One of several enormously quotable lines of dialogue from the 1987 British tragi-comedy Withnail And I (about failing actors who go to the countryside for a rest from resting, and which stars Paul McGann and Richard E Grant) is: “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake”.
During the last couple of weeks it was sometimes like this for me, on what was notionally a six day family holiday. Cliché has it that as time off progresses you should feel the layers of work and domestic life stress peel away… Oh well.
My friend Hayley, who has two young boys (all mentioned briefly in this previous post), recently sent me a message on What’sApp saying “A family holiday is just stressful parenting in a different place. And you also come home with a fucking disgusting car…”
Actually speaking two of our days were spent in the car, with me at the wheel. The first day featured an eight-and-a-half hour drive to reach a cottage on the west coast of Scotland, and the sixth day was the eight-and-a-half hour return drive home. It usually takes five to six hours and so, even more actually speaking, the journeys were not strictly drives. They were drive, stop, drive, stop, drive a small distance, stop, drive, stop, rest, drive, pull in here, drive, stop, drive, stop etc…
I exaggerate, here, for effect. But thus it pretty much felt, being first-time parents on our debut long distance haul and seeing to the needs of an almost eight month old child strapped into a car seat in the back. To offer some comfort and consistency on the way there, at least we could stream the BBC’s genial Test Match Special all day (commentary on the third go between England and India) by routing the digital radio on my ‘phone through the car’s audio system.
As time and the match and the runs ticked on and ever on the miles did too, and as we got further and further away from home England somehow looked better and better.
You know when you go on holiday but halfway to your destination it dawns on you that you’d really rather not? What actually appeals is sitting down on the sofa at home and stewing in your own tiredness. Is it just me that happens to sometimes?
There was a point during the journey when, unawares, I somehow zoned out. Tired, drive-stop-drive-stop-driving for too long. I automatically entered what I thought was a climbing lane to overtake a dawdling HGV, only to find our car was on a single lane carriageway with a pair of cars approaching us. They were some distance away yet – but the option to ease off, hang back and tuck back in to the correct side of the road disappeared sharply.
I’m not sure that I have ever experienced a rapid to-focus shift quite like it. With no choice left I put my foot down and sped towards the oncoming traffic so that I could get back over ahead of the lorry. All cars passed quite safely and in truth it was hardly an outtake from Fast And Furious. But, understandably, it shook us up a little bit and I had a tear in my eye. I am usually, as I said in a previous blog, a little bit of a Driving Miss Daisy type.
I wouldn’t say this incident ‘set the tone’ for the next few days, but my shoulders remained tense throughout.
The area of Scotland we always go to (at least once a year and often more – in 2019 I made six visits, and my wife five) is a rather relaxing part of the country. Sometimes, reassuringly, you cannot put your finger on exactly what year you are living in because the scenery is the same each time. Unspoiled, unchanging other than in beautiful duty to the seasons. In almost all directions it could be 1927 or 1961 or 2005 or next week.
The 1973 modest budget British folk-horror film The Wicker Man (a classic of its genre, and which viscerally examines Christianity and paganism) was shot across several locations fairly close to the cottage we always stay in. A couple of years ago we visited most of them in homage, and as our holiday’s core theme. A project! It involved some detective work and days out and filming places on our phones trying to replicate shots from the original, like we were making some sort of feature on a grown-up guerilla version of Blue Peter, or a DVD extra.
It was exciting to be in these living film sets for a while.
It’s something I have always enjoyed – whether it be sitting on a school playing field in a suburb of Cardiff watching an episode of Doctor Who being filmed. Or outside Lincoln Cathedral watching The Da Vinci Code being filmed (and getting to meet Audrey Tautou into the bargain). Or walking the streets of Hadfield in the High Peaks of Derbyshire, where perverse BBC comedy The League Of Gentlemen had been filmed.
I have also always enjoyed visiting sites of historical interest. My own version of history, at least.
Not castles or stately homes, then, but places like the farmer’s field at Tundergarth Mains near Lockerbie where the cockpit of Flight 103 crashed down. Or Oscar Wilde’s childhood home on Merrion Square in Dublin. Or the slipways in Belfast where the Titanic was built and from which she was originally launched. Or Solsbury Hill outside of and overlooking Bath, which Peter Gabriel sang of. Or the sidestreet in London where the cover photo of David Bowie’s The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars was shot. And so on, and so on.
I don’t quite know what it is that I gain from visiting these places. Is it about scale? Do the people involved, the events, somehow become real, and therefore as ordinary as I am, and so more understandable somehow? Is it an attempt to find a context? Or to reach a direct and even more emotional connection with the film, the song, the event, the tragedy, the moment, rather than a mostly informational or second-hand one?
