Sunday, 30 October 2016


Archaeologists, working in North Africa, have recently shown why gangs of camels and mobile homes are both denoted by the word 'caravan'. In ancient times they clearly had a much closer association than they do today:

My sister and I, as children, had two associations with 'caravans'; firstly they provided many of our early family holidays. These were static vans, which might as well have been chalets or huts, for their wheels were only ever going to complete two journeys, to the site and eventually, to the scrapyard. They were usually medium-sized, to accommodate two adults and 2.4 children (as was the average family complement) though not the family cat as there was no room to swing it). Nor were they usually very far apart, causing some privacy issues, and access problems if neighbours wished to open their doors at the same time. Invariably there would be wet weather, which is to be expected in North Wales. The rationale for going there was that it was a wonderful combination of a beach holiday and beautiful scenery in Snowdonia; the snag in this plan was that when the weather was too bad for the beach it was worse in the mountains, but it was stimulating to view the lower slopes through misting car windows, and imagine the rest that lay behind the dense clouds and rain. Only tea and the toilet would persuade you to leave the car and actually set foot in Snowdonia.

Kids love caravans when they first see them, much as they love models: the process of miniaturisation is fascinating to them. 'Look at the little sink' we'd say, with something approaching glee and in the same voice as we might refer to a newborn kitten. 'About big enough to wash up two cereal bowls and a teaspoon', came the sardonic voice of Adult Reason. No matter, we were off opening cupboards and vainly reserving adult beds: fat chance, ours were the cushion seats around the collapsible dining-table, appropriately-named. On the plus side, decent-sized caravans are as comfortable as motel rooms at a fraction of the cost. The downside is the lack of bathroom facilities, condemning users to the toilet block, if any. Many people don't care for exposing their whole bodies to total strangers, so the self-cleansing of last resort is the shower-block which usually entails queueing.

Heavy rain on a caravan brings us closer to nature: at home it is something 'out there' but in the caravan it is a percussive, roof-bashing presence which demands attention and even a little anxiety if it presages thunder and lightning. When prolonged rain dictates, the caravan can become an emotional pressure-cooker for the occupants imprisoned in their soft cell.  It's also fun, for quite a while, and weirdly educational. Sooner or later, after everybody has finished their books (and before electronic diversions) the family would be persuaded to play board-games. So Monopoly taught us the out-of-date social geography of London, the rudiments of investment,  and property development, and how to heartlessly crush your close relatives, a vital skill in post-Thatcher Britain. We learned the elements of forensic science and logical deduction from Cluedo, how to solve the anagrams of your tiles in Scrabble and of course how to cheat at cards while keeping a Poker Face. This is quite a good skill-set to acquire in a few wet afternoons, without lectures, fees or loans and should be validated by the Open University.

Eventually my parents bought their own caravan, with the help of a uniquely generous gift of money from my maternal grandmother. I believe she had won Premium Bond prize and, contrary to her nature, had decided to share it with her children. She had written to ERNIE to say that she was a little old pensioner who had just moved house and as she still hadn't won any prizes, was wondering if they'd got her change-of-address card? Cross my heart, this is true. Anyway, however ill-gotten or coincidental, the money bought rather a nice caravan, but this was later swapped for a bigger brasher version, all woodgrain laminate rather than anything that had emerged from the ground. It was the size of a small car park and its wheels were strictly for decoration - the last remaining icon of caravan-ness.

