Eggs and bakey!
Go-od morning, Campers!
(Four tones on a metallophone)
To most Americans, the introduction to this British institution comes by way of the Who’s “Tommy”, when the eponymous hero, in the next-to-last song, introduces his “disciples” to a somewhat sinister Holiday Camp run by his Wicked Uncle Ernie.
American and to an extent, Canadian camping had been a feature of those countries’ summer leisure time since the late 19th century, when church groups and civic betterment leagues sponsored camps (in lodgings ranging from tents to 2 story cottages with plumbing and electricity) devoted to prayer, uplifting lectures on such subjects as Evolution (both pro and con) and/or the Evils of Drink, and the practice of vigorous Clean Living in Unspoiled Nature. The poorer urban classes could send their child to Fresh Air Camp, subjecting children to such character-building experiences as swimming lessons, crapping in a slit trench, and tying knots, while somewhat more affluent urban parents could send theirs to Camp (insert “Indian" name separated by syllables with hyphens), which taught them vaudeville skills (culminating in a Camp variety show for the parents) along with the woodcraft and boondoggle lanyards.
In the mid-1930’s, Billy Butlin, an amusement park owner, noticed that his patrons had no easy way to go home at closing time, and few lodgings near the park. So it was that, after seeing American-style camps, he decided to do something like that in England.
British camping had many problems: for one, there was no wilderness to conquer, and no native population to emulate. People (mostly of the educated classes) who wanted to ‘rough it’ generally went backpacking in the Lake District, or to the Scotch Highlands, or for that matter, staying in rented cottages in Wales or Ireland where they could deal with outhouses and dirt floors on their own. Working-class people had clubs in-town, not resorts as such, Bank Holidays usually being spent on a bus on their way to and from a company picnic. So the theme wasn't anything like “life in Nature” or “life in the country”: public areas were unremittingly upbeat and garishly colored as possible, with whimsical sculptures, brightly painted signs and other clever artifices, ‘campers’ were free to enjoy the illusion of life in well…an amusement park. With a cafeteria. And a bar.
A further problem developed when it became apparent that most of the campers had no idea what to do with all that leisure. Without work, housework, or city streets, the majority of the campers walked around aimlessly, drinking in the pub or simply lying in their rooms. A common complaint was loneliness, despite the crowds, and the resulting anarchy was less liberating than simply depressing. Accommodations were less bucolic than simply Spartan: despite being styled “chalets”, most Holiday Camp guest rooms were simply bedrooms with washstands (with shared toilets and showers) in long concrete buildings resembling military barracks.
The solution was to give people focus. Modeling the operation on the British Military, with overtones of a boarding school, every day, hour, and minute was taken up by some activity or another, from Morning Stretches to the Good-Night Singalong, with group chants and slogans galore. If it wasn’t an egg-and-spoon race (with age divisions), it was a Theme Day, with people playing dress-up as pirates, Romans, Knights, cowboys, or other exotica with sheets and bits of bric-a-brac, a Donkey Derby, with sulkies and wagering, a Pool Party, dancing lessons, movies, amateur theatricals, and anything else they could invent. Contests and competitions of all kinds were rife: you could win a certificate, or even a small trophy, for being the most Glamorous Granny, having the Knobbiest Knees, wearing drag, swing dancing, variety acts, having the prettiest baby, or…whatever. In true British spirit, “families” or “houses” were pitted against each other, making each victory, defeat, meritorious deed and infraction of the rules count towards or against a cumulative House Cup, with all due hono(u)rs, awarded on Sunday Night. (Sunday Morning was, of course, the time for a Church Service, held in the open air by the staff Chaplain.) On top of that, evening’s entertainment was provided by the Coats, acts from outside, live music or DJ’s, or cinema.
