Ho Chi Minh City, Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
Sunday, April 17, 2016
At school, the other day, I was waffling on about a poem by Emily Bronte, 'Remembrance
', in which she recalls the happiest time of her life – when her dead lover was alive. In the poem she describes how, after initially wallowing in grief for the dead man, she learnt to move on. In order to "sell" the poem, I decided to tell my class about the happiest time of my own life – when I was between 7 and 10 years old on holiday in Hayling Island with my parents. The moral of my story was that life went on after Hayling Island and my parents’ death; there were plenty of other things for me to enjoy.
My classroom utterances have provoked a fit of nostalgia for those long-gone family holidays. I was at Redlands Primary School in Reading, and in June or July (occasionally during school term, as I recall) the four of us – myself, mum, dad and sister – used to travel by train to Hayling Island on the south coast of England for two weeks of sea
and sun. We did this several summers in succession; I can’t remember the dates exactly, but the halcyon summer of 1959 was one of them. I think the others might have been 1958, '60, '61 and '62.
Those were the days before cheap foreign travel had been invented, when ordinary working-class folk took their holidays at English seaside resorts. Hayling Island, off the coast of Hampshire, is, I suppose, a poor man’s Isle of Wight – not noted for its scenery or beaches or lovely architecture. I can remember a school friend mocking me about our annual pilgrimage. However, Hayling Island became a fixture of our summers for several reasons. Firstly, we found an excellent place to stay – not a hotel but a boarding house run by a friendly family. Secondly, Hayling Island was easy to reach from Reading – a short inexpensive train ride away. Thirdly, we found a nice beach at a place called Beachlands. Fourthly, and very importantly for a young boy, Beachlands had a funfair.
Before I get on to the holiday proper, let me talk about the journey from Reading. For a boy whose travel opportunities were limited – and for parents
who stayed put most of the year and never went abroad – the train journey was an interesting prelude to a great adventure. In the late 50’s and early 60’s, Reading had two railway stations: Reading General, which served London and Bristol and the north, and Reading Southern, which served the south coast. With our luggage, a couple of battered old suitcases, we boarded the steam train at Reading Southern that took us to Guildford, where we changed for Havant, on the Hampshire coast. Every aspect of that train journey was enjoyable: the intimate compartment with its upholstery, pictures and maps; our fellow-passengers; the countryside seen through the window. I much prefer those old compartments, each one a private room with its own atmosphere, to the bland open-plan train carriages of today.
From Havant we travelled to Hayling Island either by steam train (the quaintly named ‘Puffing Billy’) or by bus. The advantage of the bus was that it dropped us a stone’s throw from our boarding house.
The family we stayed with had an unusual name: Rubick. I now know from the internet that Rubick is a peculiarly Hampshire surname. Their detached house was at the end
of a narrow tree-lined lane named Avenue Road. Compared to the terraced area where we lived in Reading, this was the countryside. They had a large floriferous garden where, every day after returning from the beach, I would play. It was here that I first tried to ride a bicycle, coached by my father, who in his younger days had been a champion cyclist. I also remember playing cricket and football. The Rubicks had two children, older than me, still at school. One summer there was a ‘mongol’ boy in the garden (the term ‘Downs Syndrome’ was not used then), who played with us. I remember my father warning me to beware of this boy’s strength.
Each morning we would eat breakfast, take the bus (No. 127) to the beach, return in the early evening and eat dinner. The food was home-cooked and very good. After dinner, I would play in the garden, while my parents talked to Mr and Mrs Rubick.
My parents were quite poor and worked hard. They obviously relished the annual trip to Hayling Island, their only long holiday of the year. My father, in particular, was a beach-lover; he enjoyed the fresh air,
the peace and quiet and the water. He was not a strong swimmer, preferring to float on his back in the shallows. In 1959 he was 53 years old and had a big belly that stuck out above his bathing trunks. He was a carpet- and lino-fitter by profession. Each working day he took the train from Reading to Paddington and then went to whatever address his employer, Maples (the famous London carpet firm), sent him. He worked for the best part of 49 weeks a year. This annual two-week break in Hayling Island was bliss for him.
