Book Review: British Summer Time Begins: The School Summer Holidays 1930-1980

Reviewed by Les Hurst of Scarthin Books

Was it only at secondary school that we were herded into the hall on the last day of term to sing ‘Lord dismiss us with thy blessing’? Or had we already been doing that for five years in primary? If it was a Friday then a perfectly normal weekend would follow, while if term ended on any other weekday the boredom would begin almost immediately: we were not going away for the ‘summer hols’. It seems, though, that we not like the others.

For some the school doors opened on the last day of term and out raced adventurers to go in all directions. This oral history, in which Ysenda Maxton Graham has gathered memories from all parts of the country and all classes, at times seems to be – as she says – a non-fiction Famous Five. For some, though, such as Dennis Skinner in Bolsover, life remained hard – he couldn’t give up his paper round. In Scotland many people continued to take their working holidays by leaving the cities for the countryside so the whole family could pick potatoes, while Londoners left the East End for the fields of Kent and hop and fruit picking.

Half the time your memories merge with absolute fiction: that journey to the sea-side, for instance. It is half Mr and Mrs Bear and young Rupert setting off for Sandy Bay, and half recollections of father putting the primus stove in the car boot so that mother could brew on the way without having to pay tea-shop prices.  Graham is right, though, about the way-marks on the journey, how one lay-by became yours by that annual stop.

Once you hit the beach (a phrase we would never have used) would you have a regular place, would there be space? Did your family stay on the sands at lunchtime and eat sandy sandwiches, did they go to the cafes along the front, or did they go back to their hotel to ensure they got the full benefit of paying full-board? Were there games you could join, organised or self-organised? Donkeys, Punch and Judy, pedalos? If there had once been pierrots, that beach entertainment which appears so often in Agatha Christie, they had long gone by the time we disembarked from grandfather’s Ford Popular.

If my memories are anything to go by then it is single events that remain most vivid:  just once standing outside a rock shop and seeing rock being pulled; climbing over the ruins of a castle in the middle of a car park in the rain; using a relative’s caravan on a day trip; walking along the front after the storms that broke the drought of 1976. There are many more, most of them far more interesting, in British Summer Time Begins.

If you want to learn about British holidays from literature written at the time then try a long poem called ‘Beside The Seaside’ in John Betjeman’s Collected Poems, which is well-worth reading, while R C Sherriff followed the stage success of Journey’s End with a very different novel, The Fortnight in September in 1931. Both are available in paperback. Further out is Christina Hardyment’s Captain Flint’s Trunk, where she re-visits all the places that inspired Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons adventures.  Ransome’s stories all take place during the school holidays, even if he has to manipulate the dates as in Winter Holiday, where he gives Nancy mumps so that all the crew have to stay in a 1930s lockdown. That, though, takes us into a new area completely: why do all the best books for children have no adults in them at all?

And that brings us back to British Summer Time Begins. For one thing is obvious from all the memories Ysenda Maxton Graham has gathered: there were no helicopter parents. Children had the days to themselves more often than not, even if it involved no more than walking out of Bolsover. Will that freedom ever return? Ponder as you read.

BRITISH SUMMER TIME BEGINS:  The School Summer Holidays 1930-1980
by Ysenda Maxton Graham (Little, Brown, £20.00)