Tuesday, August 26, 2003

urgggg....far too long since i've blogged....blame it on les vacances..anyway....
On having a holiday in Reading

Is it possible to have a holiday while at home? This is my last week before I return to the beginning of another academic year, placing students, teaching, marking, filling in forms and all the usual dross facing a lecturer. Also, due to having chosen a worthy job, I�m broke and cannot get away. Still, today I have dropped my son off at the Summer Holiday Club ( a British Phenomenon that is always duller an experience than it sounds), and I have myself to myself. So, what shall I do on my holiday at home?
Firstly, let me take the concept of place. I am not particularly a beach lover. After a few minutes of toasting, I become edgy and bored. My holiday reading palls, the screeching of children playing irks, I get covered in sand and I slowly feel paranoia rising in me at the idea of leaving any valuables (no matter how actually worthless they are) behind while I take a dip. Eventually, I want to head off somewhere, usually the nearest bar, where I will sit for the remainder of my holiday. I am sure I am not alone. No, part of the attraction of going somewhere is in the going itself, the idea of travelling to some new and hopefully exotic location. However, after arriving at the new, exotic location, one cannot help noticing that it rapidly becomes just the same, except with crappier TV and higher prices. A cheaper, happier holiday can be accomplished by changing not our location, but our concept of where we are now. To an inhabitant of Bali, he or she is just in same old, boring old Bali: to this person, Reading is a town of unimagined wonder: The Oracle shopping centre! The joy that is the pedestrianised Broad Street! The bars! The night clubs! The Purple Turtle! Reading Museum, with its unique copy of the Bayeaux Tapestry! The promenade along the Thames! Now, our Balinese tourist, presuming he or she is a shopping-mad alcoholic with an appreciation of local history, will find enough to amuse him/herself for a week in Reading. Why, then, cannot I imagine myself as that person? Instead of seeing the ordinary everyday around me, why can�t I look with a fresh eye? Our ideas of �here� and �there� are, after all, only concepts relating to familiarity and strangeness. �Reading� is as much a concept as a place, and, like God, it has many names: Slough, for example. Or Basingstoke. Or even, God forbid, Swindon. In other words, the place of the familiar. I lived in Istanbul for many years during the nineties, and visitors from England would comment on how strange and exotic everything was, whereas I had plodded the same streets, eaten the same food, been tossed from side to side in the back of the same taxis for so long that I found it hard to see their point of view. So, by changing my point of view, I should be able to view Reading as a wonderful choice of holiday location. Here, however, there is a problem: I must view Reading not as a literal, real place, but as an imagined construct, or as some kind of fable. After all, when we book our holidays, we are buying a kind of dream, are we not? I need to see my home town as a travel brochure might present it. Dreams, though, have a tough time against reality. Just as the thought of my luxury holiday villa does not square up to the brute reality of cockroaches in the kitchen and workmen next door while the German family across the road are colonising the beach, so this �fantasy� Reading doesn�t square up to what I know about the IDR, or Whitley, or the evils of the school run. In order to successfully holiday here requires a triumph of imagination over reality.
Next, let me look at routine. A holiday is not merely an escape from place, it is a release from the daily round of chores and work. Well, I am not at work, so that�s one part accomplished. Now I look at my location. I stare with a desperate eye at the noisome condition of my bedroom. I look into my son�s room and grind my teeth at the mountain of crap within. I stagger downstairs to gain some fresh air and am greeted by a mound of ironing and the washing up. And, being the relatively fastidious person I am, I start clearing up. In other words, I replace one pattern of work with another. This is, of course, the phenomenon well-known to writers as displacement activity � rather than get on with the task in hand, do another in order to produce the illusion of progress. So, instead of getting on with my holiday and savouring the delights of King�s Meadow, I drag myself back into routine and thereby back into reality: My dream Reading fades and leaves not a wrack behind, and all I am left with is the burbling of Two-Ten FM. And a pile of laundry. One of my students once asked me, �Why do you English drink so much?