Whenever I pack to go away I think of a family who used to live across the street. They had two children under two, and I once watched them attempt to load their car for a holiday in the English countryside.
First I saw two new car seats go in and watched them being securely attached, causing lengthy periods of frustration. Then, into the boot went a baby bath filled with bath toys; a changing bag and cushioned changing mat; two packs of nappies; and some boxes of formula. Several other bags went in, one with bottles, a couple of suitcases – which meant most things had to be taken out and the process begun again – then a pram and a pushchair were dismantled into their various parts and slotted into the small amount of remaining space. Finally, the gadgets: travel kettle, steam steriliser, stick blender for purées. After a while all the toing and froing ceased. About an hour later we saw the car being unloaded, its contents brought forlornly back into the house. It just wasn’t worth it, it seemed.
When you travel with very young babies, it is often true that if you forget something major, the holiday won’t work. There may even be health risks, shame and disaster on a grand scale – or at least that’s what you believe. Yet a similar feeling can set in when you are only packing for yourself. What if you left behind the dress with the tiny grey-and-white checks that might transform you from someone who would rather be at home into someone carefree and holidayish who sips iced coffee and faces unfamiliar vistas with a shrug and a spry, “Why not!”? Packing can feel so make-or-break, for you can visit a local historic hotspot, marvel at the adventures of Grace Darling or recoil at the hideous overuse of burgundy damask in stately homes quite jauntily when you are wearing a crisp white swiss blouse but, in your daughter’s too-small T-shirt, who are you to have an opinion?
Those of us who are not natural holidaymakers need, like newborn babies, to be soothed into strange surroundings so that it doesn’t become too alarming. On holiday I need the sorts of bits and bobs around me that wink and whisper, “Deep down, in all the ways that matter, you are at home really.” When I am away I miss all kinds of things I don’t even care for: being short-changed at the corner shop; the patch of water damage on the ceiling that resembles the back half of a hippo; my deeply uncomfortable chair. The judgmental sigh I emit when I see a pile of shoes somewhere, unless they are my own …
Reading about Princeton in the 1950s recently, in the literary memoir Poets In their Youth by Eileen Simpson, I was struck by a description of hard-living poets and academics and their brave and tweedy novel-writing wives travelling with suitcases heavy not with clothing but with books. More and more it seems to me that the secret to cracking holidays is the correct reading material. Involving books, if you are abysmal at holiday-making, isn’t just soothing or pleasurable; it is medicinal. They send homesickness packing.
What should we look for in these self-settling books? Should they have a different quality to those we read at home? Is it sensible to read “down” on holiday, acknowledging there will be constant interruptions, or will that mean holding the book at arm’s length and turning the pages with a clothes peg on the nose? Some merrymakers favour books that are more ambitious than usual when away, in anticipation of long periods of reading time. (I once holidayed with a family where the father read and translated bits of Thucydides quietly to himself, feeling terribly indulged – a bit wicked, even.)
This year, to keep me from harm, I packed Posthumous Keats by the American poet and academic Stanley Plumly. I had heard it was a skilful and beautifully written meditation on the life and legacy of the shortlived poet. After 39 pages I can already tell it’s going to be one of the best things I have ever read. The combination of rigour and emotion on the page is so winning that I have to keep putting it down in order to admire it properly. It is almost like a holiday in itself, in the best sense, for it provides a species of escape into the very heart of human life. I don’t think I could dream a book I would like more.
The only problem is that, more than anything, it makes me long for home, to be writing my own book, alone with my thoughts, in my funny chair, which is the one thing I can’t do this week.
More columns at www.ft.com/boyt