There’s an early artwork by Tracey Emin that I’ve always loved. It’s a battered, lovingly embellished suitcase with the words “Mystery Woman” embroidered on one side. It’s the valise of a female character who dreams of a glammer, more fancy-free life filled with dynamism and independence, art and culture.
Well, I am that woman, a gloriously child-free 40-year-old celibate spinster with a passport, no expenses (I still live with my mother in my childhood home) and a slight underemployment issue, and the times have finally caught up with me. The Association of British Travel Agents (Abta) has released research showing a spike in bookings for solo travellers, particularly among people aged 35 to 44. It says something about the constraints of traditional family life, of the work culture that so exhausts people, and of the reality of British urban living that prompt this desire for escape alone … and then the push-pull of needing free wifi and data wherever you go, so that you can still stay connected to social media and work.
The joys of solo travel are manifold. Oh, the sheer liberation of not having to be nice all the time; not having to be reasonable and considerate; not having to weigh up the sightseeing options and consult with the group and deal, day in, day out, with people and their personalities. That gallery break in Florence seemed like a fab idea but it’s miserable when you’re into day two of being given the silent treatment by the apparently fun pal who turned out to be impossibly moody.
However, this is preferable to the horror of wedlock and child-rearing in transit. There is no such thing as taking a family holiday to “get away from things” – because wherever you go, there they are, the spouse and the progeny. You take your Freudian patterns, marital nightmares and underlying passive-aggressive domination dynamics with you. Watching families struggle with small kids and all their holiday accoutrements before they’ve even got on the aeroplane, I feel waves of claustrophobia and aversion leavened by the blissful wash of relief knowing that’s not me.
You could say it’s selfish – but any woman who has done anything that doesn’t involve being a mummy/wife helpmeet has been called selfish since the beginning of time. We can’t let those cries of jealousy drown out the Stansted airport gate announcement. There seems to be some kind of expectation placed on women that, even on holiday, they will do all the emotional and practical labour to make sure everything goes smoothly and everyone (else) has a nice time. It’s the legend of female submission, masochism and sacrifice.
Solo travel is the opposite: it’s about hedonism. Like a woman assassin played by Angelina Jolie, but brown and not looking like Angelina Jolie, I check in then go out to walk the streets in untroubled solitude in all hours. I am not alone: I am spending time with myself, in contemplation of the outside world, waking up in silence, with unbounded time, indulging my hobbies without having to be nice, or tidy, or hygienic. Being alone, occupying public space and exploring the world as a free agent, not an object or an ancillary facilitating figure, is my right. I spent last week yomping about on Ilkley Moor in West Yorkshire, and the only person I encountered was a female hiker with a dog called Mr Pepper.
Still, this trend for solo travel comes with a huge caveat: trips like the ones Abta is referring to are for those lucky individuals who have the money, free time, family support to hold the fort, and the narcissistic-yet-somewhat-basic “lifestyle” #solotravel Instagram tendencies to curate, edit and tailor their holidays. Sorry, I mean their “experiences”. And so they roam the Earth, iPhones in hand, like avaricious Victorian colonials, sampling the exotic curios of an Andalucían yoga weekend here and a Tuscan cookery course there.
A final word of caution: the solo travel boom may be humanity’s last hurrah before the Brexit apocalypse, the cold war heating up, a new Gulf war/war on terror Middle Eastern combo, and a generalised full-Earth floods-fires-and-hail scenario. The freedom that people like me have had, the places we’ve settled in without thinking, may soon become an administrative hassle at best or a long-disappeared paradise at worst. We might soon forget that the world is a big and beautiful place. Alone or in company, travel while you can.
• Bidisha is a journalist and author