Camping – the proper way to have a holiday

Now that politicians vie with one another to prove the sweet ordinariness of their domestic lives, holidays have become competitive. Rather than do what they would like to do – sit by a billionaire’s swimming pool in the sun – political leaders are obliged to express heartfelt enthusiasm for something cheap, patriotic and home-based. “I love going on holiday in Britain,” David Cameron said yesterday. In fact, he and the family are setting off for Cornwall this very Sunday.

Yet still these people are missing a trick. Only one of them, David Blunkett, has admitted to undergoing the ultimate British holiday experience, and he admitted defeat after 24 hours. “One soggy night under canvas and why I hate camping” was the headline of an article he wrote a few days later.

There may be one or two security problems but, if the Prime Minister wishes to promote tourism at home, he should try camping. Nothing is so purely British, offering an almost unlimited potential for embarrassment, discomfort and an edgy proximity to nature. A good camping holiday (or even a bad one) will be remembered long after cushier breaks have faded from the memory, but a few basic rules should always be borne in mind.

You will need the right campsite. Poor old Blunkett’s night of horror was on a site where drunkards stumbled noisily back to their tents at 3am. Such behaviour would be unthinkable on a proper site, preferably run on gentle, bourgeois lines. There silence will descend at 10pm, apart from the sound of murmured conversation around a fire and perhaps the plucking of a guitar playing “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”.

My favoured campsite in Cornwall is reassuringly middle-class. Carrying one’s bowl of washing up through the site, one picks up conversation (the Big Society, fringe theatre, McEwan’s new novel, BBC4) in which one likes to take part, and occasionally does. It is an intense and intimate experience in communal living. Every angry word muttered at a child, every note of family discord, every fart and burp, is shared with strangers, so that soon a weird sort of domestic openness – almost French in its lack of embarrassment – sets in.

Camping is not the means to have a holiday; it is the holiday. Other activities are there merely to fill in the few small gaps in the daily routine spent doing things which, back in civilisation, are taken for granted – cooking, washing up, keeping things cool (or hot), shaving, staying dry. It is not restful but, like skiing, this round of mindless activity offers a sort of therapy of busyness.

Another general rule: there will be no sex. There should be lots of it – you are on holiday, in the wilds, at one with nature – but, for all but the most exhibitionist, the proximity of other families will act as a powerful detumescent. If you hear heavy breathing beyond your tent, it will almost certainly be a hedgehog.

You become an expert in cloud formations. Weather is important on all holidays; when you camp, it will become an obsession. Every ray of sunshine will feel like a blessing from the gods. Rain will not just be mildly annoying – it will be a catastrophe, sending thousands of other miserable campers to the nearest stately home where they will eat expensive cream teas while trying not to think of how miserable they feel. As a result, much of the day will be spent gazing upwards and discussing whether a small patch of blue in the grey canopy is moving towards or away from you.

After a couple of days, you will find you have changed. Private daily routines, normally undiscussed, become a regular subject of conversation. The children turn feral, making inappropriate friendships and discovering startling information from other tents. Returning home, you will appreciate the kettle, the hot tap, the walls, the bed and, above all, the bath as never before. You have seen quite enough of the lives of others to know that your own is really not so bad. What other holiday could offer all that

Independent, Friday, 13 August 2010