Like Edwin Starr says: “Camping … what is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”.
Pedants may point out that he was actually singing about war. I can, however, reveal a startlingly-plausable QI-style factoid: Edwin’s 1969 anti-Vietnam-protest number-one soul hit was initially composed during a disastrous bank-holiday camping weekend in Abergavenny, and was only changed from “Camping” to “War” at the very last minute following intense pressure from the Welsh Tourist Board.
My parents were diehard outdoorsy-types, and so I suspect that breeding a pansy like me was not part of their family-planning. Fresh-air, the smell of the country, bracing walks and spectacular country scenery … all completely wasted on me. Occasionally I wonder if there was ever a mixup around the time of my birth. Perhaps somewhere out there was a boy with the same birthday as me who always wanted to go out and see The Big Wide World when his parents just wanted to stay at home and watch TV.
I was about 13 when they finally admitted defeat and ceased their attempts to “build character” by taking me camping all the time. Fair play to them for trying for as long as they did. But I reckon I’d built more than enough character by then. Certainly enough for my multiple personalities.
At 32, I’ve had nearly twenty years to forget about it and mellow. That whole circle-of-life thing has turned its awful turn, and I now find myself with my own children and this crazy urge to give them “happy family memories” and “build character”. I mean: surely camping wasn’t that bad?
So as a family, we went camping last week. Boy, those memories sure come flooding back, don’t they?
Why go camping?
To start with, let’s study the motivation for going camping. It’s a holiday away from the hurly-burly of home life. A way of separating yourself from the stuff of everyday existence that really doesn’t matter. Unnecessary luxuries. Things like … plumbing. Heating. Electricity. Antibiotics.
There are two problems with doing-without stuff that you don’t really need. The first is that you do not have the same idea as your spouse about what is and isn’t necessary. And the other is that even assuming you can decide, it still tends to be rather a lot of stuff.
Packing it into your reasonably-priced and economical family car is a task best attempted by only the most skillful Tetris players and contortionists. And – please trust me on this – this is a task you should do on your own. On no account should you and your spouse do it together. I can honestly say that after over a decade of marriage, I have never considered divorce. But I’ve considered murder countless times.
Degrees of camping
Within the overall sphere of camping enthusiast, there are various cliques and factions. There seems to be a sort of scale as to what different people class as “camping” – different degrees of “communing with nature”.
At one extreme, we have those who don’t consider it a “proper” camping holiday unless they:
- Suffer at least one case of dysentry per week.
- Stand in at least half a dozen cowpats.
- Bathe in the same stream that someone else is using as a latrine.
- Happily eat food that (under normal circumstances) they wouldn’t feed to the dog.
- Wash the manky three-year-old in a plastic bowl that they then use to wash the dishes.
- See the air ambulance visit the campsite to deal with at least one case of malnutrition/hypothermia/foot-and-mouth.
- Are happy to share a tent with the dog who has just rolled in a dead sheep.
- Camp accidentally with a platoon of Royal-Marines on survival training, and nobody notices.
And at the other extreme, we have the yuppy “I earn 300K/year, but I holiday in England because foreigners are so frightful” mob:
- They have lavatory paper. And a lavatory.
- Their “tent” is a 40-foot motorhome that costs more than my house.
- The campsite is an immaculately manicured lawn. No-one has ever died there.
- There is on-site shower block, bingo hall and 24-hour Waitrose.
- Despite supposedly being in the middle of rural-England, there are no animals of any kind permitted within a fifty-mile radius.
Let’s face it: English weather sucks. Any English pastime that depends substantially on good weather seems an exercise in futility.
Not that as a nation we aren’t determined to ignore it. Oh, no. We quite happily strip our children stark-naked at the mere hint of a sunny day. And we insist they remain that way throughout the day, even when the rain comes and their extremities turn blue. Because it “builds character”.
The Englishman’s tenacity – to soldier-on with their picnic throughout a force-nine gale – is what made England great. Or is it? Perhaps what made England great was our desire to invade and conquer every other nation of the world that enjoyed better weather than us. We’re not racist as such … we just hate any other nationality that has a tan.
Communing with nature
Camping is often cited as a way of “getting back to nature”.
Lets examine this statement for a moment. It suggests that we have moved away from nature, and we are worse off for it.
As humans, we seem to have spent most of our history building our homes to get us away from nature. We triple-glaze our houses, filter our drinking water, and install insect killers in our chip shops. That would seem to be progress. So perhaps the point of camping is to remind us how comfortable we are when we’re at home.
Nature is full of things that want to bite you, sting you, poison you, crap in your food, hide inside your wellies, or crawl all over your face at night. All in all: nature makes it clear when you’re not wanted. To camp in a field is like crashing a party to which you were not invited. Why not just let them get on with it without you?
Tents versus caravans
Now, when I was a lad, my parents were very much at the “roughing-it” end of the camping-comfort scale. They pointed the nostril of scorn at anyone who owned a caravan. They reasoned that anyone who slept in a caravan rather than a tent was not appreciating “the great outdoors”.
Well, twenty years later, and I can’t help thinking: if you want to go camping, then caravans are a bloody good idea aren’t they? Just like a tent, except … not shite.
Caravan owners don’t spend all day worrying that the next big gust of wind is going to blow their entire family off a cliff. They don’t expect to wake up in the morning to find the airbed is floating on three-inches of rainwater, and granny asleep in the river. They don’t have to spend ten minutes trying to unfold some ridiculous contraption simply in order to sit down.
And when the holiday comes to an end, and everyone makes their weary-way back to civilisation, I can’t help noticing … caravan owners leave in a leisurely, relaxed manner. They just hitch the caravan to the car and go. They seem curiously … serene, peaceful. Almost like they’ve been on holiday.
Whereas people who have spent the week in a tent … their wits are at an end. Attempts to fold that tent back into its ridiculously-undersized carry bag have stripped patience to nought. You hear a cry of “Oh sod it, Nigel. We’ll deal with it when we get home.” It all gets stuffed into the back of the car: tent, windbrakes, pushbikes, dangerous-looking gas canisters, accessories, rubbish, food, children … the lot. As they drive away, there’s a random leg sticking out of a window and an almighty family row brewing.
The secret to a happy family camping holiday?
Book a hotel. And leave the kids with granny.