Gleanings . . . . . . . .
Remember — you’re invisible; the campers don’t want to see you, so do your jobs and keep your heads down.” And so we were welcomed and inducted into the happy family of Butlin’s Holiday Camp, Barry Island, back in the summer of 1972.
There are no “Holiday Camps” any more, nowadays they are “Holiday Parks” and the function of the staff is to ensure their guests’ free time is as free as possible; but back then they were not guests, they were “campers” and as such, like overgrown Scouts and Guides, they needed to be organised, shepherded, herded, entertained, knobbly- kneed, glamorous- grannied, fed at set times and adequately watered of an evening — and that’s where our little team came in.
We worked in the Beer Stores which housed not only beer but every other drink a thirsty camper might desire: crates and crates of ale, barrels and bottles, spirits of all descriptions, soft drinks, cocktail mixers, Noilly Prat, Babycham, snowballs, sherries and even a few bottles of wine for those getting on the increasingly fashionable continental bandwagon.
A vehicle whose closest relative was a milk float pulled two or three trailers around the camp visiting each bar in turn to stock up ready for the coming day. In the early mornings the camp was a relatively peaceful place, most of the holidaymakers tucked up in bed, maybe with one ear open listening out for “Good Morning Campers!” echoing over the tannoy.
Our little float would hiss around the deserted amusement arcades acknowledged only by the squawks of impatient seagulls or the rare camper out for an early morning constitutional. Behind us the flat calm waters of the Bristol Channel would turn from grey to pink as the sun rose and burnt the mist away from the headlands, its reflected light bouncing off windows in WestonsuperMare on the other side of the water, and somewhere out in mid- channel the deep foghorn of a merchant ship would announce its approach to Cardiff Docks.
Unlike the Redcoats, whose job it was to mingle with the campers as the “faces of Butlin’s”, we were expected to do our jobs as anonymously as possible and then vanish. The campers, we were told, were there to forget all about work for a week or a fortnight and so didn’t want to see anyone doing any.
The Redcoats were not supposed to speak to the rest of the staff and we were not to speak to them. They were there to mingle and entertain: it was a stipulation that Redcoats had to be able to sing or dance or play a musical instrument.
We, on the other hand, only had to deliver drinks — but in our own small way we were not without talent. One of our number, Eric Gorton from Manchester, was a great rock and roll singer and used to guest with the house band, The Chuck Fowler Trio, in the Regency Bar. Occasionally, they would let
me and my guitar sit in too and the campers, who probably had no idea it was the boys who had delivered their drinks as the sun rose, seemed to enjoy it.
The wages were not great but all our meals and accommodation were free and so it was “pocket money”. There was a staff bar where the drinks were cheaper but it was pretty basic with just a juke box and some tired tables and chairs pensioned off from the areas open to campers.
We were more inclined to mingle with the campers of an evening in the Ballroom Bar with its panoramic view of the sea or the Pig and Whistle with nightly live acts and a weekly cabaret which attracted some of the biggest names in British entertainment touring on a six- week rota. I saw Bob Monkhouse on several occasions doing the same act, but such was his finesse, timing and comedy genius every time seemed like the first and, unrestricted by the television censors, he delivered a rip- roaring adult set that inevitably brought the house down. I still recall almost every word of his unbroadcastable version of “My Way”. They say the Sixties didn’t actually end until 1973 and the air of freedom was made even more heady by living the whole summer in a holiday environment full of fun and possibilities. We were young, all in our late teens or early twenties, with the future
spread out ahead of us packed with unlimited potential. Even though I came from a deprived town in the South Wales valleys I, like my companions, believed I could be anything I wanted to be.
I would never have to work in the steelworks or go underground, I was going to be discovered and be a rock star, it was only a matter of time, and we all had similar dreams. None of us could envisage the lives our parents had endured, blighted by war and recessions. A brave new age beckoned, we had put men on the moon, there was near to full employment — and I almost had enough saved for a downpayment ment on a motorbike. I would ride to London with my demo tapes, play them to “The Man” and the rest would be plain sailing.
In the meantime, however, there was the small matter of quenching the perpetual thirst of 6,500 new campers every week. The bar managers would hand us their
written drinks orders at the end of the day and early the next morning we would load them up and deliver them. On a good day we could be over the worst of it by 2.30pm and then our thoughts would turn to more creative pursuits.
We formed what could probably be described as a skiffle group with two guitars, a cardboard box drum kit, a tea- chest bass, harmonica and vocals. After a little rehearsal we managed quite impressive versions of “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and T Rex’s “Get it On”. We called ourselves The Beer Stores Bunkie Band but we were easily distracted and never rehearsed enough to hit the big time.
One blustery day, our work done, we decided to see if we could construct a kite so big it could lift a human being into the air. None of us had ever seen a hang- glider and so we worked on instinct using a couple of outsize bamboo poles which had once been in the centre of some reels of carpet and a tarpaulin sheet left behind by a delivery truck.
The kite was nine feet four inches tall and, held by three of us, was launched out on an unmanned test flight across the seafront. It soared to the end of our coil of rope and then, as if possessed, screamed to the ground and straight through the roof of an ice- cream parlour! The subsequent dressing down by our usually stern Scottish boss, Mr. Dalhousie, was softened by his professed admiration for our efforts. A former bomber pilot, he took the trouble to point out our kite’s discrepancies before warning us of the dire consequences of attempting it again.
As the weeks passed we honed invisibility to a fine art, blending into the fabric of the camp as we went about our business and not even the occasional soda- siphon fight or impromptu sing- song drew
more than a curious glance. We weren’t resplendent in red blazers, just a bunch of scruffs rolling barrels and carrying crates.
We didn’t know it but we were part of something intrinsically and eccentrically British, making our unseen contribution to thousands of lifelong memories. It was an unforgettable summer and although I have had some quite extraordinary life experiences since, nothing has ever recreated that feeling of absolute freedom.
Whenever I hear the sounds of that summer — Terry Dactyl and the Dinosaurs’ “Seaside Shuffle”, “California Man” by The Move or “Run Run Run” by Jo Jo Gunne I can almost believe I am back in the summer of ’ 72, the smell of sea air and candyfloss carried on the wind and the decades stretching out ahead full of whatever I cared to fill them with.
Butlin’s Camp, Barry Island.
Bob Monkhouse, who put on an unforgettable performance.
Postcards of the holiday camp by John Hinde ( 19161997) who became famous for his many pictures of Butlin’s.
The Beer Stores personnel, with Bob Rogers, middle row, right.