A Sociological Autobiography: 7 – School Holidays

We always managed a summer holiday during the six-week school breaks. Options were limited in the absence of surplus income and cheap flights, but we had always had a car. Initially, two black Jowetts, kept on the road by piecemeal engineering: I recall my father’s tie resuscitating the fan belt on one, and the strategic insertion of an elastic band in the other getting us belatedly home; then my maternal grandfather’s ancient but pristine and more roadworthy Lanchester chugged us around; and finally a rather grand over-sized Rover. I remember in particular an early trip to St Ives, where I learned that continuous rainfall not only disrupts plans but costs parents more by way of compensatory indoor activities. I overheard Ron and Margaret discussing this. More bizarrely, a shopping trip to Bournemouth, again in the rain, resurrects itself: I have never forgotten the image of bright and multi-coloured lights from the shopfronts dancing in the pools of water on the pavement and road while we lunched in a café.

We went to Swanage twice, each time staying in a caravan. The sands of Studland Bay come to mind, as does the railway station at nearby Wareham. I now realize that Ron and Margaret must have been in seventh heaven. All they had to do to keep me contented for half a day at a time was to deposit me on the platform where, notebook in hand, I waited for the steam-drawn trains to roar through at the rate of three or four per hour. Nor were these the routine ‘Schools’ and ‘West Country’ class engines that I was accustomed to seeing from the footbridge midway between East Worthing Halt and Worthing Central. It was an arrangement that suited all parties.

There were other two-week excursions, always in caravans or tents. I was not to sample a hotel until after leaving university in the 1970s. Hotels, like taxis, were for the affluent or posh. But in the early 1960s Ron determined that I should ‘see something of the world’. The result was two carefully planned and costed four-week tours round Western Europe. The AA supplied the route maps, our ageing Rover our wheels. In the course of these journeys we visited France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Spain (maybe Andorra counts too). I did not sustain a diary for either of these foreign adventures so cannot put together seamless narratives. But maybe this is no bad thing. I began these more or less chronological fragments by eschewing neat wrap-up accounts, preferring to dip into my past a few paragraphs at a time as well as sociologically. It is easier to fabricate, I suspect, if threads are pulled too assiduously together.

So here are a handful of randomized memories:

  • I recall the channel crossing by car ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe on the first trip, mostly for time spent alone on deck, gripping the ship’s railings, braving the wind and spray and gazing out over dull, gray-green choppy waters (I have never experienced sea sickness). I have in fact always relished solitude. I attribute this partly to being an only child; but then Ron too enjoyed quiet moments and what Maggie Archer now calls meta-reflexive ‘internal conversations’. This theme runs from my earliest recollections to the present and has, I think, informed as well as characterized my working life.
  • Chartres Cathedral came alive under the tutelage of an exceptional guide, an English postgraduate student doubtless topping up his bank account. Possessing expertise is one thing, but this man gave gripping voice to the stone and the glass, allowed them to articulate their mediaeval Christian mythologies. And the detail! So impressed was I that I prevailed on my parents to wait while I joined a second tour. I still have the guidebook in my study.
  • I could have drowned at Strasbourg. Ron and Margaret had swum and were lying with books on the sand by the lake. I had waded out through the shallow waters before relaxing into a breaststroke more polished to the eye than confident. When I casually put my foot down for a breather the bed of the lake had disappeared: I was on the edge of a shelf. A few uncomfortable feet down I hit bottom, sprung up and maintained a now less artistic breaststroke until yards from shore. I had been 50 metres plus from anyone and would have drowned if I had panicked. The upside was that I did not panic; and I have noticed since that crises tend to make me cooler rather than hotter, a tendency for which I claim no credit.
  • While I remember little of the drive through (West) Germany’s Black Forest, that through the Swiss Alps conjures up images of neat and orderly habitations relaxing beneath and alongside the Alps. Switzerland is comprised of a limited number of uncompromising primary colours.
  • We camped across the water from Venice, two tents in a field containing hundreds. Of my first visit to Venice itself I recall little apart from the arrival by launch, the effect of the midday Piazza Sac Marco sun on Margaret and the fatigue of trying to see too much too quickly. A souvenir of Moreno glass is in our bedroom: buying it stretched the family finances, which is in part why I keep it. This day-trip was an appetizer.
  • The principality of Andorra nestles in a rusty brown landscape bounded by the Pyrenees. Catalan-speaking, it nevertheless ‘feels’ like neither Spain nor France, if such is possible. We pitched our tents in the environs of its capital, Andorra la Vella, and had what for the Scamblers was a rare treat: an evening meal at a restaurant (paella x 3). This alone is worthy of a mention!
  • Having erected our tents in Tarragona and driven off to the beach, we returned to find another flapping absurdly and unnecessarily close. German provided a more-or-less common language and Ron prevailed, our Spanish rivals shifting ground, their tails between their legs. Otherwise I remember an excursion into Barcelona. In searing heat Ron removed his shirt and was promptly and unceremoniously instructed to put it on again by an officious police officer. That’s fascism for you. Ron’s schoolmaster colleague, Derek Walker, told him he would not visit Spain while Franco remained in situ, but Ron demurred; my sympathies now lie with Mr Walker of course. Barcelona was in many ways not then what it is in the aftermath of the 1992 Olympics.
  • There is something about walled cities, and Carcassonne was no exception. Settled as early as 3500 BC and visited later by the Romans, Carcassonne was fortified by the Visigoths in the fifth century; this was perhaps my first experience of reflexively roaming through history. Again a souvenir: a cheapish, patched and patchy, greenish pot, which remains an object of appreciation in our dinning room. Objects can package local history and the memories it induces.

These episodes add up to an exposure to and infusion of difference. Gadamer’s eloquent concept of ‘fusion of horizons’ applies. Every observational glimpse, snatch of conversation, paragraph read, he rightly notes, changes us, however unaware of this we might be. My parents allowed me to grow through these tours, and they did so perspicuously and on meager resources.

 

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