Celebrities on holiday: a rough guide

Aside from love, few activities seem to promise us as much happiness as travelling: taking off for somewhere else, somewhere far from home, a place with more interesting weather, customs and landscapes. However, it also seems that few events regularly go as wrong as holidays. The disappointments - the sulks, mid-afternoon ennui, lethargy before ancient ruins - are tragicomic staples of the process.

And yet, the reasons behind these disappointments are rarely explored. Almost never are holidays considered as presenting psychological or even philosophical problems, events requiring any thought beyond the practical. We are inundated with advice on where to go on holiday; we hear nothing of why and how we should go.

So, as Britain returns from its holidays, arguably both disappointed and at the same time longing for the next break, the time seemed ripe to ask some leading figures to answer the New Statesman's holiday questionnaire.

Alain de Botton

"The sole cause of man's unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room." - Pascal, Pensees. How does this thought relate to your current travel plans?

Joan Bakewell: I spend much of my year happily and quietly in my room. So I want change: lots of noise, talk, splashing in the pool, wining and dining, occasional visits to chateaux etc.

Maggie Gee: I can't be unhappy, then. One of my novels, Where are the Snows, was all about a couple who try to leave their teenage children and subsiding house, go on holiday and never come back. Its epitaph is from Horace - "They change the sky not their soul who run across the sea . . .What you seek is here."

Arnold Wesker: Perfectly. I live alone in a cottage in the Black Mountains and have discovered the pleasures of "staying quietly in my room".

Craig Raine: It's clearly true. Actually, I may not go .

Margaret Forster: I know exactly how to stay quietly in my room. It makes any travel plans hard to endure - I hate the thought of leaving it even when I know I'll enjoy the travel.

A S Byatt: I like work.

John Redwood: The main cause of my unhappiness is the transport chaos created by this government when I have to leave the peace of my room.

Diane Abbott: The pleasure of going on holiday for me is precisely the opportunity to sit quietly. When I am in Jamaica, I spend a lot of time sitting quietly on my uncle's verandah, or by a swimming pool, just letting the world go by.

Oliver Letwin: This is one of Pascal's less inspired observations.

John Simpson: After a lifetime of travelling for a living, I find I can't stay quietly in my room for more than a week without becoming restless and wanting to go somewhere else.

Michele Roberts: I shall stay quietly in my room to write and then cultiver mon jardin in another image of creativity.

Clare Short: In tune.

Richard Eyre: Pascal's thought relates to my life as a whole - or at least my work - rather than my (non-existent) travel plans.

Charles Glass: Not applicable.

"Our most enjoyable journeys are in the imagination, sitting in bed at home reading a travel brochure or a railway timetable." - Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time. Do you prefer the anticipation of travel or

the reality?

Joan Bakewell: Each is its own pleasure. Anticipation: the search for the right area, the right route, the best place to stay; friends' recommendations, the guide books to ransack. And the sun always shines. Reality: actually letting go of all the worries, all the stress, time to browse, read, stroll, no hurrying.

Maggie Gee: Actually I adore travel and don't agree with Proust. I went to Australia with my daughter earlier this year, to meet my husband who was working over there, and I can still feel the light, and see the sun setting over the easternmost point of Australia. Obviously there are "missing connection" panics and grubby greyhound buses and nervous waits at airports, but they aren't the important part. It is the freedom to be different, and invisible . . . that is wonderful about leaving home for a while.

Arnold Wesker: When I travel I enjoy the reality. Reality is far more interesting than my imagination.

Craig Raine: I only like skiing.

Margaret Forster: Never the anticipation; sometimes the reality; mostly, the memory of it.

A S Byatt: I prefer the reality. I hate travel brochures and railway timetables. I like travelling.

John Redwood: I prefer arriving to travelling, as public transport in the UK is dreadful.

Diane Abbott: I prefer the reality of travel.

Oliver Letwin: Both.

John Simpson: The anticipation of holiday travel is usually smoother, calmer and easier than the reality. You never take into account missed connections or accidents or the absence of lavatories when you think about travelling somewhere. I find the anticipation of travel for work, by contrast, worse than the reality if I am going somewhere unpleasant. What anticipation never gives you is the physical sense of travel: the smells, the sounds, the real sights. Give me the reality every time.

Michele Roberts: If you plan or hope too much, you could be disappointed - you need to go not expecting anything but the unexpected.

Clare Short: I travel so much I don't particularly value travel.

Richard Eyre: I prefer the reality of travel. I like the suspension of routine, the expectation of new experience, the hope of new pleasures.

