In a pre-internet age, the “1950s kids solving mysteries” genre was pretty much all about Enid Blyton. If you wanted to enjoy the fun of middle-class kids being as rude as hell to working-class adults and getting away with it, or senior police officers siding with said middle-class kids at the expense of his flat-footed subordinates, or see the phrase “only a girl” being used entirely without irony…the only place to go was Blyton’s Famous Five, or Blyton’s Secret Seven.
Of course, Other 1950s Kids Solving Mysteries were always available. We just never had access to them. Finding them was matter of chance and luck; of rummaging through jumble-sales in church halls and second-hand bookshops in seaside towns, and just hoping you’re going to strike 1950s Kids Solving Mysteries, But Not By Enid Blyton gold.
But these days, we have choices. Thanks to the miracle that is AbeBooks, absolutely everyone* can enjoy the wonder that is “Holiday Camp Mystery”: a bizarre low-rent kid’s mystery set in the world of Butlin’s Holiday Camp in Clacton, and featuring the obligatory horrid, precocious children (in the shape of Sydney, Kenneth and Theresa Edmonds and their friend Judith Lawler) and inexplicably dumb criminals.
You know how some books just grab you right from the very first page? This one hooked me within three short paragraphs:
“Doesn’t that girl look lonely and miserable!” exclaimed Judith Lawler.
Her companions, Sydney, Kenneth and Theresa Edmonds, all studied the solitary figure sitting on the sea-wall outside an old grey stone building which bore the sign, “The Fair Haven Inn”.
“I’d have the ‘willies’ if I lived in such a dark, dreary looking place,” pronounced Sid. Then, turning to his brother and sister he suggested, “Let’s go along the road to the right.”
(Holiday Camp Mystery, Page one)
What an opening! This is sheer writing magnificence. Who couldn’t fail to be instantly gripped by the casual judgementalism of these four kids, sitting on a wall and loudly pronouncing on the emotional state and domestic arrangements of a fifth kid who is a total stranger to them? I also love the strangely brilliant and superbly awkward expositional line, “Let’s go along the road to the right”. (Try saying it out loud for maximum enjoyment.)
But the ‘best bit’ but is ‘clearly’ the ‘use’ of the ‘apostrophes’ to ‘highlight’ the ‘word’ ‘willies’. As someone ‘prone’ to over-punctuating everything, I ‘sympathise’ with the desire to add ‘emphasis’ to your ‘words’ in this ‘manner’. But I can’t shake the mental picture of this kid sat on the wall and making little marks in the air with his fingers.
Also, I don’t really want to shake the mental picture of this kid sat on the wall and making little marks in the air with his fingers.
Anyway. As we quickly learn, “Holiday Camp Mystery” is set in the glorious world of Butlin’s Holiday Camp. It’s really not possible to do justice to just how much the only purpose of this book is to be a hugely extended advert for Butlin’s Holiday Camps, or exactly how much carefully-researched detail about every aspect of Holiday Camp life the writer manages to cram into her story. Here are some of the things I learned about Butlin’s Holiday Camp in the course of reading just the first four chapters.
Some of the things I learned about Butlin’s in just the first four chapters:
- On arrival, each camper is assigned to a “House”. All campers compete for prizes for their House during the time they stay at Butlin’s. At the end of the week, the winning House is presented with a silver cup.
- Kent House restaurant is a large white building outside the children’s playground
- Said children’s playground is a veritable paradise of fun, containing swings, a merry-go-round, a slide, a climbing apparatus (one of the “latest toys”, apparently) and many life-sized models of horses. This list, far from being exhaustive, represents “only a few of the stupendous toys in the playground”.
- As if that wasn’t enough, there is also a playground for younger children, as well as a room at Beaver Lodge which is “packed with large toys”.
- During dinner, you will be entertained by a “camp comic” dressed in “queer clothes and a large, funny hat”. So, that’s nice.
- Also during dinner, a disembodied voice will call out to you over the loudspeaker and demand to know if you are enjoying yourselves. The correct answer is “yes”.
- The large cardboard clock on the wall is an ingenious device for the fair allocation of a bottle of free champagne. One of the red-coat staff spins the hands to select the winning table number. Great kudos is attached to the winning of this champagne.
- After dinner, you will be entertained by the camp comedian (it’s unclear if he will still be wearing his queer clothes and funny hat) plus a number of red-coats, who will perform a “very amusing knock-about turn”.
- On Sunday you go to the “camp chapel” (personally I find most chapels pretty camp, but that’s probably just the dour Anglican in me coming out) which has a chocolate coloured carpet and a small well-kept altar (do altars require a lot of keeping, I wonder?). Also a vase of white flowers and a large picture of the Last Supper.
- If you’re under twelve, you have to join the Beaver’s Club and learn secret signs and activities, and also get a badge and a birthday card and a Christmas card. Presumably you will have left the camp by this point, which means these people also have your home address. Just saying.
- If you’re over twelve but under
the age of consent sixteen, they make you join the One-Five Club. You also get a special badge to ensure the redcoats don’t try to fuck you and are forced to learn skating, jiving and square-dancing.
- Beaver Hall, where the pre-pubescent inmates are stored safely out of the reach of their parents, features brightly-coloured murals which “tell of the adventures” [sic] of “Mickie [sic] the [sic] Mouse, Donald Duck and Pluto the Dog”.
- After you’ve been indoctrinated into the appropriate club, you join a grand march to the open-air swimming-pool, where the Camp Comic will continue to be both Camp and Comic.
- There is a “Girl with the Prettiest Hair” competition, and a “Boy with the Knobbliest Knees” competition. The significance of knobbly knees in the context of male beauty is not made clear.
- Because “the Butlin Company does not charge a big fee for admittance of children” – and furthermore, because “if the person is a friend of a camper, then it’s half-price” – local children (such as Valerie) can come into the camp to visit for the day, thus avoiding the need for the visiting children (such as Judith) to ever leave the camp at all, apart from when they are busy solving mysteries.
- Butlin’s is probably pretty much my idea of Hell.
Clearly, life at Butlins is a pretty special experience. Possibly this accounts for the why, in the cloistered ‘world’ of the Butlin’s ‘Holiday Camp’, everyone seems to go around ‘doing’ the air-quotes ‘thing’. I’ve tried quite hard to ‘work out’ the ‘rules’ of this particular social ‘meme’, but so far I’m ‘baffled’.
Words* which are ‘put’ into ‘apostrophes’ by various ‘people’:
‘soaking up’ [sic, as in "he is 'soaking up' to her". Maybe 'suck' is just too rude for a children's story]
‘flics’ [sic - I'm assuming from context the speaker is referring to moving-picture shows rather than French policemen]
‘no goods’ [as in, "they are a bunch of 'no-goods'". My new favourite insult]
‘The Keep Fit Time’ [strictly speaking this isn't slang; I just liked Sydney's inclusion of 'the' in his description]
‘free’ [surely the word least suited for qualification by air-quotes]
‘mink’ [unless the author meant to imply that the 'mink' is 'fake'?]
‘into our hair’
Words** which you’d think – being as they’re clearly part of the same 1950s argot as the words above – would also be candidates for being put into apostrophes, but are surprisingly not put into apostrophes:
super [the only word I can find which appears on both lists]
Moving onto the action. There are two plots, neither of which are important, and both of which feature Sydney, Kenneth, Theresa Judith. Plot A, which takes place outside the camp, involves a spooky falling-apart house called “Kismet” next door to the local pub, a girl called Valerie, a crap ghost story, a portrait that allegedly comes to life and a smuggling-ring. Plot A is sketchy and vague, possibly because the writer has saved up all of her detailed thinking and description for Plot B. Plot B is basically about Sydney, Kenneth, Theresa and Judith winning great and inexplicable amounts of social acclaim by entering talent contests, interspersed with a great deal of pointing and laughing at fat people.
All the children are strangely focused on the great importance of winning contests during their stay. Perhaps their mothers beat them with sticks if they don’t come home with trophies every night, I don’t know. But there must be something more going on to justify the enormous lengths they all go to in order to win.
