This Week’s Must Read: Ghastly Holidays: Things my father never told me… by David Williams
Comic poet David Williams’s goes on an ‘ode’ trip of his worst holiday experiences in this laugh-out-loud holiday-themed collection.By Timothy Arden
If there’s one thing that we Brits all agree on, it’s that nothing beats a good holiday. Be it to Benidorm or Bognor, we all count down the days until we can escape the rat-race for a week or two for sunnier climes and a liberal supply of cocktails.
Another thing that unites us as a nation is the love of a good old-fashioned moan and, truth be told, there can be many things to grumble about on holiday. Whether it’s an attack of Delhi belly or sub-par accommodation that in no way matches the photos, we’ve all experienced minor, or major, calamities at one point or another.
These experiences can, however, often be hilarious in hindsight and, according to comic poet David Williams, deserve to be remembered and celebrated. In fact, for many people it is those moments where things went a little awry that are the only lasting souvenirs from our travels.
Accordingly, his new poetry collection Ghastly Holidays: Things my father never told me… provides a tongue-in-cheek record of the horrendous incidents he has experienced while holidaymaking with his family over the last two decades.
As I read through the 16 poems, I regularly found myself chuckling in recognition; for David’s light verse truly captures the gloriously awful things that can and probably have beset us all on holiday. They are, in that respect, the snapshots that most (sane) people would probably try to bury at the back of the photo album.
The collection kicks off with ‘Hurray For Rosé’, an impassioned ode to rosé wine, the poet’s tipple of choice and, it seems, favourite destination while abroad…
People pay for the cirque du soleil,But I prefer rosé,People say “olé le Moet”Non, je préfere rosé.
It’s a drink that keeps popping up among the poems and, one suspects, is the libation to thank for keeping David propped up as each mini-disaster unfolds! Whatever the case may be, this humble paean makes for an excellent introduction as it gives us a warm feel for the writer behind the words. He’s cultured, but not a snob; very much an individualist, but not eccentric (well, with the exception of some of more absurd lyrical flights of fancy). In short, a British everyman outside of his home turf and the perfect travel companion for this splendid misadventure.
Things get a little saucy with ‘Living Rubber’, which provides a nonplussed examination of surfing in the Cornish Riviera. It reads like a combination of Martian poetry—that short-lived British poetic movement where everyday things are described as if by someone who had never encountered them before—and a traditional British postcard. Don’t be alarmed, it’s as inoffensive as a classic Carry On film, but very funny with some wonderful off-the-wall observations…
In an act of living rubber devotion,People plunge into the Atlantic Ocean,Attaching a huge board to their feet and ankles,Paddling out to sea in these fluorescent manacles.
This is also a good poem to serve as an exemplar for Williams’s writing style. By and large, it is deceptively simple, like the work of Pam Ayres, and also shares a similarity in the choice of topics: experiences that we can all associate with. At the same time there is a streak of absurdism not too dissimilar to that of Spike Milligan and, as mentioned above, a love of innuendo as can be found in the writing of Ronnie Barker (who was an avid collector of vintage seaside postcards).
One of the standout poems for me is ‘How To Drive Greek’, which tackles that perennial favourite gripe of British drivers overseas. It’s an unashamedly over-the-top verbal roast of bad driving which doesn’t so much hit its mark as knock it flying. Take, for instance, this stanza…
Mirrors are merely decorative,To assist in personal preening,They have no further part to play,And yes, they have no meaning.
Or this one…
The quickest way to meet your maker,Is to become a blind summit over taker,The more acute the angle, the greater the danger,A much greater chance of killing a perfect stranger.
Getting from A to B during the vacation, or not, is a theme revisited several times in the collection, with Williams lamenting a woefully irregular bus service in rural France, in ‘The Only Bus In Losieres’, and providing a comic short story—a nice change of pace—in ‘Things To Do With a Hire Car in Corfu’. Imagine National Lampoon's European Vacation with British accents and you get the idea.
Holiday sickness is another rich vein that Williams taps for comedy, such as in the straight-to-the-subject poem, 'Diarrhoea':
A simple walk around Stonehenge,Can be subsumed by Monte Zuma’s revenge,You know when you have the trots,The solstice- huh, I care not one jot!
This, like the majority of the poems, ends with a short, ironic moral that serves as the lop-sided cherry on a very twisted cake. In this instance, Williams, who has just signed off the piece with a full disclosure that he has “cramps in the nether regions/It’s another bout of the damned Norwegians!”, advises his dear readers to “Eat rarish goat, curry and plenty of white hot chilli” for the best results.
