A few days ago, The Guardian published an article in which authors recommended uplifting books to brighten our spirits. Kazuo Ishiguro’s choice was The Fortnight in September (1931), about a London family’s annual holiday at the seaside in Bognor Regis. I bought it there and then, and have been happily absorbed in it ever since. It’s hard to describe exactly why it’s so absorbing, because very little happens – it’s a simple little book, but simplicity is a large part of its appeal. It takes you back to a less complicated age, when you had one holiday a year, and all excitement, hope and expectation centred on those two weeks at the sea. You probably went to the same place every year, and there were boarding houses and sandcastles; strolls along the promenades; mornings swimming in the sea; bathing huts; arcade games; the band playing on the pier. It conjures up the golden age of the British seaside town, and the sheer pleasure of being on holiday and getting away from it all. So roll up your trouser-legs, grab your bucket and spade and join me for a heartwarming piece of escapism.
The man on his holidays becomes the man he might have been, the man he could have been, had things worked out a little differently. All men are equal on their holidays: all are free to dream their castles without thought of expense, or skill of architect. Dreams based upon such delicate fabric must be nursed with reverence and held away from the crude light of tomorrow week.
The Stevens family are good, solid, honest people, who have carefully worked their way up into the lower middle class, and whose one holiday is the highlight of their year. Mr and Mrs Stevens spent their honeymoon at the Seaview boarding house in Bognor, twenty years before, and the family has religiously returned every September, now augmented by Mary, Dick and little Ernie. We meet them on the eve of their holiday, as they finish their packing and savour the excitement. Or at least, some of them do. Mrs Stevens, shy and withdrawn, has little desire for adventure. Her world is circumscribed by the railway embankment that crosses the bottom of her garden and she’s too ashamed to admit that she doesn’t really enjoy holidaying per se – she enjoys it vicariously through her family’s happiness. In fact, she has a deadly secret: she’s scared of the sea (‘It frightened her most when it was dead calm. Something within her shuddered at the great smooth, slimy surface, stretching into a nothingness that made her giddy’). Not that she would dare admit this to her family, for they would laugh at her, and Mrs Stevens dreads being laughed at. That’s another thing that unsettles her about the holidays. Back in London, none of the children would think of laughing at her, but in Bognor there’s an element of carnival, of licence, of the world as we know it turned upside down.
The holiday is driven by Mr Stevens, who works hard when in the office, but becomes the ebullient heart of the family when in Bognor. His mission is always to make the family happy, by creating special little occasions and traditions for everyone to enjoy (‘by instinct he had taught himself to relieve the drabness of his days by painting red letters to all that could possibly bear the title’). And he has his own secret little holiday indulgence too: convivial evenings in the pub near the boarding-house, where he can make friends, have a chat, and enjoy the harmless flirtations of the barmaid Rosie. He goes for bracing walks by himself on the Downs, relishing the chance to review the past year – or to linger, a little sadly, on the few things in life that haven’t quite worked out – and to plan for the future. Meanwhile, back on the sands, his children bathe, make new friends, and enjoy the first glimmering possibilities of holiday romance.
Sherriff writes beautifully about holidays and their ‘joyful, unrestrained freedom’. Even if you don’t spend two weeks at the seaside, you can recognise the feelings he describes: that strange electricity at ‘the beginning of a cloudless day on holiday; an excited rustling as if invisible hands were rubbing together in anticipation over the rooftops‘. And what about this description of the funny, stilted quality of the time just after you arrive at your boarding house, or hotel, or campsite?
They had reached the strange, disturbing little moment that comes in every holiday: the moment when suddenly the tense excitement of the journey collapses and fizzles out, and you are left, vaguely wondering what you are going to do, and how you are going to start. With a touch of panic you wonder whether the holiday, after all, is only a dull anti-climax to the journey.
Part of the book’s charm is in conjuring up these timeless feelings; but part, too, is in reminding us just how much has changed since the Stevens went off to Bognor in 1931. Who nowadays would take a bottle of olive oil down to the beach, to rub over sunburned skin, because ‘a little oil prevented the skin from cracking, and helped it towards that rich mellow brown that everyone likes to bring back from a holiday’?! And who would go down to the shore in flannel trousers, as Mr Stevens does? (‘He would wear a tie, of course, for the train journey, but at the sea he would leave the neck open’). Yet our grandparents conformed firmly to these codes – just take a look at the photo at the end of this post for proof. It wasn’t a matter of comfort, but of decorum.
This reminds us that, despite the freedom of their holidays, the Stevens family normally live in a world of strict hierarchies and manners. They come from the rather prim suburban world of the 1930s, in which people are anxious to abide by the rules of a middle-class they might only recently have joined. I was fascinated to read that the Stevens’ neighbours, the Bullevants, ‘were looked down upon by some of the people in Corunna Road because Mr Bullevant always breakfasted without a collar‘. And these delicate echoes of class arise throughout the book. Mr Stevens, whose father was a plumber, has raised himself to the middle class by his own merit, and cherishes those little moments which show that he has become a man of standing – the moment when a porter calls him ‘sir’ in front of the family, or his role on the Football Club committee. Sherriff is brilliant at these tiny touches, so very English in their subtle evocation of class and character, lighting on details which enrich our understanding of the whole.
And Sherriff simply allows his characters to be. He doesn’t hurry them along on the way to be something or somewhere else. He just gives each and every one of them their moment, gently and serenely, letting these modest people – who wouldn’t dream of imposing on you – share the hopes and dreams that they keep precious and secret even from each other. We see the way that grown-up children begin to gain a broader sense of the world, and to shape the futures they want for themselves. We see the quiet, unspoken, nostalgic anxiety of parents whose adult offspring are beginning to slip the bonds of family. And we see the extra earnestness with which family occasions are treated as a result, always from the fear, which is best unspoken, that this time might be the last. These are things which chime with familiarity: the careful keeping of Christmas traditions, for example. Dress codes on the beaches change, but families don’t, not in their essence, and it’s the essence that Sherriff captures here. His novel has the cosy domesticity of the Diary of a Provincial Lady, but without the barbs, or Barbara Pym if she strayed into the suburbs.
Yet what lingers in the mind, at the end? This is a book about change. It has the poignant charm of a story that knows its time is slipping away even as it happens. The children are growing up; the days of the boarding-house are numbered; the holiday, perhaps, will never quite be like this again. And holidays are, by their very nature, bittersweet: you only enjoy them so much because you know they will end. Lovely.
While reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking of our old family photos, which show my grandparents and great-grandparents enjoying just such seaside holidays. In the photo below, which probably dates from around 1933, my grandfather and his little sister enjoy a day at the beach with their parents. My great-grandfather has rolled up his trousers in honour of the occasion, but hasn’t quite been able to relinquish his jacket.