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12 July 1999

Why holidays are bad for you

Our kitsch vacations are an indictment of our workaholic lifestyle, argues Emma Hartley

By Emma Hartley

Holidays are an intrinsically kitsch idea: kitsch in the sense of tawdry, vulgar and pretentious (often even – eek, darling! – populist). And British holidays in particular have more of the china kittens about them than those of many other countries.

The underlying reason for this is that we shouldn’t need them: they should be redundant as a concept. That is to say, amid the confection of fancy ideas and chimerical thinking about portfolio careers and working from home, we shouldn’t need escapism from our normal lives. Ideally people should conduct their existence in a way that makes holidays unnecessary: we should work at a more relaxed pace and for shorter hours. Instead Britain puts in the longest working hours in Europe. Inevitably, we also have the kitschiest holidays. (Americans, for reasons connected with long-term economic success, too much democracy and college students dressed up as eight-foot cartoon characters, are the exception that proves that particular rule.)

Overwork leads to exhaustion, a loss of will-power and finally to total passivity. That is why you are putty in the hands of even the most crass bugle calls: “Come on holiday to Cornwall” (or Blackpool, Torremolinos or Majorca).

So you mindlessly belt between one short break and another in a manner which is unhealthily short-termist and, quite frankly, not very relaxing. The promise of vacation as catharsis drives your blood pressure up a little bit higher all the time. It puts the holidaymaker (whether you be beachcomber or mountain climber) under ridiculous pressure to enjoy yourself immediately and vastly: you know that it will all be over too soon.

Simplify the case to the point of Utopian Marxism and, OK, it is not holidays but work that is the problem. But how, at this advanced stage of the day (and capitalism), can we meaningfully separate two sides of the same coin?

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Yet holidays, unlike work, elude scrutiny to a large extent because instinctively – for survival – we have created a camouflaged, holiday-shaped space in the mainframe of our lives into which hopeless fantasies about the kind of people we really are can be poured.

Breaks – long or short – offer an opportunity to muse upon what the world would be like if it were our train set.

If you take a long enough or good enough break, it will probably occur to you at some point that the whole thing (work, holidays, bank charges) is organised for the benefit of someone else. But before you know it, mild indignation at this state of affairs flops gently into “might as well make the best of it”, and this in turn rapidly segues into a kind of misty-eyed affection for something you can’t quite put your finger on – especially after a couple of sangrias and at a great distance from home.

And – oh, Mr Soros – on such clinking rocks of pragmatism has many a revolution foundered.

Once you are on holiday, reality is suspended. Entire countries cease to be places where people live and work and become, to our blurry-visioned, droopy-lidded eyes, a delightful cross between Toytown and Babylon created solely for the purpose of getting in touch with our inner, if slightly dazed, Livingstone (“Mr Holidaymaker, I presume?”).

Like framed holiday snaps over time, every detail of our destination becomes attenuated, as we watch, into an alternative kitsch reality where – for instance – refined sugar stops being bad for you and starts, inexplicably, to be traditional instead (once rolled into pink sticks with illegible words running through). Pubs and tacky tavernas of the sort you’d cross a game of darts to avoid at home become terribly attractive once placed in a sunny location and furnished with genuine local waiters.

It becomes acceptable to find yourself in Tintagel and discover that lunch is an Excaliburger or a baked potato named for the enchanting Guinevere. And all of a sudden it is unsurprising to spend hours sitting in a traffic jam on the A30, watching the Cornwall Young Farmers push a ten-foot plastic pasty on wheels past your car, while the kids dribble, bored, on the glass they are pressed against. Our weary minds become pathetically unable to distinguish between escapism, bad taste and humour.

We have to face it. While the Italians are whooping it up with their concubines and sophisticated personal outlooks in outer Guadaloupe, while the French are nude skiing in the Toblerone Alps and while the Germans have found the secret of stolid contentment by re-enacting, in the Congo, the camping scenes from Gotterdamerung, the British, who once turned half the map of the world pink by sheer dint of their pith helmets, are reduced to trooping off, like lemmings, to the costa and lying on a beach as if merely waiting for the tide to come in.

We are knackered. We gasp and burst our way through the year in a series of sprints and equally stressful breaks, until something awful happens – probably health-related – and the whole ghastly exercise concertinas up on itself. And unless we reorganise the way the majority of us spend our working lives, we shall, at best, continue to be exploited by canny locals.

The landscape artist Julian Perry painted a picture recently called Land’s End with Plastic Tin Mine after a visit to the bizarrely named Land’s End Experience, its miniature Cornish village and the peninsula formerly known as Land’s End.

“It was,” he remarked on his bemused return, “as if someone had stolen your thoughts and was trying to sell them back to you.”

He was right – and if that’s not kitsch, I’m a smiling cow from Dairyworld with luminous udders.

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