While Ghastly Holidays is principally designed to make you laugh, often at the author’s expense, Williams does include a more personal and moving poem in 'Humming Bird,' which is about dhis father’s dementia:
Mouths can start talking free of the brain,As befits Alzheimer’s,There’s no humming and erring, just another refrain,Outbursts are as welcome as silence.
Before things become too gloomy, however, he brings in an allusion to the titular bird of the title, which then forms the remainder of the poem. Here he carefully treads the fine line between comedy and tragedy, such as in the couplet, “And perhaps as a mother does after a spat with her daughter/Become a humming bird, spend ninety percent of your life in torpor.”
At first glance it may seem an odd inclusion for a book about holidays but I think that here Williams is suggesting that dementia is akin to a permanent period of absence without going anywhere.
In summing up, Ghastly Holidays is a delicious trip around the dreadful that exudes personality and wit. All the poems are beautifully presented, accompanied by charming black and white line drawings that helps amplify the words, and a pound from every sale goes to ABF The Soldiers’ Charity, which helps ex-servicemen and their families go on holidays to remember (for the right reasons).
Williams has described the book, his second after 2014’s Filthy Creatures, themed around animals, as being dedicated to “the joy of life and trying to make difficult positions we find ourselves in a little easier to handle”. In this aim, at least, he has reached his goal admirably and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who loves a good giggle, or needs one after the holiday from hell.
Ghastly Holidays: Things my father never told me… by David Williams is out now via Oort Publications and Amazon UK, priced £9.99 as a paperback and £4.99 as an eBook. Further information about David Williams can be found on his website, www.oortpublications.co.uk
Meet the Author: David Williams
It was an ultimatum from his wife that first led David Williams to publish his comic poetry. Now, with two books under his belt and a further two waiting in the wings, the genie of daftness is well and truly out of the bottle. Behind the author’s humour, however, is a heart and infectious joy for life.
David Williams was born in Dulwich but was raised in Cornwall before returning to London, where he completed his schooling at Harrow. His first job after finishing his education was with Savills, the global real estate company, which he joined in 1982, starting out in the marketing department ‘prepping’ the advertisements for publications such as Country Life. Nearly four decades later, he is still with the Savills, where he now serves as an Executive Director and assists owners and developers in the delivery of their dream schemes around the world.
Since an early age David enjoyed classic British comedy, from the mad-cap humour of Spike Milligan on The Goon Show to the genteel anarchy of I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again. He also devoured the writings of Roald Dahl, which is still celebrated today for its inventive silliness, and cites his own godfather, the late humourist Alistair Sampson, as a particular influence.
However, it was only after his marriage, and the arrival of his children, that he began writing his own comic material, mainly in the form of light verse.
As he explains, the muse first came to him while on holiday with his young family, now consisting of four children aged 17 to 28. “I started to write to help our children go to sleep,” he says. “I wrote poems that featured the animals we’d seen or the strange things that had happened during the day. It kept them entertained and helped them nod off, though I’m not sure if that’s a compliment!”
In time, those pieces of writing started to stack up and, David says, ended up “littering the house”. “There were notebooks all over the place,” he recalls. “It got to the point where my wife, exasperated by the clutter, threatened to throw them all out, so I decided to publish them.”
His first book, Filthy Creatures: Things My Mother Never Told Me, was released to an unsuspecting world in 2014 through his own publishing house, Oort Publications. It offers a “poetic tour of some of God’s best-loved and most hated creatures” while “highlighting some of their naughtiest traits”. Among its pages can be found Williams’s trademark wry verse and tongue-in-cheek observations on the habits of a menagerie of animals, adorable aardvarks and whimsical wildebeests to cheeky chimps. At the same time, he includes a more serious message about the plight of these animals at a time when their natural habitat is increasingly under threat.
His latest collection, Ghastly Holidays, has just hit the shelves and is another triumph of comedy writing, this time looking at the Great British Getaway through a mirror oddly. Like with animals, the author has a particular fondness for travel and has spanned the globe with work or his family. If he has one bugbear about the holiday experience, it’s that, in his opinion, many people jet off without really giving thought to their destination and don’t take the time to “really explore, venturing off the beaten track”. After reading Ghastly Holidays you might think that staying planted firmly to the nearest beach is the safest option but that would be to miss the underlying point that Williams is trying to get across: that however a holiday pans outs, you should “aim to be more present in your journey, as there’s so much to take in and enjoy which you will otherwise miss”.
This comment betrays Williams’s joie de vivre and, perhaps, his temperament accounts for his attraction to comedy. As his own holiday mishaps and grumbles attest to, there’s always going to be the occasional mosquito in the ointment, but if you can laugh at it then it “diminishes the sting”, saves the overall experience and makes for a great anecdote down the line.
