Hilly Butlin's Buddies
An English journalist with a taste for satire, HONOR TRACY published a year ago her first book, Kakemono, a sketchbook of post-war Japan, in which she recorded her misgivings about the American Occupation. Now, at the Atlantic s invitation, she scrutinizes the Butlin Camps, an English institution as sacred in its way and as full of unconscious humor as that Hollywood cemetery which Evelyn Waugh wrote about in The Loved One.
NOT long ago as I sat in a provincial cinema there flashed on the screen a short film in dazzling Technicolor, entitled Guess Where! There was a solitary figure riding a donkey over sands unusually golden: Egypt ? But then there was a laughing señorita with a crimson rose behind Innear: surely we are in Spain? And the scene changed once more and a man in a beret sat toying with an apéritif under a striped umbrella in blazing sunlight: was it, after all, the Riviera? Wrong again! It was But lin’s Luxury Holiday Camp at Clactonon-Sea, Essex, England.
Billy Butlin opened his first camp at Skegness in Lincolnshire in 1936. Now there are six of them, three in England and one each in Scotland, Wales, and the Republic of Ireland. The largest one, at Filey in Yorkshire, houses more than five thousand. Through these camps every year pass well over 350,000 satisfied customers, many of them veterans who return season after season, the badges fondly preserved from other years twinkling on their bosoms like the medals on a Russian general. Parents have been known to delay the christening of their children until they can get it done at Butlin’s. Elderly people have gone there to recuperate after illness and in some cases to find a happy Butlin death. Sociologists have written about the phenomenon, a note of perplexity chiming faintly through their measured phrases. Left-wing pundits have accused Bullin of fascist tendencies and right-wing pundits have alleged that he is paving the way for communism. Others see in him no more than a keen business mind. Either way, Billy isn’t bothered.
The lure of the little film proved irresistible. I packed up and took the train across the quiet green countryside to Clacton.
Strictly speaking, the camp has little in common with Egypt, Spain, or the Riviera unless important changes have taken place in those areas which the newspapers forgot to mention. For one thing, the people here do not in the least remind one of the dwellers on the Mediterranean littoral. They are the English plebs, graceless and gold of heart and distinct from anyone else in the world. Here and there you may see an odd couple from the intelligentsia, looking for Social Significance; or a bewildered foreigner, who perhaps misunderstood what the travel agency told him; or a stray Director from the management, well-fed and well-suited, mingling benevolently with the crowd; or a politician, giving a display of Good Chappery. But the great majority come from factories, shops, mines, and offices.
Architecturally, too, the Butlin touch is not to be confounded with anything else. As you enter the camp you see first a long low building like an enormous brick with giant toy soldiers en paste along the facade. Behind this, stretch row upon row of tiny huts, called chalets, each accommodating three or four sleepers. There are numbers of little shops supplying anything from a permanent wave to a vulgar postcard. Great barracklike erections looming in the distance turn out to be the dining hall and theater and the ballroom. There are sports grounds, tennis courts, a marquee, and a swimming pool. Sometimes, losing your way in all this tangle, you fetch up against the boundary and there to your surprise is the great wide tumbling sea just a few yards away: you had almost forgotten about it.
At Clacton the charge is seven guineas ($21) a week with a reduction for children in the quiet months and nine guineas ($27) a week with no reductions in the high season. Extras are quite an item. A cup of coffee — and the Butlin coffee bears roughly the same relation to the coffee normally served in England as does this to the coffee of other and wiser lands — costs fivepence. Drinks are dear: for instance, a bottle of light ale, usually ninepence or tenpence, is a shilling and twopence. The Buddies come from a real love of the place and not because it is the best they can manage. They will stint themselves in the rest of the year to be sure of their Butlin holiday, and still feel deeply in Billy’s debt.
The program lasts a week, from Saturday Lo Saturday, and the first thing to be done is to acquire the Butlin spirit. This is compounded of two main elements, the Butlin attitude toward fellow campers and a lively sense of gratitude to Billy Butlin. The former is soundly based on Christian theology. The latter is induced by frequent reminders of all that Billy is doing for us.
Indoctrination begins on Saturday evening when we assemble in the theater for the musical “Who’s Who at Butlink’s.” Before this begins all are bidden to shake hands with their neighbors and with those in front of and behind them; then they must rise and give the people on either side a friendly boompsa-daisy. After that a Redcoat may lead a chorus; or the audience of roughly a thousand can be divided in halves, one singing “Tipperary” and the other “Pack Up Your Troubles” at the same time, the louder being given a Big Hand in recognition of its achievement.
All this is done to break down that icy reserve for which Britons are noted.
