Notes on My Camp: Boozy Brits, Forced Fun

Looking for a ballsy, challenging, extreme winter vacation to shake you out of your urban complacency? Do I have an endurance test for you, or what? How about a Butlins Holiday Camp winter getaway? You could make a gritty, in-depth study of the British working classes while at the same time testing your ability to withstand the enforced jollity for which Butlins is notorious.

A fab new book of archival Butlins postcard photography entitled Our True Intent Is All for Your Delight, curated by Brit photographer Martin Parr, brought memories of my own Butlins Holiday Camp incarceration (Mein Camp?) flooding back.

Sir William Edmund Butlin (1899-1980) started out as a carny. His mission in life was the creation of a leisure culture for working-class folk. Prior to his innovation, the sulky proletariat spent their pre-global-warming vacations cowering from the driving rain in wind-lashed bus shelters at smelly coastal resorts. Then along came Butlins, a bright, shrill, plastic, thigh-slapping Technicolor antidote to the grim reality of factory life. By the time I got there, Butlins, with its über -jolly uniformed “Redcoat” camp counselors, was an institution.

In 1962, my best friend Jimmy Biddlecombe, his sister and I, along with his parents, Doreen and Cyril (they recalled Malcolm McDowell’s parents in A Clockwork Orange ), spent two weeks at the Butlins Holiday Camp in the ominously named town of Minehead. Even at the age of 10, chubby, bespectacled Jimmy and I lost no time in zeroing in on the low-rent, kitschy pathos of the relentlessly upbeat Butlins experience. We sang along with the wakey-wakey breakfast song (piped directly into our “chalets”) and mocked the infantile games and endless contests, such as “glamorous grannies” and “knobbly knees.”

Though prepubescent, we became feverish aficionados of the sordid underbelly of camp life. Tacky Butlins was the opposite of Hayley Mills–ish, wholesome American summer camps with their frantic canoeing, flag-raisings and teepees. “Butlins has the highest rates of V.D. in the country,” announced Jimmy’s teen sister (named Sheila, like my sister) as we spied through the bushes on a female camper with a rock-hard beehive hairdo and fishnets flirting shamelessly with passers-by from her chalet threshold, beer and fag in hand. Booze was a big part of the landscape at Butlins. Every evening, Doreen and Cyril would retreat to the smoke-filled Pig and Whistle or the cheaply exotic Beachcomber Bar, where a tropical rainstorm interrupted the rowdy guzzling every 20 minutes.

Though the beer at Butlins wasn’t included in the weekly cost, almost everything else was: All the meals, fairground rides and cheesy variety entertainment were part of the package. Toilet paper was, for some reason, not included, and it was common to see a holiday-maker running through the rain clutching a loo roll on his/her way to communal “bog”-working-class-ese for “toilet.” Potential freeloaders were deterred with strict security and incredibly high, barbed-wire perimeter fencing; we speculated about whether these correctional-institute measures were designed to keep them out, or us in. We developed all kinds of deranged persecution scenarios and renamed our camp Butlitz: Jimmy, who after a glam weight-loss transformation went on to become one of Europe’s premiere cross-dressing cabaret entertainers, took great pleasure in spreading vile rumors about what the Butlins Redcoats did to people who were reluctant to participate in the nonstop FUN! When we saw a Redcoat heading in our direction, we would throw him/her off our scent by hooting with laughter and skipping about.

Jimmy was adamant that we maintain this cheery demeanor, even when we were puking our guts up. Food poisoning was endemic at Butlins. Luckily, I made it to the middle of the second week before my turn. I can still remember the dodgy-looking lard-fried eggs that brought it on.

My most abiding memory, and probably the most extreme aspect of a Butlins vacation, involved the treacherously chlorinated, snot-and-Band-Aid-filled indoor swimming pool. This pool was famous for its plastic festoonery: The entire ceiling was draped with fake birds, leafy plastic vines and tropical flowers. More kitsch lurked below water level, where the pool sank into a snack bar: Holiday-makers consumed cups of tea and shrimp-paste sandwiches while watching-through vignettes of plastic corals and fish-swimmers disporting themselves. The most shocking event of our two-week stay occurred when Cyril’s square-cut wool swimsuit descended to his ankles, in full view of a cackling crowd.

Judging by the current brochures and online info, the world of Butlins has retained much of the mid-century naffness of which I was privileged to partake. Minehead, located on a former swamp in Somerset on the South Coast, still has openings in the hurly-burly holiday schedule. Check out http://www.butlins.com: At £28 for a three-night stay, you can hardly bitch about the cost of trans-Atlantic airfare.

If you don’t really fancy spending the holidays with a bunch of boozy Brits, nip down to the Janet Borden Gallery at 560 Broadway and view the gorgeous $2,000 John Hinde Butlins prints. For $39.95, you can also pick up a copy of Martin Parr’s book. Warning: Minehead is heavily featured.

P.S.: Sir Billy found his motto, “Our true intent is all for your delight,” on a fairground organ; he had no idea it came from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Neither did I.

Notes on My Camp: Boozy Brits, Forced Fun