It was in the back yard that I got my first suntan during a heatwave in 1966 when I was preparing for my GCEs. I sat out on a kitchen chair, head back, eyes closed, revising for my geography exam, the only subject that I ever really revised for. When after a couple of hours I went back into the house, I found, on looking in the mirror, that my face had turned a bright, not unattractive, brownish pink. And there began an addiction, which I still have, albeit in a less desperate form, today. It made everything look better. My hair, which was still vaguely blonde, looked blonder; my eyes looked browner, and my skin looked even in tone, brighter and healthier, with a tight, warm glow, but above all I looked as if I had been somewhere exciting and exotic. It was in the sixties that people started to take holidays to Spain and so gradually suntans, which were very rare after a holiday in an English seaside resort, began to be something of a status symbol. In our own street, the first people to go abroad on a regular basis were a family at the bottom end of Long Hyde Road. They were an attractive lot, in a flashy, television-advert sort of way, living in a largish corner house with a big, yellow Ford Consul parked outside, a pretty blonde mother and daughter and a darkly handsome father and son. But what set them aside from the rest of us was that at least once a year they would go off somewhere, looking similar to everyone else, and return a couple of weeks later as another species: bronzed, relaxed, transformed into world travellers.
The Walters, however, took their yearly week away within the confines of the United Kingdom and came home looking much the same as when they left. We holidayed in Wales and, like a lot of Birmingham folk, we went to Tenby and Sandersfoot, camping with a couple of other families. We had caravan holidays in Weymouth, Margate and Weston-super-Mare, and even now the smell of Calor gas takes me right back there, snuggling down under the covers on a narrow bunk bed, in the cosy, farting, giggling intimacy of a night spent in such close proximity to the whole family.
My earliest holiday memory, when I must have been about eighteen months old, was in the west of Ireland, visiting friends and relatives on my mother’s side of the family. We stayed at a farm where there was no electricity and my memory is of my mum getting me up to wee, hovering over a big jam jar in the middle of the night, by candle light, and it not being a great success, but the holiday location I most remember was Blackpool. We would save up for weeks, collecting coppers in an old biscuit tin, and then all five of us would pack into our Ford Esquire car, the roof-rack piled high with a motley collection of suitcases, wrapped in an old piece of tarpaulin and tied on with rope. We would head off on a journey that probably took about six hours as there were no motorways. I always had to sit in the middle, my two brothers on either side, and Kevin, who was generally on my right, was invariably carsick.
There were a couple of mysterious remedies employed to stave this off. One was a small chain that was suspended from just underneath the rear bumper, on the right-hand side, and the other one was Kevin having to wear a brown-paper vest. As neither worked, the smell of vomit, petrol fumes and cigarette smoke was the perennial olfactory accompaniment to these journeys, my brother insisting on the last - the cigarette smoke, that is - claiming that it would prevent the first. So my father, having been given the excuse to smoke continually, did so. We spent the whole journey in an eye-watering fug, my brother with his head stuck in a carrier bag, retching and belching, and the rest of us playing I Spy through the smoke, and eating the cheese-and-tomato or ham-hock-and-salad sandwiches that my mother had made before we set out, handing them out to my father as he drove and over her shoulder to us in the back. The game of I Spy would stop on the approach to Blackpool, if it hadn’t been stopped already by a fight or boredom, and would be replaced by ‘The first one to see the tower!’ and then, ‘The first one to see the sea!’
We holidayed in Blackpool three times during the latter part of the fifties and we always stayed at the same place: number 26 Empress Drive, a bed and breakfast that was run by a Mrs McGinn. Empress Drive was a quiet, residential street, each side of which was lined with neat, terraced, Edwardian houses, mainly with bright-white fronts, well-kept privet hedges and gleaming windows, and where nearly every other house was a B and B. Inside, number 26 smelt of fresh paint, clean carpets and lavender furniture polish. Every object, nook and cranny was dust-free and polished to a military shine. On one occasion, having returned in the evening with fish and chips for our dinner, we were told, ‘Don’t bring chips in th’ouse, they’ll make th’ouse smell.’ Once inside, we were encouraged by my mother to speak in little more than a whisper. Breakfast was a self-conscious, almost silent ritual, where the crunch of toast was deafening, the only other sound being the restrained scrape of knives on plates, the careful clink of cups on saucers and the occasional swallowed murmur of voices. It was as if we were guarding some terrible secret, the secret being, I suppose, us.
