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Galen O'Hanlon on R.C. Sherriff, The Fortnight in September, Slightly Foxed 75

Beside the Seaside

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There is something timeless about the British seaside holiday. When I was a child we’d visit my grandparents, who had a beach hut at Studland on the Dorset coast. I would spend happy afternoons playing elaborate games in the sand, interrupted only by Granny leaping from the beach hut in her skirted bathing suit, calling out to me: ‘Galey darling, we are going for a swim!’ This would fill me with terror: I had still not yet learnt to swim. ‘Nonsense!’ she’d say, diving in. When I refused to go further than mid-shin, she’d put a thumb to her nose and surge off in a no-nonsense breaststroke. This daily ordeal taught me that a family holiday by the sea is not a straightforwardly happy affair: there are always, as my mum would say, good bits and bad bits.

No writer has captured the seaside holiday as perfectly as R. C. Sherriff. He is best known for his play about the First World War, Journey’s End, first performed in 1928 and a near-instant success. After such a smash hit he faced the daunting task of what to write next. ‘Plays were done with,’ he writes in his autobiography, so it would have to be a novel. But all his previous attempts at novel-writing had ended in the bin. In trying to ape the high literary style of the 1920s, he’d floundered with unfamiliar words that wouldn’t fit together. Then one day, on a seaside holiday at Bognor, an idea came to him as he sat on the front watching an endless stream of people walk by.

I began to pick out families at random and imagine what their lives were like at home; what hopes and ambitions the fathers had; whether the mothers were proud of their children or disappointed in them; which of the children would succeed and which would go with the tide and come to nothing.

He resolved to pick one of these families at random and build a story around them. ‘I wanted to write about simple, uncomplicated people doing normal things.’ And the best way to do that

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There is something timeless about the British seaside holiday. When I was a child we’d visit my grandparents, who had a beach hut at Studland on the Dorset coast. I would spend happy afternoons playing elaborate games in the sand, interrupted only by Granny leaping from the beach hut in her skirted bathing suit, calling out to me: ‘Galey darling, we are going for a swim!’ This would fill me with terror: I had still not yet learnt to swim. ‘Nonsense!’ she’d say, diving in. When I refused to go further than mid-shin, she’d put a thumb to her nose and surge off in a no-nonsense breaststroke. This daily ordeal taught me that a family holiday by the sea is not a straightforwardly happy affair: there are always, as my mum would say, good bits and bad bits.

