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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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage