Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Two incidents on our journeys to and from Naples this month brought home to me the difference in the way The Young undertake travel from the way those, er, Less Young do so.

On our flight out, while Geoff alternately read, dozed and gazed out of the window, a young couple engaged me in conversation.

They were on their first visit to Italy. I learnt this because, while they demolished between them a full-size tube of Pringles crisps, they peppered me with questions.

Is it true the Italians drive on the wrong side of the road, was the first question. Yes, I said, and then froze when the girl – she was 23, I learnt later – said that they were hiring a car at Naples airport and she’d be driving into the city where they were staying for two nights.

My instinct was to shriek in alarm and say “Don’t even think about it!” because no one but a lobotomised loony with a death wish would willingly drive in Naples. It is one of the most crazy free-for-alls in the world. The joke about traffic lights being merely a suggestion is actually true in Naples. No one observes any of the rules of the road, everyone hoots the whole time, fists are shaken, tempers flare, shoulders are shrugged – and everyone, whether a driver or pedestrian, is permanently transfixed by their mobile phones so there is never any eye contact. It’s all done by feel or, more often, by bang, which is why most vehicles bear huge dents and grazes, and presumably the pedestrians too.

You need nerves of steel even to think about driving in Naples. You don’t need to be 23, on your first visit to Italy, with a boyfriend’s life as well as your own to consider, and a terrifying ignorance of how to drive on the left. “Are the pedals sort of in the same order, then?” came another question.

I invoked Geoff’s help. The most important thing, he told the girl, as she casually tipped the final crumbs of Pringles into her mouth, is to hold your nerve.

Soon after, sated with crisps and their heads full of our pleadings to be careful and not be intimidated by anything on the road, especially a lorry attached to their bumper and hooting wildly, love’s young dream slipped into a carefree sleep. Geoff and I, of course, worried about them the whole time we were in Naples.

On the return flight I settled myself into my seat with my usual battery of comforts to hand: iPad, selection of books, bottle of water and iPhone for snapping photos of Geoff asleep with his mouth wide open – I’m so childish.

The seat to my right was taken by a young man who had only a book with him. After a little judicious focusing I could see it was about starting your own business.

The book totally absorbed him throughout the flight. He really deserves to succeed if he has that amount of concentration, I thought, and no Pringles to distract him, either, much to my relief.

Later, when I’d noticed that the young entrepreneur was already striding away from the carousel with his smart piece of luggage while Geoff and I were still walking into each other trying to locate our un-smart one, I realised what a wide chasm exists between us and them – ‘them’ being the young, confident, world-at-their-feet travellers. We might have been there, done that, picked up the knowledge, but they’re discovering and learning and emphatically doing their own thing. I suppose we were like that once, though it’s hard to believe.

It’s odd trying to adjust to normal life after returning from holiday. Eight glorious days of not needing to know the date, let alone the day of the week, came to an end when Geoff and I found ourselves back at Gatwick this week, all the fun over.

So many times this particular bit of the end of a holiday, the bit poised between over there and back here, has been made more miserable than it need be because the grim, grey English weather has broken the spell within seconds of landing. The heart sinks, the brave smile gets switched on and the memory of carefree days with minimal clothing gets wiped away in the hustle to pull on a heavy mac.

The car journey back home from the airport is blurred by the spray thrown up by lorries as slap-slapping windscreen wipers work at double speed. Jams and crawling queues add to the misery, and sour thoughts condemn and blame everyone and everything for the holiday being over.

Not this time, though. Heading down the aircraft steps a cloak of warm sunshine settled on our shoulders, seemingly hardly any different in temperature from Naples, which we had left only the other side of lunchtime. What it lacked was the gently suffocating cotton-wool dampness of humidity that we had grown used to during our week away but, delightfully, here at glowing Gatwick there was just a crisp and beaming bright sun and a blue sky. What a wonderful welcome back to Blighty!

Naples may have been hot and humid but it was entirely bearable and anyway we were fortunate to have aircon in our high-ceilinged rented apartment. Walking around, which we did on a major scale every day, all over the city and beyond, was never too uncomfortable in the heat and we took plenty of pit stops. It was our third visit to Naples but we found so much to see and do – and it didn’t all revolve around the food, I promise.

The only serious challenge from the weather came on the day the heavens suddenly opened on us, without warning, while we were absorbed in a longed-for visit to Herculaneum. We steamed ourselves dry when the rain eventually relented and felt we had shown admirable British grit in coping with neither an umbrella nor a rain cape, both of which appeared de rigeur among the other (far more sensible) visitors.

One afternoon we took an open-top bus out to Posillipo, on the western outskirts of Naples, famed for its beautiful houses and cultured lifestyle. Artists have captured it and settled there over the years, inspired by its buildings, its amazing views across the bay of Naples and its light.

