Getting away from it all is no escape

Britain has been basking in glorious sunshine. The coming months will bring long, warm days, picnics in the park, cricket on the village green, festivals catering to every taste and whim. It is the best time of the year to enjoy our green and pleasant land. Yet, what do we want to do? Get away from it all. We want to go "on holiday" to another country.

I find the idea that "we're all going on a summer holiday", as Cliff Richard once sang, quite bizarre. It's not just the thought of baking on a beach, acquiring a tincture that at any other time would trouble an immigration official, that I find appalling. It's also the herd instinct: that we all go to the same place - Spain or France - at the same time. And what do we do when we get there? Re-create the bits of Britain we were so eager to get away from. I have been on holiday once only. I went to the Greek island of Ithaca full of love and hope. Ten days later, I returned disillusioned, tired and emotional.

The mass indulgence of going on holiday has its origins in the early-20th-century tradition of "factory fortnight", when the industrial areas of Britain would shut up shop for the duration. Miners, steelworkers and textile labourers all went "on holiday". In South Wales, for example, factory fortnight produced the delightful spectacle of the occupants of neat rows of terraced houses decamping to neat rows of caravans along the glorious Welsh coastline, where they met up with the neighbours. Nowadays, we decamp to foreign locations, but the linear logic is the same. Far from travel broadening the mind, mass tourism panders to national stereotypes: the British equal beer and chips; Germans equal towels on the sunloungers by the pool; Japanese equal polite bunch with cameras at the ready.

The crux of the problem is our notion of time. For western civilisation, time is linear and regimented, moving forward relentlessly in a straight line, like an arrow. It is a product of the world-view that sees the universe as clockwork. This notion emerged at the dawn of modernity and was the perfect device for the regimentation of mass industrialisation, which in turn led to standardisation. Society is now structured in standard doses of time. So we all go to work at exactly the same time, rest and relax at precisely the same times; schools open and close at the same times; and we end up going on holiday en masse. In this dominant version, time is controlled like water in a dam. When the dam is opened - or bursts - we have turbulence and a flood ensues.

This standardised view of time is quite unique to modern western society. Most other cultures have much more elastic notions of time: in Hindu thought, it moves in cycles. The Hopi image of time is a self-contained wheel. Aristotle spoke of the "circle" of time; Plato saw time as eternally "moving" and "revolving". In Islam, time is a tapestry that links the past with the present and future, including an individual's future after death. In some cultures, time is conflated with space, echoing Einstein. The Australian Aboriginal concept of "dreamtime" encompasses not only a creation myth, but a method of finding one's way around the landscape. For the Bedouins, time moves quasi-statically: they sit for hours in one place in the desert while the desert moves around them, and feel the ripples of time. I know! I have lived in the desert and have experienced time in this way myself.

Most non-western cultures use the moon rather than the sun as primary time-giver. The moon, as the writer and ecologist Jay Griffiths points out in her book Pip Pip: a sideways look at time (Flamingo), is associated with feminine notions of time. Lunar tides and time connect the flood tides of the sea with the blood tides of the womb. The moon changes over the course of the month, from full to new moon, corresponding to women's experience of time over a month. The sun, on the other hand, stays the same shape, just as men's experience of time does.

We do not have to privilege one notion of time over another. Rather, we need an arranged marriage between the feminine and masculine versions. In the globalised, 24-hour world, we need to see time in much more fluid terms. If work hours were much more flexible, if different schools opened and closed at different times, and if "summer holidays" could be taken in all seasons, we would have streamlined flow - the opposite of turbulence. Trains and planes would still run on time, but people would move in parallel, causing little or no disruption. Life would be that much more pleasant.

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