“After all, the best part of a holiday is perhaps not so much to be resting yourself, as to see all the other fellows busy working.”
Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows
A Holiday. A time for the family to be together. To be out in the sun and feel the warm breeze. Frolicking and playing. Sharing golden moments that would linger in the memory of the family until the end of their days. An idyllic time full of wonderful memories that would forever keep hearts warm and happy with blissful reminisces. Well, so , much for pathos. Holidaying was good for our hero. For a start he didn’t have to drudge to the dread dungeon that was school. In fact he recalled coming home on a bright summers day, shirt in disarray and school tie used as a whip to his imaginary stallion. Into the house and on into the kitchen he strolled with an aura of joy and happiness enveloping him.
In the kitchen sat Father, astride a kitchen chair . Roll up in the corner of his mouth and paper in daily newspaper in hand.
‘’Alright Dad, I’ve finished school and home for the holiday’’.
And how did Father reply to such wonderful news, to the freedom it bought his son, the summer begun?
‘’When do you go back’’? inquired Father laconically, slowly removing a wisp of rolly tobacco that had become stuck in the corner of his mouth.
Are you joking he wanted to yell at Father, but instead simply turned on his heels and scooted out of the kitchen. A parting shot was thrown over his shoulder.
‘’In six weeks!’’ and he was in the hall, up the stairs and into his bedroom. Slam.
For most of his young life holiday actually meant no more that the garden, but for him it was a limitless realm of pleasure. The garden itself afforded some degree of privacy. This was a direct consequence of their neighbor, Mrs Beastly Moustache, for she was obsessed with their lives. Mother put out her washing, Mrs Beastly Moustache put out hers. Mother cut the lawn, Mrs Beastly Moustache cut hers. Mother painted the white stones white, the ones that acted as stepping stones and a path down the garden and Mrs Beastly Moustache did the same. The whitening of stones came from Father’s experience in the British Army where even the rocks or stones around a parade ground had to be painted. Pointless military minded bullshit. Father loved it! The final straw was when Mrs Beastly Moustache was found luring by her back fence, peering into the Mother and Father’s front room. Answer. A tall and encompassing privet hedge was planted and grown which effectively blunted Mrs Beastly Moustache’s perennial nosiness. And into this venue, this green lined bastion of homeliness strolled our hero hand in hand with the British summer.
Summer was heat and water. Summer was freedom and an endless process of scurrying back and for the between home and garden. The Garden, apart from the privet, was around 100 feet long and in the region of 30 feet wide. It had developed through several phases, fads and fashions. When our hero was knee high to a man, it was laid to lawn with a small concrete patio that spread along the width of the house from the side abutting Mrs Beastly Moustache’s lair, under the kitchen window and all the way across to the small corridor that exited betwixt the sheds and the outer edge of the kitchen wall. At the bottom of the garden in each corner sat majestically in each corner, one large and very tall conifer. Between them was the working area of the garden. There sat, or hunched might be a better assessment, a stone and concrete surround which acted as the burner for all of the garden waste. It was a slovenly thrown together effort, but having said that it was a crudely effective construction which made our hero appreciate the ingenuity and building skills behind Stonehenge. In front of this, by way of a barrier, were a few bushes and plants, again haphazardly set out in a vague circle .
So here was summer. One of the first things carted into the garden and thus an arbiter and as an acknowledgement that summer had arrived were two round, sickeningly colourful, plastic paddling pools. These deflated sacks of limp plastic were thrown to the ground and supplied Father with some much needed exercise for his oft abused lungs. There was no prissying around with foot pumps and other such unmanly gadgetry. Father found time to remove the rolly from his mouth and blew manfully into the until the paddling pools were inflated, and at the same time until he was indistinguishable from a beetroot. Mission completed he rolled another cigarette, sat on a chair and returned to his normal active routine. But Mother wasn’t finished. Under orders, and grumbling as he went, Father searched the shed which sat next to the house for the garden hose. Much shifting of garden accessories and quite a few expletives saw him emerge half carrying, half dragging a bedraggles and twisted green hose. After a few more expletives and a lot of twisting and turning of the hoe, with one or two stops to scratch his greying head, the hose would finally be ready to be pressed into service.
