Saying adiós to Inglaterra

The Delicious History of the Holiday - The British Seaside - The British on the Costa del Sol - Sunset Lives
March 16, 2001

At this time of year, with a touch of spring in the air, our minds turn readily towards the prospect of summer holidays. If the cold and wet do not get you thinking about sunny climes, then the seductive television advertisements and enticing brochures will surely do the trick.

Of course, tourism is a racket, and a big-business racket to boot - the fourth largest world industry. Tourism, whatever the hype, is about organisation and margins, about processing the maximum numbers at the cheapest cost. A business, just like selling soap or cereals. Creating and directing customers' fantasies is just another part of the business, an extra on top of arranging the transfers at Faro and fixing gondola rides in Venice. Whatever the brochure claims, people do not believe that in Morocco you will find your true self or that there is an authentic Greek taverna or unspoiled beach as yet undiscovered. If this were the case, the business would be uncontrollable (and a threat to its viability), an anathema to social order as well as abhorrent to the tourists themselves - everyone likes the thought of being a pioneer, but only so long as they can be assured of hot and cold running water, cold beer and a comfortable bed come nightfall. Tourism nowadays is so well organised that there are specialist companies with niche markets such as "Shirley Valentines to Petros" and "trekkers to Peru" that offer a frisson of adventure within secure bounds.

So many academics muse yearningly on Tuscany, Provence or Andalusia as they plod their way through the spring term. What bliss it is to throw off concern about the Quality Assurance Agency, research assessment exercise and tomes from Professor Casaubon: to pack one's bags and to be off; to sleep late in a warm and sunny place; to drink too much wine and sleep it off in the afternoon; to be idle; to over-indulge; and to experience sensual pleasures free from guilt. It is this paradox of holidays that Fred Inglis captures so beautifully in his delightful and heart-warming book, The Delicious History of the Holiday .

Inglis knows well enough the critical lexicon: capitalism's commodification of leisure; the exploitation of labour in the places visited; and the spoilation of landscapes and the destruction of authentic ways of life. He also believes in the criticism, too. But crikey, what fun holidays can be and what imaginative possibilities they present: these are matters to which he is equally alert. There is even something radically subversive about holidays. Just because they offer an alternative - when one may feel contented, where one may have time for one's family and friends and where one may luxuriate - they draw attention to the unsatisfactory character of everyday life in today's big-business civilisation.

Inglis is a far cry from the puritans on the left and the right, who decry tourism and who, given the chance, would have holiday-makers, if not kept at home, then at least reverential, tip-toeing around ancient monasteries or earnestly improving themselves with visits to museums. (I can see a lot more of these springing up in Britain. With many national economies dependent on tourism, we cannot afford to be too snobby. It is better to have a costumed collier showing "how we used to live" than an unemployed pitman with no future.) The Delicious History of the Holiday exudes an infectious pleasure. The writing is at once insightful and satisfying. It has a loose historical content, tracing the growth of key holiday sites in town, in the country and beside the sea, alongside descriptions of the role of transportation and travel agencies. Overall, however, the book is an enthusiast's invitation to think hard (and yet fondly) about what it is to be a holiday-maker.

There will be some who respond to Inglis with the po-faced accusation that it is all very well for middle-class professors to get excited about holidays, but what about those too poor to get away? It is an arresting reminder of the persistence of inequalities in our society that even today at least one-third of families are not able to take a holiday away in any one year. Nonetheless, historian John Walton points out that it was working-class vacationers who were crucial for the development of resorts in the United Kingdom. By the end of the 1930s, more than half of the British working class were taking annual holidays. It was their pounds and pence, aggregated, that led to the explosive growth of seaside resorts, most notably Blackpool.

As a boy in the 1960s, I recall envying school friends going off in the summer to that delicious and exotic place, Blackpool. Two decades on, I would have been ashamed to admit this to my academic colleagues, such are the class prejudices surrounding where one goes and what one does on vacation.

Walton is one of Britain's leading social historians, author of a classic study of The Blackpool Landlady (1978) and the compelling Fish and Chips and the British Working Class (1992). The British Seaside bolsters this high academic reputation, which is also accessible in a way that shames contemporary sociology (towards which Walton is strikingly generous).

His book is part of a series, Studies in Popular Culture, from Manchester University Press, that is establishing a fine record for pushing forward academic boundaries while maintaining enviable standards. The British Seaside offers a wide-ranging history of the rise and decline of the seaside resort, from its origins in the late 19th century, through boom times when huge numbers travelled by train to the likes of Margate and Scarborough, to relative neglect of these destinations as holiday-makers, increasingly cosmopolitan in their tastes, found that the Costa Brava and Benidorm cost much the same, were not so frighteningly different from life back home and guaranteed the sun.

Some holiday-makers go for two weeks and never return. Those who live abroad, the ex-pat community, attract considerable media attention. Karen O'Reilly's book, The British on the Costa del Sol , is a doctoral thesis that applies anthropological techniques to those who migrate to Spain for at least several months of the year. We are besieged by media stereotypes here, from old-age pensioners escaping the winter cold, criminals on the run (Costa del Crime), to good-time seekers with an excess of libido (Costa del Bonk). The topic is a good one, but the book disappointingly lacks hard evidence: what there is, is over-impressionistic and impossible to generalise on. To her credit, O'Reilly demonstrates that the identities of the British in Spain are complicated and certainly not as straightforward as one might have anticipated from the knowledge that few bother to learn Spanish.

Sunset Lives: British Retirement Migration to the Mediterranean is a much more rigorous study of a similar subject, as befits an Economic and Social Research Council-funded research programme. Russell King and colleagues focus more directly on those who retire to the sun. They add an important comparative dimension, looking at the different experiences of those in Tuscany, the Costa del Sol, Malta and the Algarve. The authors begin by establishing what is known by way of demographics, before proceeding to in-depth interviews and observations.

They find that, while most retirees are better off than the average Brit, there are marked distinctions between those who leave Britain and their chosen new homes. Generally, the Costa del Sol attracts the self-made builder while Tuscany appeals to the higher-educated professionals who are drawn to Italian culture. The book tells us a lot about why people retire to the sun. There are mixed motives, ranging from health benefits to the cost of living. Noticeably, however, few express regrets about leaving Britain. If you are considering uprooting, my advice is to read this valuable book before you take the plunge.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, University of Birmingham.

The Delicious History of the Holiday

Author - Fred Inglis
ISBN - 0 415 13304 1 and 13305 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £55.00 and £16.99
Pages - 206

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