With flamingos and parrots, it is paradise in a bubble. And spiritually crushing

surrendering to the times
Imagine a muddy forest surrounded by some of the dullest countryside in France. Scattered, implausibly, among the trees are 500 prefab bungalows, a hotel, a shopping mall, a sports centre and a swimming pool, called "The Tropical Aquatic Paradise". The last three are housed in the "bulle" or "bubble", a kind of moon-base, rising Spielbergishly above the pine trees and bungalows. The whole is surrounded by one token, but psychologically significant, strand of barbed wire.

CenterParcs are a Dutch idea, now successfully exported to Britain and to France. The concept is simple: an inland holiday camp for the relatively affluent and sporty, aimed at families with young or teenage kids, but also popular, by my observation, with groups of parent-fleeing youngsters. Cars are allowed into to off-load only. After that they are banished to a car park at the edge of the wire "for the sake of our children". It is difficult to argue with such a sensible rule. But the distance to the car park also creates a powerful incentive not to stray outside to the surrounding towns. Instead, you spend your money in the restaurants and shops within the wire. Prices in them are irritatingly above the going rate in the free world but not so irritatingly that you are tempted, more than once, to make a Colditz-style mission to eat lunch.

We spent the New Year at the CenterParcs site on the edge of Normandy. The first thing I should say is that the younger members of the family had a wonderful time. The second thing I should say is that I have never heard anyone speak a slighting word about a CenterParc holiday.

Thus it is doubtless my problem that I found the experience spiritually crushing: a paradigm of what is most addictive, compelling and depressing about the late 20th century, the age of the mall and the video-cassette, the age of pre-packaged freedom, of frenetic, but unadventurously easy fun. The CenterParcs experience reminded me of East Germany, or, rather, East Germany, as it might have been, if had been run by the Dutch and staffed by the French: a kind of cosy, sporty, bossy, lobotomised world, in which everyone was busy and contented, save a few, puzzled old dissidents like me.

I use the plural in the hope that there were a few other dissidents around but I confess I never made contact with them. There was one French man, of whom, originally, I had high hopes. He gave me a wry, knowing smile on the first day, as if to say "what on earth are we doing here. We are men of the world, used to freedom, adventure, the high road and more than seven channels on the TV."

I complained to him, inarticulately no doubt, about all the bossy rules, the enforced sense of happy times and the constant, gentle extraction of money. He just grinned. The next day, I met him in the Tropical Aquatic Paradise as I was juggling with wet towels, arm-bands, a swimming ring, a float-board, three overcoats and three sets of clothes and searching for a five franc piece for the locker, which was somewhat larger than a cigar box. He saw a complaining look on my face and butted in before I could talk. "C'est bien, n'est ce pas?" When I started to object, he specified: "Eh bien, c'est super pour les gamins. (Well, it's wonderful for the children)". What could one say? Of course it was super for the gamins. The accursed gamins were having a great time.

It might be thought that the individualistic French would resist the regimentation of CenterParcs. Not a bit of it. The two French centres are booked up for the peak periods weeks in advance. It is true that, when it comes to holidays, the French are among the least packaged nations on earth. But that is largely because they (80 per cent) take their holidays in France. Many of them, 60 per cent according to one study, spend their holidays in their own second homes, or with relatives in the countryside or sponging on friends.

If they are forced to pay for their holidays, the French are rather drawn to a bit of regimentation. Club Med, an up-market CenterParcs, often with worse facilities, was after all a French idea. The French are - against the round-shouldered stereotype - a very sporty nation. French children were recently declared by a Europe-wide investigation to be the fittest in the EU. All in all, the French take to the hyperactive, CenterParcs idea depressingly well. They are, presumably, individualistic within their bungalows while conforming in public; nothing could be more French than that.

The most archetypical of all CenterParc residents, to my eyes, were the two parrots and six flamingos, which always occupied the same branch and same pool of water in the giant, cigarette-smoke filled "bubble" at the heart of the site. Their job was to help convert the shopping mall and swimming pool into the Tropical Aquatic Paradise, as advertised. They could have flown around the shops if they had wanted to; with a little guile, they could even have escaped. But the birds saw no reason to cause any trouble, except occasionally to fight amongst themselves. It was warm. They had friends. Their food was brought to them. Their presence entertained the gamins. On our 50th trip to what I insisted on calling the swimming pool, Charlie, aged seven, asked: "But, Daddy, what is a Tropical Automatic Paradise?"

"Automatic paradise": the phrase summed up the place perfectly.

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