Bognor Holidays

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The endpapers and bookmark feature ‘Dahlias’ a dress silk design by Madeleine Lawrence.

Almost exactly a year ago I mentioned RC Sherriff’s The Fortnight in September, which I started reading on a train home from London (after a visit to Younger Daughter which took in a trip to the Persephone Shop), and said I would do a proper review at a later stage. Then it all went very quiet… anyway, here I am a year later trying to pull some coherent thoughts from a mass of disparate observations. I LOVED this but, as I so often find with books I enjoy, there’s so much I want to say that it’s hard to know where to begin or what to include.

Written in 1931, it’s about a family’s two-week holiday in Bognor, which may not sound very promising but, believe me, it is absolutely wonderful, one of those quiet, reflective novels, full of little insights to the characters and their way of life, where anyone of a certain age (by which I mean my age or older) will make connections.

Every year Mr and Mrs Stevens, from Dulwich, spend the first two weeks of September at a boarding house in Bognor, together with their 19-year-old daughter Mary, and their sons Dick and Ernie, aged 17 and 10. It’s the highlight of their year, and as far as they’re concerned the anticipation and the journey are as thrilling and joyful as the holiday itself. Preparations have their own rituals, with duties allocated to each member of the family. Garden tools must be cleaned and greased; the shed locked; papers and tradesmen cancelled, and the canary left with a neighbour. Other neighbours will call each day to feed the cat, keep an eye on the house and garden, and send on any letters – in return they can gather runner beans and rhubarb. Mr Stevens gives everyone their ‘Marching Orders’ and as each task is accomplished he ticks it off on his master list.

Train Landscape, painted by Eric Ravilious in 1939 – a little later than the date of The Fortnight in September, and the landscape is Wiltshire rather than Sussex, but the  interior of the carriage and downland view would be pretty similar.

The train journey, with its change at Clapham Junction (Mrs Stevens’ idea of hell) is planned down to the last minute, and I was enchanted to discover they have booked the ‘outside porter’ to trolley their luggage from home to station. This was well before the advent of wheeled cases when, presumably, taxis were expensive – but did porters really call at people’s homes to collect luggage?

I bought the book after reading Lynne’s review over at Dove Grey Reader. We are of an age, and both come from Surrey (not too far from Sherriff’s Esher home and within easy striking distance of the south coast) and, like her, I found it resonated with my 1950s childhood. In our house my mother made the lists and chivvied the rest of us along, and the preparations began well in advance. Just like the Stevens family we had a special meal the night before the holiday, and took sandwiches and a flask of tea to sustain us on the journey – as well as thick slices of Mum’s home-made fruit cake and fruit from the garden. We had at least two holidays in Bognor, but in caravans rather than boarding houses, though I do remember staying in a boarding house at Hastings. Sometimes we travelled on trains, but when I was very small my father had a motorbike and sidecar and I would be left with a neighbour while he ferried my mother and baby brother to our destination. Then he would come back for me and the luggage – and the process would be reversed on the journey home.

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Here’s a photo of me, aged about four, sitting on the step of a caravan at Bognor, all dressed up in Sunday best. My mother made the dress and the cardigan.

The journey and the holiday are extraordinary events that take the family outside their usual lives, freeing them to be other than they are, revealing the people they might have been (or, in the case of Mary and Dick the people they could be) had things been different. They abandon their familiar routine. Yet familiarity and routine are important to them – a kind of safety net or comfort zone perhaps – so each year they pick up the pattern of activities laid down on previous holidays. They swim in the sea, play games on the beach, soak up the sun while relaxing on deckchairs, go for walks, renew old acquaintances, and make make new friends. May and Dick get a brief taste of romance and adventure, while Ernie makes a nuisance of himself.

