The camping holiday

My father was an unhappy man, silent and angry. Luckily, we were seldom in his company. Then we went camping
June 19, 1998

It was July 1963, a Monday, and we were due to leave for our long promised camping holiday in Wales. We awoke early, my brother and I. He was six, I was eight. At that time we lived with our father. My mother had left the previous year.

My father's name was Ernest. He was an unhappy man, silent and angry. Luckily, we were seldom in each other's company because he worked at night and slept for most of the day. He preferred the night, he said, because he could work on restoring his beloved Railton motorcars (he had two) or write (he was an author and playwright) without interruption from his children.

He woke, usually, in the early afternoon. If it was a weekend we would bring him toast and Lap Sang Souchong tea in bed. Weekdays he made his own and when we came back from school, he was usually at breakfast in the kitchen.

The three male G?blers ate together around 7pm. Then we would go to bed and he would go to work. In the morning he would always be asleep. On school days we would eat porridge and slip out, taking care to close the front door quietly; on weekends and holidays, we would sit and read until it was time to make his tea and toast. We were forbidden to leave the house or to invite friends in. If we broke the rules we got a verbal "dressing down" or a sharp blow with a pair of scissors behind the ear. I preferred a whack. The pain was less than the hurt of his words.

On this morning, because of the camping trip, we were quieter than usual. We made our breakfast in silence, washed up in silence, dried and put away in silence.

Afterwards I went out into the garden and sat in one of the deckchairs that had come with us from Dublin to London. I took a book with me, The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton.

The sun rose and towards midday one of the upstairs windows at the back banged open.

"Karl," my father called. (That was my name then.)

I turned and saw him at an upstairs window, bald, dark-eyed, sallow-skinned.

"Camping's off," he shouted. "It's too late. You shouldn't have let me sleep in!"

When he wanted to wake up he usually left a red plastic toy fob-watch on the kitchen counter set to the time he wanted a knock. But this morning the fob hadn't been there on the counter and so I had assumed he was waking himself with his alarm clock. Apparently, I was wrong.

My father disappeared, shutting the window. I saw the back of our semi-detached suburban house, the veranda, and the brown vine that miraculously flourished under the glass. I looked at the grey wormy London earth of our flower beds and the fence sticky with creosote. I knew that I must not dwell on the news. If I got sad I would have an asthma attack, and then we'd never go on holiday.

So I bent my book open and threw myself into the world of Jo, Bessie and Fanny, the Faraway Tree, Saucepan Man, Moon-Face and Silky the elf.

the next day my father drove the black Railton round to the front. The car was a pre-war, hand-built beauty and he loved it.

The camping gear was in the hall. I carried out a tent in a canvas bag, pegs rattling inside, a folded ground sheet spotted with grass stains, a Primus stove in an oily cardboard box. My father began to pack the boot, painfully slowly.

"Don't come near the car, you'll scratch the paint work... and don't touch the running board!" he shouted.

Eventually the packing was completed. I climbed carefully into the leathery interior and sat on the slippery rear seat beside my brother. My father got in. He checked the route plan. It was written on the back of an old envelope and clipped to the sun visor with a clothes peg. Then he started the engine.

We drove to a street of terraced houses in Raynes Park and stopped at a blue gate. This was the home of Kevin Francis, a school friend. I went to the door. Mrs Francis came out in a sari. They were Christian Indians. Kevin appeared with a holdall. This went in the boot. The running board was negotiated again and now we set off properly.

By teatime we were parked on a lay-by along the A40. The Primus was pumped but refusing to light. I produced the pocket camping stove I had bought from Millett's with my pocket money. My father put the kettle on, and a few minutes later he was sipping tea. I watched him carefully. He drained his mug and tossed the dregs away. Should I have produced my emergency stove? Did he think I was showing off? I tried to see if his eyes had gone small and dark and angry. But I saw nothing.

our campsite was outside Abergavenny. It was a beautiful evening when my father nosed the Railton through the gate. I saw chestnut trees and a racing Welsh river.

There was a hut. A figure bounded out and hurried towards us, wearing sandals and a shirt covered with badges. I thought it was a boy scout, but in fact it was a man. He brought his creased old face to the driver's window, smiling, bespectacled.

"Hello," he said, pure Charles Hawtrey. My heart sank. Exactly the type my father loathed. "I'm William Whiteside," he said, "but just call me Willy, won't you."

My father paid for our pitch and we drove off. Willy, he told us, a few moments later, as we struggled with our tent poles, was the type who interfered with children. We were never to approach Willy, and if he offered us sweets, we were to report this at once.

"My uncle Willy has a ten foot willy," my brother murmured and we tittered.

i fell asleep that night to rushing Welsh water but when I woke it was to the sound of voices, guttural and angry.

I put my head through the tent flap and saw two women. They wore mini skirts and shoes with heels that sunk into the soft ground. They were from Birmingham. Their respective families had been feuding for years. They had arrived separately in the night, each having chosen the site without knowing the other would be there; they had woken to find one another and neither was now prepared to leave.