�, to which I gave the rather glib answer, �Well, if you lived on a cold, wet, muddy, fogbound, brown and grey little island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, you�d want a drink too�. It was, in a way, the expected answer, as well as being an excellent example of the second conditional, but it was not exactly right. Of all the peoples of Europe, the English are probably the most straitjacketed by rules, laws and routines, more so than even the Germans. We work the longest hours for the poorest pay, relatively speaking, and we obey even the flimsiest commandment. We quail at the face of authority, then give it the finger when its back is turned. Our commitment to EU rulings, for example, is amazing: we moan about Brussels bureaucracy, yet meekly accept that our cheese must be packaged in bombproof plastic and kept in chilled cabinets of precise dimensions and temperature, while our French neighbours cheerfully store their Brie in full sunlight until it develops legs and tries to run away. No, we English drink so much on holiday because we can. We have no moral arbiter hanging over our shoulder, nagging us to behave in such and such a manner. We can drink our backsides off and our guts inside out. And this is, apparently, fun.
It is not the prospect of entering a bar and staying there for two weeks that is really enjoyable however as much as it is the sense of release and the feeling of empowerment that brings. The majority of us feel trapped by our routines: any release is bound to be immensely liberating. So, in order to enjoy my holiday, I must imagine myself not only as being in some strange, exotic land, but also as being the master of my own time and able to do exactly as I please.
Thirdly, let me touch on accommodation and food. Who, after a fortnight of binge drinking, shouting at locals and being burnt lobster red, has not headed home and not reached his or her own bed without a deep sigh of satisfaction? Rapidly followed, it must be said, by a sense of impending doom at the prospect of returning to work and routine. If I were to make my fantasy holiday in Reading as realistic as fantasy allows, I should decamp and move into the Renaissance Hotel in the town centre, or the Holiday Inn, which at least has a view over water (the River Thames, in this case). But why, when I can heave that happy sigh every night? Why should I put up with the lurking fear of hotel maids riffling through my bags, when I can do that perfectly well myself, or at a stretch arrange for my wife to do it? Why bags even? The fact is, one�s home makes a potentially ideal place to have a holiday in, except for the two facts mentioned above: Its familiarity as a location, and the sense of routine all homes have. Therefore, not only must I imagine myself as being in a strange new town and master of my own time, I must also now view my own home as the stuff of fantasy, laundry and all.
When the English go on holiday, they have two possible reactions to local food: either they will try everything going, or they will eat only sausage, egg and chips for the entire duration of their stay. The former reaction is most likely to be found in those who will enjoy their holiday more. In both cases, food poisoning is more cheerfully put up with than it would be �at home�, as watching someone go green is felt to enhance the holiday experience. There is another reaction to eating abroad, and that is to eat where the locals do. It is felt that this is somewhat more worthy. There is also the subfeeling that the locals would not possibly want to poison themselves. If I were to do this in Reading, I would largely end up dining in MacDonald�s, and I have too much respect for my body to do such a terrible thing to it. I must assume that I have come on a luxury self-catering holiday instead. I must thereby convince myself that the ingredients I have chosen from Tesco�s are instead the finest, freshest local produce available, from which I shall make sumptuous feasts. I understand the vegetable oil is extra virgin, and the microwave chips are handcut.
So, in summation, in order to have a holiday in Reading (or Slough, or Basingstoke, or, God Forbid, Swindon), I must first imagine this place as an area of unrivalled exotica: That I can go and do what I want, when I want: That I am staying in one of the finest holiday villas available, and dining on the choicest handpicked foods. In other words, I am on someone else�s holiday, and that I have imagined myself as someone other than I am. With all these criteria considered, two questions arise:
Being someone other than who I am, can I really say that I am enjoying my sojourn in Reading?
Being someone other than who I am, a someone who finds my home town fascinating, the different pace of life invigorating, the accommodation and service wonderful, and the food delicious: Can I stay like this please?

That way, each day becomes a holiday. Our destination is irrelevant, as what we most often need is a holiday from ourselves.

August 2003

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