I was walking through one of our local seaside towns this morning, and marveling at the stoicism of the older Briton born before 1950. The torrential rain was making a vain attempt to hit the ground, but the gale force winds ensured that very little of it did. Most of it seemed to be sploshing against every human face out shopping or “taking the air” as we used to say at one time. Umbrellas turned inside out, people were visibly pushed sideways by unpredictably aggressive gusts, and all the while small advertising signs meant to be sitting outside shop doors clattered about like disabled Daleks.
I crossed the road further along and came to the old (but now restored) holidaymakers’ tram railway. My grandfather was a conductor on the Manchester trams, and so these original models have a special fascination for me. Actually, old Aloysius was a master carpenter, but when he got back from the trenches in 1920 (he’d been a POW for three years) the home fit for heroes didn’t see fit to give him his job back. So he went on t’trams.
On the open top deck of an approaching tram were two old people – a couple maybe ten years senior to me – sitting on the front seat, the better to experience a torrent of water blasting into their wrinkled features. The woman wore one of those plastic corrugated bonnets every housewife had in the 1950s during the pakamac era, while her bloke was facing the raging weather bare-headed. They were engaged in the dying British holiday activity of Finding Something to Do.
My memories of Welsh holidays when I was a kid are almost entirely of pebbly beaches and pouring rain, beach-huts with a primus stove, mildewed deckchairs with their wood covered in bandages, and two local cinemas where – once you’d seen both the programmes on rainy days – it was necessary to pray for sun. One’s prayers were rarely answered.
The sea being far too cold for the idea of swimming in it to be even considered, my brother and I grew up believing that it was there to enable the skimming of stones on the bumpy surface. I seem to remember always returning home with a sore arm from all this stone-throwing but – like the rackety cinemas – it was another reward for Finding Something to Do. There were amusement arcades where a shilling (twelve coppers) lasted no time at all. There was crazy golf where the ball spent much of its time aquaplaning through the puddles. Fishing with a net was fun for at least three minutes, but the Welsh coast is short on rockpools – and its waves are unforgiving. Nets on the end of canes are somewhat below the standard required for sea fishing. Usually the wire came out after a couple of days anyway, and refused to go back in again. So then it was off to the boating lake for a spot of rowing….or in our case, wobbling about and falling in. When that palled or we were soaking wet, the toy yacht that looked so seaworthy in the shop could be guaranteed to sail happily out into the middle, and sink without trace.”It said Made in the British Empire,” my Dad would remark with the casual racism of those days, “Always a bad sign, that.” And actually, ‘Empire Made’ was interchangeable as a term with tatty crap back then.
For some of these holidays we stayed with a close childhood friend of my mother, and when it came to her dog Mac, Finding Something to Do involved taking chunks out of my leg. The friend’s daughter was easily bored, but poking me (and my brother) in the eye with a tube of Magic Bubbles was her occupational therapy of choice. And so the days passed, painfully and eventfully, until the parents decided that the constant scuffles required Finding Something Else to Do.
More often than not, this involved going for a run. But in 1955, this meant taking the car out for a drive. The awfulness of seven damp humans and a yappy black Scottie with venomous farts all piled into Dad’s Hillman Minx has never left me. To this day, I feel claustrophobic if there are more than three people in a car at any given time. Where we were going didn’t seem to be that central to the exercise. It might be The Great Orme, or Conway Castle, the pier at Rhyl, Ffestiniog Railway or Auntie Gwynne in Prestatyn, but the unfolding of events was pretty much unaltered by the objective. The friend’s ghastly daughter would vomit, my brother would sit quietly collecting car numbers, I would fantasise about a future containing long trousers and space travel, and within an hour the word went forth: “If you see any signs saying ‘Public Conveniences’, shout out”.
Motoring in the 1950s nearly always ended up in a desperate search for lavatories. While the Socialist planners were busy designing roads with two lanes in either direction that would be free of traffic jams forever (and their equally left-leaning architect colleagues were bulldozing proper communities to make way for high-rise Crime Colleges) nobody seemed to have been given the task of providing places of urination. Thus was Finding Something to Do replaced with increasing urgency by Finding Somewhere to Pee. Not until the first motorways of the 1960s began to emerge with their services was the nation finally freed from the constant risk of wet knickers at best, or uraemia at worst. It was almost as if all those pipe-smoking blokes in short-sleeved ganzies in Council drawing offices were far too inhibited to even consider, let alone discuss, the reality that citizen micturation was as likely to be just as important on the road as it was in the house.
Throughout my childhood, the main game in town was Finding Something to Do….and not just while ‘on yer ‘olidays’. Climbing trees, reading Just William books, fishing for sticklebacks, arranging toy soldiers, pinging catapults, abusing the Operator in public phone boxes, scrumping from the vicar’s fruit trees…all these helped me develop everything from a sense of humour and mischief, through to a creative imagination – and a good eye for hitting the bobby’s helmet from thirty paces. Expectations of holidays and life in general are far higher now than they were then….and as the Depression hits in the coming year, this is going to present us with a major public order problem that is going to need more than leaders in cultural diversity to deal with it. But expectations aside, the development of potential has been eroded appallingly by the presence of an infinite number of Things to Do that do not need any Finding beyond a channel flick, a website search, or the downloading of a computer game.
The generation coming through expects far too much, but equally some of us (me included at times) expect far too little of them. My hunch is that, remaining adaptably human, they may well surprise us all. Once Health & Safety is no longer affordable – and the sense of automatic entitlement has been erased from the culture by economic reality – I fully expect the viral generation to thrive.