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The Warp

Fun People

Campers swimming beneath the sodden flags of all nations in the blue blue swimming-bath, beneath polyvynil parrots and plastic vine leaves.

Campers in The Tudor Ballroom being instructed in ballroom dancing in their shirt sleeves.

Campers being given Holy Mass in the Sports Pavillion.

Campers being put through an Inter-House Quiz in the Twist’n’Shout Ballroom.

Campers filling in their cards in the Bingo Stadium.

Campers being put through the Knobbly Knees competition in the Hawaiian Ballroom.

Young campers screaming their heads off in the pastel décor of the communal nurseries.

Teenage campers chasing each other lyrically and endlessly round the balconies and chalets.

Campers aboard a comic train, which takes them through a hardboard Gothic arch, chugs on past the car park, past concrete dragons and papier maché armadillos.

Campers queueing for their turn to eat in the vast dining-room.

Campers sleeping, like forgotten rubbish, in the corners of the lounges and quiet rooms ...

Campers boating on a long black pond, surrounded by tall iron and barbed-wire fences.

A young camper being sick into the swimming-bath. She says, ‘It was drinking that chalet water what did it.’

Campers twisting in the Twist’n’Shout Ballroom, their handbags laid out neatly on the floor beside them.

Campers sitting on balconies in their curlers.

Campers in vast theatres, watching variety shows.

Campers peering at photos in the camp photographic shop, with its notice ‘Memories are Precious. Stimulate them with Photos’.

Campers on the sun terrace, looking out through plate-glass to where the grey waters swim in, edged with golden foam.

And by night, nurses speed through the camp on bicycles, listening for the sound of crying ...

The ironmesh gates swing open, and the security guards step back, and the buses and taxis surge in, past the indoor and outdoor swimming baths, along the black concrete, nosing through the crowds of campers, past the vast hangar containing the Tropicana Bar, Hairdressing Salons, TV Lounge, and Ballrooms, nose in amongst the campers already swarming the streets in their hundreds. From the windows of their bus two Scottish boys cheer wildly at a couple of girls in bikinis and Hawaiian hats inscribed ‘Kiss me Quick’, eating ices. First sight of young female flesh ... and the ‘Fun People’ are here too in their gay gold and scarlet uniforms, ready with a quip, shouting, ‘Oh, for goodness sake don’t come here!’ but undeterred the campers climb down from their buses and enter the Reception Building.

There are many hundreds of people in this camp coming in today and many hundreds leaving. To wander among its chalets is often to be lost in a maze of doors and terraces, windows, roses, which stretch out of sight. Great buildings rise up, huge hulks, at the end of these vistas; theatres, dance halls, indoor swimming baths, reception buildings, dining halls. Notices which stand up against the sky proclaim, ‘TWIST, SHAKE AND CHA CHA BALLROOM’ and ‘ROSE BUILDINGS’.

The camp radio is playing as the campers arrive, through powerful loudspeakers hidden behind rose bushes. Rain falls in a light drizzle across the sports field. Now two of the Fun People are wrestling, trying to throw each other into the blue blue pool.

The perimeter fence and the vast gates are tall, in-turned, sprouting barbed wire. There are only two gates and from now on campers must show their chalet keys before they’re let in or out. But there will be little desire to escape.

The camp is like a military camp in which the swimming-bath has replaced the parade-ground. In the reception halls to which the new arrivals now make their way, illuminated pink and white plastic globes hang from the ceiling, alternating with baskets containing plastic flowers. The campers drift in, mortals in the antechamber to heaven; this is what we’ve been dreaming of, through the winter. Here comes a plump old grannie in a black dress with sequins on it, and an imitation diamond necklace ... a little girl in a white ‘fairy’ dress, looking like an angel, carrying a small black piccaninny doll ... a farm labourer, looking embarrassed in his suit and striped shirt ... girls with tall sticky beehive hairstyles, and golden sandals and belts ... young men in black leather jackets and tight blue jeans ...