Father passed the end of the hose up and into the kitchen, where Mother fitted it to the cold water tap. This was skilled labour after all and thus warranted her superior dexterity in such things. In nearly everything. Attached. Father then stood with an air of unconcealed boredom, drooping hose in hand, next to one of the awaiting pools. The countdown began, Mother turned the tap and smiled as the pressure from the tap did not push off the fitting and cover the kitchen with water. Rapidly the hose stiffened and became taut as the water rushed down its green plastic maul.
‘’Got it, okay’’? Mother shouted through the kitchen window.
By way of an answer Father simply raised his hand, he was, after all, smoking and standing at the same time. The pools were filled with water. Cold water. Water switched off and the fun could begin. Jumping from pool to pool, sitting in this pool, which could only be bettered by sitting in the other pool, which instantly looked more desirable and on and on all through the long hot summer afternoons.
There were two consequences to these fun filled frolicking afternoons. The first was that our hero was tired, but happy. The second was that he was well and truly sunburnt. Which wasn’t so clever with the threat of skin cancer. But at that time such things were unknown and not given a second thought, let alone a first thought! In fact so white was our hero that even other white boys would say, ‘’Who’s that white boy’’?
Resembling a lobster he would be driven kicking and biting into the bathroom by Mother and ordered to shower himself down. Under the sparkling waters of the shower his skin would prickle and flinch so sore was his frizzled, embattled epidermis. And freckles, boy did he ever have some freckles, which are natures answer to good taste. Freckles were the kind of deformity that aunts would say were cute. Well you knew what you could do with cute! Come to think of it, you knew what you could do with aunts, too.
Our hero, being somewhat younger, partook of R. Whites Cream Soda, in what can only be termed sufficient amounts to turn him into one big bubble. The tagline for R Whites was ‘’I’m a secret lemonade drinker.’’ But there was nothing secret, illicit nor underhand in his drinking of the beloved cream soda. He guzzled it as if it were going out of fashion. In fact, as if his whole being was transforming into a large gaseous bubble. Summer in the garden, in the confines of the realm in which he gloried, were just a passing dream, which he would look back on with rose tinted gardens. But it as free time, very young of age and unencumbered by the awaiting travails of life.
Advancing ever so slightly in age saw a quantum leap in the vacationing spirit. The yearn to travel. The holiday derring do came to Mother in a wave of enthusiasm which was not exactly mirrored by Father. They were to go away on holiday, to leave the family nest and stay away from home. Revolutionary. The garden’s golden age as an arena of blissful holiday had passed forever into the waiting annals of soggy, sunburnt history. Awaiting was a field that would forever be England next to the warm luxuriant waters off the Southern coast of Albion. Not just a field forever England, but a field forever covered with caravans, sat like so many fat, squatting ducks. And forever England blah blah blah. After sifting through so many brochures, Mother had made her decision. Mother made the choice as everything was just the same for Father, who really preferred to stay at home. The die was cast. Bags were packed, clothing ironed, which for Mother included ironing socks and pants. Everything needed a crease, and a crease for everything.
