Remember when: Enduring memories of childhood holidays
Childhood holidays by the seaside are the source of some of our most enduring memories.Tracey Emin, Esther Freud, John Burnside, DJ Taylor and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown take a trip down memory lane
Saturday 01 August 2009
When I was a child Margate was known as the Golden Mile, a gorgeous stretch of soft sand, neon lights and ice-cream parlours – all the stuff that can turn a hot day into something absolutely incredible. Growing up by the seaside was a magical experience, especially back then, when the great British seaside was in its heyday. My strongest childhood memories of all undoubtedly come from summer days spent at the lido. Almost every second from when it opened in May until it closed in September, that was where I could be found. At that time, in the 1970s, Margate's lido complex had hardly been changed since Victorian times. It had the most amazingly beautiful 1920s-style arch at the front with a fantastic salt-water pool; it was a safe and healthy environment for kids, somewhere we could go off on our own and play for hours with friends.
Every morning, my twin and I, and a gang of friends, would all meet up at the lido, no later than 10am when the doors were opened, and would stay there until it was locked up at 6pm. There was never a chance of getting bored. Every day there would be beauty competitions and talent shows, and often in the afternoon Tony Savage would play at the organ and old people would gather around and sing along to old war songs; there were hamburgers, and afternoon tea dances on the terrace. One of my favourite things about the lido was the really high diving boards; imagine how exhilarating it felt at the age of 11, jumping off a 20-foot drop. I'd do it again and again and again. The whole of Margate at that time
was alive and spirited, rather a special place to be. On a Saturday or Sunday, you couldn't find a spot to sit on. From Clifton Villas past the lido and down to Dreamland and the old-fashioned fun fair, thousands of bodies would gather on the sand. One thing I always noticed was how different the people would be during each season; the OAPs would arrive in April, and in June it would be families coming for their summer holidays.
There was always something to do in Margate. There was crazy golf and the Jamaica Inn, a big puppet theatre, and a big building with a fibreglass devil at the entrance and Caves nightclub underneath. I remember seeing Norman Wisdom perform on my tenth birthday – it was just one of those places where stuff always happened. If nothing else, I'd go down to the hotel where my mum worked and have a swim with my brother.
My mum still lives in the town, and every time I visit I'm deeply saddened by what's happened: the once infamous neon seafront has now gone and the beautiful old wooden railway structure has been burnt to cinders. There is little sign of what was once a thriving town at the heart of the British tourist industry. There are still beautiful beaches around that area and the wonderful Margate winter gardens are still thriving, but the glorious place of my childhood has largely been left to rot.
Interview by Charlotte Philby
At that time, we didn't go on actual holidays. Instead, we had "days out", which usually meant staying at home for family arguments and occasional sunburn in our own pit-town garden. Now and then, however, we would walk to the bus station in Cowdenbeath, buckets and spades in hand, our mother laden with shopping bags full of sandwiches and towels, my father striding on ahead, empty-handed, in his Air Force blazer and flannels, his hair newly Brylcreemed, his shoes like mirrors. He wasn't dressed for the beach, but then, he wouldn't be staying long: as soon as he'd seen us to our chosen patch of sand, he would head off for "a pint and a half" and he wouldn't come back till the pubs closed. I didn't mind any of this, though, because the seaside was my favourite place and if my father had been around, he would only have spoilt it.
Besides, the best thing about those trips was knowing how close that seaside world was: all it took was a bus ride and I was in a different kingdom, where the people were rich and strangely blessed, like characters from a children's story, in their pink and lemon and gingerbread-coloured houses, dreaming their lives away in a continuum of damp sunshine and fairground music, the summer air a precise blend of toffee apples and candy floss and the opulent new-plastic scent of blow-up beach balls. Sometimes, we only got to look at all this richesse, but that didn't matter either, because this was a separate reality, a country that operated by different rules, and it was a privilege to be there. I loved that world more than anything, and I longed to find the secret passage that would let me slip through and vanish into it forever, like the children in some old fairytale who slip through a gap in a privet hedge and find themselves in fairyland.