I was excited to see Posillipo after recently reading a biography set there. Geoff took a few photos while I speculated about who lived in which of the wonderful old houses we passed.

After a little while I turned to Geoff and asked: “Does some of this look familiar to you, or is it just because I’ve read so much about it?”

“It’s familiar,” he said. “We took this very same bus trip 11 years ago.”

Of course he was right. We had been here before. How ridiculous that we hadn’t realised before even climbing on to the bus. But it really didn’t matter That’s one of the great things about holidays. Easy come, easy go – especially when the sun’s shining.

I am nearly eight years old and I’m in the chilly summer sea in Cornwall. All I have between me and the elements is my sister’s hand-me-down seersucker swimming costume and a rubber ring.

For the 50th time, my mother, who cannot swim herself, launches me into a shallow wave that, augmented by my frantic doggy-paddle, will propel me towards the beach.

I’m swimming! I cast aside the rubber ring and by the end of that summer I triumphantly make it from one side of the cove to the other.

After that breakthrough there was no stopping me. I even enjoyed school swimming sessions every Friday in an open-air seawater pool that was reached in a crocodile march headed by our ever-enthusiastic PE teacher.

Soon I was earning badges by diving for bricks and saving lives in mock drownings. I learnt to dive from the board and I perfected a passable tumble turn.

Once, and only once, I swam for the school and it was such a nervy disaster – I dived in with my mouth open, turning myself into a heavily chlorinated, spluttering barrage balloon – that I never got to reprise the joy of pulling on the white rubber cap that dug a livid red furrow into my forehead.

Swimming became purely recreational, and over the years I’ve alternated my experiences between British and foreign shores and a variety of indoor pools, defined by the grottiness or otherwise of their changing rooms. There is something so shudder-inducing about the particular feel of something undefinable under the feet, or the horrible sight of tangled hairs from an anonymous head poised to cling like a sea anemone to any imperfectly dried part of the body.

In fact, the whole business of getting dry is fraught, and if the changing room syndrome is unsettling and unpleasant, the beach experience is just plain awful. All that wriggling and contorting and the anxiety caused by sand ending up where it shouldn’t. Search me why we ever phased out those bathing machines that enabled one to change with dignity.

A few short-lived fitness campaigns have had me signing up at indoor pools and doing that determined lane-hogging thing, swimming up and down, up and down, monotonously counting the lengths, convincing myself that just one more could make me Sharron Davies’s double.

I don’t do that any more because I can no longer politely tolerate the swimmers who come in to the pool for a chat. They observe no lane etiquette, no manners at all really, as they cruise and bob about, gossiping in pairs or in huddles while achieving a grand total of about half a length. Later, they reward themselves for their efforts with a bucket of cappuccino before going home to put a tick against ‘exercise’ on their list of achievements for the day.

I’ve become a bit jaded by the swimming lark. I haven’t yet officially hung up my goggles, but since I find it all so unsatisfactory it is up for discussion on my agenda.

The only way I’d willingly carry on is if I could have my own tropical beach. But then what? Once you’re proficient, and unless you have Olympic pretensions, it’s hard to know what to do with the ability to swim. I get bored once I’ve dived for an interesting pebble or swum along to be level with that group of people on the beach. That’s the thing about swimming, it turns out it’s like a lot of things nowadays: it isn’t half as much fun doing it as watching others do it.

You wouldn’t catch me doing that, came the consensual mumble of voices from the crowd watching a bunch of brave souls abseiling from a church tower.

Faced with a drop of about 100ft, you certainly wouldn’t catch me doing it, either. Even standing watching others being brave was an ordeal in itself, requiring an up-tilted head for long periods and no small amount of stoicism to endure the long breaks between the completion of one descent and the start of another.

Loud applause and cheers seemed the least we could offer in the way of reward to these plucky souls. Most were being sponsored, too, in aid of good causes, and Geoff and I had quite a few pounds riding on a friend of ours making it to terra firma in one piece.

It was only after the mercifully safe landing that I discovered why Geoff had been so keen to turn out and watch, since he doesn’t willingly venture into crowds very often. He sheepishly admitted that he had mistaken an abseil for a bungee jump, and had been rather keen to see our normally very dignified friend bouncing helplessly on a length of elastic – presumably until either she or the elastic ran out of bounce-ability.

I’m so pleased he was disappointed. There is something heroic about an abseil – even if the nappy-like harness does render one somewhat undignified – while bungee-jumping seems completely terrifying at the same time as carrying high marks for its degree of silliness. Who could ever trust a length of elastic, for goodness sake, when we’ve all heard tales of it not even being strong enough to hold up some people’s knickers.

Certainly abseiling as a fundraising activity holds more merit, in my opinion, than a sale of cupcakes, although I do realise that in Britain nowadays nothing happens without the involvement of cake.

