Waterside was a caravan park by a rocky cove. The railway line ran next to it, taking trains to Paignton and Torquay. At the age of eight I sat on the grassy embankment and watched the Great Western engines. They bore the splendid names of kings, castles, halls and granges, and pulled cream and brown carriages. Oldham was overcast and dreary, treeless and rainy, with black sooty soil. It couldn’t compare with Devon, where the sun shone, the sky and sea were blue and the earth a rich red. The muted greys of the town were so dreary I hardly noticed them. But, at the caravan site, the saturated colours and sharp shadows gave objects solidity, a hyper reality. The very signs by the railway, which warned off trespassers in high-flown language, remain in my mind as things of wonder because they seemed to exist more convincingly – they were somehow harder than the furniture of the ordinary world.
Rationing continued after the War. Hughie and Nellie didn’t have a stick of furniture or a roof of their own, when they took on the task of feeding and clothing four children. In those first years there were no holidays, only two day trips to Blackpool by charabanc, the second time with Alan Hutchinson. We spent our time on the beach making sandcastles, and Hughie took me on a magical ride through the realm of Snow White, which was close by the Tower. Later it converted to a freak show, “KAP DWA! THE TWO-HEADED PARAGUAYAN GIANT!”
By the time I was seven, prosperity was returning. We got a rented TV the year after the Coronation, and we stayed for a week at Mrs. Povey’s Guest House near the South Pier. For the most part I still played on the sand, and there was a steady traffic of people across the promenade to the small cafés where, for a deposit, you could carry off a tray of tea in a pot, the shiny white crockery accompanied by slices of Mother’s Pride bread spread with margarine.
When it rained, Hughie took me to a cinema that showed non-stop cartoons. As for Kap Dwa, he lay motionless in a glass case labelled: Not to be opened without the authority of the curator of the National Museum of Paraguay! Alas, the address of the curator wasn’t given and so the lonely two-headed giant continued to look as he might have done if some dishonest fellow had made him out of papier maché.
Hughie bought me a present: a toy aircraft carrier, battleship, destroyer and submarine, each nestling inside the other. They were made out of grey polythene. That night I played with them in my bed (it had a luxurious red eiderdown), while Hughie and Nellie went out to the pub.
That same year – in fact the next week – we went to stay with my Uncle Joe Williams and lovely Auntie Doll at their house in the hills by Shrewsbury, the house with the stupendously smelly thunderbox at the bottom of the garden. Uncle Joe turned up for us riding his motorbike. It had a sidecar that looked like a crate covered in tarpaper and how we all got to Stiperstones I forget. What I remember is scrambling about the hills where the bilberries were in season – though we called them “wimberries” – and we picked them on the principle of collect-one-eat-one.
Next year we began the custom of holidaying in Paignton with my Uncle Fred’s family. We travelled overnight by Yelloways coach from the Mumps bus station in Oldham: Hughie toting two suitcases, which miraculously held enough clothes for four of us for a fortnight. He had fifty-three pounds in cash from which he paid for the caravan (nine pounds a week), fed and entertained us.
And so we came to Waterside.
We rented a small, pink, caravan. I loved it and have enjoyed caravans ever since. Even the absence of a shower didn’t worry me, since washing wasn’t a habit I was addicted to and I was content to make the occasional trip to the brick washhouse. No, what I loved was the soft gas light with its “pop!” when lit, its hiss and slight sweet smell. I read by it or tried to make scenery for my soldiers by cutting up empty cigarette packets to make simple models: trying and failing to capture the sensuousness of this holiday world.
We hired a beach hut nearby at Goodrington and stuffed it with swimming costumes and boiled sweets that were soon covered in ants. Behind the beach was a stretch of grass where children and dads would play ball. Hughie was ungrudging of his time when engaged in a vaguely sporting activity like ball throwing.
We had our photographs taken. Hughie owned a Brownie which took tiny black and white pictures, but these were also the last days of the beach photographers, who snapped people on the fly, tipped their hats and handed out cards with details of prices. On the front at Goodrington was a stuffed horse, and we all had our pictures taken on it, and Nellie and Winnie were caught by one of the photographers, strolling by in their costumes, looking plump and pretty. What the photograph doesn’t reveal is that they smelled of Nivea.
That and vinegar. Nellie covered us with vinegar on the principle that tanning people and tanning boots were much the same thing.
Having no car, we got about by bus. We went to Babbacombe with its pebble beach and funicular railway, and Cockington where Fred and Hughie sat in the village stocks and looked mournful for the camera. We even made it to Plymouth.