I would have been seven, I think, on the day I almost made it there, a lost boy in navy-blue shorts and plastic sandals wandering on the front, suddenly alone at the Burntisland Games. My mother [above, with the young Burnside] was always warning us about wicked men in cars and the dangers of wandering off in a crowd, and I had clear instructions on what to do if I ever got separated from her in a strange place. But, on that July afternoon, I forgot everything I had been taught and simply wandered, picking my way through the holiday crowds and the perfect flower beds, a little frightened but also excited by the notion that, when the inhabitants of that neverland found me, alone and nameless in their candy-coloured world, someone would take me home to some layer-cake house facing the sea, where I would live forever in endless sunshine and uninterrupted happiness, among people who had things. I don't know how long I was lost – to me it felt like hours, though it was probably not much more than 20 minutes – but for as long as I wandered, waiting to be recognised by the fairytale godparents of my new future, I was utterly happy. Everything I saw was vivid, clean, perfect and, potentially, mine. It didn't occur to me to feel ashamed at my disloyalty to a mother who loved me and was, at that very moment, searching the beach frantically for her lost child: it was only when she finally tracked me down – her eyes rimmed, as always, with anaemic shade, her expression of relief almost unbearably pitiable – that I lapsed back into my old manner and, ashamed, penitent, yet still reluctant to return, put off the inevitable adventure to another day. 'The Hunt in the Forest' (Jonathan Cape, £10) is out Thursday
By coincidence my happiest seaside memory also happens to be one of my earliest memories. I was around three years old, and my mother took my sister and I to Formentera in the Balearic Islands near Ibiza. Then, around 1966, Formentera had a reputation for being a hippy retreat and a haven for artists, writers and the like. I remember playing on the beach with my sister, Bella: it was a beautiful summer's day and we were playing around in the surf, filling glass bottles with wet sand and pretending it was Fanta. Despite never having tasted it, it seemed as if it were the most exotic and magical substance imaginable. That moment playing in the sand has been crystallised in my memory as the most delicious experience of utter satisfaction. I just remember feeling so completely happy with the sea, sun and sand.
We never really went on that sort of traditional family beach holiday ever again, which is perhaps why I remember this one moment so vividly. Not long after we set off on our year-long adventure in Morocco; in many ways that beach memory is my last of Europe and familiarity. In Morocco, Bella and I would ask for Fanta as if it were magical. And it wasn't until several years later that we finally tasted it and were taken aback at just how fizzy and sweet it was. It just wasn't magical at all.
I've been back to the island several times since, once in my teens when I was very unwell with a stomach infection and didn't see much, and once in my early twenties when I managed to find the same mountain hotel and spot on the beach from nearly 20 years before – and it was absolutely wonderful. Just exactly as I'd remembered.
Interview by Jamie Merrill
D J Taylor
The Taylors – there were five of us – weren't particularly adventurous tourists. My father used to mutter that he'd done all his travelling during the war, thanks very much. My mother just liked a break from routine. In any case, middle-class English families in the late 1960s didn't generally venture "abroad". There wasn't the money, and to a certain extent, here amid the insular landscapes governed by the likes of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, there wasn't the inclination. Like yoghurt, colour television, fridge-freezers and sheetless beds, trips to the continent lay slightly beyond the horizon in the bright early Seventies dawn.
The seaside holidays of my childhood, consequently, took place not in Normandy or Cape Cod or on the balmy shores of the Aegean, but in Eccles, a tiny village on the Norfolk coast, midway between Happisburgh (pronounced "Hazeborough" and the bane of radio request show announcers) and Sea Palling, accessed by way of a single dirt-track road that played hell with the springs of my parents' ancient Hillman Husky. Eccles was – still is, I discovered, when I went back recently – a curious and slightly fantastic resort, one of those ramshackle agglomerations of picturesquely tumbledown shacks with names like "Dingley Dell" and "Dun Roamin", prefab bungalows, nesting, wheel-free caravans and one or two bona fide red-brick houses, all laid out more or less ad hoc, where a morning's rain on the unpaved streets could leave your car needing to be dragged out by tractors. As to what one "did" in Eccles, there was nothing except the beach, a romantic-looking dune or two, and a general store whose owners were reckoned to live alternate six months of the year in Majorca on the proceeds of a summer spent servicing the trippers.