Travelling was not a problem, well actually it was. The family did not include anyone who could drive, which was just as well as nobody had a car. But near to hand was help. Only a brief 15-minute walk away and a minor slog up a hill was that modem of travel that had ushered in the modern world, namely the train. But not just any train, this was BR, British Rail, bastion of state industrialization, managerial mismanagement and union domination. After hefting their baggage up the hill they arrived at the local station, opened in 1935. After that it really was just downhill all the way. If ever there was an ugly station, it was this station. After walking across a small, scrubby common the family descended a set of steep, grey concrete steps. At the bottom and to their immediate right was a tiny timber sentry box for the BR ticket collector. But first they had to cross the bridge over the double rail lines. The bridge was built of iron, painted grey like a soulless warship. The feeling of depression was heightened by the roof, of iron, that enclosed the bridge. A few almost medieval castle slit like windows allowed light into the claustrophobic structure. After crossing the bridge another set of ugly stone steps beckoned, with the ticket office set just off to the left at the top. A slovenly dressed BR employee printed the return tickets with a practised air of complete and utter disinterest. With tickets in hand the family turned in a herd like manner, renegotiated the concrete stairs and after showing their tickets to another lethargic BR employee they were met with the prospect of carrying their luggage down a very long flight of steps. Once on the wide open concrete platform they waited for their train patiently. And what did our hero wear for such an important trip, a long train trip on his first holiday. In public. A hooped maroon, white and grey T-shirt with grey shorts, white ankle socks and dark sandals. Sandal and socks, why??? Not fashionable, but it got worse, a lot worse. On his head he wore a maroon cowboy hat with a white trim, jauntily pushed back to emphasize the Sheriff’s badge. But still it got even worse. Around his waist he wore a cowboys gun belt, in public, on the train platform on his way to holiday. Then it became ever more dire, for in his hand he proudly carried a small silver -coloured replica pistol which our hero waved around and pointed at imaginary threats. Way to travel! And how much the family took for granted as they stepped from the concrete platform onto the blue liveried train, into an individual compartment, and slammed the door behind them with a solid and satisfying bang. Their destination was to be reached via Whitstable train station. A venerable station with a history stretching back to the 1820s. The line which they travelled on dated back to 1861 when the direct north Kent line from London was opened. The name of the town dates back to 1086 when it was recorded as Witenstaple. Meaning literally ‘’the meeting place of the white post’’. This changed into Whitstaple and by 1610 finally emerged with its modern spelling of Whitstable. Changing at Dartford, then Chatham, finally saw them alighting at Whitstable, with the luxury of a short taxi ride onto their final fun-packed destination. Camp Windswept. Egressing from the car at a farm gate which opened onto open field on their right, and the semi-slim caravan site on their left. A cluster of sad looking off -colour caravans squatting in a field. Like fat ducks. Behind the field there was a building in the shape of a horse shoe construction which included a farm house, a farm shop, stables and pig pens along with a small shower and WC block. Picturesque it was not, however it positively reeked of rural austerity. Grass, mud, animals and what they had deposited on the ground. The caravan, defined as a vehicle which can be lived in by humans. To add to its versatility and when deemed necessary, towed by a car with low self-esteem for the purposes of holidays. Their caravan was grey, quite large with a single entrance door mid-way down its length. It had been equipped with a steel framed stairs to stop the need for a big jump. If towed, our hero suspected that it would have rattled and gradually shook itself apart bolt from tremoring panel very quickly. Fortunately that didn’t look as though it was a fate awaiting their glamorous holiday abode. At either end a square of concrete had been lad in to the ground, and the caravan stood propped at either dend on steel frames that helped to take the load. The wheels with flattish ancient tyres, almost dangle aimlessly half way down the length of the structure. This was no caravan that would take to the road soon, if ever! Home for the week. Opening the door and peeking around the corner, our hero could see fitted sofa with a fixed table in front of it, swinging his head to the right he saw the bedrooms, and in the middle he spied the kitchenette area. But where, oh where, was the toilet and the shower, even if it was not a top priority for one so young. Sister solved the mystery by pointing out that they would have to use a shower and WC block over by the farm, itself. Okay, he thought, not a huge problem in itself, a short walk to the toilet. He would soon be disabused of the idea that this was a merely trifling inconvenience. And of course part of the holiday experience would not of been complete, as at home, if our hero wasn’t sent out to get a few comestibles almost immediately upon arrival.. This meant the farm shop. Which in honesty wasn’t far along a worn slightly muddy path, but as with all things, the lack of distance was countered by another obstacle. Pigs.
