Going on a Holiday

 

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Category: Travel Date: 27 Aug 95


There is something absurdly colonial and passe about an annual pilgrimage to England. I am told that there are other exotic destinations - Madrid, Egypt, Turkey, St Lucia. But each year, sweaters and thermal underclothes are resolutely packed, careful savings handed over to the airline...

“So why are you here?” asks the immigration officer with all his vowels in place, peering suspiciously at the “Asian” from Trinidad. Why indeed! I know this is a country where the Home Office is committed to repatriating illegal aliens, I gave him my vague look to mask my sudden anger (mentally banging my head-on a wall: why do I do this year after year?). Then surprisingly, the Immigration man smiled: “Have a good time”. Once outside I could understand his apprehension at yet another foreigner.

 

Heathrow is crammed with us. Thick clusters of sari-clad women, surrounded by screaming brats, turbanned men, women in bright Tanzanian khangas, the Arab mamas and Middle Eastern businessmen, the Punjabi toilet cleaners and the Mauritius stragglers, the invariable knapsacked Americans, the black and white and every shade in-between. Being part of this swell of humanity darting around to eventually scatter themselves all over the world can be very life affirming.

 

We threaded our way out of London to a small town which was to be our base for the next three weeks. I smelled heather and freshly-mown grass. It was as hot as home. The sun’s lemon glow suffused the countryside, the wild flowers, meadows; cows and sheep somnolent among bundles of hay. Signs for strawberry picking and castles everywhere. A bottle of peach water was handed round, the sunroof raised and my holiday had begun.

 

The days are languorous: reading fat newspapers and sitting in the sun, the wine was cheap and the wasps threatened to sting, but we were able to sit in the grass in saffron sunlight way past dinnertime in perfect freedom, with open windows and doors, an absence of alarms or steel bars - and that was luxury. But there’s also now the water shortage. That week 25,000 homes out of water; a million-pound corruption scandal is revealed in the left wing Lambeth council; three children murdered and ugly fighting among politicians during a bi-election. Some things are the same the world over. “Oxford”, a friend and perennial fellow of Christchurch College, said with authority, “should not be seen in bright sunlight; these steeples, arches, stained glass and frescoes and cobbled cloisters belong not to the Japanese tourists filming with high tech cameras but scholars glimpsed cycling and walking through mists of rain.” Still, touching the precious books, some more than 400 years old in Oriel college library, and craning my neck to peer at frescos in Sheldonian Theatre gave me an atavistic thrill. All this will endure, I thought, looking in the Trinity College Chapel and reassured by the Oxford colleges, the temples of learning.

 

But it was on the train to London when that familiar excitement began to build up. Every chug was getting closer to the Centre of the Universe. I inhaled a waft of urine: here was the Euston Station. Through the tunnels, past the mournful guitarists, nudging through the summer crowds, taking escalators two at a time. True the recession has left London shabby, and the closed-down shops with their empty windows on the outskirts are depressing. But the wonderful thing about London lies in its immense possibilities. The city throbs with its own excitement. You can see it in faces as they swing along, expectant, animated. Will it be Beethoven at the BBC, proms at the magnificent Royal Albert Hall or the 100 Club for an evening of Jazz, Pinter’s play, a walk in Hampstead Heath in the moonlight or a Vietnamese restaurant followed by a peep show of nudity in Soho? And even if you don’t do anything, the city makes your pulse race.

 

This tale will not sound the same if I tell you about children who lustily sang Indian film songs in King Charles’ bedroom in Sudley Castle, of babies being breastfed on a dusty spiral staircase, of demands for KFC in the Tower, of lugging screaming children in pushchairs up and down escalators in Foyles book stores, visiting seven zoos in three weeks, milk bottles that toppled in the river and the wail that followed  from the inconsolable baby.

 

Then weekend in the Cotswolds with a landscape right out of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the Durbervilles was a palliative to the soul. The children put their feet in cool meandering streams. Ivy and roses climb the walls of old homes, thatched roofs covered old stone cottages everywhere and apple trees and an abundance of roses and parks with shady enclaves for sybaritic picnics. Removing my toddler’s hand from the bowl of crimson strawberries swimming in thick Sainsbury’s double cream, I reflected that I loved England because of its power to take a jaded and weary spirit and wash it with the excitement and renewal that belongs to the very young.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur