I travel

On Holiday: A History of Vacationing

Orvar Lofgren <em>University of California Press, 370pp, £18.

I was going to begin my review with a snide crack about the price; something like, "At £35, this represents a fair slice of the cost of a brief vacation, so perhaps you should avoid the theory and move straight on to the practice." But the truth is that you only have to shell out £18.50 to read - and own - Orvar Lofgren's lengthy tour d'horizon of the history of tourism. Not bad for a handsomely produced, chunky tome from an academic press, which comes complete with a selection of black and white illustrations, some drawn from the author's own postcard collection.

If only my poor old mum had been a professor of ethnology, since she had a postcard collection second to no one's, as well as a view of mass holidaying so dyspeptic that she should have vacationed regularly in the BiSoDol factory. After she died and we went through her chattels, we found the awesome assemblage: shoe box after shoe box of the laminated three-by-fives, covering a lifetime of excursions from Yasnaya Polyana to Portmeirion and back again. Personally, I found these hoarded mementos the saddest aspect of her bequest. I mean - why the hell did she bother? Did she look forward to an afterlife of feverish pc-based correspondence? Postcards not so much from the edge, as the beyond? Who can say?

Still, Lofgren's book does at least put Mum's obsession in a decent historical context. He informs us that the postcard craze in Sweden in 1904 reached such a fever pitch that the population of only five million was responsible for sending no fewer than 48 million of the things. And further, that the Swedish word for them - vykort - means "a card with a view". Of course, in Mum's case the views were mostly back-to-back with more of the same.

One might be forgiven for thinking that the West Coast of the USA/West Coast of Sweden axis, along which most of Lofgren's vykorts on the history of vacationing are displayed, might give this study a parochial or a distorted feel. Not so. It transpires that Sweden has been a social laboratory for vacationing just as much as it has been for side-impact protection systems, varnished wooden toys, and state-sponsored sterilisation of the mentally handicapped.

So Lofgren gives us an account of the "English" landscaped gardens at Forsmark, where late-18th-century travellers were encouraged to encounter the most farouche of scenes via their artificial transliteration. He samples the journals of Linnerhielman, a prototypical tourist much impressed by Forsmark and, in particular, its grotto, where he finds "in its shadows a hermit, sitting with a book in his hand". He is dressed in a deep-purple cloak, and has a "gentle but serious expression". With typical Swedish irony, Lofgren goes on to inform us that "the figure was made of wax and later eaten by rats".

But, in essence, the Swedish experience of the creation of the picturesque was remarkably similar to our own; a psychic colonisation of the wild by the imposed architectonics of civilisation. It's these opening sections of the book which, in keeping with the growth of holidaying itself, make you feel as if on a craven mission into a brave new world, spreading your towel by an isolated brook and indulging in some scary skinny-dipping in the sinuous rills of Lofgren's prose.

Unfortunately, once the tourism becomes mass we find ourselves venturing on well-trodden paths - literally as much as metaphorically. I had the good fortune to read On Holiday while I was actually travelling around northern Europe (from England to Finland, to Germany and back again, albeit not on holiday at all), but despite being in transit, both of the books I'd decided to take with me (Lofgren's and Paul Theroux's The Pillars of Hercules) made use of the same quote from Evelyn Waugh's Labels: a Mediterranean journal.

No doubt you're familiar with it too. Waugh, having recapitulated the typical, starry-eyed traveller's account of Mount Etna at sunset - "the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on top and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke . . ." - then concludes with the oh-so-funny snob put down: "Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting." Oh, Evelyn - what a card you were! Still, the effect on me of this near-instantaneous quote recurrence was as unsettling as being dry-humped by a straw donkey in a Majorcan bodega.

Which is not to say that all of On Holiday consists of such deja renvoi. Lofgren works hard to develop parallel and intersecting concepts of the occidental tourist as either "Robinson Crusoe" or "Phileas Fogg". And, unlike Evelyn, Lofgren will have no truck with snide elitism, whether inspired by money or taste. He deals sympathetically with the needs of the working class for relaxation, as well as their desires for diversion. Readers of Conde Nast World Traveller need not apply to this volume. Still, while much of On Holiday is diverting, engaging and even entrancing, this is still primarily an academic exercise; and hence quite hard work.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide