Ysenda Maxtone Graham gets to the crux of what British summer holidays were really like in British Summer Time Begins

"The overriding (summer) memory was of a sort of easy, unself-conscious, cotton-wearing happiness". Picture: Shutterstock
  • British Summer Time Begins. The School Summer Holidays 1930-1980, by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. Little Brown. $49.99.

In the 1963 hit movie Summer Holiday, Cliff Richard famously sang, "We're all going on a summer holiday/No more working for a week or two/Fun and laughter on our summer holiday/No more worries for me or you/We're going where the sun shines brightly/We're going where the sea is blue/We've all seen it on the movies, Now let's see if it's true".

The whole of Australia is surely looking forward to see if the upcoming summer holidays will be true after 2020's drought, bush fires, toxic smoke and the medical, emotional and financial impact of Covid-19.

British Summer Time, based on extensive interviews and published memories, examines, through the prism of the summer holiday, British values and lifestyles, family relationships and class structures.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham says she ended in 1980 because that year marked the arrival of video games and the following year saw the launch of the IBM personal computer, which "began the work of putting an end to childhood summers as we knew them".

Maxtone Graham notes that "Summer holidays are a small, glamorous subset of the summer holidays. This book is about the latter". Rachel Johnson recalls her summer holidays on their grandparents farm on Exmoor, living on stale digestive biscuits and home-made carnation milk ice cream: "We were hungry all the time. We desperately wanted our elder brother Boris to play with us, but he just said, 'Let's play reading'."

Boris Johnson didn't have much time for reading in his shortened Scottish holiday in August with his bell tent precariously perched on the edge of a cliff near his rented cottage. Giles Coren commented that Johnson couldn't persuade us that "being stuck in a cold tent with a screaming baby and a billion angry midges is better than a pina colada and a pedalo".

Coren, holidaying in Britain this year because of COVID-19 bemoaned, "petrol station sandwiches and the angry chatter of kids well into the ninth hour of Fortnite in the back of a sticky estate car". Plus ca change. Richard Glover recently recalled his family drives from Canberra to the Gold Coast in the early 1970s with his parents "bickering all the way" and his father having to pull over so "I could chunder".

Australian experiences of long car drives in the era before satnavs, seat belts and tablet screens are echoed in Britain : "Nothing could alleviate the core problems; the dreadful suspension of the low-slung cars, the constant lurching on the winding, bumpy roads, the pervasive smell of petrol from the spare can, the stink of dog breath, the animal odour of the leather seats, the stench of old vomit from journeys past, the hard-boiled-egg-and-banana smell coming from the picnic basket".

Unlike Australia, the English summers were often inclement, resulting in washed-out campsites and freezing seas. One interviewee recalls coming back to the family rug, "blue-lipped, shivering, imploring to be allowed to get dry", with woollen swimming trunks remaining perpetually damp. If the sun did come out, sunblock was usually olive oil.

The weather could be escaped in the Butlins holiday camps, immortalised in the TV series Hi-De-Hi, which at the height of their popularity attracted 65,000 guests annually. Overseas holidays. which took off with package holidays in the 1960s, guaranteed Cliff Richard's sun and blue seas. Harry Ritchie comments on a 1969 Majorca trip, "Being able to take your clothes off for a holiday, rather than having to put more on: that was wonderful in itself".

Like Shane Warne in India, Eleanor Oldroyd and her family in 1972 took a can of baked beans for every day of the French holiday, the beans stored "around the wheel arch in the boot, along with the tinned mince and tinned Campbell's soup". Professor John Mullan, however, recalls his mother telling him 'Darling, going abroad is vulgar'", while Sir Nicholas Soames, who could afford to go overseas, preferred salmon fishing in Scotland, alleging "No one went abroad except to fight a war".

Maxtone Graham concludes that, despite her attempts to dig up "clouds of melancholy", the overriding (summer) memory was of "a sort of easy, unself-conscious, cotton-wearing happiness . . . Children were expected to go out and play; they were not to be seen for the day, and had to create their own games and use their imagination. There were no imprisoning devices of video games, laptops, or smartphones for children".

In that context, I recall a colleague returning from a family holiday on the New South Wales south coast in 2019 complaining that her two teenage daughters had to be forced out of their bedrooms, and prised off their mobile phones on a daily basis, to walk along the beach. Time may well stand still for teenagers today -TikTok,- but has Maxtone Graham's 20th century summer innocence disappeared forever?

This story What summers were really like first appeared on The Canberra Times.