The great enlivening force of these August fortnights in a bungalow lent us by a family friend was my father. It was he who bought us water-pistols from the shop, laid on provisions for "jip nights" (a pagan custom from his own early life that involved staying up late and gorging yourself on cheap sweets), finessed excursions down the coast to the slot-machine palaces at Mundesley, or planked down hopeful half-crowns on Terry Wogan's morning selection. And it was with him, aged perhaps seven or eight, one hot summer's afternoon when the rest of the family were somewhere else, that I caught the fish.
A lot of the time spent with my father was taken up in hanging about, musing on your opportunities, taking the air, seeing what was going on. He had a kind of genius for incidental observation. This particular afternoon we were browsing among the rock pools, probably prospecting for winkles, which he liked boiled up and extracted from their shells on the end of a pin. Suddenly, 20 or 30 yards away towards the sea-line, we saw something big and grey and distressed flapping angrily in a puddle of froth. "Must be a cat or something," my father speculated. Scampering to investigate we found, not a cat but a two- or three-pound cod, beached by the receding tide.
Many a city-dweller would have left well alone, but dad was a man of resource. He picked up the largest rock he could find, belted the fish on the head with it, transferred the corpse to the bucket I was carrying and took it home for my mother to cook for tea. It's a moment that has stayed with me for 40 years – the great wild sea stretching out before us, the white birds spiralling above, the thumping disturbance in the water pool, dad craning over it with his murderous rock. For perhaps the first time in my life – there were to be others – he seemed to me a genuinely heroic figure, a man of infinite capacity and resolve who bestrode his world like a colossus. Doubtless there are other wistful fortysomethings out there whose memories of parental bonding take in stags slaughtered on Pictish moors or walruses wrestled jointly to death on Arctic ice-floes. All I can say about my own father is that we once caught a fish together on Eccles beach, and that there aren't many other experiences I'd more joyfully revisit.
We had little spare cash when I was growing up. Actually, we were broke. Papa was a gabbler and gambler. Money came and disappeared fast. Yet Mum would not forgo a seaside holiday, she believed implacably that an annual intake of salty air kept down her high blood pressure. There was much subterfuge before we set off, second class, on a train from Kampala to Mombasa, on the line built by Indian indentured labourers during the expansionist-imperialist Victorian era.
We chugged through small, shady villages and plains across which moved languid giraffes, zebra, wildebeest, elephants and lazy lions – until on the second morn, at dawn, came the first sightings of Mombasa, like Zanzibar, sultry, hedonistic and cosmopolitan. We stayed with the widow Mubinabai – an adopted aunty – and her many daughters.
Everyday, after an early breakfast of tea and mandazi (a coastal African doughnut) we were at the seashore. Blankets were set down under the trees. As other families arrived, you shuffled up and let them fill up the space until the moving sun stole the shade. The women shared food, stories, gossip, while the menfolk did deals, quarrelled. Card games brought out hidden resentments and that competitive spirit that made east-African Asians such unbeatable entrepreneurs.
Local Asian women took orders for beach lunches. Tiny garlicky meatballs, thin breads topped with egg, rice with chicken, small boiled potatoes, halved and spread with chilli paste then dipped in batter and fried, cakes and cassava chips, were delivered by a bicycle man. And we drank the sweet juice of green coconuts, madafu.
Kids were free to roam and play in the beckoning sea, warm as a bath, clear, blue and with fish you could scoop up with a cup. We were all warned not to go too far out and to stay with the others.
At the age of five (I think), I went missing. In a flowery sundress, barefoot with red ribbons in my hair, sucking on a stick of sugar cane, I had set off to collect shells. I found 32 – pink, coral, blue-grey, flash-white, tiger patterned, huge and minuscule, in all shapes. It got dark.
I came upon a cheery Asian family who insisted I should eat some barbecued maize and squabs, before they would help me retrace my steps. I remember one weird man in the group who untied my hair and tried to get me to go with him "to do toilet". He was stopped by his panicky wife.
By this time the sun had almost fallen into the sea and glow worms were dancing. When we found my family, a crowd had gathered – fatalistic boatmen, an elegant black priest praying, half the local mosque, three gormless policemen writing out statements with short pencils. Mum was hysterical and slapped me hard. I cried. Mubinabai rushed up and gave me a hug and a huge slice of groundnut cake. Oh happy times.
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