There are highs and lows. The worst day is a tea party from hell at the showy, soulless home of a wealthy and important customer at the firm where Mr Stevens works as a clerk – he just happens to live in the area. Set against that is their joy at daringly renting a beach hut for the first time, their pleasure heightened by anticipation, because by waiting a few days to take over they save five shillings which covers the cost of a trip to Arundel.

Everyone enjoys themselves, except Mrs Stevens, who is happy because the others are happy, but is scared of the sea, and doesn’t play games, and isn’t a great reader, and the sun gives her a headache. And she worries about all the awful things that might happen (they never do) and feels her family, engaged in such different pursuits, no longer belong to her.

They are a strong and united family unit. They are decent, honest, hard-working, kindly, caring people, disturbed by anything new or different, but their world is on the cusp of change and old values will be replaced. Already things are not as they were: their landlady, Mrs Huggett, is old and ailing, her establishment is shabby and run-down, and the Stevens are her only guests. Others have moved elsewhere, but Mr Stevens and his family stick with her out of loyalty and a sense of pity.

Everyday life makes them yearn for a break – but their time away ensures that they appreciate their own home even more. “It was good to have a home that called you: a home that made you feel unhappy when you went to sleep in a strange bed on the first night away – that lay restfully in the background of your holiday, then called you again when it was time to return,” Sherriff tells us.

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Beach hut and deck-chairs, by Alan Dalgetty. I’m not sure it adds anything to the story or the review, but I like it, and there ought to be a beach picture!

There is so much here that I could focus on. Reading the early part of the novel made me think about journeys and expectations, and how they can become more more important than reaching a destination. And as I read on I found myself continuing to think about our expectations – in life, at work, in relationships – and what we do if those expectations remain unfulfilled, and how we set our hopes of happiness and improvements.

It would be easy to attribute the book’s appeal appeal to nostalgia, but it was hugely popular in its own time. It marked a change of style for Sherriff, whose career was somewhat in the doldrums. His inspiration came while he was on holiday in Bognor, watching people and imagining what their lives were like. The introduction to the Persephone edition is taken from Sherriff’s autobiography, and quotes his explanation: “Clearly the best way was to write about these people in the simple, uncomplicated words that they would use themselves to describe their feelings and adventures.”

He succeeded brilliantly, writing with warmth and gentle humour about a family we really believe in.



An Impossible Marriage

Right, after Margery Sharp here’s another New-to-Me novelist to enthuse about – Pamela Hansford Johnson who was, apparently, immensely popular from the late 1930s through to the 1960s, but seems to have been largely forgotten in recent years.

I’ve seen a couple of blog posts about her, and read reviews of Wendy Pollard’s ‘Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times’, but I knew so little about her novels it was difficult to pick one. So I printed off a list of available titles, took a pin, shut my eyes, stuck it in the paper, and came up with An Impossible Marriage. And yes, I know this is an odd way to choose a book, but it’s no worse than selecting one for its cover, or because you love the title.

Anyway, I downloaded a Bello edition on to the Kindle (hurrah for Pan Macmillan’s digital re-issues), and it turned out to be a pretty good choice because, quite apart from the fact that I really enjoyed this particular novel, I think it’s an excellent introduction to PHJ.

The cover of the Bello edition of ‘An Impossible
Marriage’ – though I’m not sure if E-books really
do have covers!
It’s the 1950s, and Christie (our narrator) has reluctantly returned to Clapham, where she was brought up, to visit Iris Allbright who, she tells us, had ‘one brief moment of real importance in my life, which was now shrivelled by memory almost to silliness’. Christie (known to most of her friends and family as Chris or Christine) doubts Iris will remember the incident, and adds: “She and I had grown out of each other twenty years ago and could have nothing more to say.”

And she most definitely does not want to rake over the past, but that’s just what she does as she remembers the time she and Iris were friends, when she was the clever one, and Iris the pretty one – they each had their labels.

Iris Allbright was one of those ‘best friends’ sought by plain girls in some inexplicable spurt of masochism, feared by them, hated by them and as inexplicably cherished.