On the walls pictures of the ‘great old man’, the proprietor, presiding at various events, awarding prizes for the ‘Knobbly Knees’ contest and for the ‘Holiday Princess’.

There’s luggage everywhere. Overawed budgies cluster in a gilded cage. A voice from a loudspeaker concealed behind platic roses announces: ‘Campers, while you are waiting you may sit in the Ugly Duckling coffee bar, adjacent to this Reception.’ Campers queue up for their chalet keys and meal tickets.

They shuffle on into the camp.

The roses here: some lines of chalets almost submerged beneath them: chalets whose two hanging storeys of sagging wood are painted with bizarre letters of identification: PCT12 or VBW14. Cars quietly stew in their hundreds in an enclosure outside, forgotten. Campers gossip at the chalet doorways, hanging out their washing. Between some of the two-storey lines of chalets trees as well as roses grow so high that their branches glut windows and trail across the hanging terraces where boys stand, their chests braced, ready to be photographed. Or girls stand on the sagging balconies leaning over, waiting.

A group of young men, their hair permed and falling in luxurious ‘Oscar Wilde’ curlicues and bangs down to their shoulders stroll back and forth from XZ4 to XZ142 – the teenage block. They wear black jeans and T-shirts that say ‘Moscow University’. Seeing a girl they fancy they shout in chorus: ‘There’s Joan There’s Joan There’s Joan.’

Over their heads the loudspeaker emits an advertisement for beer, followed by one for the camp they’re in. Then it yells: ‘Go and buy an ice-cream, go and buy an ice-cream, go and buy an ice-cream quick.’

Jackie Thomas of Wentworth: ‘This place is the best. We went to Jersey last year and we got nothing. People go there, you know, for the weather. Whereas here, it’s known what they come for, it’s known. After the first few nights you’ll see most of the birds have love-bites on their necks, we call it chalet-rash. The fellas come for the birds and the birds come for the fellas.’

Bingo goes on non-stop. Like in a cathedral where worship never ceases, there’s always some part of the Camp in which Bingo is in session. The last session of all is at eleven at night and continues, even after ‘Goodnight Campers’ into the early hours of the morning.

Alan Moore, steelworker from Sheffield: ‘It’s the landladies that send the people here. Last year we went to Wales. Terrible it was. We were at ‘Berkeley’. The sort of place, the moment you step in at the door, you can feel your morale sinking. The first room I saw I said I wouldn’t have it. Didn’t I? Threw down my baggage on the ground. And the waitress never changed her dress, and we had nothing to eat, we were hungry after every meal, and nowhere to go in the evening except sit on the hard chairs in the dining-room, not even the Telly, and nowhere to put the children; this place is better. That was ten a week, for nothing, whereas this is fifteen, all found.’

Three beats pass – black glasses, black flowing shoulder-length hair, jean jackets and jeans.

Dyllis Framley, farm labourer’s wife from Herefordshire: ‘It’s the fact that the kiddies are looked after. When we got back home last time there was a letter from the camp saying they hoped we’d had a good time. My Linda said she wished we could stay for ever, but I said, “You couldn’t really. It’s not real, you see. It doesn’t belong to the real world. It’s more like fairyland.”’

From behind a plastic rose bush the Camp Radio strikes up. It sings:

‘Hello campers

There’s a good time on the way

For wet or fine, the sun will always shine

On your goodtime holiday.’

Cheerfulness is in the control of the fun people, handsome young men and girls who wear fabulous scarlet and gold uniforms, nicknamed ‘the Goldjackets’. They hover round the glum campers like prefects at school speech day or young officers at a pass-out parade. If you come by train these fun-loving people are there at the station to meet you, shouting: ‘Don’t come here! Go back home! It’s horrible!’ They get £9 a week and are proud of their jobs, and they form the aristocracy of the camp. On Thursdays they’re ritually thrown into the pool. They come usually from the fringe of showbiz and in the evenings put on the shows in the camp theatres. They have special chalets which, unlike the campers’ chalets, have gas rings; they keep charts showing their success with the campers. In the winter they work in pantomime, go on the dole, work in the winter sales in London’s big stores, or otherwise relapse into obscurity.

