequacies on some luckless creature? It is not a vote-winner, but some form of pet-licensing system is the solution to our growing cruelty to animals.