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.