Charles Glass: "The wise traveller travels only in imagination" - Somerset Maugham.

"A concern with luxury is an attempt to escape from inner demons." - Epicurus, Fragments. Do you enjoy staying in luxury hotels?

Joan Bakewell: Extravagant luxury is a treat, a lark, nothing to do with real life. My inner demon is the fear of not being able to pay for it!

Maggie Gee: The question is mostly theoretical for me. When work puts me in good hotels for a bit, I enjoy the gadgets, yes, but I can't on the whole stand the blandness, the double-glazing-sealed air in winter, the sense of being in no-time and no-space. The most magical place we stayed in Australia was a youth hostel in the rainforest - windows screened with sarongs, a fan for air conditioning, blue Morpho butterflies floating past the treetops and free truck-rides to Mission Beach.

Arnold Wesker: Yes. Whatever "inner demons" I have, luxury is not my method of escaping from them. Like learning, I enjoy luxury for its own sake.

Craig Raine: Actually, yes, but I can't afford it. If I was paying for it, I'm sure I'd be miserable.

Margaret Forster: No. But I enjoy the luxury if it means perfect peace, seclusion, good food, beautiful views, a good bed, a good shower, etc. If I can get all those somewhere modest/simple, I'd rather do so. I hate glitz and formality and masses of staff.

A S Byatt: I enjoy luxury hotels, because the beds are not allergic. The idea of luxury embarrasses me.

John Redwood: Yes - but they are not usually as comfortable as home.

Diane Abbott: I do enjoy staying in luxury hotels, but the essence of a good holiday is not how luxurious the hotel is. Far more important to me is the country I am in and the people I get the opportunity to meet.

Oliver Letwin: Yes - when I can afford them.

John Simpson: I'm afraid that as I grow older I increasingly do - but only when travelling for pleasure. When I'm working, the puritan in me feels I'm slacking unless I'm uncomfortable. There is an iron law for journalists: the better the hotel, the less time you will spend in it. I was recently booked into a seven-star hotel in the Middle East. I checked in at 1.30am and left at 5am the same morning. Typical.

Michele Roberts: I've done it on book tours occasionally and loved it, but never on holiday.

Clare Short: No - again it happens quite often - just somewhere to sleep.

Richard Eyre: I love staying in luxury hotels, particularly if someone else is paying.

Charles Glass: Much more than in the YMCA.

"It is impossible to be happy for longer than 15 minutes at a time." - E M Cioran, The Temptation to Exist. On holiday, for how long can you enjoy continuous happiness?

Joan Bakewell: Happiness comes when you least expect it: and lasts until you notice it . . . then it tends to go away.

Maggie Gee: Indefinitely, I think. But I need books, and a notebook, and to know everyone's all right at home.

Arnold Wesker: I don't go on holidays because I've always considered being a writer is a holiday from the drudgery of kitchens, offices, factories and the hell of competitive people.

Craig Raine: Consciousness only lasts for units of 30 seconds, and you can test this by trying on a pair of incredibly uncomfortable shoes, and then taking them off - the sense of relief lasts for just under 30 seconds. See Miroslav Holub's The Dimension of the Present Moment.

Margaret Forster: For as long as it takes to read a good book (two hours?) or walk a long beach (three hours?) or swim across a bay (one hour) or eat a delicious meal (one and a half hours?) - oh, for lots of hours.

A S Byatt: I don't like "holiday" experiences. In art galleries and driving through wild places I can be happy for hours and hours.

John Redwood: For many hours.

Diane Abbott: On holiday, I like to think I enjoy continuous happiness for the whole period that I am away. From the time when my plane touches down at Norman Manley Airport in Kingston, I feel all the stress and strain of living as a black woman in London roll from my shoulders and I spend my holiday surrounded by the love and warmth of family and friends.

Oliver Letwin: Continuously - as long as the children are happy.

John Simpson: Hard to say, since I've never timed it. I suspect happiness comes and goes in waves, like courses at a Chinese banquet. Some courses delight you, some you can't bear, and some you are scarcely aware of. The trouble with pure happiness is that everyday reality keeps breaking in and distracting you.

Michele Roberts: I remember travelling in Italy in 1988 and being happy for two weeks non-stop.

Clare Short: For two weeks.

Richard Eyre: Probably for two or even three weeks.

Charles Glass: There are conceptual difficulties with the apparent premises of this question.

"We forget most of what we have lived through. Whole years issolve into one or two images." - Vladimir Nabokov. What profound (rather than factual) memories do you have of your last holiday?