Two Goldjackets teasing a girl Goldjacket: ‘I’ll tell the old man about you, your brass buttons aren’t polished.’

‘Anyway, stand up when you speak to the sergeant.’

‘And you’ve only got forty-three pleats in your skirt, I’ll tell the boss about you.’

‘Don’t you tell anyone.’ She’s got a secret. She’s only been a Goldjacket for a day.

The walls have pictures of swans floating through trellis, lined with rose-coloured paper. There are plastic flowers hanging down.

The Camp Radio: ‘Here’s a suggestion for your morning’s entertainment – meet Uncle Len in the Venetian Lounge.’

We go. It is competition time. As we enter, a few thousand bulbs, lemon and orange, light up in the ceiling.

Uncle Len is a sporty fellow who wears a brilliant blazer with the camp emblem on it. ‘Well, this morning is mainly for the children. But all are welcome. We’re going to have quite a number of competitions before we’re finished, in fact we’ve got competitions going throughout the day. To help us out we’ve got various Aunties. Let’s see, our chief Auntie is Auntie Meg. There she is. Isn’t she a nice Auntie? Her name is Auntie Meg. Then there’s our junior campers’ leading Auntie, her name is Auntie Cath. Yes, Auntie Cath. But I call her match-sticks.

‘Now all these Aunties have their funny little habits. Auntie Jane, for instance, collects bottle tops. Auntie June collects threepenny bits. Auntie Cath collects boyfriends.

‘Now that man over there with the television set, he’s a photographer. Why is that little girl over there standing up? What do you think, children? I think she must be like a railway engine, she’s got a tender behind.

‘Now what other Uncles and Aunties have we got? Ah, here there’s a table-tennis coach, specially sent down from London, he’s a coach, that’s not the thing you go down to the sea in for excursions, no, it’s a coach, a table-tennis coach.

‘Then there’s Uncle Tommy and his magic – and what else have we – ah, here is the camp padre, a big hand ...’

The camp padre skips on to the stage, holding up his vestments: ‘Good morning, junior campers. A few weeks ago I was browsing through the newspapers without a thought in my mind. Then my eye was caught by a small news item. It mentioned that the Lotus firm had perfected a new racing car. We shall be hearing more about the Lotus racing car in the current week. And more too about the word of our Lord Jesus Christ.’

He skips off. Uncle Len says: ‘That’s about all, I think. Oh yes, I forgot just two more. That’s Auntie Mary and Auntie Val. Auntie Mary and Auntie Val are singists. Yes, they’re very good singists.

‘So here we are, let’s get going on the competitions. Everyone ready? All of you warmed up? Oh good. And here we’ve got our Walls Ice-Cream person all ready, in case any of you is a bit hot. Anyone a bit hot? Auntie Mary, I think we’ve got all these children warmed up.’

When the children leave the Venetian Ballroom we stay behind. A few minutes later it’s filled once more, this time with adults.

Uncle Len is still on duty, although he now wears a more sophisticated face. He says, ‘And now to introduce you to some of your friends in the red and the gold. And to introduce you to the Goldjacket in charge of whatever block you may happen to be in. First – Exeter Block.’

The Goldjacket in charge of Exeter Block leaps up on the stage. Young for so responsible a position, he seems the typical public schoolboy, gold-haired, clean-limbed. He shouts, ‘Hi folks! Now, all you lucky people in Exeter Block, I want you to do this thing for me. When you see me, shout “Mashed Potatoes!” Well, I’ve been asked to say a few words about this block, well it’s the best block, we all know that, the best block. I must admit it.’ This statement is followed by cheers and boos.

‘Now for Plymouth Block.’

The young Master of Plymouth Block sprints up on the stage, ‘Well, folks, Plymouth Block is the best, we all know that, it’s the best, I have to admit it, the best. Now whenever you see me, will you please all shout like this, “Zigga Zagga Zigga Zagga, Ho! Ho! Ho!”.’