Whatever. I don’t know. All of these things. None of these things.
The Wicker Man locations in 2019 included the exterior and interior of the pub (actually two pubs, two towns), the shop, the botanic gardens, the schoolhouse, the ruined church, the beach and the cave. And so on.
And all that remains of the imposing wicker man prop itself, five decades on. A lonely pair of wooden stumps set into rough concrete on a desolate and unremarkable coastal cliff, which is these days only accessible by going deep into a trailer park. In the winter of 2019 it was poignant to remember that Christopher Lee, Edward Woodward and Britt Ekland had stood at this very same spot in the winter of 1972 and given it their best in the name of shocking the shit out of everybody.
I wouldn’t say that our holiday was shocking, but nor was it enjoyable this time – pretty much other than the brief glimpses of scenery, the playing cards at night or watching the Test Match highlights on TV that my stepdad recorded each evening for us (the cottage belongs to him, and he and my Mum were hosting us).
The whole trip coincided with a sudden intense bout of teething for our son, and there was an unfortunate middle of the night misunderstanding between my wife and I after he woke for the fifty-eighth time and shouted the place down. Again.
Our miscommunication involved her making sign language gestures at me to go back to bed when I was woken up which, upset and in stunned half-asleep total confusion, I immediately assumed were hostile, dismissive and violently aggressive. They were actually more to do with frustration and keeping me away as our son was finally dropping off in her arms.
But when I advanced up to her through the almost-dark and whispered “eh?” and “what?”, her gestures did become actually hostile, actually dismissive and actually violently aggressive.
For one reason or another – chiefly exhaustion and diminishing patience with each other’s fucking foibles due to exhaustion – we ‘had words’ or reduced ourselves to no words on several occasions during our trip. It was also particularly unpleasant to be around when my wife and my Mum reached a flashpoint as well.
Though I can be too, my wife is sometimes stubborn and wilful and this is where we clash. As a consequence she can dig those around her (ie. me) into difficult parenting spots from time to time. We’ve been through things we actually needn’t have, but come out of the other side and she has then perhaps changed her approach or opinion, having learned a lesson first-hand.
Her motivation is good and pure – always only to ‘get it right’ – and she mostly always does. But I have to keep reminding her that there is actually no real right – and that there are also two of us with opinions or beliefs to try to work into the modus operandi. Mostly I trust in her judgement and go with it, sometimes I go with it through lack of energy or will to make my point, but I feel that either way it has sometimes been unnecessarily hard.
During one of these exasperating episodes, my Mum overstepped the mark with an opinion – and particularly with the way it was expressed. Not that my Mum was especially monstrous – though she really can have an abrasive edge – but it was forthright and surprising. I felt it was actually to my wife’s great credit that she didn’t escalate the situation. I know that if her parents ever spoke to me that way about raising our child I would probably, as I told my wife later, “go absolutely fucking ballistic”.
My wife was initially upset by the unwanted advice but said to me “it’s a generational thing” to assume that right to give it unbidden. She seemed to quickly move on. The pair of them, good friends ’til now, made up almost immediately and set about getting on with life as normal – while I actually lingered in shock.
For me the discomfort rumbled internally for days like a distant and muted PTSD – as did the guilty feeling at having rather taken my Mum to task about it shortly after it happened. Not aggressively or angrily, but very firmly pointing out exactly where the boundaries were and telling her in no uncertain terms to apologise. She did, at the very first opportunity. I guess that is part of me manning up, being a family man and protecting that family? From anything and anyone.
My wife did later say that she got what my Mum meant and that she did partially have a point, and that she would take something from it. She also understood the expression of that point was born of total frustration. As I said, they made up quickly – though in general my wife and I seem not to have done so, or have somehow managed to get ourselves stuck in some sort of a downwards spiral.
In fact, just about the only time we have got along in the past few weeks was on the final evening, when my Mum and stepdad offered to look after our son while we went out for tea somewhere on our own. We stole a couple of hours and ate a meal while sitting at a table outside a harbour-village pub, right on the harbour itself. We had a pretty decent and peaceful conversation and made some sort of truce over sticky toffee pudding. We looked across the narrow sea towards Belfast and realised that the Titanic had been visible from here as it sailed right past and close by.
Back here, home, it has been difficult. We’re not rested up and we don’t seem able to see eye to eye or get out of the straining gear we’re in. It has been tiredness, bickering, irritation, impatience and a lack of kindness.
All the while, our son teeths and thrives!
I think I need a holiday.