Lionel Shriver, despite her name, is a woman. She was born Margaret Ann Shriver in North Carolina, and changed her name when she was 15. She currently lives in London.
Her novels include The Female of the Species (1986), Checker and the Derailleurs (1987), Ordinary Decent Criminals (1990), Game Control (1994), A Perfectly Good Family (1996) and Double Fault (1997). Her ninth novel, The Post-Birthday World, was released in March 2007 by HarperCollins.
And she has a refreshing view of the great modern pastime, "having fun" - one which The GOS wholeheartedly shares. He has lost count of the times he has arrived at a party, or a holiday resort, and stood bemused, wondering what he was supposed to do now. Fun isn't something you can switch on and off. Fun is what you have, more or less accidentally, while you're doing something else.
Go on, Lionel, tell it like it is …
I don't go on holiday. Ever.
Offer me two free tickets to Florence and a hotel overlooking Piazza San Lorenzo, and I will politely insist that you give them to a couple with a masochistic streak. Since I was freed from my parents' clutches, I have never voluntarily taken a traditional holiday in my life and can think of no inducement that would persuade me to join the hordes who spend a fortnight "doing" culture or lying on a beach or eating five-star meals in the lap of luxury.
But I work pretty hard and surely deserve a break. Wouldn't a holiday be fun?
Like happiness and love, fun is one of those peculiar quantities that can rarely be obtained by seeking it directly. You have a higher chance of having "fun" helping cyclone victims in Burma than taking a flight to Barcelona with the specific aim of living it up. Fun is a byproduct, like yeast extract. Trying to have fun is as doomed as trying to make Marmite without a brewery.
Even arranging the holiday is a bother. You go "conveniently" online to buy the tickets, entering in the dates and times, lodging your credit card data, only to have the site implode. Starting from scratch, you discover that in the past five minutes the flights you had selected have doubled in price. No matter how long you pore over hotel web pages, their bucolic photographs will bear no resemblance to the flea-pit with a rusty shower stall half an hour's bus ride from the coast.
Expenditure is stressful. Not knowing what you're doing is stressful. The pressure to make the right decisions with so much dosh and precious free time at stake is very stressful. Mind you, the more effort and money you pour into your "fun", the higher the likelihood that you won't have any.
Yet at this point the bother has barely begun.
You now have to get to the airport so early that for the time it takes to fly to Majorca, you could have paddled to the island in a rowing boat. As for security, the airport authorities' latest answer to terrorism is to treat every last passenger like a criminal.
Don't imagine that after parting with hundreds of pounds you've a right to get on a plane: in truth, you have bought nothing but an aspiration. You'll crawl onto that plane only if officialdom is feeling magnanimous and you're a good camper who jumps the hoops. Is your hand cream less than 100 milli-litres? Did you bring any "sharps"? The usage itself grates; no one outside the rarefied world of airport security calls a pair of scissors or a pocketknife a "sharp" (actually, they do in hospitals. But then the NHS isn't exactly famous for its down-to-earth approach to language. Or anything else for that matter - GOS).
Air travel is now an exercise in humiliation. Removing your shoes gives the rest of the queue a whiff of your dodgy socks, while your haemorrhoid cream is displayed for all the world to see in a one-litre Ziploc. The keenest humiliation is the insult to your intelligence. While you're publicly berated over that concealed quarter-teaspoon of lip gloss, the guy behind you is putting a cluster-bomb on the belt that they wave right through.
If, like me, you look unusually harmless, you're sure to have had your boarding card marked for the super-duper security drill: doing a Jane Fonda workout while bombarded with rays that will give you leukaemia. But God forbid you should get angry - which used to be what sane people did in a so-called "free society" when being treated like rubbish, but is now punishable with 10-to-life.
The last time my boarding card was smitten with the mark of Cain was in America. Picture it: I'm made to stand inside a little white circle marked out on the carpet, as if I've been caught firing spitballs at the kid in the front desk; no one looking on would ever imagine that I've done nothing wrong. Once a good 10 minutes pass with no available personnel to put me through the Jane Fonda, my plane is on last call. I dare to express annoyance.
"Ma'am - you're going to have to calm down."
"I am calm," I say icily. "No, ma'am, you're upset and you're not going anywhere until you calm down."
"I am merely being firm," I insist. I end up conducting a lengthy discourse about what constitutes "upset" versus "firm" and meanwhile my plane is taking off.
This is what we subject ourselves to for "fun"? People who have to run this gauntlet of shame for business would have to be barking to ask for the same degradation on their own time. Add to the security farce: the flight taking off two hours late, making you feel especially gormless for having arrived three hours early; subsequent missed connections and whole planes that, as if by a tin-pot South American dictator, have been disappeared; overweight seat-mates who hijack your armrest; broken video consoles; the closure of terminals because some wally left his bag with a bacon butty unattended on a bench - obviating the whole holiday exercise, since you can simply bring your sleeping bags and have a free camping trip in a Heathrow hall-way; lost luggage, especially if you were dumb enough to fly BA, in which case you probably deserve it.
Then it's time for some more hard work - although some people call it tourism. Filling up your dance card, taking in as many sights as time permits. The trudges are gruelling: from battlegrounds to castles, from galleries to churches.