Outside, the Radio speaks forth through loudspeakers hidden among the roses, ‘Campers may care to note that a cash Bingo Session is now in operation in the Bingo Hall.’

We wander on, passing a large boating lake, black in colour, surrounded by tall iron mesh fences, and campers in the Choco-Bar peering through a tropical aquarium at other campers swimming in the indoor swimming bath.

We pass two Television rooms, tatty oblong chambers with cinema seats, hot and empty.

We pass a large hall hung with pink, white and blue drapes, and a canvas backcloth depicting an altar and a stained-glass window. Goldjackets are standing around with special pie faces and a few hundred campers are singing a hymn, backed by the camp orchestra. The hymn finishes. The padre skips on the stage. He announces, ‘A few weeks ago I was browsing through the papers without a thought in my head when I came upon an item which siezed my attention, that a new range of designs had been spearheaded by the mighty Lotus Motor Company ...’

The rattle of the scenic and the thump of the juke-box comes distantly to us here.

We continue on our way, through the Twist’n’Shake Ballroom with its silver-paper hangings. Here a five piece band is playing for campers, indulging in ballroom dancing in their shirtsleeves. A couple of middle-aged Goldjackets are there to partner the lonely.

At the farther end we reach a luxurious fitted-carpet lounge, where hydrangeas bloom in pots and swaying lace curtains give onto views of chalets stretching away out of sight. People are wandering among them now with a rash of large paper rosettes on their chests.

We arrive at the Sea Terrace, a place that looks out through glass onto the ocean foam. The grey waters with their golden crests sail in. There are large plastic umbrellas here that stand in red, white and blue barrels. The ends of these staunch chalets have been dolled up to look like Spain, with pink pillars, balconies, false French windows.

‘Right, hold your numbers in your right hand if you would please and smile. That’s right. Remember that the smile is part of your personality. Would the next three come up please? Thank you. For those of you who have only just arrived in the audience, may I announce that we are now in the middle of our personality parade. Now, the papers have just been collected and they’re being vetted by the scrutineer, and in a moment we will no doubt know which of the young ladies we want to invite to come back. Meanwhile I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t have a slow walk round the judges, do you? Incidentally, following this competition we have another one for the grandads, so if you’re a grandad I hope you’ll compete. Right, now we have the results coming up now ... as you are well aware, we always announce the third prize first ...’

Other contests present a bird’s eye view of various national types or ideals; the Holiday Princess, Dad and His Lad, Family Group, Mother and Child, Glamorous Grandmother, Grand Grandads, and Knobbly Knees.

Only occasionally does the strain of always having to be friendly tell on the Goldjackets. At the Holiday Princess competition they get to work on members of the audience to get them to compete. Sometimes they persuade a hideous girl to compete. Or choose a tiny woman, almost a dwarf, to go on the stage flanked by two tall beauties. ‘Ee, stand up in the middle there!’

The Holiday Princess winners are chosen. First prize has a light blue halter top and a blue, pink and red striped bottom. Second prize has a blue one-piece with panels over the bosom decorated with cherries.

This over, the Holiday Princesses must themselves sit down to judge the ‘Knobbly Knees’ contest. This involves fifty men rolling their trousers above their knees and parading themselves in front of the swimsuited lovelies. Then they must do unexpected things like flaunt themselves like puffs, or line up close together and bend so that they all fall down. As they do this a man, specially provided, makes the sound of creaking knees through a microphone.

Finally, they all form a queue to give the ‘lovelies’ a kiss. Some of the campers may seem sheepish but all shyness is dispelled when the gay Goldjackets squeeze in for a turn when no one’s looking, linger long and lovingly over the swelling swathes of lovelies.

The Glamorous Grandmother competition follows, and anyone worried about the guts of the present-day British would have their fears put to rest at one sight of these proud British matrons, landladies to a man, one might think.

‘Right ladies, hold your number cards in your right hand please, and smile, smile, remember that the smile is the expression of your personality ... for those of your who have only just arrived in the ballroom this is to remind you that this is our personality parade for Glamorous Grandmothers ... right, the papers have just been collected from the judges ... we have the result coming up now, yes, and now we have the winner, number 14!’

Number 14 strumps up onto the stage. She wears a pink, grey and white costume, restrained by a thin ribbon belt. ‘We’d like to know your name. Your name? Mrs Potter.’

‘And now we have the Grand Grandad competition. Grandads will be marked for two things, both their personality and their general appearance.’ The Grandads, chests puffed out, arms stiffly by their sides, march up in their dark suits desperately smiling.

The luxurious grey chairs are bulky, stuffed with foam rubber. The ceiling has panels in lemon and light blue. Underfoot, fitted rose-emblazoned carpets.

The camp assistant manager mouths through a mike, ‘Folks, this morning with many hundreds of campers coming in and many hundreds going out I hope you’ll understand that things may get a little chaotic.’ Before him lounge those campers who can afford to stay a second week. ‘It’s a buffet luncheon today, but from then on it’ll be the same as usual, quite a lot of the entertainment will be different although of course it won’t all be. The Variety Company is presenting yet another new show for you. The Goldjackets, I’m sure you’ve all got to know and like the Goldjackets while you’ve been here, so any time you see any of us in the streets I hope you’ll come up to us and say Hullo Mike or Lou, or whatever it is, Come and have a drink ... They’re handing round badges for you now, I see. These are Second Week badges, you should wear them as well as your regular badges, they’re to show us, just in case we don’t recognise you straight off, that you’re old friends. Now the coffee here this morning is all free, I hope you’ll feel at liberty to drink as much as you desire. And just to pass the time till dinner now we’re going to have three games of Bingo. Three games of Bingo for these valuable prizes. There’s a teapot, not a pot-tee but a tea-pot, a wastepaper basket, and an umbrella. Now the Goldjackets are going to take over. As you know, things have a way of happening when the Goldjackets are around.’

A small but energetic Goldjacket: ‘I must confess, you’re the happiest set of Bingo fans I’ve ever set eyes on.’ The glum rows stretch away in front of him. ‘Now, can I have a little boy to turn the cage?’ A little boy is provided.

‘... all the fours, droopy drawers, five and seven, Heinzes Beenzes, legs, number eleven, legs.’ Everyone whistles at this exciting mention of legs and the Goldjacket says through his mike: ‘Dirty sods!’

Goodbye now. The campers in suits, only their funny hats and badges to remind them, and the buses and taxis permeating to parts of the camp where they wouldn’t normally go.

They wear straw hats loaded with camp badges and rosettes with the name of their house and dining halls.

They cluster round the Goldjackets to get their autographs.

A group of kids in T-shirts saying HONDA and SURF CITY and MOD GIRL kissing and putting ice-cream down each other’s backs till the buses bearing the name of their howm town pull in.

At one side of the blue blue swimming bath floats a pile of sick.

A little boy and girl of about fourteen, hand in hand, briefly in love before the bus leaves ...

People are throwing pennies into a pool filled with plastic water-lilies, where disinfected warm water flows into a plastic bowl. They do it because they hope they’ll return.

Many will. Many will go on to other camps, collecting badges that they’ll wear on their lapels, like medals won in war.

And we, who have seen it before, are in the massive drinking saloon of yet another camp in which, later that night, a thousand new campers will get down to drinking in earnest. The beautiful near-empty nearly dark room stretches away, dark wood, crimson velvet and mirrors, mahogany, ceilinged with chandeliers with coloured bulbs in them, dark beams. Behind the immensely long bars stand students and others in striped shirts and leather waistcoats. One of them shouts at a pair of young girls, ‘Are you down here on holiday? Oh, well you’ll have to work hard then.’

Tina, one of the chalet maids, says, ‘I’ll tell you why this camp has such a sort of tepid atmosphere. It’s because everyone is passing time. Staff and campers are the same. It’s a strange thing, an extraordinary atmosphere here. You get such low wages that you could say we were all being exploited, except that people choose to come here, for them it’s a way of passing the summer, they don’t have to come, so you can’t really say it that we’re being exploited. It appeals to them who don’t want to do anything with their lives, the drifters.’

