The escape artist

From his observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, the late Percival Lowell used to record the seasonal changes he saw on the planet Mars. Armed with an imperfect telescope and more credulity than is good for an astronomer, he described how the melting of the polar icecaps each Martian spring sent water through a global network of canals, causing a darkening wave of growing vegetation along their banks. From this he was led to speculate upon the lives and habits of the Martians, those great engineers who had built the canals so long before.

Alas, today we know that the canals were an optical illusion. But if there were a Martian Lowell who turned his telescope upon the Earth, I wonder what he would make of the waves of traffic he would discern each summer, as he watched the exodus along the highways from cities to the coasts and countryside, the flow of cars from northerly to southerly zones, and the dense streams of aircraft crossing the oceans like so many migrating monarch butterflies. Would he decide that each year the inhabitants of Earth were seized with some terror, as of a plague, leading to this feverish movement?

The speculations of a Martian astronomer are lost to us, but we do know that each year we are seized by a fever to get away. All over the world people fill the highways and the airways as they go on vacation - for what? What are they all trying to escape from? And can they succeed?

Once in a hotel in the English Lake District I encountered a band of determined walkers who were escaping from their families. Each year they met to spend a fortnight walking together, and were triumphant at having exchanged the burdens of domesticity for those of the mountaineering boot and the backpack. Yet their conversation centred on their homes and I pictured them, as they struggled up hill and down dale, worrying about landscaping the patio or redecorating the kitchen. They, it was clear, had not found the solution.

The travel agent has other solutions. This merchant of dreams offers us a dazzling variety, a veritable cornucopia, of possibilities. Come with me, he whispers, crooking an enticing finger, and fly away - away from your home, from your daily life, into another world, and another you. For the fledgling traveller, he offers the reassurance and charm of Europe. If that is not enough, he brings out pictures of the Caribbean, or the Seychelles - all palm trees, pristine beaches, and gloriously intolerable sunshine. For the customer who even now shakes his jaded head, he suggests a safari in Kenya or the Taj Mahal by moonlight.

But when we get there, we find one impediment to stepping through the brochure and becoming part of that dream picture: it is ourselves. Venice is a delight, if you can keep the right side of the wind from the canals. The bay in Barbados has catamarans racing like mustangs over the turquoise sea, but the beach is too hot to walk on and the sea-urchin spines are to be avoided at all cost. The Uffizi in Florence has marvellous paintings, but it is a pity that they are displayed so that one cannot see them - the Guggenheim is so much better.

No, there is one piece of luggage that we cannot unpack, or leave behind, which prevents the fulfillment of that promised escape. We look at the scenery, we meet the people, and find that they faithfully mirror our prejudices. And so the mood of escape turns to one of fortitude, even of resignation. We are caught reading the International Herald Tribune or the Wall Street Journal and begin thinking of our return with something suspiciously approaching eagerness.

All these attempts at escape have one cardinal flaw: they are founded on the belief that mere change in location is enough. It is not. True escape, I have discovered, involves travel through time as well. Just as Proust, eating a madeleine sponge cake dipped in tea, found that the taste of the cake translated him back to the joy of his childhood in Illiers, so we must in our own ways recapture the carefree days of the past.

Some of us, of course, know this already. That is why you will find us, secret time travelers that we are, in the simpler and purer world of the Scottish Highlands, or the coast of Maine, where the days are long and the air and water are sweet and clean. For myself, I return to a little spot on the Norfolk coast where the world is restricted to a sailboat, an estuary, and endless stretches of sandy beach inhabited only by oyster-catchers, gulls, and terns. In this enchanted spot, where for some mysterious reason the sun is always shining as it did in the long, hot summers of the Edwardian era, time has stood still. Wildflowers line the narrow lanes, the little shops are managed by slow, kindly people, and I can come soaked, muddy, and jubilant into the hotel after my sail, squelch across the Turkey rugs, and collapse into a creaking cane chair to have my tea. Once more I am ten years old - and what better escape can one ask for than that?

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