My Holidays by Sylvia Smith

Memories of postwar holidays where very little happened - until the end
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The Independent Culture

Sylvia Smith's success with her two previous memoirs, Misadventures and Appleby House, is a curiosity indeed. Written as naif autobiography and ignoring everything you ever learned about good writing, they are strangely compelling books. Very little happens, but Smith does possess an authentic narrative voice, and her latest non-adventure, My Holidays, verges on the interesting as social history.

Complete with photographs of mum, dad and Sylvia taken on an English beach where they picnic in filthy weather, Smith describes the family holidays they could afford on the wages of a skilled wireworker in postwar Britain.

Her first holiday outside London's East End was to a Margate rooming house where they dined with 10 guests on (a culinary novelty) unpeeled potatoes.

When Smith reached her teens and left school to start work, the family had enough money to buy a car and began to venture further out, to Cornwall and Devon.

By the Sixties she works as a secretary in the City. Although Swinging London seems not to have penetrated the bubble of her existence, the Continent has opened up a treasure trove of holiday experiences with the delights of the Costa del Sol, Turkish beaches and Alpine ski resorts. For a summer trip to Austria, Smith and her friend spend several months "saving hard" to pay the coach fare and to buy a few good outfits. The frocks are meant to attract foreign boys who take the women on "dates" to dancing clubs and then fail to write letters.

Smith, throughout the memoir, is almost painfully aware of money and has periods of unemployment, when planning a holiday takes ingenuity and luck.

In her fifties, she stays several times at a cottage in Ramsgate with Edith, the elderly mother of her friend Tim. Smith does the housework and cooking in exchange for the day trips to Calais that Tim pays for. Another friend invites Smith to visit her in Nova Scotia, which she loves, and appreciates how little she needs to spend.

Underlying this series of anecdotes is a sense of terrible loneliness which seems to culminate in a trip to Gibraltar with the fiendish Susan, an overweight blonde divorcée with a wicked tongue. The women spend their days arguing; they get left behind by their guide on a day trip to Morocco and endure frosty evenings watching the telly in their hotel room. Both in their fifties, neither have dates, and it's all rather depressing.

Often the memoir seems to amble artlessly from one incident to the next with the barest lines of description. The markets are always "colourful"; she visits "historic buildings" while the chapters often end with the sign-off that "the journey home was uneventful" or "went without mishap".

Sometimes Smith seems barely aware of which country she is in. Can she really get away with describing Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, as "a small town set deep in the Canadian countryside"?

Smith's final holiday, however, is her first author tour of the US in 2001, following the publication of Misadventures. After a lifetime of holidays where very little happens, she spends 11 September, of course, in downtown New York City.

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