Family summer holidays in my childhood were always spent in seaside bed-and-breakfasts or rented rooms. We never stayed in hotels and we certainly never went abroad. Hotel were too expensive and ‘abroad’ was impossibly exotic. Besides, neither of my parents had a passport. It was the same for the extended family. Although an (child-less) aunt and uncle, who had good jobs with British Rail, once went to Spain for a week. I remember a single, very small, photograph of them being passed around at a family gathering. I guess it must have been taken by a beach photographer because neither of them owned a camera. There they were, pink-faced and fully-clothed, sitting in deck chairs, smiling at their sheer good fortune. The most remarkable thing about the picture to my childish eyes was how very hot and sunny it looked. Nothing like Bognor Regis or Clacton-on-Sea.
Foreign travel wasn’t really something I really thought about until, as a teenager, I read my way through the James Bond corpus. I managed to acquire the complete set of Pan paperbacks, with the classic Raymond Hawkey covers, at school jumble sales. Bond went everywhere, flying BEA or BOAC, on Her Majesty’s secret service. Of course, these were business trips rather than holidays. But whether it was the France of Casino Royale, the United States of Diamonds Are Forever, the Jamaica of Dr No, or the Turkey of From Russia With Love, I was fascinated with Bond-world. Not just the exotic locations, but the hotels, the food, the drink, the cars, the weapons, the villain’s lairs — and, of course, the beautiful, mysterious women.
Bond was a dedicated secret agent who worked hard and risked everything in the line of duty, but knew how to enjoy life, from his cigarettes — ‘a Balkan and Turkish mix made for him by Morlands of Grosvenor Street’ — to his battleship-grey convertible coupé — ‘one of the last of the 4½-litre Bentleys with the supercharger by Amherst Villiers’. Ian Fleming was very good at this kind of practical detail. From Casino Royale, to take one example, I learnt how to navigate a casino, how to play baccarat, and how a dry martini should be made, or rather, how Bond thought a dry martini should made.
The Covid-19 lockdown made me think again about armchair travel, about how the mind can wander abroad even when the body is constrained, and about the extent to which books can both feed and satisfy the urge for new vistas and new experiences. Though real life is never like books, even non-fiction ones. Now I’m older and more experienced, I’m as familiar with the boredom and inconvenience of travel as I am with its pleasures. I’ve never experienced the dangerous glamour of a Bond jaunt and I’ve never dealt with hazard and hostility as capably as he did. Bond, the original Bond, an example of unapologetic twentieth-century masculinity, is deeply unfashionable now, not to say despised. But not by me.