Andrew O'Hagan On Childhood Holidays

The author on how he's gone from Butlins to Beverly Hills

Most Popular

When I was a boy, the word “holiday” tended to open an argument that lasted from May until the end of September. My parents could never agree about whether Blackpool was the height of glamour or the third circle of hell, and – my father’s voice being the louder – we usually ended up spending a week in a guest house somewhere outside Oban, Scotland, where the resentful Wee Free landlady thought cornflakes were a horrid extravagance.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

I had a theory that the hostess, when not cooking endless rounds of odious kippers, was busy holding a glass to the wall, ambitious to hear my parents doing something unmentionable, like uttering Catholic prayers. My holiday experience was generally one of dropping tears of complete boredom into the sea, while attempting to catch a mackerel with an orange-stringed hand-reel that didn’t work.

Most Popular

Anyway, there came a year when my mother won. Not quite Blackpool, but Butlin’s in Skegness. My father got his revenge by driving us down from Ayrshire in a blue Bedford van that was more rusted than the hull of the Titanic. Our neighbours had to give us a push to get off and the van gave up the ghost somewhere outside of Lincoln.

My mother, handily, had stuffed a few tenners into a secret purse – she always carried two – so that we could make it home in the event that my father stormed off and took to the drink, but remorse (or pleasure) kept him sober and we continued on to Butlin’s. So long as I live, I’ll never forget the legend that stood out in neon beneath the swimming pool’s clock: “Our True Intent is All For Your Delight”.

I had a hateful brother who almost immediately pushed me into the boating pond and I ended up with a lump on my forehead the size of, well, Oban. As I remember it, I ended up spending most of that holiday on the chairlift over the camp, trundling back and forward over the Seventies miasma below, dreaming of a future where Bedford vans wouldn’t exist, where the word “holiday” would refresh the spirit and open the heart, as opposed to seizing it with dread.

Cut to summer 2014. I get my own back. Arriving at Los Angeles International Airport, I was thinking of the blue van when I picked up a stupid, open-top Mustang and gunned it down the Hollywood freeway to our hotel, where a 4 July rooftop pool party was already in full swing. “The past is a foreign country,” LP Hartley wrote. “They do things differently there.” But sometimes the present is merely a restaging of the past, in brighter, better colours, with the sepia burned away by a notion of full adult control. It’s an illusion, of course. Nasty holidays are just as memorable as super-indulgent ones, but it’s part of the joy of being alive to afford yourself the feeling that improvement was something you invented for yourself.

The brazen Mustang was a machine that had taken me in both directions at once. I couldn’t be certain, but after several cocktails, the Hollywood sign began to blink in red neon, a clock above a swimming pool, showing how time ticks by so luminously in the old imagination.

Originally published in Esquire's Big Black Book. Download the digital edition here.

***
MORE TRAVEL:

Essential Advice: How Not To Greet The Dalai Lama
How To Go On A (Micro) Adventure
Tom Parker Bowles On The Horrors Of The Family Holiday
***