The man in the camping shop is in a bit of a state. He is dressed for the holidays – shorts, flip-flops, a T-shirt with the message “A bad day on the water is better than a good day at the office” – but his body language and the tight, panicky tone of his voice tell a different story. The shop owner has just told him that she may not be able to supply him with the Financial Times every day. This incomprehensible state of affairs has crashed his holiday vibe in a big way.
He has my deepest sympathies. For a few of us, taking a holiday is a tough business. Sitting in the sun, reading a book, enjoying quality time with the family: these are important things, but all day, every day for a week, maybe even a fortnight, they can become exhausting. Like the FT-addict, I am on holiday but, unlike him, I have been able to give myself a work-related treat with this column. Two days in, and leisure stress was taking its toll. I needed a break.
The traditional view that those unable to switch the engine off and cruise now and then are somehow psychologically dysfunctional is as wrong as it could be. Those who are bad at holidays are good at life. They are able to take pleasure, even a sort of rest, from work. They are to be envied, not pitied.
To judge from photographs of the Prime Minister, as relaxed as a coiled spring while “enjoying himself” at Whitlingham Country Park in Norfolk, he is not a natural holidaymaker. Clearly, his advisers have told him the public is uneasy with a leader who works too hard. To reassure us, he was sent to Southwold to get in touch with his chilled-out side – if there’s anything left of it after he’s read the holiday good wishes of David Miliband.
Fortunately, Brown is in a part of the country where he can deploy the age-old trick of leisure-shirkers: pretending to relax while continuing to work. Instead of visiting country parks, he can experience the real thing and discover why there is such a gulf between his government and those who live and work in the country.
This week, anxious inhabitants of the corner of Norfolk which, under one plan, will be surrendered to the sea in a few years’ time, were due to form a human chain around Southwold, excluding the Prime Minister from the pier, the Summer Theatre and live jazz at The Clockhouse.
From there, the Prime Minister could travel inland to the village of Hoxne, where, across a couple of water-meadows, he and his wife could experience a touch of true wildness by swimming in the River Waveney. As Sarah dries him off, he might begin to understand why those who live in the country are less enthusiastic about the huge development schemes which are so attractive to central planners.
He could tour villages which had shops before the big, bullying supermarkets arrived – and pubs before they were undercut by Tesco and Morrisons. At the end of the day, he and his wife could unwind at an acoustic evening in one of the surviving local pubs and hear musicians aged from 19 to 90 playing together. As he taps his foot in time to a pensioner with squeeze-box, he might reflect on how the Government’s strict new licensing laws have affected community pastimes.
To the world outside, it will seem as if he had simply enjoyed a traditional holiday. In fact, he will have been working, learning more about life outside London from the people and the landscape than he would from any amount of number-toting civil servants back in his local village of Westminster.