Joan Bakewell: Sleeping on a table top in a caravan . . . and the mesmerising scale and force of the River Loire.

Maggie Gee: I don't know about "profound" - are memories profound, or is what we draw from them profound? Try "vivid", "unlikely to be forgotten", and there are so many. Riding on bikes with my daughter around the wide hilly streets of Byron Bay in Australia as the sun set, not going anywhere, just riding, as great flocks of green and red parrots swooped and landed in a similar way above us, covering one stand of trees then suddenly taking off again and wheeling against the orange sky.

Arnold Wesker: When I travel abroad I am constantly amazed at human endeavour. From the air I see cities and cultivation; in cities I see buildings going back centuries and museums full of artefacts going back centuries. Someone worked with hand, heart and imagination. Amazed.

Craig Raine: Richard van den Dool's astonishing landscape paintings on the floor of his studio in Dordrecht.

Margaret Forster: How the beauty of surroundings and the perfection of climate can transcend physical pain better than drugs - all is not spoiled.

A S Byatt: I don't remember when it was.

John Redwood: None.

Diane Abbott: My profound memories of my last holiday is how much fun my son had.

Oliver Letwin: Discovery of a gentian previously not on our list.

John Simpson: Nothing at all profound, alas: just a couple of meals, a particular bottle of red wine, a bedroom opening on to the wild sea, the colour of the waves as they broke, a bookshop, Table Mountain from different angles, a new friendship or two.

Michele Roberts: A circle of lemons arranged on fresh sage leaves in a bar in Venice - the smells of church interiors.

Clare Short: I go to a beautiful place in the West of Ireland by the sea. The beauty is profound.

Richard Eyre: Driving through the First World War battlefields in northern France where the cemeteries are as common as orchards in the Vale of Evesham.

Who in all of world history would you most like to take on holiday with you - and why?

Joan Bakewell: Any one of the people I love most: I know them well enough to put up with their foibles, and likewise they know me.

Maggie Gee: The idea of a holiday for me runs completely counter to the idea of taking a famous person with me. I want to relax on holiday.

Arnold Wesker: Jesus. To settle it once and for all, as one Jewish boy to another.

Craig Raine: I think it would be interesting to see how Lucrezia Borgia skis a black slope.

Margaret Forster: Nobody. I don't crave company, don't want to be stimulated by the kind of companionship a figure in "world history" would give.

A S Byatt: I like solitude (and my husband). I prefer great writers' presence as books.

John Redwood: Elizabeth I - to find out how she impressed them for so long.

Diane Abbott: I would like to take Nelson Mandela on holiday with me. I think that he would be a wonderful companion and he would have marvellous stories to tell. And I would like to think that some of his goodness would brush off on me.

Oliver Letwin: My wife - obvious if you knew her.

John Simpson: I'd like to meet Christopher Marlowe, Sir Richard Burton, and the Emperor Julian - but not, I think, to go on holiday with them: they'd be too noisy and domineering. I think I'd settle for Michel de Montaigne, because he was so quiet and easygoing, didn't miss anything, and wouldn't turn nasty if the place you wanted to stay proved dreadful.

Michele Roberts: George Sand and Flaubert - good fun and good talk.

Clare Short: The friends I meet up with.

Richard Eyre: At 15, Monica Vitti; at 25, Collette; and now, my wife . . .

Charles Glass: Odysseus, because he would make the journey home eventful.

How do you respond to the suggestion - from the Australian philosopher Peter Singer - that the money we spend on luxuries such as holidays is "immoral" because it might be used to save the lives of the poor in the developing world?

Joan Bakewell: Sustained and prolonged extravagance could get boring. But ease up, Peter, everyone needs to live a little.

Maggie Gee: I admire Peter Singer's insistence that animals have consciousness as we do, and agree with him. But there is an occasional joyless puritanism, and a blaming quality, about his thought that I don't like at all. If you didn't go on holiday, because you gave your spare money to the poor, I think you would probably end up making everyone else feel guilty about going on holiday, just like he has done - in other words, decreasing the sum of happiness in the world.

Arnold Wesker: The problem of the poor in the world requires solutions more complex and long-term than donations of holiday money.

Craig Raine: I think that's rather dog in the manger, but that's what you'd expect from an animal rights activist.

Margaret Forster: I'd argue with it, but not on the grounds of "immorality", but by suggesting that this kind of "saved" money never would reach those who need it.

