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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How can London’s mothers escape the poverty trap?

Despite its booming jobs market, London’s poverty rate is high. What can be done about it?

Why are mothers in London less likely to work than their counterparts across the country, and how can we ensure that having more parents in jobs brings the capital’s high child poverty rates down?

The answers to these two questions, examined in a new CPAG report on parental employment in the capital, may become increasingly nationally significant as policymakers look to ensure jobs growth doesn’t stall and that a job becomes a more much reliable route out of poverty than it is currently – 64 per cent of poor children live in working families.

The choice any parent makes when balancing work and family life is deeply personal.  It’s a choice driven by a wide range of factors but principally by what parents, with their unique viewpoint, regard as best for their families. The man in Whitehall doesn’t know best.

But the personal is also political. Every one of these personal choices is shaped, limited or encouraged by an external context.   Are there suitable jobs out there? Is there childcare available that is affordable and will work for their child(ren)? And what will be the financial gains from working?

In London, 40 per cent of mothers in couples are not working. In the rest of the country, the figure is much lower – 27 per cent. While employment rates amongst lone parents in London have significantly increased in recent years, the proportion of mothers in couples out of work remains stuck at about 12 percentage points higher than the rest of the UK.

The benefits system has played a part in increasing London’s lone parent employment rate. More and more lone parents are expected to seek work. In 2008, there was no obligation on single parents to start looking for work until their youngest child turned 16. Now they need to start looking when their youngest is five (the Welfare Reform and Work Bill would reduce this down to three). But the more stringent “conditionality” regime, while significant, doesn’t wholly explain the higher employment rate. For example, we know more lone parents with much younger children have also moved into jobs.  It also raises the question of what sacrifices families have had to make to meet the new conditionality.  

Mothers in couples in London, who are not mandated to work, have not entered work to the same level as lone parents. So, what is it about the context in London that makes it less likely for mothers in couples to work? Here are four reasons highlighted in our report for policymakers to consider:

1. The higher cost of working in London is likely to play a significant role in this. London parents are much less likely to be able to call on informal (cheaper or free) childcare from family and friends than other parts in the country: only one in nine children in London receives informal childcare compared to an average of one in three for England. And London childcare costs for under 5s dwarf those in the rest of the country, so for many parents support available through tax credits is inadequate.

2. Add to this high housing and transport costs, and parents are left facing a toxic combination of high costs that can mean they see less financial rewards from their work than parents in other parts of the country.

3. Effective employment support can enable parents to enter work, particularly those who might have taken a break from employment while raising children. But whilst workless lone parents and workless couples are be able to access statutory employment support, if you have a working partner, but don’t work yourself, or if you are working on a low wage and want to progress, there is no statutory support available.

4. The nature of the jobs market in London may also be locking mums out. The number of part time jobs in the capital is increasing, but these jobs don’t attract the same London premium as full time work.  That may be partly why London mums who work are more likely to work full time than working mums in other parts of the country. But this leaves London families facing even higher childcare costs.

Parental employment is a thorny issue. Parenting is a 24-hour job in itself which must be balanced with any additional employment and parents’ individual choices should be at the forefront of this debate. Policy must focus on creating the context that enables parents to make positive choices about employment. That means being able to access the right support to help with looking for work, creating a jobs market that works for families, and childcare options that support child development and enable parents to see financial gains from working.

When it comes to helping parents move into jobs they can raise a family on, getting it right for London, may also go a long way to getting it right for the rest of the country.