Raising money was once little more than the simple matter of passing the hat round. Now it’s big business and we are assailed at every turn by professional fundraisers, whose activities, not to mention their salaries and pensions, make the whole definition of charitable giving very different from the genuinely altruistic gesture it once was.

Helping others through charitable deeds was first dinned into me at school. We became involved in supporting a village in Africa and quickly developed ever more original and inventive ways of raising pennies and pounds for sending overseas. My entirely unoriginal contribution was to drum up custom during break-time for my cards illustrated with horses’ heads (I could never get beyond the neck) and bags of fudge flavoured with Camp coffee. I cannot imagine my limp efforts changed many lives in that distant, dusty village.

The whole school was bitten by the bug, spurred on by morning assemblies featuring stories and pictures of the people we were helping. It made a welcome change from the norm, and for one entire term even gave us something interesting to write about to our stoical French penfriends.

For many years following that it was sponsored walks, runs and swims, either mine or the children’s. In their case, of course, the need to fill a sheet with sponsors’ names meant securing the nominal support of both of us parents, all the grandparents, the animals (even the guinea pigs and stick insects), the babysitter, the village shopkeeper, anyone calling in or passing by – all of them lending their names, sometimes without even knowing, but with all the money coming from the parental pocket.

That’s called being devious, but not cheating, not when it’s in the name of charity.

We’ve had a few days now to try and get used to life without the Olympics. It’s not easy, is it? No more of that jingoistic fervour. No more expectations being constantly fulfilled. No more feeling affronted if one of ours didn’t win a medal, of any type, in an event. “What do you mean? We enter, we win medals. I demand a recount!”

The winning habit quickly became addictive. When Tom Daley didn’t qualify for his diving finals the poor chap felt obliged to apologise to us, letting us down gently so we wouldn’t go hot-foot to our GP in search of an anti-depressant.

Even when the women’s hockey team kept the nation waiting in a nail-biting state of barely-breathing suspense for a ridiculously belated 10 o’clock News, we didn’t mind. We were thrilled, awestruck and proud. Mind you, the hockey wasn’t a bit like the game I played in distant schooldays. For instance, where were the ice puddles, the bullet-like divots of mud and the shouting PE teacher muffled inside six scarves?

What the Olympics managed to do was distract me, and doubtless many others, too, from the fact that there was absolutely nothing else happening in the country. I mean, of course, nothing apart from Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith traipsing in and out of halls whipping up support in their Labour leadership campaign. As a sideshow to the non-event of Britain in August it hasn’t been the greatest magnet for attention.

Suddenly this summer we have become like the Continent (dare I say Europe, in this post-Brexit vote era?), where all the wheels of state are dismantled and the whole country disappears on holiday, if not physically then certainly mentally.

From that extraordinary period where there was a political development approximately every four and a half minutes, come August 1st we hurtled through a curtain into oblivion – a place where we became untethered and left to our own devices.

Mrs May and her husband took off into the Swiss Alps in their sensible trousers and polo shirts, giving us all a lesson in capsule wardrobe essentials for the modern holidaying couple. Our leader’s absence caused only a passing period of hand-to-mouth terror when it was announced that Boris Johnson had been left in charge, but I believe the baton has been handed on now and all is well.

Before the month of nothingness, at that time when anything and everything was happening at the speed of light, familiar faces were being expunged from our political landscape and new ones were emerging from the deep, like young shoots breaking the surface, and being introduced to the nation as Minister for Something Important. Inexplicably, my phone didn’t ring with a request for my urgent attendance in Downing Street, but I was prepared to be persuaded. Minister for Country Walks would have been a nice gig. Maybe next time.

The political landscape changed with such rapidity that when the music stopped and everyone took off on their summer break to read biographies and start writing their own, those of us left behind could only look around and say “Did all that really happen?”

Indeed it did. It was quite remarkable to witness the daily re-writing of history, but now we face the start of a new term, a new page in the life story of GB, and while the political commentators sharpen their pencils and their tongues, we can but hold tight for the ride – and be sustained by those glittering memories of Rio 2016.

Earlier this summer I told Geoff I wouldn’t be watching any of the Olympics. After immersing myself to the point of drowning during London 2012, I’d decided that Team GB could probably manage without me in Rio, and anyway I was disenchanted (sickened, actually) by the expenditure on something so comparatively transient and superficial in a country suffering the most chronic poverty.

My view on the latter hasn’t changed – how could it? – but my intention to let the entire event pass without my involvement soon came to nothing. At first this was because it was almost impossible to avoid Olympics-mania: the BBC bombarded me at every turn of the knob, on the radio and the TV. All normal schedules in the evenings seemed to be wiped away to give airtime to the Olympics, so I decided to give in and let myself be get hooked.