Things which, according to this book, are acceptable in the context of a Holiday Camp Talent Contest:
- Children who have just completed a six-month performing tour of England and Scotland*** entering as competitors in the talent contest
- Said children**** loudly and openly mocking other, more nervous contestants – who have not had the benefit of six months professional touring – as “jittery amateurs”
- Open enlistment of the judges’ sympathies by contestants***** telling tales on other contestants, who have engaged in an admittedly unfair act of destruction which was nonetheless motivated by loyalty to their sibling
- Open enlistment of the audience’s sympathies by the compere repeating this tale on the night of the Talent Contest final
- Additional private coaching being given by the conductor of the Camp orchestra to one of the contestants in order to help them overcome the disadvantage they have allegedly been put at by the fat kids
Things which, according to this book, are not acceptable in the context of a Holiday Camp Talent Contest:
- Being fat
- Being ugly
- Being “visibly untalented”
- Having a bad frock
- Having hair which has “been crimped in an unnatural way”
- Playing the piano in a way which reveals the child has been excessively coached, or as we like to call it these days, “taught”
- Playing the piano in a way which does not reveal the contestant to have a musical soul
As is traditional for the genre, everyone’s parents are strangely absent. Valerie-from-the-pub’s parents are dead, but Mrs Lawler and Mrs Edmonds are still on the scene. Not Mr Lawler and Mr Edmonds, though. Perhaps this accounts for the strange note of wistful predatoriness that occasionally creeps into their wives’ dialogue:
“Is that a first-aid man, Kate?” whispered Noreen Lawler.
“Or a doctor?” answered Mrs Edmonds in a low tone of voice. “Although he’s young he has an air of authority about him.”
(Holiday Camp Mystery, page twelve)
And where, exactly, are Mrs Edmonds and Mrs Lawler while their children are prowling around other people’s houses and being interfered with by red-coats? Their accounts of their days are vague and unsatisfactory:
“Judith asked: “Mummie, dear, how did you and Auntie Katie spend your morning?”
“Mostly ‘window shopping’ in Clacton.”
“Yes, agreed Mrs Edmonds, “and when we got footsore and craved for a ‘sit down’ we wandered into the public library.”
(Holiday Camp Mystery, page twenty-one)
The two plots unravel with a pleasing lack of suspense, surprise or excitement. All the people who look like they are ‘no-goods’ turn out to actually be ‘no-goods’. The surprisingly predictable appearances of the “ghost” that Valerie finds so terrifying is, indeed, directly connected with the deserted falling-down house next door to the pub, the poorly-hidden boxes of expensive imported shit and the people who look like they are ‘no-goods’. Sydney, Kenneth, Theresa and Judith put all the pieces together with casual expertise, and also clean up on the Trophy front (which presumably means their mothers don’t beat them after all, or at least not that night anyway). Most predictably of all, the £100 reward given to Judith is going to be spent on bringing everyone back to Butlin’s Holiday Camp again next year, because they simply can’t imagine life without it. Probably in the intervening months before their next visit to Paradise, they’ll pine away and refuse to eat their dinners, because they can’t properly enjoy those dinners if they’re not eating them in a restaurant which has tanks of tropical fish and is underneath the swimming pool so as they eat their food, they can watch the people swimming under water.
Is this book as good as Enid Blyton? Well, being totally honest, it’s not as well-written. However much Enid Blyton might have needed a visit from the Idea Readjustment Fairy, there’s no doubt she could at least actually write.
But for sheer entertainment value, “Holiday Camp Mystery” is streets ahead. I strongly recommend that you buy it, and read it aloud to your friends and family. Don’t ‘forget’ to do your ‘air-quotes’ at every ‘opportunity’. They’re bound to ‘love it’. Unless they are ‘a bunch of no-goods’.
*Well, I might be exaggerating the availability of this book just a little bit. Currently, AbeBooks only appear to have one copy of “Holiday Camp Mystery“. It’s also available through Amazon Marketplace. And I’m sure that if enough of us start hunting for it, more will come out of the woodwork. Oh, and make sure you don’t buy the Ladybird Early Reader, “The Holiday Camp Mystery”, by William Murray. It’s not nearly as much fun.
**There are undoubtedly more, but I thought that a close-reading of any more than the first ten chapters was probably a bit too obsessive even for me.
*****Go on, guess. He’s a little shit, this child, I’m telling you.