Or hero had to walk past the pig pens to reach the farm shop. Big pink smelly and nosiy pigs. Fact. In fact the pigs reached him first. They wafted, they whiffed, they positively stank and the smell, the invisible cloud of death like stench stretched its tendril like reach to his young olfactory senses. This induced a deeply nauseous wave of vomit inducing ghastliness. But on he trudged, fingers blocking his nose ineffectively, on and on to the farm shop whilst the odour settled on his throat as palpable irritant. Comestibles purchased, he left the relatively clean haven of the shop and once again braved the noxious cloud of pig excrement. Its potency attributable to over two hundred varying compounds, including ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and cadaverine which stinks like decaying flesh. Eat you bacon, there’s a good boy. It all added up to the vilest shit stinking stench he had ever encountered. Worse even than his ginger Brother in the toilet, which really took some doin’! Returning to the caravan, Mother asked if he wanted breakfast. Our hero declined. The only enjoyment he got from the pig pen stench was watching his Father, newspaper clenched under his left armpit, walking off at a brisk pace to the WC block. Buttocks clenched and at a forced march for Father had the squitters. The thought that he would have to endure the pig aroma for an extended period filled our heroes mind with boyish glee!
A couple of years passed. He grew, aged and expectations in regards to holidaying also grew, even if only in a barely discernible manner. Again a foray on the south coast was planned. Again it focused on sunny swinging Seasalter. However the bar had been raised. Their destination was a caravan park, with a reception building, bar and dance floor, tennis courts and outdoor swimming pool. Fine in theory. The bar was smoky and boring for him, tennis courts simply boring and the nauseating red coats a proverbial pain in the ass. Vacuous smiles and false happiness pouring out of their insincere demeanours. The worst for him, by a long chalk, was the outdoor swimming pool. Again water! Now according to his birth sign, Pisces, he should have had an affinity with water. No even stronger. Our hero was meant to have an affinity with things fishy and marine like in general. Well this wasn’t for our hero. Mother got it into her head that he had to learn to swim. To that end, she booked him into extra swimming lessons in the chilly, open air swimming pool. Mother booked him into extra lessons at 8am every morning of his holiday, his holiday! It was cold, very cold. Wet, very wet. He hated it. He hated swimming. He hated the pool, the chlorine, the feel of the water as it swept up and over his face and up his nostrils and down his throat. The taste would stay with him for hours afterwards, this he knew. This he hated. He hated and feared with equal loathing being out of his depth and most of all he hated Mother for putting him through a wet, chlorine cold purgatory. Pisces my ass! Nautical never! With orange inflated arm bands clamped on his upper arms and a white styrophone float in front of him clasped in a vice like manner, he kicked, splashed and thrashed his way through the cold water. Ever in search of the edge of the pool with his grasping hands, and safety. And just before reaching the side there was the moment he truly dreaded. Pushing away the float he made a grab for the side and at the same time his motion pushed his face and then head under the water. Then safety, the side reached. Holidays, you can keep them he thought!
Our hero much preferred the exotic delights of the beach for it was marginally more interesting than the cold clinical pit of a swimming slashing and spluttering pool. The area of coastline was geologically 55 to 33 million years old and therefore slightly predated the awfulness of the campsite. Things hadn’t really improved anywhere noticeably in the interim . The Vikings that landed on the Isle of Sheppey in 855 AD really wouldn’t have spotted many differences had they returned. As they crunched the bows of their dragon headed boats onto the beach it would have looked just as bleak and unwelcoming. However the pebble beach was everything he wanted. Crabbing and hunting for small marine crustaceans at low tide, coupled to the wonderful smell of the sea, salt and seaweed rolled into one abiding memory. The memory of the aroma would stay locked in his barricaded mind for a lifetime. He crouched, searched and prodded for marine life. He was completely at one with his surroundings. At one with himself. Beautiful. The sound was magic, too, and drew him in as well. The rhythmic lapping of the waves on the shore, and then the immediate sucking sound as the water was drawn back into the depths. Tugged back as if an errant child on reins. The only downside was the beach itself in regards to construction possibilities. An essential for any beach was a bucket and spade. The bucket itself in the vague shape of a castellated medieval castle in funky red plastic. Try as he might, fill it up and empty turn it upside down, he couldn’t make those pebbles stand. Where was the sand? Where was the point? Whose got a sandwich?
