Le Mur de l’Atlantique

We had enjoyed Brittany, so in the summer of 76, we headed off to France again

Back in 1976, no one would ever have dreamt that Elton John was gay, or even that he would become

« Sir Elton » – the gay knight. There he was, all through the long hot summer, bouncing round a studio with the gorgeous Kiki Dee, begging her not to go breaking his heart. Good clean heterosexual pop.

Yes, there were gays back in 1976. My mum called them all « Nancy Boys » and warned my brother and I that we should never ever go to public toilets on our own. I guess that mum had had a very sheltered childhood. She never knew what gays were until she worked for a local paper in Richmond in the early sixties. Though I can’t remember the name of the newspaper in question, I know that it was owned by the Dimbleby  family, of TV fame. Mum said that they were good employers. « Mr D used to give all the staff a lovely box of chocs at Christmas. » she remembered with a distant warm glow. A word for all employers – By your chocs shall you be measured.

Every Monday, she would report on the proceedings at the local magistrates court, and every Monday, up in the dock, were a succession of middle-aged men who had been « caught in the act » with younger men on Sunday afternoon in the long grass on Richmond Hill. For some reason, the men in the dock always gave their profession as « company director »

By 1976 though, my mum had given up journalism. She was a primary school teacher in Bromley, this was still at the time when teaching was a « nice » job that enabled you to earn an honest living and still have time to bring up kids. My mum needed all the time she could get, not only was she bringing up my brother and I, but there was also Gran to look after.

Come the spring, the problem of summer holidays came to the fore once again. Mum wanted time away from looking after Gran, so, once again; we had to choose a holiday she could not come on. I know it sounds awful, but Gran was now starting to « go a bit funny ». She had not quite lost control of her waterworks yet, but she liked to cover up her knees when watching the TV News. She thought that Kenneth Kendall was trying to get a look up her skirt.

As with the previous year, mum hit upon the solution of camping in France. Now, the main problem, where to put Gran? Dundee had been a nightmare. Gran’s sister Annie was totally loony. She used to lock the only loo in the house at 8 in the evening, and she wouldn’t let Gran go until 9 the next morning. Poor Grand spent two weeks in Dundee pissing herself. When she came home, her clothes stank of wee and they had to be thrown out. Dundee was not an option this time.

Gran was packed off to mum’s sister – aunty Sheila.

And so we went camping in France, again. This time round, we went in the new car – a Renault six – still with the gear stick mounted in the dashboard, however the new Renault had a mighty 1.1 litre engine, and five doors, a vast improvement on our old Renault 5, we actually managed to fit into it and it could get up hills without stalling. Mum had mastered the dashboard gearshift by now

After the previous year’s escapade in Brittany, mum got more adventurous. In 1976, we drove down to the Vendée on France’s Atlantic coast for two weeks, followed by a week in Normandy.

Most people will remember 1976 for three reasons – the long hot summer, the Brotherhood of Man Eurovision winning hit « Save all your Kisses for me » and the Montreal Olympics. I never managed to watch any of the latter, because on the campsite we went to, the TV broke down – yes these were the days when there was one communal TV room for the whole campsite. As for the Brotherhood of Man, I couldn’t stand them. In our house we listened to real music. In July Big bruv had just got « Peter Frampton Comes Alive » for his fourteenth birthday*. We had played it to death. Now, Mr Frampton, along with Steve Tyler, the rubbery lipped singer of Aerosmith had a penchant for the « voice synth », a strange rubber tube that he would stick in his mouth and sing into. Mr Tyler used one on his album of that year « Rocks » though he used it to greater effect the year before in the song « Sweet Emotion » on the album « Toys in the Attic ». Anyway, me and big bruv loved the voice synth, and as we drove down to Portsmouth to catch the ferry we sang the Peter Frampton song « Show me the Way » imitating the voice synth bit as loud as we could. Wow we were cool, or we thought we were. The musical downside of my brother’s birthday had been an ABBA greatest hits album. Of course the other big summer hit for 76 was « Dancing Queen », which ABBA would have been playing on their promotional tour of Australia roughly at the same time as we were going camping.

Now, for some reason, the summer of 1976 is firmly stuck in folk memory as being « a scorcher ». Britain was hit by drought. People were forced to get water from standpipes in the streets. The TV news was full of silly season stories about the hot weather, including one man who fried an egg on the pavement at Oxford circus. We even had a « Minister for Drought » – a certain Dennis Howell, who I seem to remember was also a former Minister for Sport. Britain was sweltering. I personally remember the summer of 76 for rain. Our family must have gone on holiday to the only place in the world that was enjoying regular heavy rainfall. Our campsite was situated nearest the most dismal town on the French Atlantic coast – St Gilles Croix de Vie. Even nowadays when I tell people I went there as a kid, they stare at me incredulous and opened mouthed. « Why did you go there? »

Continuing in the series – « my family never does anything like anyone else » – the route we drove to the Atlantic coast was also less than logical. It never occurred to us to cross to Brittany and drive down the west coast. We crossed to Le Havre and travelled about twice the distance we actually should have done. The logistical argument from my mum was that . . . « since we’re spending a week in Normandy on the way back, we’ll cross to Le Havre. This means we won’t have so far to drive for the ferry on the last day. » Besides, after our 1975 experience on Brittany Ferries, we decided that anything was better than spending ten hours on a fish-stinking, vomit-covered, rust-bucket. Of course, if we hadn’t crossed to Le Havre, we would never have had the unique experience of spending a night in a hotel in Rouen.

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