Until dad’s untimely death in 1970, the family lived in Norman Avenue in Twickenham, just a short walk from St Margaret’s station and Marble Hill Park.
The road behind our house was Napoleon Road. It wasn’t as posh as Norman Avenue, so said mum. As kids we used to tear round the block on our bikes, unoblivious to the French names of the roads and even what part France would play in our (or at least my) future.
I always wanted a Chopper, but mum insisted that we have “sensible” bikes that “look like proper bicycles and not like motorbikes”. That was the whole point of a Chopper wasn’t it? All the other kids took the piss out of me with my sensible bike. I begged mum for a Chopper again but she maintained that
« Choppers were dangerous and only for common children”. So, they might have been, but they were so cool. Mum always tried to be posh. She had the middle class liberal values, but never had the cash. As kids, we weren’t allowed jeans, they were for « working class » children. I finally got my first pair of jeans at the age of sixteen, but I never got my Chopper.
When dad was still around, we took the traditional great British beach holiday – we’d all pile in the Morris Traveller and drive down to King’s Lynn for a week by the sea in a caravan. (All the common kids who lived at the end of the street in a rented house, all flew to Spain for their holidays)
Dad would never have dreamed of taking us to France. He was a very traditional “little Englander”. The one “foreign holiday” we did take (i.e. the one where you get on a boat and cross the sea) was to Ireland in 1969.
Mum herself had probably never wanted to take us to France, but she was looking for a holiday away from Gran, who lived with us. Gran always came with us on holiday and in 1975, she was just starting to get “difficult”
In 1974, we took our last proper “family holiday.” We went to Nairn on the east coast of Scotland and stayed in the “Golf View” hotel. It was « MacFawlty Towers». Children should be seen and not heard and guests were at best, an inconvenience.
On holiday in Nairn, Gran was quite a handful for mum. She hadn’t started losing her marbles just yet, but she was “difficult to please”. Everything we did had to be what Gran wanted to do, and if she didn’t want to do it, we didn’t do it. After a fortnight at “MacFawlty Towers” mum vowed that the next year we would have a holiday without Gran.
Back to France
France was not “unfamiliar territory” for the family. During the 1930’s, my grandpa George, who had been chief photographer for the Daily Mail in Scotland, would regularly go to France on a summer press junket. In 1932, he took Gran to Deauville. In 1934, he sent Gran a postcard from Monte Carlo, and in amongst his personal papers, I once found a French press card.
Grandpa was born in 1898 should have gone to France to fight in the Great War, however in 1912, he had his foot sliced off in an accident. In 1912, the young Geogre Simpson had just left school. He found a job as a booking clerk at the railway station in Bo’ness in Scotland. One day as he was crossing the tracks to go into town to buy biscuits for the morning tea break, he got his foot stuck in a set of points. As he fought to remove it, the points changed and his foot was sliced off. Though this has nothing to do with France, it goes someway to explaining why he spent World War One as a superviser in the Singer Sewing factory in Clydeside, and why he didn’t fight in the trenches. Of course, if he hadn’t been working at the Singer factory, he would never have met and married my Gran.
In April 1975, mum announced the camping holiday to Gran. She wanted to come. She knew France. She loved the place. Grandpa had taken her on holiday to Deauville in 1932. Gran took some convincing that camping wouldn’t suit her. In the end we packed her off to Dundee to stay with her sister Annie in her damp council house with the pylon in the garden.
In 1975, France had a population of just over 52 million people. 68.7% of French people lived in towns. There was a working population of 21.8 million. There were 830,000 unemployed. There were just under 4 million kids in full time secondary education and 96.6% of homes had running water and inside loos, though it is unclear just how many loos were actually “holes in the ground”.
On the campsite we went to there was only one “hole in the ground loo”, and there were also showers. but we never used them, during that whole holiday we never washed at all. Mum said communal showers were unhygienic, “you never know where the other campers have been,” she was also afraid that us boys might meet “funny men”. You could never trust these continental types.
We abandoned ourselves to nature. Showers and baths were replaced by a dip in the sea and all hand-washing wash done in the washing up bowl with a” J Cloth” soaked in Dettol. I think we did the washing up the same way with the same cloth. It was actually all very unhygienic. Mum called it “going French”
History does not recall the hygiene habits of Valery Giscard d’Estaing, but he was President of France at the time, and I’m sure he never washed in “Dettol”. A certain Jacques Chirac was Prime Minister. He too probably washed regularly. At the time Jacques Chirac smoked like a chimney and wore thick horn rimmed specs. When he became President in 1995, he quit smoking and traded in the specs for contact lenses.
In the history of France, 1975 will always be remembered as the year that abortion became legal as did divorce by mutual consent. At the time there were 8 Francs to the Pound, which made it an expensive place for poor camping Brits on a budget.
Popular misconception on the British side of the Channel convinced us that France was still living in the dark ages. Did the French have the same modern trappings of civilisation that we enjoyed on our side of the water? Were there supermarkets? Would we have to go to the local farm and get our milk straight out the cow? Did the French have doctors ? (apparently not according to Dr Webber). In truth, in 1975, the French probably had a better standard of living than many Brits. Though they had been hit by the oil crisis, there had been no food shortages, no power cuts and no three-day week. French people in their early seventies still sit and roll with laughter when I tell them about the helpful suggestion in the 70’s that the British “clean their teeth in the dark”