After that holidays fizzled out, stopped and finished. And as holidays died out, days out rose into the ascension. These trips were based along the southern coast of England. Folkestone, Broadstairs, Margate and Ramsgate. On one occasion he had been promised a trip to the seaside. Wonderful. A day out. Bags packed and the promise of a new bucket and spade. What more could he want? Off they trolled to the local station. Up the hill they trudged. The train station. That launch pad to dreams and all points south. On to the train he jumped eagerly. Buzzing all the way down and hardly able to sit still at the two stations where they had to change lines. To the seaside! Climbing onto the train to Whistable and Tankerton. Pulling into the Victorian built station. Slam door open, off he jumped eagerly. Pushing on and past the anonymous ticket collector. Out through the tall ceilinged ticket office, circa old and stuffy. Come on, let’s go! Out into the sunlight, the sunlight of a seaside town with seaside smells and fun.
‘’First one to see the sea gets six-pence’’ Mother, predictably announced. Shouldn’t she decimalize that now? But 10 pence just didn’t sound quite as romantic! So, out across the car park outside the station. Great. True momentum, he was getting somewhere, and stop. Why? The reason stood before him in all its faded, pseudo-black beamed grimy glory. A pub. A watering hole.
‘’We’ll just going to pop in for a quick drink’’ Mother informed him with an expectant smile on her face. Deep in his heart, which was free falling into a crestfallen condition as she spoke, he knew, as sure as lego bricks hurt when he trod on them barefoot, he knew it would be longer. Much longer. The pub door opened and he glimpsed the forbidden adult world. Glimpsing as Mother and Father shuffled in, a tall bar, with tall stools and loud people, drinks in hand, and the sound of a fruit machine that would forever be devoid of fruit. Wafting out the heady scent of beer, cigarettes and humans in close proximity on a warm day, the door shut behind them with a slam. The snapshot of a forbidden world closed again. He stood alone and in less than a minute Mother reappeared. Clutching a small bottle of lemonade with a straw bobbing up and down, and in the other hand a packet of crisps, cheese and onion, she told him to be a good boy, lied again and said they wouldn’t be long.
”What did you think of this behaviour”?
”Nothing” he replied, it was the norm for him.
”It was there day out, too”.
The counsellor smiled and reset her pineapple.
The patience of a young boy outside a pub is endless. He drank the lemonade, he sucked up any liquid until the bottle was as dry as a pile of camel dung in a desert. Then he licked out the now torn open crisp packet until it felt as if the colours were coming of the packaging. Just when he could hardly wait anymore, Mother and Father appeared, hop induced happiness glowing from them. With a slight lilt in their gait they all headed off for the beach. No stop, that way, that’s better! Great! Slight stagger, bit of a titter and onwards. On the beach Mother would rent a couple of deck chairs and a wind break. How could wind break? Time to dig in the sand, time to run barefoot and feel the yellow sand crunch underfoot. Feel the sand work its way between his toes and feel the wind and sun on his white freckled body. Time to run splashing into the sea, register the deep cold, and then retreat hastily and then stop to plan a slower, far more tentative assault on King Neptune’s domain. Time to dig in the sand, where was the bucket and spade? What about the promise? Time to dig out a canal just tantalizingly within range of the ocean swell, which teasingly demolished part of his canal with tireless ease, all so he could gleefully rebuild it all again. Magic. Time for Mother and Father, oh, apparently it was time for Mother and Father to sleep. Mother lay back in a rented striped deck chair, head flung back so that everyone could see what wonderful advances had been made in dental technology and what beautiful pearly whites she boasted. A deck chair was too simple for Father. He had ambled off to carry out reconnaissance of the beach. So much sand in such volumes must have triggered memories of his 8th Army days in North Africa. Our hero spied Father sitting nearby on a concrete wall that was one side of an aging launch ramp for local boats. Boats from somewhere else could just go find their own launch ramp. As a launch ramp it was thus set at an angle of about 22 degrees and Father, too, as he had positioned himself upon it. Father had not spotted any German Afrika Corp troops or Italian soldiers on his recon, so he sat asleep, one leg outstretched, the other raised up and his arms crossed whilst his torso and head slumped forward in happy full snoring repose. A group of older ladies sat watching from the other side of the ramp, giggling and taking bets on how long it would be before Father toppled over.
