The charming, chatty, holiday me

Every year, I'm surprised by the number of people who make it back from their holidays. I always half-expect to get calls from friends or
colleagues saying that they've weighed it all up and - actually - life in a one-room apartment in Spain selling figs at the market is a bit more enticing than trying to pay off a mortgage in Harlesden; or that commuting from a seaside hut to a fishing boat oddly has more appeal than negotiating the Northern Line of a Tuesday morning.

These are, I know, wild, childish fantasies, based on a purposefully limited conception of reality, personal finances and life. Who can go to Europe, let alone live there, without bankrupting themselves almost immediately? Who fishes for a living any more (apart from the earthy-but-comfortably off Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on the telly)? Figs?

Magical mystery tourist

That's the danger of holidays. They encourage magical thinking. The world suddenly seems kinder, possibilities abound. You are released not only from the strictures of your normal life - the commute, the routine, the office - you are also somehow released from yourself, the greatest relief of all. I start thinking I'm capable of things that are completely at odds with anything I've ever learned about my character (a bit idle, cowardly) and resolve on my return to run to work, give up caffeine and go free-climbing on weekends.

That's not the only holiday-inspired inconsistency. On the Tube at the weekend, I was surrounded by a horde of teenage tourists, bashing each other, screaming and failing to notice a pregnant woman standing next to me who wanted to sit down. I felt murderous. (Side point: shouldn't growling at strangers start later in life? If I'm doing it with abandon now, aged 29, what will I be like in 30 years' time?)

But when I'm a tourist, I think I'm charming; wandering around a strange city looking whimsical. I am chatty and friendly and slow-moving. I wander and wonder, invigorated by curiosity and patience and general good feelings towards my fellow man. It's unnatural. Or perhaps it's the point of holidays - to reveal your better self, the one that isn't harried and irritated (just irritating).

Ultimately, though, it's a cruel hoax, tricking you into believing you're substantially nicer than you are. It's lovely while you're away, revelling in the new, improved you. But those final hours, when you pack your bags and suffer the creeping realisation that you might go back home and be exactly like you were before, are comically horrifying.

And that first re-encounter with your true self in all its hideous reality is like that moment in the film of The Witches when Anjelica Huston, the Grand High Witch, peels off her mask to reveal her pustule-strewn face. I'm convinced the ends of holidays are responsible for the majority of existential crises. Freud might never have pointed the finger so confidently at Stansted Airport but the catalogue of bleakness you see in its arrivals lounge provides ample proof.

Maybe we shouldn't take holidays at all. That's my new theory. There's plenty of everyday beauty to be found in a nice biscuit or walking round the block. Holidays laugh in the face of such simple pleasures but if we never went, they wouldn't have the chance. Ha! That'll fox 'em. But it's hard to imagine the anti-holiday campaign catching on: most people genuinely seem to like them, look forward to them for ages, return psychologically unscathed (even refreshed!) and perhaps don't struggle quite so much with reality.

Childhood summers

Still, one of these days someone won't come back, I'm sure of it, and my guess is that it will be a politician. I'm amazed by the - as far as I know - 100 per cent returning-from-holiday success rate of politicians; their jobs are hard, done in public and nobody likes them, not even people who used to like them. Also, their holidays are even more extreme than the rest of us, with our week here and, if we're lucky, week there. The long recess from parliament must feel like those eternal childhood summers when the days merged into one giant ice cream and the sun was always shining.

I reckon if I was a politician, I'd go on holiday and think, as I looked at the view with a beer in my hand, "Well I could go back home to be hounded on the Today programme and stabbed in the back by a colleague, or, come to think of it, I could stay here and get a job in the bar and become really good at birdwatching."

Which I suppose explains, to cut a long story short, why I'll never be a politician.

Mark Watson is away

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.