For a good two decades, my brother and I have been massive devotees of a book called “Holiday Camp Mystery”, which he got at a jumble sale when he was about nine, and which is basically a massive advert for how great Butlin’s holidays are, thinly disguised as a Blyton-esque kid’s adventure. Up until now, we’d both always assumed this book’s very existence was just a strange, one-off mistake by some sweet and naive publishing bod who hadn’t quite realised what was happening until it was too late. I reviewed it here (possibly in slightly more detail than was strictly necessary), and assumed that was the end of the matter.
How wrong can you be? As it turns out, there’s an entire genre of Butlin’s fiction out there!
So, yeah: “Romance at Butlin’s.” I could go on and on for weeks about how utterly awesome this book is in every possible way, but I’ve already committed myself to one chapter-by-chapter deconstruction of a titanic work of fiction, and that seems like more than enough for now. So let me just tease you a little with the top five best things to be found in the first chapter…
1. It has one of the most compelling opening lines ever written
Just like “Holiday Camp Mystery”, I fell completely in love with this book by the end of the first sentence. You’d think a book called “Romance at Butlins” would open in Butlins, but clearly that’s the kind of obvious cliche any true professional will easily avoid:
Dick Stevens knew that in a few seconds the Australian policemen would arrest the girl. As she was very lovely he decided to intervene.
I’ll pretend that I’m with her, he said to himself.
Brilliant! What an opener! I thought Ms Cole would really struggle to surpass the brilliance of her opening line for “Holiday Camp Mystery”, but she’s definitely done it. What’s not to love about a hero who’s happy to pointlessly interfere in the actions of another country’s police force, solely on the grounds that the girl in question is pretty? And how will pretending she’s with him be any help whatsoever? Does he have a magic policeman-repelling cloak? Or is there some special shape policemen cannot bear to look upon?
2. There’s a whole international conspiracy here that is almost certainly going nowhere
While the opening line is perfection, it will be hard to maintain this degree of mystery for long without everyone becoming hopelessly confused. What’s needed here is some exposition. Fortunately, exposition is something Margaret Cole can shovel on by the spadeful.
By the ingenious means of interrogating a strangely well-informed woman standing next to him, Dick uncovers what’s going on. The Australian police are busy helping the Soviet police, who are trying to persuade the Russian wife of an ex-diplomat to get onto the plane en route to Moscow (are you keeping up with all this, by the way?), but some people at the airport think she doesn’t want to go, and are trying to prevent all of this from happening. Which is jolly public-spirited of them, I think.
Incidentally, I love the weird specificity of “the Russian wife of an ex-diplomat”. If this book was by John le Carre, every single element of that description would be of critical importance, and a plot of marvellous intricacy would delicately unfold from the simple but crucial points that the husband is an ex-diplomat and the wife is Russian. Tragically, this book is called “Romance at Butlins”. Something tells me we may never find out what happens to the hapless Russian wife of the ex-diplomat.
Meanwhile, the Australian police, the dirty rotters, have begun to “treat the people present in a very forcible way”.
3. Brilliantly dismissive attitude towards Australia, with special reference to its law-enforcement
Dick’s explanation of why the Australian police have begun to treat the people present in a very forcible way: “You are not dealing now with our extremely chivalrous and long-suffering English policemen, you know.”
Also, the police officer tells Dick that “[your girlfriend] may be a dinkum die [sic], but she’s sure some fighter.” What a brilliant rendition of the Australian dialect! Maybe later we’ll get some jokes about how all Australians are descended from a bunch of convicts. Apparently Australians just love it when we joke about that.
4. The romance develops at a truly terrifying speed
Within minutes of meeting Susan Maitland, Dick is already offering to squire her around Sydney. By mid-afternoon, he’s already decided she’s the girl he wants to marry, and is imagining their children. Alas, he immediately remembers, he is unable to marry, thanks to “the cruel hand Fate had dealt him”. But he’ll take her out for a bit anyway, to “take his mind off his troubles”. So, that’s…um…that’s nice.
Meanwhile, Susan has essentially gone off with a total stranger she met in an airport, based solely on his willingness to interfere with the work of the police force, and the fact that “his blue eyes looked so straight and honest – she was sure she could trust him”. Brilliant thinking there, Susan. A few hours further on, and she’s admiring this gorgeous hunk of manflesh in terms I’m sure we can all relate to:
He’s very good-looking, with his expressive eyes and firm-set mouth.
Who hasn’t admired a man with expressive eyes and a firm-set mouth? I like the way Ms Cole effortlessly captures the innermost thoughts of her characters, in a well-expressed and natural account of their inner monologues. However, I’m less keen on the scary moment outside Susan’s hotel as the climax of their thrilling day together:
“Susan had never let a man kiss her before, but now she surrendered herself with a warmth and abandonment that surprised and delighted Dick.
All at once she lay back in his arms, exhausted by her love…Dick’s caresses and his kisses could mean only one thing – such a wonderful thing.”
Yep. Men and women never, ever, ever kiss each other unless they love each other. And nothing below the waist until after they’re married.
Also, until about six hours ago these two people were completely unaware of each other’s existence.
5. This particular copy of “Romance at Butlin’s” contains the following mysterious additions and inscriptions
On the front page, in nice copperplate fountain-pen writing, the mysterious words: “Archie from Mulgay”
Also on the front page, pressed furiously into the page with an apparently inkless biro, and in different handwriting, the words: “Lots of love, Ralph. RALPH.”
Also on the front page, in what looks like a third hand, two more illegible words, also written in inkless biro.
Pencilled on the last page, in large and loopy writing that looks like the work of a child, the words, “Lots of love from Ralph, by Barbar Slack”.
Most brilliantly of all, it also comes with a little envelope that contains a personal letter to all Butlin’s Committee members, from Billy Butlin.
Okay, everything under Point Five is only interesting to one person. This person has a taste for strange and recherché presents. He is the only other person I know who actually has a copy of “Holiday Camp Mystery”, and this magnificent piece of writing is going to be his birthday present. He is also utterly, utterly cool, and we’re all damn lucky to have him in our family.
Happy birthday, little brother! I really hope it’s okay that I simply had to blog about your birthday present before I posted it to you, thereby eliminating any chance of it arriving in time for your birthday. We all wish you a wonderful day. Also, you’re even more awesome than “Romance At Butlins”, which will be in the post to you as soon as I can bear to part with it.
Lots of love, Cass. CASS. By Barbar Slack.