Ouch! Strangely there seems to be a degree of complicity between the more assertive pretty girl and her plain, compliant friend, a little like the childhood relationship between bullying Cordelia and shy, quiet Elaine in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Cat’s Eye’. However sensible or strong-minded Christie may be away from Iris, with her she plays second fiddle, and cannot escape that role, however much she would like to.

Iris, whose devoted mother is putting her on the stage, is exceedingly pretty, exceedingly self-centred, and a collector of men – even those already attached to her friends…

So Christie is understandably wary when she starts going out with Ned Skelton. Ned is older, and seemingly sophisticated. On their first date they go for a drive in his little sports car ‘bright as a ladybird’, and stop at a hotel for a ‘Sunday outing tea’. In an effort to appear older and more experienced she’s bought a new black hat and borrowed a friend’s fur coat, but she is ill at ease. “His flattery in seeking me out seemed almost too great for me to accept,” she recalls. “I felt humble, and angry because I was humble.”

A 1954 edition. 

Describing the early days of their relationship Christie says: “I felt he was already invading me: that he had plans for me.”  That doesn’t strike me as being a good basis for any relationship, but she is besotted with Ned, even though she knows he is not gentle and will not be kind to her.

Two weeks before their wedding, she realises she doesn’t love him, only the idea of him, and breaks off their engagement. But he takes her to dinner at a posh restaurant where Iris is appearing in cabaret… And she is scared that Iris will take everything from her, including Ned. So she marries him, although she knows they are wrong for each other, and she doesn’t love him. She is 18 and he’s 32, and they have absolutely nothing in common.

Initially Christie believes she can make the marriage work. She has hope. But once again she finds herself playing second fiddle, this time to a husband who pays no attention to her needs, takes no notice of her likes and dislikes, and is not interested in any of the things that matter to her. He’s not violent, or abusive: in fact he’s quite charming most of the time. But he’s selfish, manipulative and domineering, inept rather than feckless, incapable of applying himself to anything or holding down a job, and unwilling to take advice.  

Bit by bit he isolates Christie, presumably to make her totally dependent on him, but he never provides for her financially, emotionally, or intellectually. First, of course, she has to give up her job in a travel agency – in 1930 it wasn’t acceptable for married women to work. Then, gradually, her friends are cut out of her life. He doesn’t care for the things she likes, and doesn’t want her to write (she has had poems published). And when their son is born, Ned is jealous of the time she spends with the baby and refuses to have anything to do with the child.

Eventually Christie acknowledges that if she is to survive with her soul intact she must escape. She’s been married less than three years, and she’s not yet 21, but she is determined to break free, and to take her son with her. She wants to live life on her own terms, to get a job, and to be independent, which must have been a bold and unusual stance when the novel was published in 1954. Set against that is the view of Ned’s mother, equally disappointed in her marriage, who stayed (with the aid of alcohol) because it was the thing to do. But I’m not sure you could say she made the best of things because she’s been so anaesthetised by life she no longer lets herself feel for anyone or anything.

Pamela Hansford Johnson’s career as a novelist covered a similar period to that of Margery Sharp, and they both portray some strong and unusual women. But PHJ is not as warm as Sharp. There’s an underlying sadness to some of her work, and she’s spikier, and not so interested in happy endings. She’s a very keen observer of people and relationships, and her characters are always credible, even if they’re not always likeable, but I get the feeling that she doesn’t really like people (rather like Julia’s daughter Susan in Sharp’s novel ‘The Nutmeg Tree’).

Pamela Hansford Johnson.

Despite that all her characters are memorable, even the minor ones, and she captures emotions in very few words, like Christie’s embarrassment when she discovers her ‘blind date’ is crippled (PHJ’s word, not mine – this was written long before the days of political correctness), or her anguish waiting for phone calls from Ned, wondering what his family will think of her, and what her aunt will think of him.