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New Year book review: When childhood was an adventure

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British Summer Time Begins: The School Summer Holidays 1930-1980 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham; Little, Brown 

If you were near St Margaret’s School, Bushey, any July in the 1970s, you might have seen girls waving their ‘navy outer-knickers’ out of car windows. At the same time the girls of St Leonards in St Andrews were throwing their school hats into the river, while at Benenden, Kent, the headmistress’s dog was dyed pink. Such was the national exhilaration of children from private and state schools at the start of the long summer holidays.

In joyful detail Maxtone Graham explores what British children used to do when they had six weeks free time on their hands. She uses this to explore ‘a Britain scarcely recognisable today’, a time when adults were often so out of touch with the daily lives of their children that they frequently got the date wrong for collecting them from school, leaving them sitting on their trunks.

Private Eye mocked the book as elitist, too focused on girls with names such as Phoebe Fortescue, a knicker waver, and Marianne Lucia Perronet Thompson-McCausland (aunt of Pointless TV host Alexander Armstrong), and there are those such as writer Jonathan Meades who sneer and refuse to believe that children ever had such holidays outside Malory Towers. But Maxtone Graham spent eighteen months travelling the UK, buttonholing market traders, visiting men and women in day-care centres, farms, castles, suburban houses and council estates.

The great difference she found between then and now was that many parents never knew or cared where their children were. Little was planned, entertainments weren’t laid on, ‘summers were more a matter of stasis than travel’. 

As Sir Nicholas Soames told her, ‘In the 50s no one went abroad except to fight a war.’ Stuck at home, left to themselves, children became resourceful, imaginative and skilled.

Knives were viewed as improving, wood-whittling or rope-cutting tools, something every boy should carry. Aged eight, in Ayrshire, Alice Renton was given a .22 rifle by her mother. She began to shoot rabbits. Her grandfather gave her a penny for every tail she brought him.

‘Golden summers,’ says Alice. ‘All outdoors, doing things by ourselves with gun, rod and pony. Terrific freedom.’

Jilly Cooper remembers, aged 11, going off on her pony for the whole day. ‘My mother didn’t expect me back until seven.’

Children of all classes benefited from house doors being open, the back one into the yard or on to the lawn, the front one on to the street. To test this, Maxtone Graham interviewed Lord Malcolm Innes, who grew up in a castle, and Dennis Skinner MP, the son of a coal-miner. At nine, Skinner started running 300 feet up the nearest slag heap, then in circuits around the backs of houses, aiming to become a long-distance runner. Innes roamed freely on his estate and says that even their London home was never locked, night or day. Frankie Devlin, an ex-boxer brought up in Belfast, remembers: ‘No one came into steal anything because we had nothing. All doors were open all day.’

‘From the age of four it was normal to be out all day intermingling with the world,’ says Alice Allen from Lancashire. ‘We roamed around knocking on doors asking if we could take the baby for a walk. The mothers always said yes.’

This didn’t just create a symbiosis between the generations and neighbours. ‘This was beanpole Britain,’ notes Maxtone Graham, ‘a nation of children who hadn’t an ounce of fat on them because they were running around all day.’

The author doesn’t shy away from the ‘dark and tragic side’ for those trapped in caravan holidays with warring parents, and although scabs and scars ‘were tokens of fearlessness’, there were bad accidents. There were also the uncles and strange men who were best avoided, ‘proper flashers in those days with raincoats,’ recalls Libby Purves. ‘We failed to be traumatised.’

No dangers seemed overwhelming enough to restrict childhood freedom and this charming, fascinating book leaves a sad after-taste. Where are children now in comparison? Supervised 24 hours a day, safe, fat and staring at screens. It’s not surprising that some refuse to believe in accounts like Graham’s; disappointment at how things have changed for children is almost too painful.

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Jane Kelly
Jane Kelly was a journalist with the Daily Mail for fifteen years. She now writes for the Spectator and the Salisbury Review.

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