A S Byatt: He's right. But some of what we spend makes jobs for some people in a rather random way.

John Redwood: He doesn't understand how market economies function and how venal dictatorships can be in the third world.

Diane Abbott: I do not think spending money on holidays is wrong. On the contrary, the money that visitors give to countries like Jamaica is absolutely vital to the economy. I myself when visiting do not stay at all-inclusives, cut off from the community. I stay with family and take pleasure in spending my money to help local shops and local people.

Oliver Letwin: This is too troubling and complicated a point to be answered in a flippant questionnaire.

John Simpson: This Peter Singer should have a preservation order put on him; I didn't know anyone thought in those restricted terms any longer. The idea that sending cheques to governments is the way to help the poor seems to me thoroughly exploded. I think people should go on holiday where they choose, relax thoroughly, and come back full of energy. They can do something that would genuinely help the developing world: campaign for the abolition of the disgusting and shameful burden of debt.

Michele Roberts: I tend to agree. I don't want to be a tourist. So I don't take holidays as such, except when I nip off to stay with friends in Italy. I worry also about harming the environment.

Clare Short: We don't need to cancel our holidays to help the poor. We could and should increase our efforts. If we were less hyperactive we might realise this.

Richard Eyre: Of course it's "immoral". Most pleasure and comfort is derived at somebody else's expense or privation - whether it be wearing clothes made by sweated labour, eating fruit from underpaid wetbacks or being pampered in the third world by near-slave labour.

Charles Glass: It is immoral because some of the north's (or west's) most disagreeable people inflict themselves on unfortunate citizens of the third world.

What are you most likely to argue about on holiday with your travel companion?

Joan Bakewell: The technique of being on holiday is to avoid argument . . . but if pressed, I'd say money.

Maggie Gee: Who lost the key to the room, the sun-cream, the towels, etc. The answer is almost always me, so I don't argue very hard.

Arnold Wesker: If by "argue" you mean "quarrel", I rarely quarrel. If you mean "converse energetically", then it could be Israel, theatre directors, standards of excellence, or journalism as a danger to understanding.

Craig Raine: You only argue on holiday if you go with friends, so I don't go with friends.

Margaret Forster: Arrangements. I hate them. I don't want to discuss what I might be doing in five/fifty/a hundred minutes' time.

A S Byatt: Timing.

John Redwood: I don't argue on holiday.

Diane Abbott: I try not to argue about anything on holiday. Part of the point of going on holiday for me is to relax and go with the flow.

Oliver Letwin: Which way to turn to get to our destination.

John Simpson: My wife and I both work in a business where you have to stay pleasant and equable with the two or three people you happen to be travelling with, or else everything starts to fall apart. When we are on holiday, therefore, we squabble companionably about almost everything: where to eat, what to drink, films, books, clothes, chess. It's a pleasant relief from all that politeness, and it doesn't get nasty.

Clare Short: Unlikely to argue.

Richard Eyre: How to make mayonnaise.

Charles Glass: It's better not to have companions.

What makes you happy?

Joan Bakewell: Family, friends, good books, good weather, relaxation.

Maggie Gee: I am mostly happy, when neither I nor the people I am with are in pain.

Arnold Wesker: Children fulfilling their talents and intelligence, making other people happy, being performed and understood, royalties coming in.

Craig Raine: Skiing down to the River Cafe.

Margaret Forster: Too many ordinary things to list - but I also think a lot of happiness is chemical - I mean, arises from a sense of physical well-being, not circumstances.

A S Byatt: Thinking and sunlight. Sunlight and thinking. And solitary swimming.

John Redwood: The happiness of my family.

Diane Abbott: Sunshine, a rum punch and the company of friends and family.

Oliver Letwin: Life.

John Simpson: "It is my considered opinion that the sweetest relief from suffering and the best comfort in affliction that this world affords are to be found almost entirely in the study of literature" - not me, the medieval historian Henry of Huntingdon (c.1088-1158, so he wasn't talking about paperbacks). Some decent books to read, a few friends, a glass of whisky from the Isle of Islay, and the prospect of a decent walk.

Michele Roberts: Writing. Working in my garden. Talking with good friends over a meal we've cooked, with some good wine. Listening to Bach, Haydn, Handel sung works. Stroking the cat. Sharing jobs with people - you love people when you work with them. Going to Italy and looking at art and churches. Spain ditto. Being content with what I've got - which I am most of the time.

Clare Short: Most things in life.

Richard Eyre: The absence of unhappiness.

Charles Glass: Oh, God.