My father came out of his rather larger tent. He lit the Primus (having cleared the blockage with a needle the night before) and put on the kettle. It was Czechoslovakian, decorated with flowers and birds. When possible, he would always buy eastern European, in order to support socialism.

In the distance, the women stopped screaming and went their separate ways. I realised the feuding families were camped one on either side of us.

"Oh God," went my father, "the lumpenproletariat."

after breakfast, it was time to do "our business." My father believed that regular evacuation of the bowels was essential for mental and physical well-being, and conversely, that a constipated child was a poisoned child. He believed that all food must be masticated properly before swallowing (20 chews to every mouthful). This ensured stools that moved smoothly through the body. Processed foods and sugars were absolutely forbidden.

His ideas came from The Culture of Abdomen. I had sneaked a look at this book once or twice. It was filled with line drawings of the lower abdomen and passages (underlined by my father) which praised the Turkish squatter over our European crapper.

My father wasn't happy unless we went every day. Each evening before supper, he would smell our breath for signs of constipation. He would use liquid paraffin to get us moving. If nothing happened for three days, he would administer a hot water enema.

We washed our breakfast things in the peaty river. We pulled some lavatory paper off the roll and took off our plimsolls. There were no toilets on the site. We would have to cross the river and find a place in the bracken covered hill on the other side.

We set off, Kevin, my brother and myself. The water was cold, and fast moving. In the middle, Kevin dropped a plimsoll. It landed in the water and was swept away. On the bank my father shook his head.

We reached the far side and separated. I found a place and made a hole in the sandy ground and squatted down. I could hear Kevin hopping through the undergrowth in his single plimsoll.

When I finished I wiped myself. Then I buried everything and went back to the river and washed my hands.

We reassembled and crossed back over.

"Put something on your feet," father ordered Kevin.

"Can't," he whispered.

The plimsolls were all he had. He tried my spare shoes. Too big.

"How could you come camping and not bring another pair?" my father asked. "Are you an imbecile?"


"I suppose," he said, looking at me, "as a stupid boy, it naturally follows you'd have a stupid friend like Kevin."

He was annoyed because now he would have to buy Kevin shoes.

"I'll go and try and find it," I offered.

"Don't be ridiculous," my father snorted. "It'll have washed out to sea by now."

I set off, and after a few minutes, I met a fisherman coming my way. He wore rubber waders and carried a rod like a rifle on his shoulder.

"Lost something?" he said. He must have guessed from my expression.


He swung the rod forward. The plimsoll hung from a feathered hook.

I thanked the angler and hurried off. I was happy. Perhaps my father would say, "Well done." But when I got back, war had started. The Birmingham families were down at the river's edge hurling rocks at each other.

Screams came from below. We were spectators at a mediaeval battle, I thought. I had read up on these secretly in my father's Encyclopaedia Britannica. He disapproved of all wars except those involving the Red Army.

A boy with a bleeding face scrambled over the bank and ran past.

"Why have I come?" my father muttered. "This is awful!"

Willy came and separated the warring parties. Adolescent boys and their fathers clambered up from the river and shuffled by. I saw thin men in wet clothes, blood in their hair, hard faces.

A little later, it began to rain. I watched thick, heavy spears of wet hurling themselves at the ground. Within minutes, sheets of water had covered the campsite and the swollen river started to roar.

We retreated into the bigger tent, the one where my father slept. My bored brother ran a toe idly along the canvas and water began to trickle through.

"I warned you not to touch it, you stupid boy," my father shouted. "You've ruined the waterproofing."

A saucepan went under the drips.

"That's it. I've had enough," he shouted. "You wanted this holiday, right, boys, you're welcome to it. I don't. There's plenty of food. There's fuel for the Primus. The pitch fees are paid. You can fend for yourselves."

He put his things in the Railton and went to a hotel in Abergavenny.

In the days that followed it went on raining and the warring factions went on fighting. Days and nights were punctuated by shouts and curses and screams of pain. The police came twice, and an ambulance once. We huddled in the tent and read-Enid Blyton and Richmal Crompton-and ate cold baked beans. One day, father brought us to the hotel and fed us. I had mushy peas and mashed potatoes with lamb fat in a dining room with an open fire and lots of horse brasses.

Then, one day, after lunch, the clouds cleared and the sun began to shine on the camp site. Everything began to steam and the river subsided from a roar to a chatter. Father came at teatime with his trout rods. A perfect summer evening was ahead of us. It was too good to be true-of course it was-and within minutes the families were back at war. This time they fought not by the river but on the camp site; and soon rocks were flying.

Father went off to get Willy. As soon as he disappeared into the hut, we saw our chance. Without thought or discussion, I watched while my brother picked up a boulder and hurled it at the side of the Railton. There was a thump as metal buckled and lovingly applied black cellulose paint came away in huge flakes.

We ran across the site and burst into the hut.

"Dad!" we piped. "You'd better come."

We led him back to the car with long faces and showed him the damage.

"The families," we explained and looked suitably frightened.

My father started walking in the direction of a knot of men who were fighting and then thought better of it and came back to us.

"Pack," he said, and within an hour we were on the way home.