The English Abroad
An Englishman's home is his castle, but he likes occasionally to confirm his belief that there's no place like home.
Travel narrows the mind, as that excellent old English saying has it. In 1956, about one and a half million of the English made a tour of inspection abroad, known colloquially as "going on holiday". In 1966, stories about the extraordinary things that went on abroad having spread far and wide, about five million went to have a look.
Once the English are under way, do they relax?
"How much was the petrol? Twenty-four francs? They overcharged you. I knew they would."
"Look at that! They don't even bother to go behind the hedge!"
"I don't care how nice it looks, we can't stop here. We've got to make Rouen by six or we won't reach Marseilles tomorrow."
No, they do not relax. There is a continuous process of worry and argument, a permanent atmosphere of rush and urgency, especially over the sacred and arduous ritual duty of photography. Day after day the inspection goes on, seeing the prescribed sights, taking the obligatory pictures, driving the necessary distances against the clock, and all with the added hazards of a strange language and a strange currency, most of them spending the odd breaks they get from peering through the windscreen by squinting through a viewfinder. Does it sound like a carefree life in the sun, away from the troubles that press down in the other fifty weeks of the year? Of course it does not. And two minutes listening to an Englishman's description of his "holiday" will prove it. With what relish he will tell of gastric disorders, car-sick children, insolent officials, bad roads, missed routes, flies, bed bugs, cockroaches, noisy hotels, swindling, overcharging, robbery, weak tea, gassy beer, inadequate breakfasts, crowded coaches, young children who lose their sandals, older ones who lose their virginity, sunburn, sea-sickness and athlete's foot.
That is just for a start. After two more minutes you will hear an even more lurid narrative. But however long you listen, and whichever variety of hardship befell the travellers you talk to, one single thread binds them all. They will all tell you they had a marvellous holiday I
Where is the connection?
The barbarity of it all was what made it so marvellous. To talk about: "Forty minutes in a queue and when she got her ice cream it tasted of garlic." "Call this a rowing boat," 1 said. "We've got better on the lake in the park." "And then his old tub sank..." "Goat's milk! Can you imagine?" "The only one for sixty people; no bolt on the door, naturally..." "They laughed the other side of their faces when we told them what they could do with it; luckily we had a tin of bully beef left, so we didn't go hungry..." "I'm afraid not sir," he said, "We expect our guests to take a bath before they come..." "And the smell!... And the food!... And the PEOPLE!"
The barbarity subdued and the difficulties overcome - this is what makes an Englishman's holiday abroad marvellous. Holidays abroad are for the looking forward to and the looking back on, not for the actual enjoying. Fun to prepare the plan of campaign for, and to tell everyone afterwards, but hell to participate in. And the bit of the movie the returned holidaymaker likes to show you most is the bit with the biggest disaster in it. "See. That's it. Stuck like that for seven hours in the blazing sun. Had to round up seventeen locals to pull us out. God how they sweated! Had to tip the lot, of course, so that shot the day's spending money. Nothing but the awful local sausage. That's Joan eating it. Made her sick all night."
In the sixteenth century he explored the Pacific; in the seventeenth he traded in India; colonized America in the eighteenth; and civilized Africa in the nineteenth. In the twentieth century, the only challenge left for an Englishman is the Continent. And he meets it, head up, eyes front, every summer. Then, like any war veteran, he spends the autumn and winter swapping gory anecdotes about the holiday with his friends. Returned holidaymakers will compete violently in mileage travelled per day and overall, remoteness of place reached, where hardship is most acute, and all-round barbarism of the place - "We had to drink sour goat's milk. We'd have stayed longer if it hadn't been for Jimmy's scorpion bite" - as well as in frustration, number of sights seen as validated by luggage labels, passport stampings and car stickers, and in general suffering. "Almost as bad as when Jimmy got mumps and none of us knew the Serbo-Croat for 'doctor'." If the Continent ever pulls its socks up, the English will stop going there and turn their attention to America, where there is also plenty of room for improvement. Only in the two of three weeks of holiday abroad can the modern Livingstone,* or Cook,** or Scott*** become a tough explorer and face the real hardship of an uncivilized, un-English world; only in those few days of the year can he cease to be the subordinate of a subordinate and becomes instead what his heritage of English blood insists he really is - leader and captain of a small expedition carrying out a tough assignment among upstart natives in hostile territory. It's hell, of course, but it is, let's face it, a man's life! No wonder the wife hates it.
* (Livingstone, David (1813-1873) - Scottish medical missionary and explorer in Central Africa.)
** (Cook, Janies (1728-1779) - British mariner and explorer of the Pacifi.)
*** (Scott, Robert Falcon (1868-1912) - British explorer of the Antarctic.)
Most of the English refuse to waste time or money on foreigners. Abroad, irritating enough in time of war, is utterly devoid of attraction in time of peace, and should be left to its own absurd devices. The majority of the English stay at home, thinking sweet thoughts about their own fair country.
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