It was located in a very beautiful  caravan site (not an oxymoron), by the Thames, outside Marlow, in the grounds of a peculiar country house, claimed to be the model for Toad Hall in Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame was a local resident). It has to be said that many many happy times were spent there but there was a problem. My parents were both very routinised people. So between May and October we would go to the caravan literally every weekend, same route, same faces, same meals: my mother followed her holiday regime: "It's my time off, too, so I'm not spending it cooking". Nobody else did, so the menu was simple: fish-and-chips from Marlow on Saturday night, salad for Sunday lunch (with tinned ham, kept in stock, another facet of my mother's tendency to sacrifice taste for efficiency): every Summer weekend for many years. It's almost abuse.  Inevitably my sister and I became bored and disenchanted with this repetition as teenage social life in London exerted an opposite pull. My parents soldiered on for many years and we enjoyed our occasional visits, right into adulthood. The riverside is beautiful, as was the estate, and while it wasn't the country cottage the upper middle classes automatically acquire, it was a pleasant foothold in green fields and fresher air. Of course the class system enters the interstices of every part of the land and here the owners, a well-to-do local family (and we know that in the Thames Valley, well-to-do means well loaded), were top of the heap, followed by the boat-owners, who in turn looked down on the caravan-owners, the underclass. This was an irony, and a learning experience for the caravan people, as no-one without a substantial income could afford the very high rents.

At least they spared us the other kind of caravanning, in small towing vans, blocking narrow country roads (though in any sane society caravan-travel would be banned between 8am and 8pm), all for the company of fellow caravan fans, sharing astonishingly similar BBQs and fascinating discussions of routes.  "Yes, of course I avoided that tailback by leaving the M40 at junction 22, shot up a little B-Road, I forget the number. Darling, what was the number of that little B road we used to avoid the traffic? B114? OK if you say so.  And then we doubled back on the A575, which was clear as daylight and rejoined the M40 just before the M42 junction. Saved us hours,  in fact I'm thinking of writing it up for the Magazine, these tips are priceless".  Nightmare.

Jobsworths. Can't bear them. They are often examples of the classic Authoritarian Personality: cloyingly deferent to those above them  (eg the cringeingly ingratiating Rector, Mr Collins, in Pride and Prejudice) while being unbendingly, rule-drivenly, power-madly obstructive to those below (you, in their scheme of things) almost visibly taking pleasure in thwarting your perfectly reasonable request. David Walliams caught this brilliantly in 'computer says no'.


"My little girl desperately need to use your toilet but there don't seem to be any. Is there a staff one she could use?"

"Sorry, only staff can use the toilet here, that's the rule"

"Surely you could make an exception for a young child who is quite distressed and will be horribly embarrassed if she can't hold it any longer. Maybe I could speak to the manager?"

"Manager's not here, but he'd say the same thing"

"Really? Actually you're probably right, because he's stupid enough to recruit arseholes like you"

That is verbatim, other than the word 'arseholes': PC prevents accuracy here.

So, if it's really 'more than my jobs worth' let's take them at their word and have a cull.

This is, arguably, is one of Ken Loach's best films since 'Cathy Come Home' and that original shocking masterpiece has its echoes in 'Daniel Blake'. The Geordie joiner is unemployed on health grounds, desperate for work but unable to solve the maze of opaque regulations and bureaucratic obstructiveness (plus, sometimes, almost vengeful authoritarianism) and is bemused by the online form-filling fences he cannot jump. His growing frustration spills over - not only in direct action, but also in compassion for the young single mother and her kids from London, who he befriends and helps, in a 'family' created by their common plight. For me, the single most poignant moments in the film were provided by their visit to a food bank, where the ravenous young woman, who has fed her kids before herself, cannot contain herself and desperately eats from one of the tins, there and then.

Loach has been accused of hitting people over the head with the 'message' of his films: this doesn't happen here. It is more like feeling a firm arm around the shoulder, insisting that you look at the plight of others who have to deal with the sharp end of life, through no fault of their own, and whose worst dilemma is not whether to serve wild rice or quinoa with dinner. Finely observed, well-cast, and supremely well-acted: at no point in the film does the audience think of them as actors playing roles, they are completely real. Too much to hope that Hollywood will recognise this. But if it did, it would be the first time a British stand-up (Dave Johns) had won an Oscar, and deserved it: Hayley Squires, as the Single Mum, equally deserves a gong.

Susan: Do you ever get depressed?
Steve: No, depressions are for the middle classes, the rest of us have got an early start in the morning.


The first Item was very hard on North Wales, so this is an apology and a correction:


 Yr Wyddfa (highest peak of the Snowdon Horseshoe)

Crib Goch

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