A SUMMER HOLIDAY IN 1969
There is nothing better than escaping the slum-ridden streets of Glasgow in the searing heat of 1969; I know this, because I did it. I was eight years old and looking forward to going to a caravan in St Andrews. Two things to remember here.
Caravans are magical when you are eight. They contain a table that turns into a bed, they have wee gas lights that enclose a delicate fibre hood that glows like a witch’s eye and caravans have secret compartments that suddenly turn into cupboards that hide cups.
The other thing to bear in mind is caravans are right near a beach. I was eight and almost wetting myself with the sheer delight of getting into that magical caravan. I saw caravans on the telly; they looked amazing and sometimes old gnarled gypsies lived in them and had an exciting horse to pull them, or you saw skinny bikini-clad ladies with scarves tied on their heads and sporting horn-rimmed sunglasses sit outside sipping drinks at a picnic table and sometimes they would just jump up and start throwing a colourful beach ball whilst giggling for no good reason other than to look amazingly happy. I was going to that place.
Not just me; there would be me and my two big brothers and my big sister and my mammy and daddy and their pals. We would don bikinis, swimsuits, giggle, drink big jugs of juice and sit happily around the picnic table; we would bask in the sun and I would suddenly run into the ocean as my mammy sat knitting on a rug. She would laugh and wave, I would turn round and remember her face forever in that moment and see my whole family in the background watching me fondly… some people actually have lives like that, BUT not in this story.
What actually happened was my wee harassed poverty-ridden mammy stuffed thick woolly clothes into our family sized smelly suitcase that never had wheels coz they weren’t invented yet and because she knew that it always rains in Fife and she didn’t own a bikini.
My daddy, like many men of his generation, worked for 50 weeks of the year in a steel foundry and his weekend hobby was getting really drunk in the local pub and impersonating Frank Sinatra as he walked home in the dark. We basically saw him for two hours on a Sunday afternoon before he got drunk enough to sober up enough for work on Monday morning. He wasn’t a bad man, he was the same as everyone else’s daddy in my street, except for Mr Gillan — he shouted loudly outside the Tabernacle about Jesus, he wore brown sandals and bred blue budgies.
My mammy says he did that because he had red hair, used to be a sailor, never got married. My mammy knew things. She was really clever. She used to pawn a brown box tied up with string and tell Uncle Moshie the pawnbroker that it was her husband’s leather shoes and he never knew it was just a brick.
So back to the holiday in St Andrews. We were all jammed into a car that an uncle drove as we didn’t own a car; it would be a waste of money as my parents didn’t drive. Though my dad liked to boast he could drive a tank like he was taught in the army, mammy said he never drove a tank: he spent his national service in prison for fighting with a toffy-nosed top-hatted English man who had a lisp and funny leg who ordered him about.
Dad said he never punched him hard enough and I wondered why a soldier would wear a top hat in a tank. No one ever told me why. So back to the car journey. We all sat on top of each other, four adults and four kids squashed into a wee motor as the adults smoked all the way and made the inside of the car look like the set of a horror film when Dracula comes out the coffin.
My sister was sick all over my mum’s good American tan tights and she had been saving them for the holiday. My plastic brown sandals had vomit in the soles and it made them really slippy.
Finally, we got to St Andrews and the rain battered us sideways as we got out the car. The wind made me fall in the mud and mammy got the keys to the caravan. I could not wait to get inside… Hey! Hang on, where’s the horse? OK, maybe it’s not a gypsy caravan, maybe it’s going to be a trendy caravan with a picnic table and beach ball. In reality it was a small tin box that stank like a wet cloth that had got stuck behind the cooker for a few years. Mammy and daddy started arguing straight away as daddy went looking for a local pub and we all starting wanting food and my big brothers punched each other in the face as they struggled to be first into the magic caravan.
Immediately, all my dreams of a wonderful peaceful holiday went straight down the drain. Mammy showed us where the toilets were. Hang on… we had to walk to the toilet block? And, what, pee in outside toilets? This was fast becoming a nightmare. No-one told me about toilets that were half a mile way. The toilets looked like a prison block from Hogan’s Heroes, my favourite TV show, and that was based in a German war camp.
It was horrific. We had to walk through big stretches of water and I couldn’t understand why there was a river near the caravans and not a beach. It was soon explained to me that it wasn’t a river but big puddles, as the caravan park was flooded by the torrential rain.
It soon became apparent to both my parents that they had never seen so much of each other in all their married life and they quickly discovered they didn’t like each other. Being stuck in a damp smelly caravan was the worst place to come to this conclusion, but we knew we weren’t alone as we could hear other families fighting and shouting all over the caravan site. Probably more drunken men sobering up for half a day and realising their wives and kids drove them insane and that the local pub was miles away.
My daddy was also incredibly shocked to discover that he had FOUR kids and they all spoke at once and the youngest one (me) even spoke in her sleep; she just didn’t shut up EVER!
Did she have to ask that many questions? Just when we thought things couldn’t get any worse, I opened a cupboard and a giant swarm of earwig beetles ran up my arm and covered my upper body and a dead mouse sat at my feet.