In no time at all I was in full Olympics mode, picking up on the lingo, reacquainting myself with old favourites such as peleton, omnium, repêchage, front aerial and double pike. I was soon joining the commentators in mangling nouns into verbs and reporting to Geoff that GB had medalled again in the rowing, and one of our cyclists had just podiumed.

The other reason I couldn’t avoid Olympics-mania was because I suddenly found I didn’t want to. I was enjoying it. It infected me – again.

My interest increased with each passing medal until I even found myself, unable to sleep in the small hours of Sunday, shuffling into a quiet corner with my iPhone to watch Jessica Ennis-Hill so graciously win silver in the heptathlon.

I was less enchanted by the glittery, sparkly wraiths of female gymnasts. They trouble me with their fixed expressions of joylessness and yards of bandaging around frail feet and ankles. I feel they are one untimely slip or ungainly landing away from a lifetime of self-recrimination.

The male gymnasts, on the other hand, possess physiques that are muscled and honed to a perfect degree, enabling them to do the most unfeasible contortions. All we lesser mortals can do is look on and marvel.

Where we would just thump down on a springboard and clear the pommel horse in one leap – as we did at school, with varying degrees of elegance and success – these gymnasts make a major production of it, spinning and twirling around on the horse, sometimes the wrong way up, and even, I could swear, inside out, before whizzing up to the rafters and landing with both feet nailed together and neither wobbling nor bursting into giggles at the absurdity of it.

Big hand, huge hand even, to the delightful Max Whitlock, GB’s double gold medal-winning gymnast, vaulter extraordinaire, and the country’s Next Big Thing on the celebrity circuit. A lovely chap for whom this richly deserved success exemplifies the spirit of the Olympics. Eighteen months ago he was suffering from glandular fever, so debilitating in its effects that he was scarcely able to move.

He made an amazing recovery and set himself two goals: to inspire the nation and to be remembered. Job done, I’d say.

In fact, so many of Team GB have done and are doing their job so well, and in such great spirit, that they all deserve medals. At the rate the medals have been pouring in, I’d say there should now be enough to go around.

Would I like to go to the Proms, my friend Carla asked me. I checked the diary and emailed back with an enthusiastic Yes, please.

Carla makes up a Proms party every year, mostly of her family who are London-based. This year, two of her relatives were going to be on holiday so the spare tickets needed to find homes: one to me and one to another friend of Carla’s called Viv.

Carla and Viv live near Andover and Salisbury respectively, so I would be making the longest journey.

They set off by train in the morning last Sunday to go and boil gently in the Globe during a three-hour performance of Macbeth. In complete contrast, I started my day by going to see my mother, taking her for a riverside walk and discussing hemp agrimony in some depth, as you do, and generally making sure all was well in her particular little world.

Later, I took the train to London and, just for the hell of it, joined the united nations of thousands in walking on the South Bank, where I failed to notice any hemp agrimony at all – just people, as far as the eye could see.

After an hour I crossed the Thames and rendezvoused with Carla and Viv, both delighted by their Macbeth experience. I told them about how Mum and I had enjoyed seeing frothy clumps of pink hemp agrimony beside a tributary of the Nadder, but it didn’t compare somehow.

I felt a bit Dorset bumpkin, a sensation that intensified as the evening wore on.

Am I really here, I thought to myself as I walked into the Royal Albert Hall for the first time in my life. And here, as I took my place at a pre-concert dinner table in an elegant third-floor room. And here, good heavens, all the way up here, as we settled in our seats at the front of a gilded circle.

Don’t look down, I instructed my my wimpy self, batting away the instinct to peer around too adventurously. I took in my surroundings only as far as incipient vertigo would allow. One woman fainted at the interval, my concern for her tempered by the relief that it hadn’t been me.

The music was wonderful and the occasion so memorable it will always stay with me.

As soon as the final piece ended and the thunderous applause erupted, the three of us with a 10.15pm train to catch from Waterloo bolted down multiple flights of stairs, out into the street and, at a speed which would have had Mo Farah shaking his head in awe, took off in the direction of South Ken Tube station.

We could have been in Lesser Spotted Bermondsey for all I knew, but after a while Viv halted us as she suspected we were going the wrong way.

“I recognise this road,” she said. “I had a flat here in my 20s and it wasn’t very close to South Ken tube.”

We asked someone. Viv was right. Really anxious by now, we hailed a taxi. Can you get us to Waterloo in 20 minutes, we asked.

The driver, confronted by a trio of breathless, wild-haired women, not unlike the witches in Macbeth, accepted the challenge.

Heroically, he got us to our destination with three minutes to spare. We seriously over-tipped him as we couldn’t wait for change, and executed a most impressive 200-yard sprint on to the train.

Phew! An evening at the Proms could rarely have been as hard-won as that.