David continues to split his time between London and Cornwall, where he is a trustee of The Caerhays Estate, and outside of writing enjoys “many passions including common sense, an inexorable appetite for life, cricket, Wimbledon Common, Cornwall and ABF The Soldiers’ Charity.”
As for the future, Williams has two further collections lined up, Buffy’s Beauties and Shocking Stars, with the first set for publication next year.
Exclusive Q&A with David Williams
We speak to comic poet David Williams about his worst and best holiday experiences, and receive some humorous short stories in response.
Q. What is the worst holiday you have ever been on, and why was it so ghastly?
A. First of all, aren’t we lucky having any holidays at all! “Ghastly” implies beyond terrible, possibly unmentionable, and to answer the question, the holiday story which ensures our friends and family are doubled up in pain goes as follows…
You are asked to go on a school fathers and sons’ ski trip. How kind; the kids break bones, the fathers do stupid things after lunch and so on. Finally, there is the farewell supper, up a mountain where you drag your toboggan up and potter down after a last and final. Simples. As this particular father returned from the loo after supper, all the kids and their Dads had buggered off leaving me to pay the bill.
At 6ft 3in, the velocity with which my head hit the pine beam by the front door meant I briefly blacked out on the floor before regaining consciousness, with the added bonus of complimentary stars. The concern of the bar staff was incredible. They had none.
Staggering into the gloom to find the last toboggan, where strangely the helpful headlight had been half inched by one of the youngsters, I straddled the blasted thing and remember hearing the very distant shrieks of terror, way down the mountainside as the party picked up speed and competed to be first down to the village.
Speed in my case was zero; the toboggan may as well have been glued to the snow. Get up then, walk to what might be the start of the slope and get on with it. There was now total numbing silence.
Off we went.
“That’s it push on… wonderful, some speed,” I looked up to see other stars mixed up with my own, “how weird is that?”
“Wow, now to turn a bit, nicely done if I may so, more speed needed—speed up—gosh, we really are moving now… Yes we are going quickly, but no control; can’t turn, can’t stop….. Sh*t Daddy, you are flying….! “
Flying off the edge, in fact. To be honest, I am not sure if I crapped myself in mid-air or as I hit the pine tree, but either way the ghastly deed in the salopettes was done.
Squelching down gingerly to the impatiently-waiting fathers, our youngest came up with a pained expression.
“What happened Daddy?”“I’ve crapped myself.”
2. Have you ever had a good holiday?
A. They are all good, particularly when the bad bits ensure you can remember them!
Perhaps many of you have experienced a trip like this while on holiday…
One’s darling wife asks you to take a couple of the children’s friends back to Corfu Airport.“Morning Darling, do you want me to take Matt and Gerald to the airport?”“Morning Darling, yes please, it’s the 11.15 flight back to Gatwick, so an hour and a half check in, actually you’ll probably need to leave about now. Oh, could you phone their mothers to confirm they are being escorted by the air staff thanks. Freddie’s other mates who are on the 12.30 into Corfu, when you have picked them up, could you collect this little lot on the way back.”“Yes, of course darling,” I said pocketing a double page A5 shopping list.Have any of us ever been the on the same road to Corfu Airport? The postman Pat hire van which had started to buckle inwards due to the heat, had a special trip lined up for us. As I tossed the kids suitcases into the back, turned on the A/C (opened the one window which one could) and set off with my charges, the premonition that this was going to turn ghastly seemed inconceivable.Roadworks on Corfu are a casual affair as they should be in 40 degree heat. What seems to work well is to place a big arrow abruptly on a blind summit stating “Ektopi tis kinisis” – “Diverted traffic”. After 20 minutes of off road driving, pursued by a hungry DAF truck’s grill banged up against the rear view mirror, we suddenly burst out into the centre of Corfu town.“Are we there now?” asked Gerald, in that disdainful tone which implies dismay that “we” are not and bloody well should be.“Not quite yet Gerry, almost though.”The rear view mirror was empty, where had everyone gone?We had entered the heart of the capital where no cars, only bikes are allowed and were now confronted by three no entry signs, left, right and centre. OK, so just slowly reverse, don’t worry about those anxious looks from just about everyone, turn around and go back- easy. Postman Pat clipped the front wheel arch of a super looking sparkly bike, you know the one’s driven by hells angels, which meticulously toppled over ever so slowly onto the next one and so on. The noise was excruciating and rather ghastly.“Are we in trouble?” asked Gerald.“Buckets of trouble,” I growled.“What are you going to do?” asked Gerald helpfully.