After breakfast we would gather our things for the day, because we were not allowed back in until the evening. If the weather was fine - that is, if it was not actually raining - we would walk down to the North Shore and my parents would ensconce themselves in a couple of deckchairs, both of them, whatever the weather, fully dressed, my father on occasion wearing a suit, albeit with sandals and socks. I would strip down to my stretchy, ruched bathing costume, having underdressed back at the B and B, in order not to have to go through the embarrassing palaver of trying to change on the beach and not show your nether regions to hundreds of other people. It was bad enough at the end of the day, wobbling about on one foot as you tried to remove a sodden swimming costume, then pulling your knickers on, dragging them up over damp, sand-coated skin, made sore from the salt, and all this whilst attempting to keep an inadequate towel wrapped around your vitals.
I would run off to the sea, dodging in and out of deckchairs, with my mother’s cries of ‘Don’t go out too far!’ hanging in the air after me. A few years previously, before I was born, my brother Kevin, who would have been two at the time, had nearly drowned in a deep pothole at Sandersfoot, but was saved by a family friend, himself only a boy at the time. He had held on to Kevin after seeing him in trouble, until my father reached them after running flat out without a thought for himself across jagged rocks and stones, cutting and scraping his feet and shins as he went. Then, with terrible irony, when he was a young man my brother’s saviour was himself drowned, after being swept away by a freak wave whilst on holiday. So my parents were ever vigilant when any of us were in the sea, my mother sitting awkwardly, with her neck craned, a squinting, hawkish look on her face, and my father sitting up straight and shielding his eyes, watching continuously until we came out. Then Dad would half get up and wave frantically so that we could spot them amongst the heaving throng.
The Blackpool sea was always grey, even on the odd occasion when the sky was blue, and during our last holiday there I found little brown particles floating in it. Luckily it was on the way home that I brought this up and my brother, his head as ever in his carrier bag, informed me in a muffled voice that the said particles were in fact shit. I don’t think I’ve ever swum in the sea without first checking it for excrement since.
In the event of inclement weather we would walk down the Golden Mile. In a small bag slung across my shoulder would be my spending money, saved from pocket money, and gifts at Christmas and birthdays from aunts, uncles and friends of my parents. The Golden Mile was an exciting string of shops selling tacky tourist trash: ‘Kiss Me Quick’ hats, sticks of rock, plastic miniatures of the tower, all sorts of incongruous items made out of sugar, such as bright-pink, giant baby’s dummies, false teeth, or women’s breasts. I remember on one occasion, whilst we were taking our late-afternoon stroll along the prom, seeing an elderly woman sucking, I presume innocently but nevertheless with great enthusiasm, on a pink phallus, wrapped in a bit of cellophane. I had never seen anything like it, but instantly knew from my giggling parents’ reaction that it was somehow lewd. There were shops selling every piece of crockery imaginable with ‘Blackpool’ plastered all over it. It was thrilling to my seven-, eight-, or nine-year-old self and I believe that at one time or another I bought all of the above, excluding, that is, the body parts.
The very best, though, was the funfair, the terrifying, wonderful, sick-making funfair. We visited this only once during the whole holiday because it was deemed too expensive. My abiding memory is of the Mad Mouse, a small bullet-shaped carriage built to hold two people sitting one in front of the other. The track along which it went was high up over the water. It started, as most of these rides do, going teasingly slowly up a steep incline until it reached the top and the first corner, around which it would abruptly swerve at breakneck speed, making the passenger feel that the little car simply won’t make it and that the whole thing is going to career off the edge and plummet into the water below. It was heaven! After going on it the first time, I was so gloriously terrified that when the ride finally came to a standstill my right arm was paralysed. I had to go on it again, several times, to get the feeling back.
I went back to Blackpool in 1995 when I was filming a BBC Television film called Wide-Eyed and Legless. I was thrilled to find that I would be staying at the Imperial Hotel on the front, because when I was a child whenever we drove past it my mother would suck in a deep breath, her accent becoming what she imagined to be refined, and with a wistful little laugh she would say, ‘Oh, the Imperial.’
And my father would chime in, imbuing his voice with a deep respectful resonance, ‘Oo ah, I’d love to see inside that.’
As I stood at reception, checking in, I felt a lump gather in my throat and at the earliest opportunity, when I found that I had a morning off, I went in search of Empress Drive. As always happens when you revisit a place you frequented as a child, everything was smaller. The street was narrower and shorter, and the houses cowered back from the road, lower and less substantial, the proud glow of immaculate seaside white now a little chipped and bashed, a little grimier, poorer, less cared for. I walked back to the hotel feeling as if the sight of that road was an assault on my little, perfect bubble of memory; but the memory is robust and the Empress Drive of the 1950s is still preserved within it, in all its bright, optimistic glory.