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Exit stage right, pursued by vengeful variants

May 25, 2021
My mother with a friend, Cornwall 1939

It’s time to think about holidays. Or, since everything about Britain must by government edict be bathed in superlatives, about the Great British Holiday.

I’ve spent the last fifteen months confined within the borders of a country which for much of that time has been determined to keep its citizens locked up (or down, depending on how you choose to describe it). I can well understand the joy felt by thousands of us who are departing for Portugal, St Helena and the Falklands Islands, and who are salivating at the prospect of sea, sun and, depending on the destination, microwaved lasagne, guided tours of Napoleon’s place of confinement, or penguins and former minefields.

We shall not be joining them for the foreseeable future, because we have stuff going on at home. If you asked me whether it was also because the prospect of rubbing sunburnt shoulders with hordes of beer-guzzling fellow-Brits horrifies me, I would deny it, because I don’t consider myself a snob. Much.

But I will admit that I prefer to mingle with my fellow-citizens in their natural habitat, where they freely moan about the weather, tear down statues, hurl anti-Semitic insults from cars and fret about Indian variants. That way I can retreat from them if need be. Even those dubious pleasures have been once-removed from personal experience over the past few months as we waited for the second jab that theoretically should liberate us from our ivory tower in leafy suburbia.

In fact, the person I most relate to is the character in Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads who spends most of her time looking out of her front window at the little dramas playing out in the street beyond. Except that in my case the window is a little screen, from which I observe corpses flowing down the Ganges, tower blocks in Gaza reduced to girders, concrete and mangled bodies in an eerie echo of 9/11, and shooting stars playing whack-a-mole with each other in the night sky. And when I look at my own country, all I see is endless footage of people in pubs, pubs and more pubs. Oh, and Hugh Pym, the BBC’s very own Angel of Death, lurking in hospital corridors with his quizzical smile, waiting for the latest shed-load of COVID patients to flood back into Britain’s intensive care wards.

Pretty grim stuff, though on the positive side there are plenty of murder dramas to be watched on telly, set in glamorous locations from Italy and Corsica. Or, if you can’t bear to see those gorgeous European locations that the government is discouraging you to visit, there’s always the delight of watching half the population of Kansas City wiped out in gang warfare, or nasty little homicides in Wales. (I do sometimes wonder why it is that the middle-aged love their murders, whereas the young ones adore science fiction and superheroes. Is it because sci-fi is a tableau of endless possibilities for those who have much of their lives yet to live, whereas murder mysteries serve to remind those of us who are closer to the end how lucky we will be to die in our beds?)

For me, as I travel beyond the perihelion of late middle age into the deep vacuum of decrepitude, strange obsessions are flourishing. I yearn for a Full English Breakfast, for example. I was thinking the other day about all the golf tours that were once a regular feature of my summer. I now realise that the major attraction was not cursing my way around an unfamiliar golf course with friends, but the joy of stumbling down in the morning to a table with a white linen tablecloth and immaculate silver cutlery, to be offered orange juice, fresh fruit, croissants and the sacred components of the Full English: eggs, sausages, bacon, beans and hash browns. How could one consume such a feast every morning and expect to hit a white ball in a straight line with one’s centre of gravity so dramatically skewed?

I’ve also come to realise that if I can enjoy such luxury without having to play golf, and in the après-golf endure endless stories about futile endeavour, I can quite happily do so in England. My wife doesn’t agree with me on this, but at the moment, now that we’re properly vaxxed-up, I’d be delighted to suffer two weeks of rain and cold in some picturesque coastal village, in Cornwall or Devon perhaps, because what matters is not the sun but being in a different place. Not having to bother to cook. Walks along shores and cliffs. Scary little lanes and ancient churches with indecipherable saint’s names. Fish suppers. Pasties. Clotted cream.

Until the pandemic arrived, we Brits had become rather spoilt in our holiday options. We tend to forget that sixty years ago a foreign holiday was a rare luxury for all but a tiny minority of the population. If you worked in manufacturing, you only had one time of the year when you could get away: the two weeks of the industrial holiday, when the factory shut down. Depending on where you lived, you would flock to popular and affordable holiday destinations in the UK – Blackpool, Skegness, Weston-Super-Mare, where a Pontins or Butlins holiday camp awaited. If the weather was crap, so be it. You either stayed indoors, or wrapped up against the elements and sat in deckchairs on the piers, pretending to have fun. And when you got home you said you had a lovely time.

These days, the pursuit of sun, sea and Stella Artois is regarded as a human right. As is the right to be right when everyone else knows you’re wrong. And the right to tell porkies because they’re your truth. And the right to kill people because God tells you to. And the right to decent bandwidth so that you can watch everyone else exercising their human rights from the safety of your own home.

All in all, the prospect of departing for foreign shores is becoming steadily less attractive. Not only is your human right to pass freely across borders (courtesy of the Queen, as our passports point out) without being curtailed because of Brexit, government traffic lights, endless PCR testing and interminable queues at airports, but even when you’re in the air, you risk being diverted to some godawful Stalinist enclave if one of your fellow passengers happens to be a dangerous subversive whose presence is required in that rathole. And should you safely arrive at your destination, goodness knows what horrors await you as variant waves threaten to inundate you, seemingly from nowhere.

So it seems that for us at least, an English summer is the preferred option, with Wimbledon, wild weather and God knows, World War 3, all streaming on our little electronic windows.

But wait. The weather forecasters tell us that we’re in for a few days of average weather, meaning no rain, not too much wind and temperatures around 20C. Does that mean that we’ll be able to turn off our central heating and thereby save the planet?

Bring it on, I say.

From → Travel, UK

  1. Always a relief when you reappear.

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