I’m having another holiday in the garden - leaving the country is just too hard

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

I am trying to think of the last time I took a holiday. A proper holiday, two weeks in a warm and sunny place, which means abroad. Somewhere with, at the very least, a reputation for good weather and drinkable local wine. And I’d like it to be in Italy, please.
 
Anyway: last holiday? Not sure. I have a hunch it was Spain, which was a bit of a hairraising experience at first when I discovered, upon being frisked at Luton Airport, that the pouch of tobacco I’d groped for in a dark room before the pre-dawn drive to the airport turned out not to be tobacco at all. This was especially tiresome as I had resolved not to take any risks with that kind of thing ever again when travelling internationally. I was escorted to an interrogation room where I invited the customs agents to look out of the window at my wife, above whose head could be seen gathering the kind of atmospheric disturbance associated with extreme meteorological events. There may have been even the odd flash of lightning.
 
“See that woman over there?” I said. “I am far, far more scared of what she’s going to do to me than anything you could.” I had the pleasure of seeing the officers – one experienced, one young and keen as Tabasco – peering through the door’s small window. It was a charming cameo seen from behind; seen from outside, it must have looked rather comic.
 
After a few seconds’ observation, they turned around. The older one sighed. “Go on holiday,” he said, scribbling on a piece of paper in a pad and tearing it off. “Take this chit. When you come back go through the ‘Something to Declare’ channel and present it.” The farce of what happened on my re-entry into the country need not detain us here but I can tell you that I got to say, “What’s wrong with me? I can’t even get arrested in this town,” without using the phrase figuratively.
 
That would have been, oh, ten years ago, I think. After that, we stayed in the country for our hols because of the financial knock-on effects of having three children. Then we separated and the financial knock-on effects of that are unbelievable. So apart from the odd snatched long weekend staying at a friend’s place in either Paris or Rome, I just sit around in the sun. Last year it rained all summer long, so I sat in the rain instead. It wasn’t the same. But to tell you the truth, it’s not just lack of funds that keeps me from travelling; it’s an inability to organise a holiday. I’ve never done it. Parents, girlfriends and wives seem to have a knack that I simply do not possess. It’s at times like these that I start thinking they should give air miles to people who can’t afford to buy plane tickets, rather than hand them out to people who fly all the sodding time.
 
I have recently discovered that the inability to execute plans to leave the country successfully can be inherited. My daughter has had similar problems and so, because of a scheduling error on her and others’ parts, she is obliged to stay with me and the Beloved in the Hovel for a couple of weeks. It’s all rather unusual. Normally I have the children for only two days at a stretch on alternate weekends, so being a full-time parent for the first time in six years is a little weird. That said, the daughter isn’t a child any more: she’s 18, although she looks rather elfin. But it means I can’t tell her when her bedtime is any more.
 
That said, we do get on rather well. Have done ever since her mother screamed, “She’s you! She’s YOU!” at me after an incident of five-year-old insubordination or insolence. She also seems to have adopted a similar attitude to the various cushions on the divan of pleasure.
 
One evening, I gently remonstrated with her about not applying to my alma mater when making her university choices. I think they like that kind of thing, deep down. “I don’t want to follow in your footsteps, Dad,” she said. I gestured silently at the roll-up in her hand, the full glass of red wine in her other hand, and then, as an afterthought, my wristwatch, which was telling anyone who wanted to look that it was well after midnight. To give her credit, she saw my point.
 
Having a mini-me around the place the whole time does make me wonder a bit about heritable traits, though. Did I stay in bed that late when I was her age? Yes, if not later. But was I as fluent a talker as she is? No: I was shy. And now she tells me she’s arranged a combination of trains and planes to get her to her holiday destination. I could never have done that. Can’t do it now.
It's not only the money that makes going on holiday a nightmare - it's the organisation. Photograph: Getty Images.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.