When I see frazzled families on holiday, I don't only feel sorry for the parents but also for the children. What I remember about being in my own parents' tow is resentment at having no control - and in the most primitive respect.
My family took most holidays in a Chevrolet with an elusively nauseous smell (an admixture of mildew, toasted-coconut Dunkin' Donuts and cigarettes - and my parents didn't smoke). My enduring impression of these drives across America - when I was not getting car sick - is of needing to pee. My father is an impatient man with a capacious bladder and we kids found having to ask "to go to the baffroom" mortifying. So I'd tap my mother's shoulder and whisper in her ear once I was about to explode. My father's ritual refrain? "Can't you wait? We'll be there in another two hours."
Now I'll capitalise on my reputation for saying the unsayable: I hate museums (okay, I don't mind the art ones, so long as I don't have to dwell soulfully on every lithograph miniature for 15 minutes). Dutiful, cowed and guiltily bored, I always feel as if I'm on a school trip. Furthermore, the manner in which museums present information somehow ensures that I never retain it. I can't tell you how many tiny-print plaques I've read under the cooking utensils of Papua New Guinea or Egyptian ceremonial masks and I remember zilch.
Of course, an entirely different class of escape beckons in contrast to this up-and-at-'em beavering from plaza to palace: the decadent sort, at a beach resort or on a cruise. But, to me, pure hedonism is hell. Limping from 20-acre breakfast buffet to elevenses to lunch, slept off in time for cream tea. Dabbing away the jam to dress for a five-course dinner. Washing it all down with mimosas, white wine, lager and cognac . . . Gluttony is enervating. And how can you enjoy food if you never allow yourself to get hungry? Is it "fun" feeling fat?
Whenever I'm surrounded by excess, my experience isn't of indulgence but of painful restraint. Absent that restraint and I am actively miserable. Many of us ruin what small pleasure might be had from a gateau by anguishing, while the frosting is still in our throats, over how we're ever going to starve it off back home. A third chin makes for a pretty crap souvenir.
In fact, I'm so horrified by the all-you-can-eat get-away that I've never opted to take one. But my sampling of conventional holiday-making doesn't derive solely from childhood.
Ten years ago my former companion J and I mapped out a month in Portugal, Spain, France and Italy. We had resolved to move from our home in Belfast, and the official purpose of this journey was to find a new place to live. For the first three days we trooped into Lisbon super-markets to note the price of butter and inquired at our pensao about the average rents for flats. But on the third night, over bife de porco à alente-jana, J had a dark epiphany: the book he'd been commissioned to write was a nonstarter, he told me. No book, no advance; no source of income, no new country. We should probably just move to London, J grumbled (which we did). Robbed of our goal we were left - to my dismay - on holiday.
Now that we were travelling for "fun", I fell prey to an insidious existential angst. I was in a foreign country and I didn't know what I was doing there. I did not understand my purpose, my project. When we reached Paris, I couldn't remember why I was meant to care that the Palais-Royal was commissioned by Cardinal Richelieu in 1639. I couldn't get my head around why I was a better person for knowing that Balzac was buried in the Cimetière du Père Lachaise. I became troubled by the suspicion that I wasn't really interested in anything. So I went through my fraudulent paces, gawking dully at the Champs-Elysées but battling a soporific apathy and thinking mostly about where to eat dinner.
Where to eat dinner soon enjoyed such pride of place in our day's architecture that it became embarrassing. How much brooding did the average din-din require back home? Whoosh, I took the chicken out of the freezer: five seconds. Moreover, when our neighbourhood Turkish joint served a stingy portion of hummus, no big deal. On holiday in Italy, a merely indifferent linguine con pesto was crushing.
Morbidly afraid of not getting our daily exercise, J and I walked. Through Oporto, Barcelona, Arles, Paris, Genoa, Venice, Verona and Bologna (the town I mournfully determined would have made a splendid new home), we walked for eight hours a day. We didn't talk much (having abruptly unemployed himself, J was depressed - and that's the other thing about holidays: they don't spare you your troubles but provide all too ample an opportunity to dwell on them).
By the third week of this 9-to-5 slog, trying fiercely to have "fun" and therefore, of course, failing, J and I were pining for home. In retrospect I'm glad to have seen those cities, and there was a poignant intimacy in our mutual incompetence at the standard vacation. Nevertheless, it was a long month, a dissociating month, a weird and wearying month that we were both relieved to see the back of, and I'm not sure that I'd want to go through it again.
My own perfect holiday is a fortnight at home with no deadlines, appointments, book launches, literary festivals or - ugh - lunch dates. I sleep till 11am. I remember my dreams. I read books that I do not have to review and that I can stop reading if I don't enjoy them, like a normal person. I feel free to ignore the phone and gleefully allow e-mails to accumulate unanswered.
For no good reason, I draw a coloured-pencil cauliflower that no one will ever see. I go to boot sales to make small-talk with my neighbours and find an incredibly charming butter dish for 50p. I play a spot of tennis. I try the recipe for glazed poppy seed tea cake that I down-loaded three years ago. I stay up until 3am watching all the recorded films that are maxing out my set-top box hard drive. I end the night with a single chocolate, accompanied by Absolut Pears vodka with a dash of Campari and lime.
Now, that is fun.
The GOS says: Forget Libby Purves. This is my kind of woman. Sorry, Libby. You're just no fun any more.
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