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.


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.


Going offline

OK folks, brace yourselves. This will be my last blog post until the middle of July, and you won’t be seeing me tweet either. Yep, I’m going offline. Well, sort of – I’ve decided to stay off social media for a month. Why? A few reasons. Part of it is that I find myself getting fed up with it: at times it seems that Facebook is nothing but baby pictures* and vegan propaganda, and my Twitter feed is an unholy mixture of cute kittens, wry observations, and horrific human rights abuses. And as for Tumblr – there are only so many gifs a girl can take.

But here’s the thing. However fed up I get, I still keep coming back for more, checking it all every day. First thing in the morning. Last thing at night. Innumerable times in between. Scrambling for my phone whenever I hear the ‘bing!’ telling me I’ve got a message, a retweet, a new follower, whatever… I think there’s a word for this sort of behaviour. It’s called addiction. And I don’t want too many addictions – the prescription drugs and afternoon tea are quite enough.


And another thing – social media takes up a lot of time. Time I could be spending doing something else. Writing. Baking cakes. Watching Eddie Izzard. Reading classic novels. In Search of Lost Time ain’t gonna read itself, and the title seems especially apt in this instance, as I try to reclaim those precious minutes of my life that have been spiralling down the social media drain.


It’s not that I think social media is inherently A Bad Thing. When I was laid low with back pain, it was a lifeline, a way to feel connected with the world outside my bedroom. But, like codeine, crack and Candy Crush, it sure is habit-forming. Now that I’m well enough to venture out a bit more, I need to kick that habit if I’m to create the time I need for the more important things in life. So I figure it’s the moment to go cold turkey, reset my brain, and see what I can achieve when I’m not scrolling through tweets all day. I’ll be back on here in a month and I’ll let y’all know how it’s gone. Meanwhile, it’s a blackout for me: no Facebook, no Twitter, no WordPress, no Tumblr, no YouTube. If you need to contact me, you’ll have to do so by good old-fashioned means, like text message, email, WhatsApp, or Skype.


*and sorry new parents, but they do all look the same