Ronnie, one of the kitchen staff: ‘The way I see it, you get six ten a week, and all the girls you want.’

Tina: ‘It’s like all catering only more so, it appeals to the drifters. People make love here compulsively. Men have three or four girls each night, in various parts of the beach. Almost everything we ever get paid goes straight back to the boss in drink. When I first came here I couldn’t stop crying. But now I find I’m calling the bloody camp “home”.’

Tina was from a middle-class background in Berkhamstead. She took a typist’s course, failed it. She walked out of home after a row with her Dad, ran away to be a Goldjacket. But she finished as a chalet maid.

‘It’s amazing the way the campers go for the staff. They want to identify themselves with the camp, I suppose. They pass through here in the happiest week of their year, they wish they could stay, and we really do stay. They realise that. They want to make the relationship permanent.’

Goodie: ‘I saw you making the relationship permanent last night. In the Maverick Quiet Room.’

Ronnie: ‘It’s them limbs of yours what gets the campers.’

Linda, a petite brunette chalet maid with long hair coming down to her shoulders: ‘I got a new motto today: practice promiscuity and save the chalet maid. You can take it two ways, see. First, if the campers share each other’s beds then there’s less beds for the chalet maids to make, and second, they go after each other and leave us alone.’

Tina: ‘It’s not my fault. I was going with Rod Richie wasn’t I? (That’s the resident beat group singer). But now he’s going out with the campers, en’t he? Wants variety. Well, he no more got no time for me.’

Ronnie: ‘By the way, there’s a party in the staff hostel tonight. Sixty gallons of coarse cider up from Somerset. Come if you like. And there’s forty three women coming and all of them slags.’

The meeting place for the party is in chalet XL6650 and fifteen people are already squashed into the little room that smells of disinfected concrete.

Ronnie is wearing dark glasses and when he takes them off his eyes are livid.

‘What happened to you?’

‘Oh, the Security got me.’

Most utopias ever dreamed or desired by man have had some built-in violence which takes over where kindness fails. The security guards in their peaked caps and brilliant gold uniforms do it here.

The girls’ dormitories have a notice over their entrance: ‘Any male found in female staff dormitories will be instantly terminated.’ The security rule by fear and beat-up or instantly evict, sometimes without much reason, to keep their image in trim.

A banging on the door and the huge bulk of two gold-clad security men enter.

‘Now, pack it in you lot, what’s this, a party? Who are you anyway? Staff, staff, staff, and you’re staff ... you’re staff ... pack it in. And don’t think you’re going along to the hostel. We’ve broken that up already.’

We go out through the sea gate, onto the yielding shingle, beside the grey hideous laced foam of a synthetic-seeming sea.

We trudge along the shore till we reach a wartime dugout, half clogged-up with shingle.

Inside the door it smells of dead fish and urine.

A little paraffin lamp. A guitar quietly twanging.

It’s hard to see who’s there, about forty people, I think.

Tina: ‘I can’t describe it really. Our staff dormitories are over the ballroom where they have all the competitions. The walls are thin, and the floors. Every single hour of the day you hear these competitions droning on. You feel you’re being brainwashed.’

More and more people are piling into the bunker now, and the oil lamp in the middle of the floor is flickering.

The twang of fairly incompetent folk music.

The lamp goes out. Tina’s brother says, ‘I’ll put some more in.’

He picks up the paraffin container, opens the side of the lamp, and pours it in. Then there’s a sheet of flame and a roar like a boiler igniting. Everyone recoils, some bashing their skulls against the ceiling. The boy is on fire. They bundle him out to the sea, immerse him. But it is too late. When he returns, dripping, his face, in the flickering glow of the lamp, is the face of a monster.

(The sketches of holiday camps in this section were a composite picture, based on three different places, each run by a different proprietor.)


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