Fun at the beach—the ecstasy. The agony.
I’m about to reminisce about the ecstasies I enjoyed when I was a ‘pre-teen’. That’s what they call kids less than thirteen years old these days. To me, being a pre-teen initially meant my balls hadn’t dropped and I was easily diverted. Actually I was a ‘pre-teen’ all the way back until I was no more then a smug smile on Mother’s face. Her smug smile was based on two unassailable facts. First, she’d lured my Dad into her clutches, and second, she was the only woman in her circle of acquaintances who didn’t have to get married by being caught into the family way. Mother still carried this smugness fifty years later.
I appeared on the scene in 1944 and its fair to say that in those days the horizons most people experienced were sharply limited. Just after the second world war there was little money around in England. Families were still engaged in delightful and inexpensive excesses such as singing around the piano no matter how badly it needed tuning, painting hard-boiled eggs for Easter, and pacing back and forth hard-faced and determined—hoping someone else would have to visit the toilet first and thus warm the seat.
Dad was one of those amazing individuals who was—like me—full of incredibly good ideas from which he made no money whatsoever. Indeed, Dad had such a tremendous reputation for his skills in this area that Mother neve lost an opportunity to remind him of this trait.
“Yer full of good ideas, but yer never make any bloody MONEY out of ’em!”
Dad, for ever besotted by Mother’s charms, ignored this criticism until his wits departed shortly before he did. The poor man did the best he could with the money he brought home, and the result was, every year the family managed to enjoy two weeks in Paradise.
I suppose everyone has their own notions of Paradise. My family’s was a seaside resort on the east coast of England. Mablethorpe.
This bustling jewel of entertainment and relaxation was a good twenty miles from where we lived, thus presenting as a serious journey. Initially we made the trip to and from the place by train. One of the first holiday memories I retained was the wailing of children, counterpointed by the atonal screeching noise made as they dragged their little spades across the platforms in despair at the end of their holiday, dispiritedly climbing into the carriages for the trip home. On the other hand, my family invariably bustled with anticipation as we enjoyed our rail trip to the seaside—though Mother made no secret of her severe criticism of the cleanliness of the carriage interior. Eyeing one poor British Railways devil as he tottered down the platform polishing the brass handles on the carriage doors, she remarked scornfully,
“’E should be inside ’ere cleanin’!”
Some years later Dad scraped together meagre funds and bought the remains of a car—a Ford Popular. This brought a whole new area of diversion into family trips. Any outing in the dilapidated vehicle was dependent on Dad managing to get the engine started. This was a process eloquently described by my younger brother Julian, who quickly recognised the clues warning a road trip was imminent. They were that Mother put on her finery, but waited in the house—while Dad surged outside with a determined expression. Julian was fascinated by this and always called after him, “Are you going to rake it up, Dad?”
‘Raking it up’ described the exhausting and noisy process of turning over the engine with a long, black starting handle until it started. This was a process with which Mother didn’t wish to be associated—she wouldn’t set foot into the street until she was convinced the engine was running. She didn’t like to be ‘shown up’.
Each year we hired an on-site caravan and but for one exception it became our trusted home for two weeks annually until I was sixteen years old. The exception was one time when Dad was tardy in booking the van—from Mr Brown, a man I never met—and so he was obliged to rent one from another wealthy person. Mother never let Dad forget his error, and indeed occupied quite some time throughout her two weeks in the inferior accommodation expounding on its inadequacies. Though, of course, the less than perfect qualities of the residence remained a mystery to the rest of us.
Four things stick in my mind about living in caravans for two weeks. First, the need to plan for walks to the lavatory block. It’s amazing how long a person can hold it when it’s two in the morning.
Second. When you DO have to go there’s the complication of climbing over and around other people, because the damned beds fold down out of the walls and there’s no floor space in which to manoeuvre.
Third is the romantic hiss of the gas lamps and the way they slowly become less bright as the mantles fall apart.
Finally, the damp and penetrating cold if the weather’s bad.
I considered it a great reward if I was allowed to go to bed without wearing my pyjama top—I imagined I was Sabu the Elephant Boy, and laid quietly trying to avoid disturbing my sunburn.
Which brings me to the primary reason for the holiday. The beach.
Mablethorpe has a beautiful sand beach and—in those days—very little else. Oh, there was a sort of carnival area, and it was possible to walk around it in about ten minutes. A couple of public houses, too. The family had little to do with either. Life centred on the beach, starting at around eight in the morning and ending just before dusk.
Mother and Dad were experts at planning for a day enjoying life on the sand and over the years contrived to make sure they could stay on it all day without a single move anywhere else. Which involved carrying the most astonishing array of supplies from the caravan. For reasons which remain far beyond my comprehension, no-one could wear a bathing costume for the trip from the caravan to the sand. Costumes could only be donned once we’d arrived, and had taken possession of an area, erected a windbreak, set out chairs and arranged provisions close to hand. At that moment Mother produced a long, striped skirt which the family took turns to use, each arranging it to depend from their neck like a tent while they made the transition from normal clothing to swimwear. It’s an excellent way to get sand into intimate places where it can be uncomfortable.
