Going on family holidays: before the motorways these journeys were protracted and exhausting and children do not have patience, nor any great interest in scenery, so that just leaves squabbling to pass the time. My sister and I did this rather a lot because I was a really irritating little brother and she was a really bossy mouthy older sister. Sometimes the squabbling started before we had even got in the car. Once we had a race from the house to the car to bag the front passenger seat, I won comfortably and to demonstrate my casual superiority, slammed the car door after me. Sadly, part of my sister was almost as fast as me and was inside the car as the door closed and offered some resistance. Of course she made an awful fuss about it, screaming and shouting like a drama queen, just because I had come close to severing her leg at the knee. Honestly - Girls - what can you say?
My mother always made a lot of food for the journey: some of those trips to North Wales or to Cornwall would take 7 hours or more on congested trunk roads, and we couldn’t stop. In fact we thought that ‘not stopping’ was an essential part of the Highway Code, but it was just my father’s way of doing things. So we ate as we drove, often asking for the first instalment of food soon after the end of our road, finishing it all before halfway, leaving the rest of the journey as an alimentary wasteland, the only possible movement of food being in the wrong direction, either through erratic driving or attention seeking.
We went to a cheap hotel in Shanklin, Isle of Wight for three years running (remind me to write a book on The Cult of Repetition in the British Holiday). It wasn’t seedy exactly, it just wasn’t squeaky clean. In an old property a bit of dirt can be quite authentic and charming and this was very, very charming in that way. There was a games-room, which we loved, but it was draped, floor to ceiling, in spidery cobwebs and was full of the scent of old geraniums. You could look to the other end of the ping-pong table and just make out Miss Havisham, about to serve. We made friends on the beach, a Brummie family who we played with or flirted with, depending on age and gender.
We had several holidays in N.Wales, West Wales, Devon and Cornwall, invariably in caravans. Now although they are held to be a bit naff, I always enjoyed caravans, I think most kids do. Compared with camping they are really cosy when it’s raining and you can always wipe the condensation off the window to see if it’s stopped. But it’s still a small space to share with people that you have to spend way too much time with for the rest of the year, so it’s not long before you dream of solitary confinement. Or murder. Aside from reading there are only bored games (sic). I did wonder, though, why we always had cheap holidays, and so who stayed in nice hotels if it wasn’t middle class people like us.
Nothing in the Real World ever happened while we were on holiday because it was usually August, and nothing does. That’s why it’s perfectly safe for the Prime Minister to go on holiday, too, leaving some buffoon with delusions of grandeur nodding off over the tiller. Or perhaps it’s just that we weren’t so addicted to news as we are now: there were only two TV channels broadcasting for a portion of the day and the news was about another planet, presented by people trying to sound like Joyce Grenfell or Prince Charles. As for the notion that one day you could take to the beach a small instrument the size of a paperback containing the computing power that then had to be housed in an aircraft hangar – that would have been as ridiculous a notion as a time-travelling police box.
But one year, 1958, we were in Looe, Cornwall and I returned from catching a small fish before breakfast (that is, my breakfast, not his) to find my father with his grave face on. “They have built a wall across the centre of Berlin so that no-one can go backwards and forwards. It’s very serious”. I must admit that I struggled to react with the requisite gravity. Unless they had built it right across Germany, why couldn’t they just go to either end of the wall and nip round? “It’s very, very serious,” he repeated. “Will there be a war, Father?” I said in a slightly tremulous voice like I’d heard on an old black and white film. ”If so you can rely on me to look after Mother and My Sister, for I shall be the Man of the House”. “No, that won’t be necessary” he said, rather more sharply than was necessary considering my brave and self-sacrificing offer, obviously deciding that it wasn’t that serious after all. I went off to the harbour to look at eviscerated sharks hanging up. I knew they were dead, still, no point in going right up close, just in case.
We used to organise games of beach cricket. They would start off with just the family, and maybe a couple of people we’d met in the toilets at the caravan site. Every now and then you would notice a small child standing at the imaginary boundary looking wistfully at us, and eventually we would welcome him in, and add his name to the batting order, which required a book-keeper to maintain. Anybody was welcome so long as they went to the bottom of the list, and not where they would delay our own accession to the crease. So many young children, each some distance from their parents, it might well have been adopted by paedophiles. But these were more innocent times, when a ‘paedophile’ was thought to be a toenail smoothing tool. Nevertheless the name ‘G. Glittah’ does appear in one of the later batting order archives. These games went on for hours, starting around 11 and stumps being drawn around 6, leaving barely enough time to pretend to wash before the evening meal.
My mother was a good cook. Though I think I have to mention, in fairness, the time she had a large dinner party at home, and decided to serve veal with a topping that included cheese. Processed cheese is never a good choice for any purpose except mouse-traps, but it had the virtue of being ready sliced, so that she could just lay it on the top of the veal and grill it. Unfortunately she neglected to take out the squares of plastic separating the slices. One always tries to be polite about other people’s food, but it turns out that grilled plastic becomes harder with cooking rather than softer, and is impossible to chew let alone swallow or digest. Eight people simultaneously regurgitating half chewed cheesy plastic on to their plates does take something away from the elegance and sophistication of any dinner party, I think.
So apart from that, she was quite a good cook, but one who became militantly feminist on holiday.
“It’s my holiday too, and I cook all the year round, so I’m not doing it on holiday”, she said, colouring somewhat. My father might well have replied, “And every time you cook at home I sit in an armchair reading the newspaper – but I’m not making a big fuss and refusing to do that, am I?”.
So we would eat out a lot, often in fish and chip restaurants. I’m not saying that we were single-handedly responsible for the depletion of North Sea cod stocks, but we would often get Christmas and birthday cards from the proprietors, enquiring about our holiday plans for the next year. After
eating we would wander back to the caravan site, wondering if all the children on the dodgems, rides, slot machines and all the other things that we were not allowed to go on, whether they envied us our strict, upright principled parents who would not spend good money on ‘tripe’. Possibly not.
I do remember a holiday romance in Cornwall. I think I would have been 10. We’d met this ‘engaged’ couple, Alan and Valerie, and he was very nice and played football with me. Valerie was just gorgeous in my eyes, and I doubtless would have had a sexual fantasy about her, had I had the slightest clue as to the form and content of such a thing. She also took the trouble to talk to me, which I think is something more women should do, even when their conversational partner has apparently has no tongue and/or absolutely nothing to say, like me. I was really smitten, and began to find my games of football with Alan becoming awkward: how could I play normally with him while secretly coveting his wife? What would he do if we ran off together? I decided to sound out my mother in a roundabout kind of way by telling her that if I was older I’d like to marry Valerie. She grabbed a towel to her face and tried desperately hard to suppress her laughter but it kept squeezing out around the edges. I don’t usually blush but what followed was a cross between tears and the kind of blush that could be mistaken for acute sunburn.
I decided at this point to concentrate on my football and cricket until such time as my efforts to be romantic didn’t make women laugh, though this turned out to be a lifelong project, still uncompleted.