He didn’t. Their disappointment was palpable.
Mother woke up, ‘’Anyone hungry’’? Silly question, everyone was famished. Mother doled out the delicious fare she had prepared and lugged all the way from home. Up the hill, on the stations, on the trains, into the pub and down to the beach. All the time the grub had been in a nice bag that was heating up wonderfully. Out came cheese and cucumber sandwiches in white bread. Cucumber supplanted the Old English eorþæppla which meant “earth-apples.” So much more descriptive and nicer on the ear. Which is more than can be said for Mother’ s sandwich. The butter had congealed, the white bread was almost dampish and the cheese was akin to snot. Not even fresh snot. The cucumber sat lifelessly atop this tepid concoction . As if that wasn’t enough, sand had infiltrated everything. But at least the sand lent a crunching interest to the sorry culinary affair. Ultimately it was inedible. Then for a drink. Inevitably it would be dropped on the sand, and whilst the contents were sand free, the damp neck of the bottle was slick with sand. Warm and undrinkable. Which as all good news for our hero as it meant they would actually go and sit in a cafe or restaurant and eat something tasty. The café come restaurant sported a very tall Victorian ceiling. White plates and red and white table clothes and the sound of fish and chips being scoffed with gusto filled the air. Fish and chips with fresh fish was so much better by the sea. Cod and chips and rock and chips all round. Served up with a side order of sand-free white bread and butter. Served up with a soft drink with sugar as the main ingredient not sand and piping hot cups of teas. Magic.
‘’Any spare room for afters’’ Mother pointlessly asked with a smile on her beaming face. With a resounding, Yes ringing in her ears Sundaes were ordered all round on a Saturday afternoon. Huge scoops of multi- coloured ice-cream piled into a long , tall sundae glass with lashings of whipped cream and topped with nuts for those with allergies and raspberry dressing. A long narrow giraffe like spoon searched, dug and scooped this deliciously sugary concoction into his mouth, so sweet it could have given an elephant diabetes in one fell swoop!
Not enough? After struggling out of the restaurant the family would waddle back to the beach. This meant running a gauntlet of small cheap, gaudy establishments serving ice-cream, coffee, sweets, silly hats with ‘Kiss me quick’ emblazoned on them, buckets and spades for would be architects, round sugar coated hot sweet smelling doughnuts, and of course rock. Hewn from sugar and glucose syrup, this boon to dentists everywhere would be fashioned into a long cylindrical shape. When held at the end our hero could spy, Margate, Ramsgate or wherever, running all the way down through the rock. A small label with the town from whence the rock came from was stuck on the side, and then it was wrapped in a clear plastic so as not to denude it sweet appeal. On unwrapping it, our hero found that it took hours, if not days to suck, chew and crunch his way through this dental delight. He would regularly have to stop eating it so as to use his finger, on his right hand of course, to dislodge or prise out a seemingly boulder sized chunk of rock which had adhered to an ever deepening cavity. Then suck and chew it again.