My Holidays by Sylvia Smith is one of the more curious books I have read in a long time. It is touted by reviewers on the book jacket as being ordinary and mundane yet compelling and compulsive at the same time. And, curiously, they are right, though I admit to having very mixed feelings about the book. My Holidays is a quick and easy read, and a fast reader could easily finish in a single sitting. Smith's travel narrative is made up of a lifetime of journeys close to home and abroad and literally feels like surreptitious reading of someone's private travel journal about the very personal at times and where references to people and places are not always made in the most kindly or generous light.
Reading it felt akin to reading a laundry list of items as 'mundane' is exactly how these holidays are described even if the journey was perhaps much more exciting. There is a very perfunctory quality to her writing.
"On the Saturday morning Anna and I hastily packed our suitcases. After a large breakfast cooked by Rosemary we began the long journey home, stopping at intervals for refreshments and reaching our homes in early evening." (Dunwood, Devan in 1968)
Feels a bit like crossing items off a list, doesn't it? The travels cover an expanse of years from a family holiday in 1962 to holidays taken alone or with friends all the way to a disastrous one made to New York in 2001. Smith, who never married, and lived a quite ordinary life working mostly in secretarial jobs and living in boarding houses seems to have been an almost accidental author. I'm not quite sure what to call these . . . essays? travel narrations? The narratives are often quite short but are more about the personal experience or traveling (as in the mechanics of getting there and navigating the hotels, etc) than offering insight into the culture or history of the country or any sort of psychology of travel itself. Occasionally there are bits about the places or cultural events.
"The Tyrolean evenings were a great success. We thoroughly enjoyed watching the traditional dancers in their gay costumes and listening to the yodelling. After the floorshows we spent the remainder of both evenings dancing with the locals and the English and German tourists." (Utters, Austria in 1963).
"Sophie and I passed a pleasant afternoon walking along the Champs-Elysees and looking through the windows at the famous fashion houses. We sat at the table outsideone of the gay cafes eating cake and drinking coffee, watching endless traffic pass by. Late afternoon we photographed the famous Arc de Triomph and returned to our hotel, traveling there by the Métro." (Paris in 1966).
"Then we explored Blackpool's 'Golden Mile' of amusement houses. As I expected only a few were open. Most of the others were boarded up and some were being painted. We saw the famous tower. It didn't look very exciting on a grey winters day. The vast beach was sandy and free of stones. There were plenty of people about but few holidaymakers. I heard the sound of northern accents all around me. I noticed women frequently wore ankle socks and flat shoes with skirts and dresses. The weather was cold and windy." (Blackpool in 1991).
Unfortunately passages like these, brief and to the point were far and few in between. There is rather more about the getting there, the hotel, the person she traveled with, and the social interactions. Almost always there are mentions of duty-free shopping (is there still duty-free shopping and is it such a savings and big deal?). By social interactions I don't only mean interacting with the hoteliers or shopkeepers or other travelers on the package tours, but dates. Sometimes there is more about the romance or dates to be had than (or not) than the place traveled to. I should note that Smith writes about the romance aspect in a very modest way and her intentions never seemed more than wanting to go out dancing or a more platonic interaction (though some of her travel mates might not have had the same intention).
I think the book was meant to be more humorous, as in 'something always manages to go wrong on my holidays' written tongue-in-cheek with some degree of hilarity to ensue. And with travel writing humor is certainly a way to wryly cast light onto the foils and foolishness of people everywhere. The book, it feels like initially, sets out to do just that and there is a lightness to the storytelling, but with each narrative as the years pass the lightness feels less wry and deft and maybe just a little 'meaner' and curmudgeonly. If travel is meant to widen horizons and expand perceptions, make the traveler more sympathetic perhaps, it doesn't feel that way. Instead every little irritation feels enlarged and remarked upon.
For me her 1988 vacation to Turkey turned my enjoyment just a little bit sour. Let's just say that in Turkey there was topless sunbathing, which was remarked upon rather more descriptively than needed. Maybe it is my own 21st century sensibility, but body shaming always comes off in a very negative light, particularly when it is women's body shaming. But then Smith was also a smoker and curiously this was mentioned quite often, so maybe I am just too 'PC' to take some of these details in fun. Traveling with a companion or a friend is definitely a tricky business. Someone you might well love to be with on a weekly or even daily basis might prove to be difficult to travel with. And this is written about in some detail, though less with humor or lightness as the travels progress.
I hate to sound negative as I think the author was not trying to be mean in her representations and it is all really meant to be presented in a funny and insightful way, though often I think she misses her mark. There can be a lot of truth and wisdom in a book about the ordinary life (it's what most of us live anyway--I do), but My Holidays is on shaky ground at times. I did literally gulp this book, and in a strange way it was quite mesmerizing. Those pages do quickly, though there were definitely some moments of inward wincing going on. I guess I should admit here, despite the the book's shortcomings, I do own her other two books (I don't quite remember which one was acquired first, probably Appleby House as I like reading about apartment houses and their inhabitants, but I also have Misadventures), so I might see what they are like as well.
Sylvia Smith passed away three years ago and her writing was worthy enough for a NYT obituary, which goes some way on throwing light on her writing and books. This was my August pompt (Bon Voyage) book, but I definitely think I need something some other books on travel to throw into the mix!