Above all we loved mackerel fishing. Once or twice every holiday we went out on one of the small boats and fished with reel and spinner and always hooked several fish, though we weren’t a fish eating family. The mackerel came inshore with the tide, following the shoals of sprats. One night we were on the front at Paignton and the sea was in. With it came the sprats, then the mackerel. They passed from right to left, and then the shoal turned and passed from left to right, until, when the mackerel caught their prey, the sea foamed white and was flecked with silver in the moonlight.
In the main street was an arcade of slot machines, all of them mechanically operated: nary an electronic one except a shooting game that ran a continuous reel of black and white film of German fighters, taken from wartime footage.
In the same street was the Igloo ice cream parlour that served the new soft ice cream, which I loved then and loathe now.
In the small village of Brixham an artist pointed out to me that the colour white looked bluish at a distance – that, in other words, colour wasn’t a stable property: a key discovery in my aesthetic education.
On the front at Paignton we went to a “Summer Variety Show” held in a grand marquee, where the tradition of music halls and end of pier shows was fading.
And then I grew up and no longer went on holiday with my parents. Something Happened, which put an end to the friendship of Nellie and Winnie. I don’t know what it was, but feel sure it was trivial, which is why it’s sad.
In due course I married Shirley and became a father, and the pattern of family holidays resumed, but this time I had the role once so admirably filled by Hughie.
In the early years we needed to be careful with money – though I have to say we were well off by most standards – and we had fairly modest holidays. When our eldest, Tom, was two, we took Shirley’s nieces to Fishguard in Wales. There, for the only time in my life, I went cockling. On a drizzly day, Tom and I scraped shellfish out of the sand with our fingers and gathered them in a child’s bucket. The following morning I washed them and ate them for breakfast. It was one of the most wonderful meals I’ve ever eaten and when I close my eyes I can still catch that faint briny tang.
The holidays are too many to recount them all, but three are distinguished by the fact that we kept a scrapbook. Here’s Shirley’s account of a day spent in Laval in 1983. It doesn’t show me in an especially good light.
Saturday 28th August 1983
Today we shopped in Laval. We had a bad start as Jim left me with no money etc when he whipped off to find a parking place and I didn’t know where he had gone. I have not felt so desolate for a long time – I burst into tears when he reappeared 15 minutes later.
Laval is a pretty place and we walked through the market – full of the usual cheap crimplene frocks and bric-a-brac, but also with small local farmer run stalls with one fly-covered plucked duck or hare for sale and a few vegetables. Alex was upset because the fish stall was closed before he could buy any.
I met a very elegant old French lady in a cake shop. She spoke beautiful BBC English, though she didn’t know what the French word for “ice lolly” was! Bought some delicious pastry slices and more sugared almonds – fearfully expensive but good and very pretty!”
This scrapbook has a picture of Jon Pertwee and Una Stubbs as Wurzel Gummidge and Aunt Sally on its cover. Inside it is a treasure of ephemera: photos, sketches, tickets, bubble-gum wrappers, a coin of Napoleon III, a Painted Lady butterfly. There’s even a small flyer for a fortuneteller: Mr.Khalifa – Grand Médium et Marabout Africain.
It was on this holiday that we visited the nondescript village of Port Brillet, where by chance, in a working man’s restaurant, we ate a prix fixe lunch of ham, melon and braised steak so tasty that Shirley and I recall it after more than twenty years. Here too, in the small lake – which I sketched – Shirley saw her first otter. At our cottage Hannah took her first hesitant steps.
The following year we passed a rainy week in May on the Isle of Wight. It generated comments like these. On the twenty-eighth: “Hannah throws up her breakfast. Day overcast. Dad and Tom play cricket briefly and the rain begins to fall.” And the following day: “Hannah does not throw up her breakfast as she refuses to eat any. Alex wets the bed. Dad and Tom and Sandy play cricket, which is becoming very popular.”
Apparently we played crazy golf: “Tom claims six holes-in-one but no one believes him”.
I made a sketch of Shanklin pier and inserted it in the scrapbook and we saw a partial eclipse of the sun: “The diminution of light was not noticeable and a brief glance at the orb wasn’t revealing since it was too bright. But, if one masked the sun just so with one’s finger, for a second one could see a piece taken out.”
Shirley’s view of the cricket is expressed in this entry. “Tom has made a good friend and they are playing a board game. We played cricket with him and his dad this morning – it was nice to see they were as useless as we were!”
Having re-read the lively record of this holiday, I’m sorry Shirley and I didn’t keep one when we went cycling in Burgundy in August that year. This event gave rise to an amusing incident when a work colleague, Dr. Ruhemann asked me what my holiday plans were.
‘Oh, I’m cycling in France,’ I said loftily, thinking it held a touch of adventure. ‘And you?’
