I spent whole family holidays in a state of excruciating boredom, desperately impatient to reach the end of each activity, keening for some as-yet un-realised future goal that would be more satisfying. At that age, you miss the point of the whole outing, which is, of course, to deliver memorable and edifying experiences, but more than this, to share the experience as a family, to enjoy being together. To relax.
I didn’t read well, so I was never going to be absorbed in guidebooks or in information cards. My parents were good at exposing us to culture and history, but perhaps we could have done with more discussion of it: placing of things in wider contexts, relating them to our own life experiences. For a voluble family, we were remarkably reticent.
Or maybe they tried and I just wasn’t interested, because I seem to remember a lot of wandering around gazing wordlessly at interesting artefacts, wondering how it was meaningful to travel somewhere simply to look at something. How was gazing at something a useful transaction?
So, every walk, every National Trust property was, in a quiet way, a horrifyingly unrewarding experience, momentarily alleviated by gaining a hilltop before the rest of the family, stopping for a ham roll, seeing the armoury: vanishingly brief moments of relief.
It was a gentle, manageable despair, but often so profound I would have classified it as an existential crisis, had I known the term.
My ennui could hit truly cosmic proportions. Don’t laugh at me! Half way through an activity, the thought would pop into my head, “what’s the point in this?” That thought would rapidly expand outward to encompass any answer I could give myself, no matter how comprehensive and outwardly convincing: “What’s the point in this hike?” To get some exercise to make yourself fitter and healthier; to experience a beautiful landscape; to spend time with your family. “what’s the point in making myself fitter and healthier…?” on and on it would accelerate, in all directions, like a sonic boom, enveloping everything around me – cows in the next field? “What’s the point in keeping cows?…” “but what’s the point in producing food, having a livelihood…?” eating up everything in its path: cities, countries, continents, the whole planet itself, all human endeavour, love, culture, society, family, and on out into the universe until, in deep space, despair would reach its limit, hanging there in blackness among numberless, purposeless and hopelessly distant stars.
And then the feeling would vertiginously contract all the way back down to the tiny point of myself, because what was the point in even asking the question? This is where I found myself and there was nothing I could do about it. Except endure.
Strangely, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this to anyone else. I wasn’t a very reflective child and I didn’t dwell on things. I guess when you’re young you just accept that this is the way the world is and this is the way everyone experiences it. It probably is. All teenagers moan about how bored they are. All teenagers ask what the point is. It’s just hormones. Despair is a chemical, empty of meaning.