A Valleys Childhood (In Devon)

When I was six years old my parents got married. My younger brother and I stood there proudly in our matching pinstriped suits, and red bow ties and watched my fuchsia-clad mother and teddy-boy father tie the knot – my brother mouthing every vow along with my Dad. It was 1992 and none of us had any business dressing as we did, but we did.

Fast-forward two years and we’re in Sainsbury’s, or somewhere, with my Mother and my Auntie Roz. We bump into my teacher – a posho named Mrs James – and my Mother thinks it wise to make it known that THIS is Auntie Roz. Now, some weeks before, at parents evening, I’d been asked to explain in front of my Mum – lightheartedly – just who my Auntie Roz was and what exactly it was that we got up to of a weekend. Apparently, a week before that, I’d written in my “Weekly News Book” that – and I quote – “We went to Anty rozes house for a drink and she got so drunk we pored Tikka sauce all over her and then we spun her round the kitchen by her legs” (sic).

This is what my childhood was. And definitely not in a bad way. As I’ve explained to my parents tonight; nothing in my childhood memory bank is lovey-dovey kisses at the school gate and telling each other “I love you”. It’s all things a regular eight or ten year-old wouldn’t normally experience. The reason I’m such an anarchic prick these days is because my parents were just that.

We used to frequent a Devon holiday camp called Southleigh Caravan Park. It was run by a fella named Rob who bent over backward to make sure that we were untouchable, mainly thanks to the amount of money we spent there over our fortnight break during the summer.And Easter. And August Bank Holiday. And, if one or more of our number won the “Talent Competition” something called “October Week” too!

Now let me make it clear to you: We Were Not Rich. My father worked ten-hour shifts five or six days a week to pay for these breaks and my mother and auntie would both work their day jobs (they were both School Cooks) and their “homework” – piecework for local electrical companies; companies that offered up to £1.25 for every 1000 wired component parts they produced. Needless to say it became a family pastime in the leadup to the holiday in question. That’s not to say it was all graft, oh no! Sometimes we’d get a call to tell us that that summer’s Talent Competition winner was unable to attend so there was one caravan free for us to use, should we want to. Free of charge, because if the Bundys and Michels were there you were all but guaranteed a great time…

…For example: One year, on a rainy October afternoon, one of us – fuck knows who – decided that Maggot Racing was the answer to the afternoon’s gloom. Andy took his Volvo to the local tackle shop and bought a pint of maggots which were then housed in a large plastic pot. Anyone finding themselves bored in the bar of Southleigh Caravan Park could pay £1 and buy themselves a maggot. It was then their responsibility to “train” that maggot until it was fit for “racing”  – that is, wiggling its way along a wooden board with eight “lanes” marked with electrical tape. The winner of the race – one of eight identical heats (everyone got involved) – found their maggot through to the Grand National. My mother was lucky enough to find her rancid, crawling maggot to be a winner by birth. And so, tanked up on booze and eager to take the prize money (every penny raised throughout this ridiculous venture), she popped her maggot into her cleavage – apparently warm maggots wiggle faster.

Bob, a disgusting human being famous for picking the peas out of a friend’s vomit and eating them, thought it was funny to fill his mouth with squirming maggots and spit the whole lot down my mother’s cleavage. Needless to say – and regardless of her new-found love for her own maggot (name long forgotten) – my mother spun from tickled, to disgusted, to appalled, to distressed, to distraught. She spent the next twenty minutes sobbing and washing in the pub bathroom. It was all meant in jest – and eventually taken so – but at the time it was horrible, so she reports. And revenge was warranted. So, before the afternoon was out (my mother’s maggot won, by the way – claiming her £90 prize money and this was in 1996) the women of our friendship group had grabbed, stripped and kidnapped Bob and sent him on his way to nearby Modbury. He was left, nude and freezing, in a phonebox with just 20p (enough for a decent-length call in those days) to get him home. An hour later any observer could witness 200 children chasing Bob from the taxi he’d managed to wangle to his his caravan in the icy, driving rain. It was – to us all, including Bob – hilarious.

Now sure, that’s not everyone’s idea of “a great time” but it was for us all. We loved our holidays. We loved the anarchic nonsense, the midnight trips to the camp’s play park where there was – apparently – “Devon’s First And Only Flying Fox”, a zipline-esque 50 yards of sheer terror, and unsupervised at all times! I remember it well and so does my father. His drunken, muddied face spent many a night resting on its memory.

There were five or six families in “our group” who would save, win or wangle their way into Southleigh Caravan Park. We ruled the roost when we were there. They had 15 or so caravans and a camping field for tents and we took the “last row” – the six caravans furthest from the Bar. Sometimes, when we could fill only five of the six, we’d get a phone call saying “There’s no way we can put anyone else on your row. You have to find another family to come with you!” and we always did. Our holidays were legendary. Whether it was Roger – the brain-tumour sufferer – and his children, or Ricky and Kay and their kids, or Andy and Gill and Sid and Claire, or any number of the families we got to know over our wonderful six years spent in Southleigh int he mid-nineties, we’d find someone.

One time the camp held a 70s Night. I was ridiculed by the bigger boys for wearing a long, flared-sleeved crop top and bell bottoms. I didn’t care on bit – obviously they didn’t know it was 70s Night! My mother had spend hours and hours MAKING flared jeans for everyone that day. We’d gone to Exeter and bought sparkly green fabric and everything, to make the triangles for the flare-splits in the jeans nobody-really-wanted-to-yet-didn’t-mind-spoiling. Idiots. They’d never win the Best 70s Costume prize. Which was, of course, a week for four at the camp in October.

My childhood is full of wonderful memories I should have. But I wouldn’t swap any of them for the world. I adore that my parents were fun-loving in their forties. I love that my time was spend having fun WITH my parents. I would never change the fact that every story my parents tell about our time in the nineties ends with the phrase “it’s awful, but we had some laughs!”

All too often you hear stories of adults remembering riding their bikes, building dens and causing havoc. I did all that, but my best memories are of the fun I had – that I often didn’t understand! – with my parents and my extended family. I am not ashamed that I remember my dad dressing as Gary Glitter and singing “D’you Wanna Be In My Gang” after-hours in a dingy club in Devon. I shall not apologise for my mother’s amazing singing career – albeit entirely within a West Country Holiday Camp. Every second of my time spent LOVING what went on around me made me me. And I love who I am.

There are many more stories I can tell, like the one about the time Pauline sellotaped over 15 alarm clocks around the caravan of the club’s entertainment host, Setch – in Cornflakes boxes, on the roof, under the bed. It isn’t funny to you, but I was there! But I’m drunk, it’s late and you probably wouldn’t be all that interested. I’m not writing this for you, though. Sorry. You’re more than welcome to enjoy this blog post but it isn’t for you. It’s simply a record of a night where so many silly, bonkers memories came spilling back into my head. That’s usually what happens when you spend a night having a quiet drink with my parents.

These weird, crazy memories have made me who I am. My why-not attitude stems directly from these “formative” years. I enjoyed every second and would hate to lose any of the memories I’ve managed to dredge from the manic, full-of-fun times. My drunk father said tonight, of the animated and obviously joyous conversation these memories brought with them, that he felt “constipated… no, CONTENTED! I’ve done something!” and he has. Him, my mother, my extended family and every other player in those mad, mad days made me the fuck-you, you-only-live-once being I am today. And I will not apologise for it. In fact, I am thankful for every second!


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