How to Holiday

I’ve just got back from a fortnight’s holiday with my husband in Malta, an island with much to recommend it as a holiday destination – sunshine in November, delicious (and very cheap) pasties for sale everywhere, neolithic temples on dramatic hillsides overlooking the sea, and as many late-medieval fortresses and baroque churches as you could possibly want. The aim of the holiday was to get away from it all for a couple of weeks, leaving the stresses of the past few months behind us, and return to rainy England with our batteries fully recharged.

We were partly successful.

The problem with modern life is that, with wifi everywhere and the temptation to pack all our electronic toys overwhelming, it’s not really possible to get away from it all. Holiday snaps were immediately uploaded to Instagram and Facebook so all my friends could see me relaxing on the beach with a cold glass of Kinnie (a Maltese soft drink with a strong bitter-orange taste). Text alerts kept me fully informed in real time of the latest England cricket scores and the rise of Fascism. I emailed my agent the synopsis of my new book, The Land Only Dragons See, from my balcony. We were on holiday: but we were still connected to everything, and hence still, to an extent, living our normal lives.

But we did at least try to immerse ourselves in the Maltese experience, exploring the island, and sampling as many local foods as we could – the baked goods all come highly recommended, as does the rabbit in red wine sauce. And another method of immersion I always like to practise on holiday is reading books set in the local area. This practice dates from a trip we went on to Turkey years ago, when my ill-chosen holiday read was The Fanatic by James Robertson. This is a novel about religious turmoil in 17th-century Scotland. It’s a great book – but it felt totally wrong to be reading about Christian schisms in rainy Edinburgh while sitting by the pool in Turkey. So since then I’ve always tried to match my holiday reads to my destination – The Leopard in Sicily, The Mauritius Command in – wait for it – Mauritius, and so on. For this trip my husband had very thoughtfully picked out a couple of books for us in advance: The Sword and the Scimitar by David Ball, and The Kappillan of Malta by Nicholas Monserrat.

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The Grand Harbour, taken from the Barrakka Gardens in Valletta. Note cannons and fortress walls.

The first of these is an historical epic set in the 16th century, with a sweeping narrative culminating in the Great Siege of 1565. The second is about a priest during the second world war, telling stories of Malta’s history to a congregation sheltering from bombs in the catacombs. Malta is a place to bring out the military historian in anyone: its very flag incorporates the George Cross which was collectively given to its people for their heroic resistance in WWII. Its capital city is named Valletta, after the Grandmaster of the Knights of St John who led the fighting against the Turks (in person, at the age of 72. What a badass). Today, you can take a boat tour of Valletta’s Grand Harbour, and admire its many impressive
fortresses, bastions and ravelins standing proud through the centuries against Turks and Nazis alike.

It has to be said, there’s nothing like reading about the violence of the past in the comfort of a sun lounger to help you forget about the problems of the present.

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Lucky

It’s Halloween today – which, for most people, means either the joy of jack o’ lanterns and the perfect excuse to dress up in the most outrageously slutty outfit imaginable, or the annoyance of children knocking on your door to pester you for sweets. But for me, it now signifies a rueful anniversary: one year since I did my back in.

It’s been an interesting twelve months: living with chronic pain takes some getting used to, and I’d be lying if I said there hadn’t been a lot of frustrations. Cancelled holidays. Agonising journeys. Living a very restricted life, for many months. But the thing which strikes me mostly powerfully, when I look back and reflect on the past year, is how lucky I am. I mean, yeah sure, I had some bad luck with my injuries, but that is more than made up for by the good luck. I was lucky with my work; I had an understanding boss and a generous sick pay provision, so I could concentrate on recovering rather than worrying about getting fired. I was lucky with my home; I have a spacious and beautiful house, so spending so much time at home didn’t drive me stir crazy. I was lucky with my family and friends, and most of all my husband, who were all loving and supportive. I was lucky with the area I live in, surrounded by safe and pleasant streets and parks, so I could walk around and get my exercise without it ever feeling like a chore. I was lucky in any number of ways, so that, while I can’t claim it’s been a good year, it was a whole lot better than it could have been.

At this point, I’ve recovered a great deal from the state I was in last November, and although I’m still far from back to perfect health, I’m now able to do most of the things that make up a satisfying life. So long as I remember to do my stretches and take my cocktail of painkillers. Ideal? No. Better than many? Yes. Enough to get on with the things that are truly important? Definitely.

I’m hoping that, by this time next year, I might be taking fewer drugs, and able to fly off on holiday to the Med. Maybe I’ll get there, maybe I won’t. But more than the physical improvement, I want to make sure I remember what it felt like, and how much worse it could have been. To remember how lucky I was, how lucky I still am. I believe the old school phrase is to count one’s blessings. So I will. And I may as well check my privilege while I’m at it, to bring myself bang up to date.