“Well, I am going to get out and offer these people some euros- how many have you got Gerald.”“Enough for some drinks at the airport.”“Well Gerald you are going to have to go thirsty sorry - give them to me now please!”“No.”One leather-clad person started banging on the roof.“Now Gerald! “I grabbed the cash and eased out of the van - there were many of them and they were looking fierce, so I ventured in best Granglais;“So baddo, VERY Sorry – have Euro” I waved around about 55 euros which was a lot, “ but sorry, in hurry to Airporto to drop paidia (children) - must go quicko err now. “Bravely setting the money down on the bike kiosk, I bolted back into the car and drove off.We were now very late and yes I was ashamed, but children first eh? You decide. We arrived at the airport and no parking at all, with just 15 minutes before check in closed.“What are you going to do now?” asked Gerald.“Well, I am going to park in the bus terminal Gerald and no matter what happens, we are going to run really hard into the airport- right are you ready boys, get those cases- let’s go.“Many, many smart bus drivers in crisp white overalls were shouting “No park, no parko” so I threw them the keys and we ran flat out. Thankfully I just got the little blighters through customs on time with seconds to go.Oh the mothers… right must phone them now;“Hello, hi Christine, David here, just to let you know Gerald…”“Is my angel alright?”“ No, yes he’s fine…”“Is he OK ; REALLY”“Christine, yes wonderful, could you let me fin ….”“What have you done, why didn’t Sara take the boys to the airport?”“Christine, hi, David here, they are on the flight all’s well, loved having them by the way.”“Oh thank goodness, what are the names for each of the boy’s escorts, I’ll let Tilly, Matt’s mother know?”Pause“David?”“The escorts Christine, oh sorry I can’t remember, we were in a bit of a hurry.”“A hurry, or did you forget David?”Pause“David?”“I forgot.”Pause“Right on your head be it!” Click.My brain whirred “ Love all that gratitude- now to pick up the Garel-Jones boys and then back for lunch – damn no cash to pick up Mrs. W.’s supplies and while I think about it cripes; no car. “Not a bit of it, the car was intact, straddling a bus bay with one door open, as if to say “I’ve got some more fun for you baby” and with the twins picked up, off we set, back to Kassiopi.“Lovely to have you boys over!”“Thanks- can’t wait David, thanks for having us.”What a change a “thank you” can bring to the whole world! We giggled our way back passed Kalamaki Beach and happily home.
3. Who do you most enjoy going on holiday with, and why?
A. Inevitably, the family and over the years, seeing all their friends growing up with us (possibly not Gerald). Unbeatable.
Q. As a seasoned holidaymaker, what are your principle dos and don’ts for enjoying a holiday to remember (for the right reasons)?
Bring a few books but don’t expect to read themExploreUnleash laughterGet stuck in locally
Get plastered on night oneThink children return from night clubs on the same day that you had hopedGo to sleep after a proper lunch with a hairy back on display only to have this hair removed by a daughter with a sadistic delight in applying and then removing back waxing stripsLet adolescents rock the boat in a crocodile-infested river
Q. If you were trapped on a desert island, who would you like to be with?
A. Her Majesty the Queen in the mornings. Brigitte Bardot in the evenings.
Q. Why do you include a short moral at the end of each poem?
A. Not a day goes by when we aren’t required to listen to some high-handed moral advice from someone. The morals attempt to toss a sarcastic hand grenade at our do gooding mentors – God bless them!
Q. Proceeds from Ghastly Holidays will be going to ABF The Soldiers’ Charity. Why did you choose this charity in particular to support?
A. We lost our best man and one of my best friends, Lt. Colonel Robert Shaw of the Irish Guards. I promised Robert’s family that I would try and support the Army for as long as I live.
Q. What is the key to writing a humorous poem?
A. Practically, a good deal of paper, being your own fiercest critic, and making time to write. In terms of writing, making sure just one or two words covers a thousand—makes you so selective, evocative and patient.
Q. Which comic writers do you most admire, and why?
A. For me, Spike (Milligan) takes the biscuit and the credit. Dad was in the RAF and leant me some of Spike’s early work. We laughed ourselves silly listening to The Goons. For example, “Adolf Hitler: My part in his Downfall” is a comedic triumph of humour over adversary. An equal first: Messrs Cryer and Brook-Taylor for outstanding innuendo and getting away with it. Jeremy Hunt loves them too apparently.
Q. Your first poetry collection covered animals (Filthy Creatures), and your latest, holidays. What are your plans for the themes of future collections?
A. Sadly for the reading audience they keep coming, folks! “Buffy’s Beauties” is set to follow and will be close to the bone: 25 years of texts between friends. GCHQ Cheltenham, a message: seriously you have nothing to worry about, it’s only a bit of fun!