With the family suitably attired, the fun could begin—no matter what the weather. I have photographs (see above) of extended family sitting in what appear to be Second World War foxholes, staring into the camera with a hunted, glassy-eyed demeanour as though they were about to be shipped off to Belsen to support the fertilizer trade. They’ve scooped out a hole in the beach to gain some shelter from the wind and the sand it’s carrying, good enough to strip the paint from cars. One Uncle appears particularly depressed, huddled down with a child’s pullover on his head like a Balaclava.
The family’s enjoyment was largely encouraged by Dad, who, no matter what the weather, urged us to go and get in the water. He was a larger-than-life figure, walking down through the fog, or drizzle, or howling sand-clogged wind, shoulders back, buttocks stiff and military-like in his grey swimming trunks, arms locked behind his back against the cold. On his head a bright yellow stretchy-rubber cap which he deemed necessary to protect his hair. Against the ravages of the North Sea.
Dad had an inflexible system for luring us into the water. He made himself a sacrifice, gradually walking in, turning from time to time and calling back to us.
“It’s quite nice once yer in!”
It always worked, and the family became experts at what we called ‘wave-jumping’. This involved father, myself and my brother hurling ourselves at waves which were so violent as to convey some warmth via a sort of frictional assault, allowing us to enjoy the game for quite a long time. Mother entertained herself by sliding back and forth in the shallows, supported by water-wings.
When it came time for a rest, the family vied to see who had the most surprising hues of blue and purple from the cold while the first of the day’s feeds were consumed. Mother prepared all the food beforehand—there were no trips to kiosks. It consisted primarily of cold meat and salad sandwiches, augmented by various items Mother had baked and stored, such as scones, gingerbread and the like. The sandwiches could be spiced up by smearing their contents with a glutinous bright yellow mixture dotted with small mysterious lumps of vegetable matter. Piccalilli. As alternative, salad cream could be applied. In certain weather conditions great skill was required to avoid eating an equivalent weight of sand with a sandwich.
Certain weather conditions...
Dad hugely enjoyed watching the reaction of other people at the smallest change in the weather. It was often sunny, but...
“Look at ’em all rushing off the beach just because the sun’s gone behind a cloud!”
And indeed they where. No doubt to make sure of finding a raincoat and then a position on the sea front promenade from which they could watch us having fun in the rain.
Fun usually involved a simple game called French cricket. The person with the bat must prevent anyone else—the fielders—from hitting the batter’s legs with the ball, and may not move their feet. Depending on where the ball is being thrown from, they can be attacked from any side. The ball must be thrown from where it stops after being hit or bowled at the legs. On being hit on the legs or caught out, the person batting gives up the bat to the person who caught or bowled them and becomes a fielder It entertained us for hours, usually ending a few minutes after Dad had become the batter. That’s because he belted the ball—a soft ball, not a cricket ball—great distances down the beach. Mother refused to run after it, instead sulking.
Dad was then obliged either to drag my brother and I into the sea again or build us something with sand. He was an expert at building us sandy aeroplanes, locomotives and racing cars in which we could sit. The structures drew curious people from all along the beach, and while they admired, Mother preened.
“Father’s in the building trade. He’s very skilled.”
She omitted to let them know he never made any bloody money.
A day on the beach can be very tiring and usually Mother was fast asleep in her deckchair when a most disconcerting event overtook her. She never anticipated the tide coming in and usually awoke with a screech of alarm as the water trickled over her feet. This precipitated a disorganised rush for higher ground—and there was a great deal to be packed up before it could be swept away to the other side of the North Sea. From Mother’s perspective there was a mortally dangerous aspect to the scene, too, once again as a result of Dad. He insisted on being settled well down the beach towards the sea where, as he put it, “The sands are cleaner”. This meant that as the tide came in, from time to time the family would eventually become the sole inhabitants of a little sand island, which terrified Mother. She’d never accept that we could easily walk out through twenty metres of ankle-deep water as we headed for the top of the beach. After all, most of us were prepared to dive repeatedly into two-metre surf.
Invariably the family headed for the caravan near dusk. Just before we retired—sometimes as late as nine in the evening after preoccupation with draughts, dominoes, ‘Snakes and Ladders’, ‘Ludo’ and ‘Monopoly’—the family went through a traditional and singular betting process. We all watched Dad as he pulled dried skin from his sunburn, trying to guess which would be the biggest sheet he could hold up for us to admire. Some of them were so extensive he could have worn them as swimming caps.
And what was left for us after two weeks in Paradise? Well, we had the trip home for a start—one week we pushed the car, with Mother still in it, for several miles before a friend turned up to tow us home. Finally the moment of homecoming. The hallway piled with newspapers and, more importantly, my comics. Two weeks backlog of ‘Beano’, ‘Dandy’, ‘Hotspur’, ‘Rover’ and ‘Eagle’. What’s Dan Dare been up to? Now, I had my two weeks of reading Paradise...