One consequence of the UK government positing a possible date for the reopening of foreign travel but then, quite responsibly, refusing to confirm it is an anxious frenzy. What to do about the summer? Would-be tourists, and the significant percentage of people with family abroad, are like athletes awaiting a starting gun, weighing up strategies, itching to get started the instant anything positive is announced, and ready to fight everyone else to the most desirable places. With self-catering holidays in England allowed from this week – equivalent rules in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are loosening too – competition for UK holidays is stiff, particularly in July and August. Is Cornwall really almost full? Is there anything left in the Highlands?
A summer holiday is a precious thing, a “calendrical rite”, as the social anthropologist Kate Fox has described it. It is liberation, a suspended and regenerative space underlined by being elsewhere. Away, one can relax, be more spontaneous, try on personas (or at least outfits) one would never otherwise wear. “One felt another person, one was another person,” as Leo puts it, in LP Hartley’s novel The Go-Between.
The basic rite has generated others: the holiday wardrobe; the overpriced last-minute airport shop; the harried ticking off of cultural sights; the anxiety of where and who with, both being signifiers of social status; the toxic aim of the “bikini body’; the imperative of the “holiday of a lifetime” or of familial reconnection; the spending of money one can ill afford; the expectation that can be an insupportable weight for a French villa or Devon cottage to bear.
A striking thing about Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s oral history of mid-20th-century holidays, British Summer Time Begins, is the absence of all that. Chapters on “Nothing much planned”, “Not going abroad” and “The people you were stuck with” sound uncomfortably like lockdown. But within them lie other things: long days, for children, of free outdoor play – freer, in many ways, for poor than for middle-class children – days when children of all classes “discovered who we were”. The grownups got on with their lives; family day trips acknowledged that holiday is a state of mind: “You were … tucked up in your own bed by midnight, but … left with a sense of definitely having ‘been away’” – often to the same slightly underwhelming place. “Coming to water clumsily undressed / Yearly”, as Philip Larkin put it in his lovely poem To the Sea, “teaching their children by a sort / Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought.”
The time when children could roam free is probably long gone. No one wants to go back to a world in which someone could say: “Darling, going abroad is vulgar.” But lockdowns have only increased the need for an elsewhere, of body and spirit. So much relentless sensibleness, so many restrictions must be countered somehow. If, as the cliche goes, a change is as good as a rest, then perhaps a return to business as (pre-pandemic) usual is that change. But perhaps there are also other ways, and scope, for reinterpreting other rites. Not less fun, but different, and more fun for being so.