From board games to berry pick­ing, an en­gag­ing new book cel­e­brates the joy of the sum­mer break

The Herald - The Herald Magazine - - Arts -

BRI­TISH SUM­MER TIME BE­GINS: THE SCHOOL SUM­MER HOL­I­DAYS 1930-1980

Ysenda Max­tone Gra­ham

Lit­tle, Brown, £18.99

RE­VIEW BY ROSE­MARY GOR­ING

SO­CIAL his­tory comes in all shapes, but few are as en­joy­able as this en­ter­tain­ing and nos­tal­gic ac­count of the long sum­mer weeks of free­dom from school. Ysenda Max­tone Gra­ham draws on the mem­o­ries of dozens of in­ter­vie­wees from all back­grounds who were chil­dren be­tween 1930 and 1980.

Il­lus­trated with grainy black and white pho­tos, the re­sult is a pointil­list por­trait of the ways in which the dif­fer­ent classes filled in their days.

If your own child­hood falls into this era then there will be fre­quent jolts of recog­ni­tion, from fa­thers who had been in the army lead­ing their broods on forced marches through the coun­try­side, to end­less happy hours pick­ing hot tar­mac off the roadside; play­ing Monopoly in mon­soon con­di­tions; or hid­ing in your bed­room, read­ing and avoid­ing fresh air.

Max­tone Gra­ham has pre­vi­ously writ­ten about life in girls’ board­ing schools in roughly the same pe­riod, but while she in­cludes colour­ful ma­te­rial from such pupils, she has been scrupu­lous in spread­ing her net. The chap­ters ring with Scots, Ir­ish, Welsh and English voices, from the work­ing and mid­dle classes to the aris­toc­racy. Those we should feel most sorry for are not the fam­i­lies who could not af­ford a few nights away, but the off­spring brought up by nan­nies, and trot­ted be­fore their par­ents once a day, be­fore be­ing whisked back to the nurs­ery.

Pro­pelled by a sense of cu­rios­ity, and a fel­low feel­ing with chil­dren, Max­tone Gra­ham or­gan­ises her book in six parts. These range from the end of term and the first thrillingl­y empty days at home, to “the peo­ple you were stuck with”, whose per­son­al­i­ties shaped the ex­pe­ri­ence in­deli­bly. Fi­nally, she con­cludes with the dread ap­proach of the start of term or, as Molesworth put it, “Back in the

Jug Agane”.

Few are as in­ven­tive as young­sters at ab­sorbingly pass­ing time. For­mer Bishop of Ed­in­burgh Richard Hol­loway re­veals that as a boy in Alexan­dria in the 1930s and 1940s he and his friends would spend hours un­der lamp-posts in the evening.

All they did, he re­calls, was chat: “I told my friends sto­ries about films I said I’d seen but hadn’t – I’d just seen the ad­ver­tise­ments for them in the pa­per.” Du­gald Cameron, in­dus­trial de­signer and for­mer head of Glas­gow School of Art, spent his time play­ing with Mec­cano which, he says, “taught me most of what I know about how to build real steam en­gines and cranes... I as­cribe Bri­tain’s de­cline in man­u­fac­tur­ing to the de­cline of Mec­cano.”

Whether chil­dren had a pony, a beat-up bike or shoes cut into san­dals in which to clam­ber il­lic­itly up coal bings, the cen­tral is­sue of the hol­i­days was not money, but how much free­dom they were al­lowed. Story af­ter story of – to mod­ern ears – hair-rais­ingly risky adventures points to the gulf be­tween then and now.

That mo­men­tous half cen­tury was a pe­riod of eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial up­heaval. Yet the com­mon fac­tor, as far as kids are con­cerned, is that they were left to their own devices in ways unimag­in­able today. While there is a dan­ger of rear-view his­tory cast­ing a rosy hue over the past, Max­tone Gra­ham is no sen­ti­men­tal­ist.

Among her in­ter­vie­wees are those who still bear the scars from the rough and tum­ble of child­hood games, or whose friends or rel­a­tives were se­ri­ously hurt, or even killed, dur­ing these un­der-su­per­vised months.

A run­ning theme is penny-pinch­ing. “I ex­pected lack of lux­ury among the work­ing classes,” she writes. “What sur­prised me more was the deeply in­grained habit of non-ma­te­ri­al­ism among the mid­dle and even up­per classes.”

In this re­spect Libby Purves’s fam­ily was typ­i­cal: “My mother bought a cot­tage next to a pigsty in Ire­land for £300 in 1964. It had noth­ing in it. Just camp beds, a camp­ing stove and a chem­i­cal lav out the back. Putting the stove on top of two breeze blocks counted as ‘im­prove­ment’.”

Among the most touch­ing of chap­ters is that about grand­par­ents. Sib­lings could be bul­lies; moth­ers were often ha­rassed and pre­oc­cu­pied, and fa­thers au­thor­i­tar­ian.

Grand­par­ents of­fered com­fort and se­cu­rity, the re­as­sur­ance of un­fail­ing rou­tine, time to lis­ten, and un­con­di­tional love. Annabel Fair­fax re­calls that “our grand­mother gave us a bag each for the jour­ney, con­tain­ing five lit­tle toys”.

Not all grand­moth­ers were sweet, how­ever. Caro­line Cran­brook re­vealed hers “used to eat our pets. Our nanny, Diddy, got us a rab­bit... and when we came back from stay­ing with our other grand­par­ents in Wales, we found granny had eaten our rab­bit. This hap­pened two sum­mers run­ning. We then had Donald Duck, and he too was eaten by granny.”

When the “sum­mer hol­i­days within the sum­mer hol­i­days” be­gin, there is a col­lec­tive cough­ing of ex­haust pipes and ear-split­ting squab­bling as chil­dren are squashed into the back seat, feel­ing sick be­fore they have reached the end of the street. The chap­ters de­scrib­ing domestic de­par­tures are among the high­lights, by turns evoca­tive, comic and re­veal­ing about what mat­tered to peo­ple of these gen­er­a­tions.

“As for the job of loading the car, this was one in which fa­thers could shine. One father I heard of liked to do what he called a ‘dummy run’ on the eve of a jour­ney.

“He packed the car to see how

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