We ate macaroni that night as I sat scratching at my head convinced the beetles had gone right into my ear as that’s what my brother whispered to me: “Janey, they’re called earwigs because they go into your ear and lay their babies there!” I was never going to sleep a wink for checking my ear for baby beetles.
My dad found a place that sold beer and brought it back to the caravan. He opened some cans, got drunk, sang us a few Frank Sinatra songs and decided it was bed time.
We pulled the table down and made it into bed with a damp mattress and mammy and daddy slept on the pull-down bed on the other side of the beetle-ridden caravan.
I woke up in the middle of the night or about 11pm and needed the toilet. Everyone was asleep. I knew this as there was no arguing, swearing or singing and daddy was snoring like a bull.
I pulled on my brown slippy sandals and crept out into the darkness and headed for the prison block toilets. I didn’t have a torch because we hadn’t won the football Pools or anything fabulous like that, so I had to just remember which direction to go in.
Finally I found them, did a quick furtive wee and started to walk back when I realised that every single caravan looked the same in dense dark rain. The shock hit me. I wandered about in my raincoat with just my knickers and vest underneath, shivering and crying. How would I know which caravan we lived in? They all were small, round and were cream on top and brown at the bottom.
The rain slashed harder. I started crying just wandering about knocking on random doors saying, “Are you my daddy?” People just said, “No, go away,” and didn’t bother to help; they were probably too busy killing beetles or fighting with their wives. Finally a woman opened the door to her caravan and came out to help me find my mammy and daddy. I was hysterical by that point as it seemed there were five million caravans to my wee eyes and I would never find them, ever.
Finally the warden for the park came and got me. He asked me my name and then looked up the book and gave the kind woman my caravan number. She walked me back through the rainy puddles and finally got me to the door. As soon as we knocked on it my daddy flung the door open wildly and with glaring angry eyes, he threw himself out onto the dirty ground and hugged me crying. He sat there in his white vest and pants just holding me in a vice like grip as we sat in the mud and the rain pelted down on us. I could see the full moon in the dark sky over his shoulder. I knew men had just landed there, because I heard it on the news and I wondered if they could see my daddy hugging me like this.
My mammy was crying behind him and trying to calm everyone down. I had been gone missing for about an hour and they couldn’t find me and were worried sick I had drowned in the big puddles that surrounded the wee caravans.
“I thought we had lost you, Janey,” my dad wept and kissed my face.
They pulled me into the caravan, wrapped me in a towel and mammy and daddy made me sleep in between them. Both of their limbs tangled up in each other and in me, it was like we were one big monkey puzzle.
Mammy spent the whole of the next week trying to buy food in the tiny wee caravan park shop. The prices were incredibly over inflated and under stocked; to make matters worse, they didn’t even sell sausages.
“Five bob for a Fray Bentos Pie? Who made it, the Queen? A shilling for a pint of milk? Is the cow made of gold?” My mammy lived on a budget that bordered on poverty and begging. She could barely feed us for the first four days, so we lived on musty bread and waxy Stork margarine that was oily and started to stink.
The caravan didn’t have a fridge and the earwigs were everywhere, so we kept the food in a tin box under the caravan in the hope that it would stay fresh.
My intrepid mammy rounded up a few of the other mothers and headed out into the main hub of St Andrews. The caravan site was way out of town and up on a hill. It was a long walk away and the battering rain didn’t help.
I can still remember the sight of a bunch of Glasgow mothers, all in wellies and big coats, wielding huge shopping bags and with a raggle taggle cluster of bedraggled kids behind them. St Andrews was a rather twee middle class town back then and yet my mammy managed to find the best butcher within minutes of hitting the high street. She could smell a good cut of liver from 50 feet and, within hours of their outing, big pots of soup and steak pies were being cooked all over the caravan site.
The holiday started to feel like a bad social experiment and silent seething crept in as the rain rattled constantly on the roof of the metal box that contained the angry people all over the site. Slowly kids made their way out of their caravans as boredom forced them to play in the rain, tentative friendship started to develop, kids getting together to kick a ball about and wee girls started up a play shop with empty beer cans and stones for money.
Mammys and daddys organised a sing song to bring people together and it meant they could all share their beer supplies and talk with strangers when they got drunk as they were now bored fighting with each other. My mammy even sang and normally she just sat smoking with her eyes shut and usually just mouthed the words when daddy sang.
She looked younger when she sang that night.
The sun did finally come out, daddy finally sobered up and he and mammy kissed each other sitting on the beach, which incidentally was right next to our caravan. My big brother Jim broke the showers in the toilet block by kicking the pipes showing off to a fat girl with a red Alice band, my big sister Ann got bitten by a one-eyed Alsatian dog that belonged to the park keeper and my brother David fell off a steep cliff and ended up in hospital and I managed to slice my hand on the razor hooks of fishing tackle that someone kept under their caravan that I had tried to borrow.
Mammy and daddy just sat beside the picnic table, drank beer and danced to music on the radio; they were drunk enough not to worry too much and parents surely deserve one night off from the rest of the world.
It was the summer of ’69.