In the old days, I understand, going on holiday with children involved little more than taking a bucket, spade and a handkerchief with optional knots at the corners. This summer I felt like Mrs Beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, who, readers will recall, with the wicked queen about to arrive to turn everybody to stone, delayed leaving in order to pack her full tea service, regretting only that she would be unable to bring her sewing machine along.
Our own luggage for four children (aged 4, 6, 8 and 9) consisted almost entirely of sunblock with a prevention factor of about 637 and a series of educational aids. My grandmother often used to say: "Education is something they can never take away from you." But then my grandmother was Swedish and deeply conservative, and, coming from a country where the children's writer Astrid Lindgren once received an income tax demand amounting to 102 per cent of her declared earnings, she placed a particular value on anything that the government was unable to confiscate.
On the other hand, whether they can take it away from you or not, many of us are entirely capable of mislaying it in other ways. I can imagine the "thought police" banging on my door late one night and saying: "Hello, Mr French, are you in there? We've come for the 'eastern' question. We know that you did it for A-level history and we want to take it away from you."
"You're too late, copper," I'd reply cockily. "It's already gone. I barely understood it at the time, and now there's no trace of it at all."
"Not so fast, lad. We've got a list here of other things to take away." The officer pulls out a long list, at each of which I shake my head. "Topology, elliptical curves, Cavour, the pluperfect tense, amino acids, the mole. "
"That's a small furry animal that digs holes, isn't it?" I interrupt hopefully.
"No, we mean the classification of molecular weight."
"Sorry, that went years ago. But I do remember the German word for speed limit: GeschwindigkeitsbeschrAnkung. And fero ferre tulli latum. To bear. That's all I've got."
The officer sighs. "Well, we'll take them, but it's not much to show for 13 years at school."
Sorry, where was I? Oh, yes, taking educational aids on holiday. Books, of course, and various musical instruments were pushed into the back of the car, but not, finally, the cello, because it's hard to get it to bend to fit into the space required. I also bought a small stack of those books which enable you to furnish your children with those "essential skills which will provide a firm foundation for success at school".
They were books about counting, spelling, reading and a very peculiar but intriguing one about reasoning for nine to 11-year-olds. Wrap your thinking gear round this example: "Gary had a white mouse. He exchanged this mouse with Kate for a canary, which Kate had obtained from Sam in return for a rabbit. Sam had obtained this canary from George." And then you have to answer questions such as: Who had the canary first of all? Who now has the canary? Who now has the rabbit? If at the end Kate exchanges with George, what will Kate have then?
Unfortunately I've been a parent for far too long now to be able to reason on this abstract level any more. The questions that came into my mind were: If Kate's rabbit had really belonged to her sister, Emma, and George's canary was a birthday present from his aunt who is coming to visit next bloody weekend, and Kate let the mouse escape which is now under the floorboards in the back bedroom, and Sam has recently developed asthma, then how many hours did Gary, Kate, Sam and George's parents have to spend on the phone sorting the whole mess out? And above all, who ended up having to clean the cages? If you answered Gary, Kate, Sam andor George, deduct five marks.
The question also reminded me of the Tom Lehrer song that begins: I got it from Agnes. She got it from Jim.
We all agree it must have been Louise who gave it to him.
Now she got it from Harry, who got it from Marie.
And everybody knows that Marie got it from me.
Who did Harry give it to? So this book that was meant to dissolve my worries ended up, through no fault of its own, queasily evoking all of my worst fears of what summer holidays might be like in about 2009.
As it turned out, the sun shone and the educational booklets remained firmly shut, but there are, of course, wider forms of education. We taught our four-year-old to ride a bike. She can now ride for any distance, so long as an adult accompanies her every inch of the way bent at a 90-degree angle with an arm on either side to push her back to the vertical. This may sound painful for the adult, but it is little worse than having a stiletto inserted into your thighs and removed from the lower part of your spine.
And we fished. Do you remember that old slogan: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life"? With my own experiences as a fisherman, I was already dubious about the truth of this statement, but I can now add to it: "Teach your child to fish and you will spend much of your holiday untangling 'birds nests' of tangled line, removing fish-hooks from your jersey, jabbing your fingers on the nasty spines that protrude from a perch's back and smelling slightly strange for a surprisingly long time."