YSENDA MAXTONE GRAHAM’s new book, British Summer Time Begins, has nothing to do with clocks going forward, but is a warm, wise look back at the British summer holidays from the view of children during the mid-20th century.
She has done a vast number and range of perceptive interviews of those who were children between 1930 and 1980. They tell endearing and sometime disturbing stories of what it was like. When she asked Sir Nicholas Soames if his parents ever took him abroad, he replied, “Certainly not! No one went abroad except to fight a war.”
When Maxtone Graham sensed a great spiritual and physical freedom, Dennis Skinner characteristically responded: “Don’t give me ‘romantic past’. It was sheer poverty.”
This book would be an interesting read during any summer, to see how the British had been, how children were treated, what people’s values and lifestyles were, the relationship between the sexes, how the class structure functioned, and what people’s hopes and fears were. Read in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, it has a gripping, questioning, and slightly surreal quality.
The 50-year period covered by the book should include the poverty of the Great Depression, the horrors of the Second World War and the Nazis, the end of Empire, and then the Swinging Sixties; but these only slightly touch the experience of the children.
What was central to the memories of those who had been children then was the end of school; the boredom of the long summer; other children to play with; parents; home; food; the trip to the seaside or countryside, or maybe even abroad; and then the end of summer and the return to school. The author powerfully comments: “It doesn’t always matter who loves you, when you’re a child, as long as someone does.”
Maxtone Graham develops some important themes through the book. There is the contrast that the world, for children, was porous. Children were expected to go out and play; they were not to be seen for the day, and had to create their own games and use their imagination. There were no imprisoning devices of video games, laptops, or smartphones for children, and people were not, then, as fearful and protective of their children as we feel we must be. Then, there was a greater absence of materialism, of making do with whatever one had. This was not just the poor, but also “the upper-class taste for the threadbare”.
The Ven. Dr Lyle Dennen is a former Archdeacon of Hackney.
British Summer Time Begins: The school summer holidays 1930-1980
Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Little, Brown £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10
Listen to an interview with Ysenda Maxtone Graham on the Church Times Podcast.