‘I’m going to Samarkhand, Bokhara and Tashkent,’ he said. ‘I always wondered what the Soviets had made of them and I wasn’t able to go there in the thirties.’
At the time Martin Ruhemann was eighty-four years old. Next year he went walking in the Alps and when he was ninety he visited Cuba out of curiosity. I believe he took his girlfriend with him
Martin was both impressive and modest. A Jew and a Communist, after whom a building in East Berlin was named, he explained, “I went to the Soviet Union as a German and came out as an Englishman.” Sadly he never explained how this trick was done. He died when he was ninety-two. They said his life was cut short by smoking.
We moved house in 1988 and the following year went to Crete where we kept another scrapbook. I seem to have spent time sketching passers by and noted: “In the cafés the posers gather in shoals. They come past in pairs, driver and pillion passenger, on small motor scooters. The American sailors, in tattoos and dog tags, sit in a row of deckchairs and ogle the topless females.”
On this holiday, Hannah, aged seven, swam for the first time in the hotel pool and on one of our walks found a skin sloughed by a snake, which we dutifully stuck in the book, where it still remains. My younger son, Alex, was twelve and one day we walked the twelve-kilometre length of the superb Samaria gorge to the sea where it ended at a windblown village crowded with Germans. The gorge was full of oleander, yellow butterflies and dragon arums, but what I remember most is a change in my relationship with Alex from spending the whole day in his company. I realised just how much I loved him.
From this holiday comes a scene, which has stayed with all of us. At Knossos a plump guide in a straw hat shaped like a pith helmet treats us to his archaeological knowledge.
‘The ancient Minoans,’ he informs us, ‘burned olive oil in their lamps. Now why do you suppose that was?’
Search me, guvnor – you tell me.
‘Because’ – he says, and his voice rises with self-satisfaction – ‘olive oil burns with no smoke!’
Cripes! You don’t say! We are prostrate in admiration.
Hannah found the snakeskin near Gouvernetos monastery. There we encountered an odd character who reminded us of our friend Lionel Trippett, who took up writing pornography. I wrote: “A queer old Englishman of seventy or so ran the place and chatted in a lilting voice, taking an interest in the text of our guidebook. I was reminded of the fate of Sebastian Flite in Brideshead Revisited, as a charitable pensionary of a monastery in North Africa.”
This same scrapbook also contains entries for a holiday we took in Kent that year. I’ve always regarded 1989 with affection because it left such vivid impressions, no doubt helped by the scrapbook. I still have it when the monstrous sandcastles I used to create have long surrendered themselves to the sea.
A few years later this phase of holidays ended when Tom took himself off to university.
As Shirley and I have grown older, our holidays have turned into two kinds. After a gap of seven years, Tom resumed accompanying us, mostly on trips to Dolgellau in Wales where we love to stroll in the mountains and along the estuary to Barmouth. Only occasionally have we managed to get all the children together – Hannah frequently doesn’t come – but there’s a feel of the old holidays when they were small and I enjoy them.
That aside, Shirley and I often go away on our own, whether for a weekend or a week. We spend our time quietly, mostly walking in the day and reading in the evenings, or, if we’re in a city, we visit galleries and the theatre. We dance at every opportunity.
Our friends, the Sheltons have a cottage in the foothills of the Pyrenees, which we’ve visited several times. Here’s part of an account of a holiday there in 2003. I included it in a Christmas letter.
It was Whitsuntide and the villages were en fête with people banqueting under the open market arcade. In our village there was a dance to the music of a keyboard, an accordion and a singer. We stumbled across it and sat in a group with the party of English lesbians and a jolly Dutchman in socks and sandals who had wandered over from the campsite. The villagers were out in force, all sorts, including Yvan the magnetiseur, who owned a wind mill and was very taken by Shirley, and one of those young men who can only exist in France: rakishly thin with hair in black ringlets and smoking unfiltered Caporals. They were an unstuffy lot and bounced about the dance floor doing a very merry waltz, and Shirley and I (in best shorts and sandals in my case) did the tango.
The following day we were walking through the village when we came across Yvan the magnetiseur. Shirley made some remark about discomfort in her leg, and, taking no refusal, Yvan whisked her off the road into the home of his cousin, sat her down and proceeded to make “magnetic” passes over her leg until it felt better. And indeed it did get better!
The No Trespassing sign by the railway at Waterside Caravan Park truly existed and it ranks with my childhood dream of red tulips as a key image that seemed to lead me into a new mode of experience. In the case of the metal sign, its hyper-reality, gave me a consciousness of the beauty of ordinary things and their simple otherness, so that almost fifty years later I find myself pausing in the street to stare at something of no particular distinction because of an indefinable quality that makes me think: “Yes, it is there. It does exist.”