No writer has captured the seaside holiday as perfectly as R. C. Sherriff. He is best known for his play about the First World War, Journey’s End, first performed in 1928 and a near-instant success. After such a smash hit he faced the daunting task of what to write next. ‘Plays were done with,’ he writes in his autobiography, so it would have to be a novel. But all his previous attempts at novel-writing had ended in the bin. In trying to ape the high literary style of the 1920s, he’d floundered with unfamiliar words that wouldn’t fit together. Then one day, on a seaside holiday at Bognor, an idea came to him as he sat on the front watching an endless stream of people walk by.
I began to pick out families at random and imagine what their lives were like at home; what hopes and ambitions the fathers had; whether the mothers were proud of their children or disappointed in them; which of the children would succeed and which would go with the tide and come to nothing.
He resolved to pick one of these families at random and build a story around them. ‘I wanted to write about simple, uncomplicated people doing normal things.’ And the best way to do that was to write about them ‘in the simple, uncomplicated words that they would use themselves’. The result was The Fortnight in September (1931), a remarkable and uplifting book about a very normal family on a seaside holiday in the 1920s. The story is effortlessly simple. Mr and Mrs Stevens go to Bognor with their three children: a grown-up daughter Mary who works in a dressmaker’s, a son Dick who has just started in a London office, and a young boy, Ernie, who is still at school. They catch the train, stay at a shabby guest house, rent a beach hut, listen to a band and bathe in the sea. On the outside, nothing really happens – summarizing the plot threatens to dissolve it entirely – but the internal lives of the characters are so richly drawn, their emotions so sympathetically articulated, their hopes and anxieties captured in such subtle and simple prose, that the effect is utterly captivating.
Mr Stevens would be the first to tell you that there is a lot more to a holiday than the beach and the sunshine. First there is the house to organize, for which he has a list, half-jokingly called ‘Marching Orders’, with tasks for everyone to complete before they go. The canary must be dropped off with a neighbour, the little window is to be left ajar for the cat, and the key left with a retired police officer and his wife who live opposite. The Marching Orders have been honed over many years, and Mr Stevens takes great pleasure in having everything in hand.
Then there is the journey to Bognor, which Sherriff elevates to a finely crafted comedic set piece. ‘Clapham Junction is perfectly all right if you keep your head,’ it begins, before following Mrs Stevens’s thoughts as she imagines the ways in which everything might go wrong. Supposing the porters don’t get the trunk out? What if she drops the thermos flask, as she did years ago? Is there enough time to change platforms? This is the worst part of the holiday for her: ‘Hell, to Mrs Stevens, would be a white-hot Clapham Junction with devils in peaked caps.’ She can scarcely believe it when they get through without a single mishap – due, of course, to Mr Stevens’s steady and authoritative handling of the situation. She admires him as one would a great hero: ‘Clapham Junction seemed to draw from him a mysterious power.’ Then Sherriff expertly shifts the viewpoint and we are given this delightful insight:
Mr Stevens was thinking about himself in the same way. He was conscious of it – this instinctive power – leadership, he supposed it was. His ordinary life gave little chance to draw upon it. It required a Clapham Junction or a burst pipe to bring it to the surface.
Meanwhile, Ernie is entirely unaware of the anxious drama playing out for the adults, apart from wondering why his mother looks rather pale and ill. For him, getting the train is the very peak of excitement. Everything about the railway is designed to whet the appetite but never appease it. There are all the signs declaring danger behind every door, hazards around every corner – none of them explained. Even simple things like the ticket office are baffling: ‘For years he had wondered how they got the man through that tiny opening from which he served the tickets. Was he pushed in as a baby – or built in at a later period in his life?’ And when he sees a man reloading an automatic ticket machine, which involves unlocking a secret drawer and emptying a shower of pennies into a bag, he resolves from that day onwards to be one of those men: ‘It seemed to him the perfection of earthly employment.’ This career ambition remains unshaken until, one night at the bandstand in Bognor, the glory of the bandmaster completely reshapes his world:
Ernie could not take his eyes off him, suddenly the men who shot the showers of pennies from automatic machines into small black bags became sweating, labouring little animals in paltry jobs. Why had he never realized before that to be a bandmaster was the one and only thing for him to do?
Part of the book’s charm lies in Sherriff’s deep sympathy for his characters. We tread side by side with each in turn, seeing the world as they see it, feeling it as they do. And so we discover that Mrs Stevens doesn’t enjoy these holidays, even after the ordeal of the train journey is over. The Stevens first came to Bognor for their honeymoon, where they took apartments at ‘Seaview’ (so called because ‘from the lavatory window you could see the top of a lamp post on the front’), and they have returned every year since. But for Mrs Stevens, ‘only the honeymoon had been lovely: the coming of the children had made the fortnight a burden – sometimes a nightmare.’ She is anxious and withdrawn on holiday. The sea frightens her, never more so than when it’s dead calm. The children, too, are different. They laugh at her on holiday in a way they never do at home. The only real pleasure she gets from it is the final hour before bed each night, when she is left alone with her knitting and a glass of port – a holiday luxury, a guilty extravagance. This is in sharp contrast to Mr Stevens, who looks forward to the holiday as an escape and release: ‘The man on his holidays becomes the man he might have been, the man he could have been, had things worked out a little differently.’ He can forget the ledgers and invoices of his job as clerk, and instead let his skin go brown in the sunshine as he wanders hatless across the downs behind Bognor. It is a spacious, relaxed time for the rest of the family, too. Ernie gets the unhindered bliss of days on the beach with his kite and toy yacht, and often falls asleep at supper. Dick gets the space he needs to reflect on his life after school, and his miserable first year at work. And Mary, who is timid and a little shy at home, makes a rather glamorous friend, Jessica, who takes her out on the promenade one evening. There Mary meets Pat Mackenzie, an actor doing a week in rep at the theatre. The romance flutters to life, with all the hesitation and turmoil that comes before the first touch, the first kiss. Although there is no suggestion of it lasting longer than the holiday, these are some of her ‘golden hours of life’. The holiday unfolds exactly as you might expect: there is a rainy morning that clears to a brilliant, sparkling afternoon. They spend hot days in the shade of their beach hut, and Mr Stevens feels glad that he paid more for one with a little balcony. In writing so simply about these normal things, Sherriff beautifully captures a holiday that is absolutely of its time (complete with charabanc rides). And yet he also uncovers the simple, universal truths of what it will always feel like to be on holiday. As you leave the house, you will always wonder if you closed the window in the lavatory. It will always be boring but important to unpack the suitcase on the first day, when really you want to go straight down to the sea. And on that first evening, with the whole holiday before you, you will dream, as Mr Stevens does, of the things you might see and do, and know at the same time that soon it will all be seen and done, and you will look back, from the final evening of the holiday, and wonder how it could be over so quickly.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 76 © Galen O’Hanlon 2022


About the contributor

Galen O’Hanlon lives in London, and dreams of going to the seaside by charabanc.

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