For as long as my parents still went on holiday together, which ended around my sixth or seventh year, there was nothing unusual in the fact that I should have been sent off with my nanny to stay in what was called a Board Residence in a seaside town on the South Coast. The first two or three weeks of the holiday were divided between long periods of routine and brief moments of terror, with, I am sure, some pleasure in the middle. I call the parts 'pleasure', 'terror' and 'routine' to mark the fact that for me in those years routine too was a kind of emotion. Pleasure erupted into my life when fine weather allowed me to arrive on the pier, and I was allowed to walk up and down the row of black and silver boxes, which were arranged along the broadwalk, until I chose the peepshow I wanted to see, and for this I was allowed to divert a penny from the buying of a comic. There were, I believe, peepshows for all tastes, and there might have been some that were unsuitable for children, but I did not spare a thought for them because I was interested solely in the historical dramas, and supreme among them was the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the great hall of Fotheringay Castle. The momentous event, the inevitability of which was conveyed in a way that no history book could rival, unfolded in distinct tableaux, in the third and last of which Mary, who had already faced her accusers and said farewell to her ladies-in-waiting, was found kneeling with her neck on the block. At a signal from the man with the long auburn beard, who was the sovereign's emissary, the masked executioner stepped forward, the axe rose and fell, and the head rolled. The great portcullis descended, and then there was a click, and the scene went dark. By the time the next person stepped up to the box, and another penny dropped, and the portcullis rose on the first tableau, the head was back on the young queen's shoulders, and she was ready to meet her stern tormentors once again, to pit in vain her beauty and her freshness against their heavy, grown-up authority. Sometimes, amid the protests of my nanny ('Isn't it a waste of money?'; 'Isn't there something you'd rather spend your money on?'; 'You won't be able to sleep tonight'), I would insist on watching the drama a second time through, for I needed to know that Mary could have life restored to her, even if only to lose it again, and as pathetically. I deeply resented the presence of the holidaymakers standing behind me, looking over my shoulder, waiting for their turn, but I told myself that they could not take anything from me, because, while they were condemned to stay put among the crowd on the pier, eating ice-cream or candyfloss, breathing in the salt air, listening to the waves lapping at the metal struts below, wrapped in noisy laughter, I could, through the power of concentration, slip out of the present and escape back down the centuries to the scene of death and a woman's courage. Such experiences were what I meant by a holiday.
LRB 20 May 2004 | PDF Download