Precious little excuse

Kevin Fong’s inability to resist his smartphone threatens his family vacation

September 9, 2010

Holiday. I’m in the departure lounge waiting with my family to board a delayed budget airline flight. I suspect it will be a while: at the end of the ramp where at this stage there should normally be a plane, there is only empty tarmac.

Restlessness has set in among my fellow travellers lined up on the gangway. A man is busy pushing his way through the queue waving his ticket. People protest in that quintessentially British way, fixing him with their best Paddington Bear stare and muttering well out of his earshot.

“There’s a queue mate,” says an Australian near the front of the line who seems amazed that 150-odd other people have so far held their peace. “I’ve paid for speedy boarding,” says Push-In Bloke indignantly.

“Don’t worry mate,” replies Aussie Combat Tourist, “I think you’ll find that it’s all first class inside.” This draws a ripple of laughter and a red face. Had our plane not taxied in at that point, I’m sure Push-In Bloke would have exploded on the spot. I chuckle and get off a Tweet to share my amusement with the world. Such a wonderful thing, mobile phones.

Personally I love the concept of speedy boarding; in essence a device that allows you to pay for the privilege of deciding which of two scrums you get trampled by.

The forces of misery at work in budget-airline land are truly superhuman. This is how our holiday will start: with scores of gently simmering travellers waiting for the right moment to boil over.

We arrive in France having miraculously avoided an air-rage debacle in the interim. We’re through passport control and the holiday is about to start. We are at last in the South of France and shortly to be holed up at my aunt’s house, a neat little holiday complex near the sea. There’s just customs to negotiate. But here I falter. It’s the “anything to declare?” thing; because yeah, in fact there is. I am supposed to be on holiday, for the first time this year, spending some of the only contiguous quality family time guaranteed to last longer than a bath and a bedtime story. It is time to unwind and unplug. But through my smartphone I have seamless access to the internet and pretty much every document, contact and literature source I could ever want or need. And yes, I should have the discipline and common courtesy to leave the thing switched off - but I don’t.

There should by rights be a team of holiday police who wrestle your tech from your grasp as you pass through customs. At the very least there should be an amnesty box, in which you can deposit your phone and/or personal organiser for the duration of your trip. But alas, there is none of these things. And so a combination of modern communication infrastructure and weak will have allowed the tentacles of work to extend well beyond the walls of my place of employment.

When I finally get round to unpacking I find that I have forgotten my charger. This is perhaps the act of a desperate subconscious trying to save me from myself. The battery will not last the week and so the phone gets switched off. But still I find myself sneaking away from the dinner table every now and then, powering the thing up to see if there are any messages, all the while trying to avoid discovery by my family. I feel like a wireless operator for the French Resistance. Except, well, what exactly am I resisting? The chance to spend proper time with my family, the opportunity to take time out from work, the undeniable need to recharge my own batteries?

I catch a reflection of myself, perched on the edge of the bed, face illuminated by a couple of square inches of screen, surreptitiously scrolling through emails. This, I realise, is a ridiculous and desperate state of affairs (especially since I am supposed to be up here looking for the kids’ swimming trunks so that we can go to the pool). I know that, should I be discovered, the resultant explosion will take out a fair chunk of the South of France, but I kind of want that to happen. I am Frodo Baggins, this is The Ring. I need a volcano to chuck it into. No, no, it’s worse than that: I am Gollum.

In the days that follow, I leave the thing lying around, hoping that my kids might do the job for me, perhaps by taking it to the beach for incorporation into a sandcastle. But they know better than to mess with The Phone. And so I continue, connected to that electronic placenta they call the World Wide Web.

In the end it is the battery that saves me. The last bar on the icon finally flashes red. The end is in sight and there is enough of the week left to really get a proper break. There is perhaps time for one last look through the messages before I check out for good. I win. The holiday is saved.

There’s just one message waiting and enough of a trickle of electrons for me to check it. It’s from Times Higher Education. I open it (I’ve always got time for those guys). “Hello Kevin,” it says. “Have you forgotten that your column’s due? Can you get it to us by tomorrow?”

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