Wednesday, 20 August 2014

How To Have A Holiday

We have arrived on holiday so obviously I’m exhausted. This is because, as all parents know, the first few days of a self-catering family holiday are an endurance test.

After enduring the hell that is packing and the hell that is Gatwick airport on a Saturday in August, and the hell that is the procuring and driving of a hire car, followed by the hell that is finding your accommodation, you then have to find somewhere to eat because you have no food, and this can also be hell with a h-angry husband, three h-angry children, and no idea where to go.

Fortunately this year it wasn’t because a friend had recommended a restaurant and a clever brother-in-law, who speaks Portuguese, among other languages, had booked it for us from England before we arrived.

Still, I thought the first night at the restaurant on the beach, after all that packing and travelling, which actually wasn’t hell this time, just a bit tiring, was the perfect moment to end my self-imposed period of alcohol abstinence (31 days) with half a beer. Here it is…

Day Two, beginning on this occasion with a stunning bougainvillea-fringed glimpse of the Atlantic from our bedroom window, usually offers the prospect of more hell in the shape of a trip to a busy foreign supermarket. And this Day Two was no exception. A holiday with three boys, who are 18, 15 and 12, revolves around food.

I suppose the holiday supermarket hell is marginally better now than it used to be when the boys were little. Then we had no choice but to drag them around the aisles with us, where they would bicker and kick each other incessantly, while also sneaking extra large bags of crisps and chocolate cereal products into the trolley when our backs were turned trying to decipher food labels. Whereas now they are mature and considerate enough to stay behind at the villa asleep in bed while we do all this without them. Progress.

Which brings me here, post-epic supermarket shop, post-first swim in the pool, arms feeling like jelly, wondering how I did all those pounding laps last year (am I officially too old now? has it happened?). Tired of limb and heavy of eyelid, I am lying on a sun lounger watching these three male children, whom I love more than life itself, throw themselves and each other into a small strip of water, surrounding by unforgiving concrete, in a manner that looks as if one ill-judged leap could end in paraplegia, which of course it could.

I have a book to read, I always have a book to read on holiday, whole piles of them. I dashed off Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life before we came, which was brilliant, and this next slip of a thing, which I am about to finish, having begun it on the plane yesterday, is columnist Tim Dowling’s How To Be A Husband.

There must be some sort of law requiring columnists to write books with How To in the title. I’ve read Giles Coren’s How To Eat Out (really enjoyed that) and Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, of course, so now it’s T.D.’s turn. I imagine the conversation with his agent, “You must write a How To book, Tim. Everybody is doing it.”

Actually I think it’s a curious title for a book that will no doubt mostly be read by women, and which, from what I’ve read so far, doesn’t include a great deal about how to be a husband but does tell us something about how to be Tim Dowling, but only as much as he wants us to know, which I happen to think is just short of enough.

Anyway, hats off to the fella because he’s somehow pulling off the trick of writing about hot topics, such as sex in marriage, without telling the reader anything much, plus he letting it be known how much he loves his wife, while simultaneously slagging her off.

I suppose he’s stuck between a rock and hard place. He needs money, he tells us this; he must think of something to write about in order to earn some, his family is the easiest and closest subject to hand, but they aren’t just going to roll over and give him carte blanch to write whatever he wants, indeed his wife’s hovering presence is almost palpable, and he can’t bang on about how great she is because that would look immodest and embarrass her, so he tells us that she’s awful and leaves us to work out that he’s actually fibbing, or at least guilty of huge omissions, and that his wife is, of course, lovely. (I happen to know that she is lovely because someone I know knows someone who knows her and they say that she is, three degrees of separation, and not six, working nicely there.) So really the book is just one long humble-brag.

I think his best bits are about what it’s like to be the father of three boys. He certainly appears more comfortable writing about his children than about his marriage, perhaps because he doesn’t have them hovering around his right shoulder. So maybe he should have called the book How To Be A Father, or better still, How To Be Tim Dowling?

Anyway, despite the book having the tiniest air of something conceived from a list of topics written on the back of an envelope in the pub, or things from his column, I am a nosy person (see last blog entry) and every now and again he gives us a proper sneaky peek into his life and/or writes something I can relate to…

“He suffers from Nameless Dread!” I say, reading out the relevant passage to my men folk.

 “Who does?” they say.

“Tim Dowling,” I say.

“Mummy loves Tim Dowling,” Youngest says.

“Is that the guy who plays the banjo?” Middle One says.

“Not very elegant prose,” Husband says.

“He sounds like a girl,” Eldest says.

Obviously I don’t love Tim Dowling. I have never met Tim Dowling. I certainly love reading his column, but then I love reading a number of columns. Possibly I love successful columnists in the same way that an aspiring amateur footballer might love a famous professional footballer. There are those I really rate, who bare their souls a little and who are lucky enough and talented enough to write columns for newspapers, and this group includes women, or one woman. In fact it hardly constitutes a group at all: it is three people.

In this manner I am in love with Caitlin Moran and, as you already know, I am in love with Giles Coren, although I’m not sure I would get on with Giles Coren if I actually met him, and I know I would be absolutely terrified of Caitlin Moran if we ever went out on the razz together (bear with me, I live in a fantasy world) because she is obviously quite bonkers (lovely bonkers) and would drink me under the table, especially now after 31 days without alcohol.

T.D. seems the most normal and writes about his family and for the Guardian, and I write about my family, and I have written for the Guardian. That was before the lovely editor I was writing for suddenly vanished and things at the Family section went a bit weird and tense (I blame Julie Myerson).

Maybe I regard Tim Dowling, subliminally, as some sort of male version of me, which of course is ridiculous because he is a successful columnist, an American, in his 50s, and a banjo player, and I am none of these things. But there are some similarities, which in no particular order are -

He has three boys
He lives in London
He has been married for a long time (but not as long as me)
He did an English degree
His first son was born in 1995, I think (ours was born in 1996)
He stays in the house all day
He suffers from Nameless Dread
He is a bit of a self-confessed drama queen
He is the romantic needy one in his relationship

Come to think about it he isn’t a male version of me at all and Eldest was right: he’s a girl.

The next book on my pile is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I think reading this after How To Be A Husband might be going from the faintly ridiculous (but enjoyable, let’s not forget that) to the sublime. I’ll let you know…

Love E x

Two bits I particularly liked from How To Be A Husband –

“Never underestimate the tremendous healing power of sitting down together from time to time to speak frankly and openly about the marital difficulties facing other couples you know.”

That made me laugh.

“… make sure you are on the same side when battling outside forces.”

I read that one out to husband. The overdone steak in a restaurant in France last year still rankles. He should have backed me up when I tried to complain, in French, that it was badly burnt, rather than turning to me to echo the surly French waitress: “Yes, that’s true, Elizabeth, you did ask for it well done.” And I certainly don’t think that after I flounced out of the restaurant, hungry and furious, to sit alone in the car, he should have taken his time and then paid for the whole lot having eaten his own meal, and then my burnt steak as well.

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