No sacred cows

We thought having four kids would be idyllic. What were we thinking?

2 March 2019

9:00 AM

2 March 2019

9:00 AM

You’d think the little buggers would be grateful. Caroline and I had just shelled out for our two middle children — Freddie, 11, and Ludo, 13 — to spend a week in Austria on the school’s half-term ski trip. It meant we couldn’t afford to leave the house for the whole of February, but we stupidly paid for their sister to go on the same trip last year so felt we had no choice. Yet as soon as they came back they wanted to know where we were going on holiday this summer.

Ten years ago, they were more than happy to go to Cornwall, which suited me down to the ground. I would sit on the beach behind a windbreak, reading a James Ellroy novel, while the children pottered about in the sand. We’d have pasties for lunch, followed by an ice cream from Roskilly’s, and then, in the late afternoon, go for a walk along the coastal path.

I liked the simplicity of it, the innocence. Above all, I liked the fact that it was cheap. Renting a three-bedroom house on the north coast cost about £1,000 and there were no flights to pay for — ruinous when you have four children. I would happily repeat that holiday every year until they cart me off to a retirement home.

‘All my friends are going to Greece,’ said 15-year-old Sasha — an unhelpful intervention. I thought one of the benefits of sending my children to state schools was that Caroline and I would avoid getting locked into a status battle with the other parents, something that seems to afflict all our mates who’ve gone private.

But Sasha wasn’t exaggerating: an alarming number of her friends seem to go on wildly extravagant summer holidays. How do their parents afford it? After looking at the eye-watering cost of renting a villa for a week in Cephalonia, Caroline and I sat at the kitchen table trying to calculate their disposable incomes. Did they have lower mortgages? Drink even cheaper and more revolting red wine than us?

They almost all have fewer children, which must help. What the hell were we thinking? When I fantasised about what it would be like having a large family I would picture these idyllic scenes: the six of us crewing a sailing boat together in the Caribbean, or carving down a mountain in parallel.

I didn’t really think about the expense, just assumed I’d be so successful that money would be no object. Now the summit of my ambitions is a driving holiday in Brittany. And we’ve traded in the VW Transporter for a Touran, so we’re talking sardines. Not sure that will give Sasha many bragging rights in the school playground.

In previous years, Caroline has managed to find super-cheap resort holidays, either in Portugal or the South of France, but I’m not sure I can cope with another. It’s not the people (I enjoy the company of gammon-faced Leave voters at Butlin’s-on-the-Riviera, obviously), it’s the grub. I’m an inverted snob about virtually everything apart from food, the legacy of having been a restaurant critic for five years.

Unfortunately, because these package deals are full board I’m too mean to forgo a meal in the all-you-can-eat buffet, particularly as it would mean having to pay for six of us in a restaurant. So I sit there with a pile of horrid little sausages in front of me, moaning about how I can’t wait to get back to Acton. Incidentally, when Caroline and I first got married, we lived in Shepherd’s Bush and I thought it wouldn’t be long before we’d be moving somewhere nicer — Notting Hill or Holland Park. In fact, we’ve gone in the opposite direction.

‘Are we poor?’ asked ten-year-old Charlie, as I tried to sell the children the idea of a walking holiday in Scotland. No, no, I assured him. We’re fairly well-off compared with most people, even if I do have to mend his school shoes with superglue. ‘But what if Jeremy Corbyn becomes president?’ This was prompted by my telling him we’d have to sell the house if Labour win the next election on account of the garden tax. ‘Don’t worry, Charlie,’ I said. ‘That’s never going to happen. Theresa May is going to take us out of Europe later this year, deal or no deal, Britain is going to thrive as an independent sovereign state and the Tories are going to romp home in 2022.’

I genuinely believe that too. On the other hand, I have always suffered from a surfeit of optimism.

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