The main event of our holiday was the beach. Beachlands was not a classic sandy beach. There were stretches of sand but also many stones and pebbles. However, it was clean. This was a comparatively rubbish-free age; the hideous paper and plastic rubbish that is such a feature of today’s beaches was absent from Beachlands. The views were uninteresting, there was no vegetation, and behind the beach were mounds of stones and the road. There were never many people on the section of beach we preferred – a short walk from the funfair.
We used to sit on the dry
stones overlooking the beach and, when the wind blew hard (as it sometimes did, but not during that glorious summer of 1959), we would shelter behind a canvas screen known as a ‘wind-cheater’. The water at Beachlands was pure (although oil washed up from tankers became a minor problem) and cool, the shore was strewn with shells, the sun shone, and I was free. This was a boy’s paradise. I had everything I wanted: the protection of my parents, the water to swim in (I was a poor swimmer but I enjoyed the sea) and the beach to explore. My mother rubbed old-fashioned calamine lotion into my skin to prevent sunburn, and then I could run around with impunity. Beach-combing became my speciality; I would hunt for interesting shells (which I hoarded and took back to Reading) and inspect the flotsam and jetsam from the English Channel. I remember once finding a black shark’s tooth. I was fascinated by the hermit crabs that popped out of some of the shells I handled. And I remember my father telling me about the jellyfish known as the Portugese man o’war, which he explained was very dangerous and occasionally seen in English waters.
I enjoyed the sounds of words, and the name of this creature captured my imagination.
My sister and I built sandcastles between swims, and I would skim stones across the water (“dick, duck, drake, lardy cake”). My father and I had a favourite game: hurling stones at an upright stick positioned some distance away in the sand. I always used to replant the stick after one of us had knocked it down. My father, with his chronically painful corns, was not much of a walker. I’m not sure what my mother did while this was going on; I think she was happy to relax, watching us having fun. Neither my mother nor father was a great reader (apart from The Daily and Sunday Express and Reader's Digest), and my sister and I just wanted to frolic in the sun, so books were not part of our beach experience. One amusing memory is my father’s description of my skinny physique: “like someone out of Belsen”.
For lunch we always went to the same restaurant – a short walk away on the edge of the funfair, next to the children’s electric train. We ate sausages and chips and drank 7-Up, as the jukebox played the sounds of Elvis and Cliff. Then, before returning to the beach, we would visit the dodgems (lovely name). Of all the entertainments on offer this was my favourite. My father never owned a car, and to this day I cannot drive, so this was the closest I've ever come to driving. After the dodgems I would browse in the area filled with one-armed bandits and other cash-gobbling machines. I remember the pictures of contemporary film stars – Gregory Peck, Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe – as well as the merry-go-round with its painted horses (I was too old for this, but my little sister loved it), the shooting range and the ghost train. I was a sensitive boy with a well-developed sense of horror, and I boarded the ghost train just once – spending the entire journey with eyes closed. Dominating the funfair was a Ferris wheel, but this too was a frightening prospect, and I never plucked up courage to try it.
Then back to the beach for more swimming, sun-bathing, shell-gathering and stone-throwing. In mid-afternoon I would go off to buy chocolate for the family – invariably four Mars bars ("A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play" was the slogan then) for around two old shillings.
At the end of the afternoon we returned to the funfair and awaited the bus. Catching the morning bus to the beach was sometimes annoying – we would wait for ages and then the proverbial two buses would come along at the same time – but the late afternoon bus back to the Rubicks’ house was pretty reliable.
The two weeks in Hayling Island always flew by, because we were having so much fun. It was a serene fortnight. The only time I remember my parents being worried was one year when, walking down Avenue Road with our suitcases after the train journey from Reading, my mother suddenly said: “Did I leave a cigarette burning in the ashtray upstairs?” She was a smoker. The potentially house-razing cigarette was soon forgotten, and, when we got back to Reading, all was well.
The hot rainless summers are the ones I remember best. I would arrive home in Reading with a deep tan, which I was very proud of. There were other summers when it drizzled and the wind blew, and we sheltered behind our wind-cheater on the beach. But even in bad weather Hayling Island was a delicious escape from the monotony of our workaday Reading lives.
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