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 that 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 that 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’ve 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 everything would fit in, then unpacked it in case someone drove off the luggage in the night, and then repacked it at crack of dawn on the morning of departure, using his now tried-and-tested storage technique.”

Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames’s family went from Kent to Loch Stack Lodge in Sutherland for a month every summer. “Bored? Never for a moment bored. Never been bored in Scotland in my life. I never went abroad until I was a soldier. I might have been envious of friends who went to Majorca and learned to water ski, but they didn’t have as much fun as we did, and they didn’t have a salmon on the end of a line.”

Like the suitcases strapped onto cars heading for the seaside, this book is stuffed with good things. By lights out, Maxtone Graham has offered rather more than just a holiday snapshot. British Summer Time Begins is an insightful cameo of childhood and a valuable record of what children hoped for, feared, enjoyed, and repeated, time and again as they grew older. In this vivid and ultimately moving picture, many will recognise their own pasts. And while the voices the author sets down are all grown-up, their younger selves can still be heard, loud and clear, after all these years.