My holidays are important partly because they refresh this receptivity. When Shirley and I are strolling, I take in shape and colour and fix pictures in my mind. Shirley says I have a habit of staring at people too, and this is the reason.
Along the estuary near Dolgellau we catch a faint whiff of vanilla from the gorse. On a hillside across the river from Mirepoix we’re made dizzy by the scent of broom. Sollér in Mallorca is remembered for the heady perfumes of orange blossom and the stink of gunpowder in the main square, where firecrackers are let off to celebrate an ancient victory over a Moorish raid. In an old-fashioned dance hall in Paris, a cellar whose ceiling is supported by Egyptian columns, louche middle-aged men with moustaches and brilliantined hair cast their eye over Shirley because she looks so beautiful and dances so well.
Holidays are also important because they provide a reference point by which I structure Time, which allows me to see my life as a whole. Yet the content of a holiday isn’t especially important and can be varied or simple and the weather fair or foul.
Shirley and I have a joke that, provided we’re together, we could enjoy “a wet weekend in Wigan”.
My Uncle Joe Williams scattered Auntie Doll’s ashes by the caravan where they’d holidayed so happily together. He felt an urge to go there a day or so before his death, and it’s in that caravan that he died peacefully.
NOTES ON “MY HOLIDAYS”
I recommend beginners to tackle My Holidays as an early subject. It has a number of features, which, taken together, make it very suitable. For simplicity, I’ll number them:
1. It breaks down into components of individual holidays and you can cover as few or as many as you wish. In this respect it follows my basic plan of abandoning large-scale narrative for self-contained segments. Why not begin with one holiday and see where you go? You can always return and build on your earlier efforts.
2. The subject is vivid and, for most people, will call up relatively uncomplicated memories of happy times. If it doesn’t, you should consider one of my other suggestions. In your first essays you should aim for something that’s short, straightforward and descriptive.
3. You probably have a lot of supplementary material in the way of photographs. They should aid your memory and fill in details of how things looked. If you take up my suggestion of a “scrapbook” approach, you could organise your essay around explaining some carefully selected snapshots
4. Holidays provide a panoramic view. If you re-examine my essay you’ll see it covers some fifty years from stumbling in the sands of Blackpool to dancing in a French market. It follows the changing patterns and rhythms of my life. I haven’t tried to philosophise at length about what it all signifies, but this essay gives in a short space an overview which is full of implicit meaning. I’d be glad to have written it, even if I wrote nothing more. The fact that Shirley enjoyed it when I read it to her (in the bath, if you must know) underlines the point.
If you look at the essay, this time with an eye to style, you should be struck by an attention to description, colour, light and smell. This is particularly emphatic in the final section where I put together a series of quite unrelated vignettes for no other reason than their intense sensuousness. So the scent of gorse in Wales, of orange blossom and gunpowder in Mallorca, and sight of the brilliantined dancers of Paris are all lumped together.
My reasons are two-fold.
The first – more obvious one – is to evoke the scene as powerfully as I can: particularly by the reference to scents, which research (and Proust as it happens) shows to be a key to memory. I’ve mentioned this point in The Last Victorian.
Less obviously, the essay has, as an underlying theme, the awakening of my sense of how beautiful even ordinary things can be. This sense – which in due course was to lead to my interest in the arts – was partly generated by trying to get to grips with the “reality” of the signpost by the railway at Paignton. I was always vaguely aware of the connection between this event and the broader theme, but writing the essay has helped to crystallise it; and also to establish a link with the similar incident of my childhood dream of red tulips. Your connections will be different from mine, but I suspect you’ll make them as you develop your taste for essay writing. I hope this essay encourages you.
Scrapbooks – it was Shirley who first proposed them and, in my superior way, I went along with the idea (just to humour her, you understand – ho hum). They’ve proved to be among the happiest things we ever did. They’re dirty and scruffy and filled with old rubbish and bad drawings, decomposing butterflies and yellowing Cellotape, but they give immediate access to the time when our children were young. A ticket or a bubble-gum wrapper is not so much a souvenir as a piece of the day itself, without any of the artificiality implicit in souvenirs.
If you have young children, I do recommend that you make up a scrapbook when you go on holiday. Let the kids participate. Include pages from their colouring books, shells, bits of seaweed – whatever. Throw in the contents of your pockets, and your snaps, and finish with a few words. There are no marks for artistic effort. This is just for you!
Shirley and I kept scrapbooks, and now, years later, I’ve used them to write this essay. I’ve also used diaries and letters as source materials. Among their advantages is that of directness: they stem from the time they speak of. They also help vary the uniform tone of voice that’s a risk of writing. The author of the letters and diaries is different from the man who writes today. Even his voice is subtly different.