Coats were the heart and soul of the operation. Wearing distinctively colored jackets (each chain had their own color), they acted as counselors, entertainers, and the like, stepping in wherever they found boredom, loneliness, or conflict rearing their ugly little heads, a friend to the friendless, and a source of endless delight.If you didn’t come with a family, you’d be assigned one for points purposes. If no one would dance with you, a Coat would step in, twirl you around the floor, and give you a few introductions round. It was truly “Fun for All, and All for Fun”!
Children delightedly found themselves in a separate world: apart from their parents, except at breakfast and dinner and late at night, they could take part in a whole realm of age-appropriate activities, from arts and crafts to a visit to a carnival. Teens chafed under the rules…but didn’t they always, but found a new freedom in being able to find a sympathetic ear at the Barber Shop or Beauty Parlor, in finding new ways to circumvent the rules (OK, that reallywasn’t my drink, but that old geezer wouldn’t notice…or did he?) and in simply being able to enjoy each other’s company. And then…didn’t they see that Coat on the Old Grey Whistle Test? Many young entertainers found ready employment gigging with the camps, forming a hidden strain in British Rock (what if you had to write to a multigenerational audience AND stay Hip at the same time?)
Parents found it a stress-free respite, able to relax and enjoy a good two weeks without having to cook, shop or housekeep, their offspring taken care of by the ever-present Coats, from breakfast to late-night (about 10:30 pm). Women still had to do hand laundry on washboards — but it was communal, with a ‘fun' ironing contest later. Men played soccer, and got to show off their middle-aged prowess in various contests and competitions. Pensioners got to dance with young’uns, and tell their tales and jokes to a new audience in the sun and fresh air.
Except for…the rules, which ranged from the sensible (violence, theft of Camp property, wanton drunkenness) to the downright puritanical (dress codes, no swearing, no gentlemen in a lady’s cottage). Barring having to change for the pool, you were not allowed back into your room (or to just sunbathe, for that matter) between breakfast and dinner. Children were to be in bed by 7:30, after being herded up to sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”, or equivalent, adults, 10:30 after a similar sendoff by the staff, and at any moment the PA (called “the Tannoy”) could announce “Hi-de-hi! All women from 18-34 please report to the cafeteria. All women…Fun for all!" It didn’t matter much whether you liked or hated a given activity: you were either in or out of the camp, and failure to keep your house’s end up…well, the sympathetic Coat would sadly relate…it just wouldn’t be fair, would it? At least try to put on a good face, wager a few chips, you’ll feel better when you win. You can always read that book at home…More egregious violators were put in the stocks, doused with water, publicly shamed, or, insert menacing music here, called in front of the Director.
Usually an ex-military man, it was his job to be the final authority in the Camp, ruling with an iron hand, a fair sense of justice and a cutting wit, as he presided over Morning Announcements, Introductions for midweek late arrivals, and served as the Master of Ceremonies and Presiding Head. His punishments ranged from a simple dressing-down (he could make “I’m a bit disappointed in you…” sound like banishment to the icy Ninth Circle of Hell), barring alcohol, chalet arrest, to outright expulsion. Always, the key would be to handle matters quickly, quietly, and in a way that didn’t disturb the other guests’ good times.
Part of the reason why these rules were in place was the fact that at least some Camps were enormous, with hundreds of campers converging for their weeks off at a time. Despite their appeal for children of all backgrounds, most of their clientele were working class — middle to upper class families tended to find the regimentation and saccharine atmosphere cloying, to the extent that they found the families who loved it most, somewhat pathetic in their lack of sophistication.
Camps had their heyday from the Forties to the Seventies. By then, most young folks were more interested in learning yoga from a guru than doing ‘Oriental’ dress-up for Arabian Nights Day, or vacationing in a yurt rather than a chalet. Cheap airline travel made travel on the Continent affordable as a once-a-year routine rather than a once-in-a-lifetime treat.
Still, much modernized and deregulated, these resorts still exist.
Now, before you lay your tired little heads on the pillow,
let’s all sing
“Good night ladies…
good night ladies…"
And so, to bed!