Two by two the personalities of the Staff are introduced by the Master of Ceremonies: first, the resident music hall stars; then the Redcoats, who are the cheerleaders and organizers; and then picked representatives of the cleaners and washers-up. All of these receive a Big Hand, especially the last: indeed, I wish I had a shilling for every time in the past week that these bruised palms have applauded the washers-up for having in fact washed up instead of, as might have been expected, leaving it all about the place. Finally, when all these shock brigadiers are grouped round the stage in a tableau, on comes the resident padre. He doesn’t want to take up our time or spoil the fun but he would just like to say a word or two. Religion is of course not pushed down anyone’s throat, but it’s there in the program, sponsored by Billy.
FROM that moment we never look back. We are borne along on wings of melody by the resident orchestras and on gales of laughter by the resident comedians. None of the great and enduring ingredients of English folk-humor is neglected by these: chamber pots, Epsom salts, unwashed feet, Gorgonzola cheese, mothers-in-law, and the unfortunate effect of baked beans on the digestion, all come in for their Big Hand. And here we notice that cleavage of opinion in the English working class that one scholarly mind has traced back to the days of Cavaliers and Roundheads. When for example a comedian bawls at them: “Good evening, campers! Lovely weather, except for the wind. And after all we did have beans for supper,”the reaction is of two kinds. The Cavalier party throws back the head and gives vent to an amazing sound which is a mixture of belly laugh, snigger, and the baying of a bloodhound. The Puritan element, by far the smaller, raises its eyebrows and puckers its mouth like a chicken’s bottom, remarking with many clicks of the tongue: “My word! ‘Ark at ‘im! Did you ever? What next?” and other phrases indicative of their horrified dismay. But none of them leaves the theater.
On to the Viennese ballroom for a get-together dance! The ballroom is vast, complex, ornate: there is a gallery supported by stout wooden beams, hanging pots of flowers, colored lights, balconies, alcoves, a soda fountain, a café, a bar, conveniences marked “Lasses” and “Lads,” and at one end a huge revolving water wheel where you can get your picture taken. You would not easily guess that it was Viennese, especially if you knew Vienna. And a similar confusion of style may be noticed in the dancing. From time to time a nurse on chalet patrol hurries up to the band leader and he breaks off to announce that a baby is howling in chalet number so-and-so; and a harassed parent runs away, pursued by jokes about diapers and puddles and bursts of Cavalier laughter.
Meantime the three camp bars are in full swing. In the Jolly Roger, which is got up with barrels and lanterns and a skull and crossbones, a lady and a gentleman pirate are singing away to the strains of a concertina. In Kay’s Bar an Edwardian beau in straw boater and curled mustache is throatily executing the musical gems of fifty years ago, while the public joins in the chorus. The Embassy Lounge is relatively quiet although, to be sure, you can hardly hear yourself speak in it.
At half-past ten they all close and then comes the big moment of the day: the famous Butlin ceremony of “A Penny on the Drum.” Followed by Redcoats and Saxophonists and trumpeters the Big Drum goes booming from bar to bar and all are expected to fall in behind and march arm in arm to the ballroom, where they go round and round faster and faster, chanting ever more loudly, until they are nearly exhausted. A Redcoat seizes the microphone and roars: Are you all uh-happy?
Uh-yes! we roar back.
Hi de hi! he yells.
Hi de ho! we yell back.
Then we have another good laugh because it is all such fun. And we dance and croon and laugh again and the ballroom is a great sea of hot beaming faces and wave upon wave of sound thunders against the singing eardrum until all at once the lights go down and the band loader taps the microphone with his baton and says very gravely: “Now, campers! The Queen.” Instantly, the tumult dies. Between the announcement and the opening bar of the anthem the silence is such that you could almost hear a moth shaking his wings: there is something oddly impressive, even moving, in this spontaneous tribute to One Who is greater than Billy.
So to our chalets and the deep slumber of innocence until a quarter past seven in the morning when Radio Butlin springs to life again.
Wake up! wake up!
Wants you all to join the fun . . .
The gay female voice trolls out its invitation to the campers to rise and participate in another day of happiness. Bond-speakers placed at strategic points through the camp bear the voice into the furthermost cranny so that there is no excuse lor disobedience. Up we get! Off to the “Lasses" or “Lads" for our jug of hot water! Pardon, you were before me, I think. Granted, I’m shaw. After you. No, after you. We smile at each other till our cheeks ache.
Because it is impossible to feed the three thousand inmates all together they are divided into two sittings, Kent and Gloucester, each with its own House Captain and its paper caps and rosettes of yellow or blue. And from now until the end of the week an implacable rivalry will exist between them. They will join battle on every conceivable issue, from which Lass has the prettiest face to which Lad has the knobbiest knees. Points are awarded in each contest and at the end of it the winning house receives a cup. The social consequences of this harmless arrangement are remarkable. When the campers arrive they are well-disposed and sunny and confiding towards the world as the simple folk of England usually are; after a very few hours of this unnatural division it is enough to mention one house by name for members of the other to burst into a storm of catcalls and boos.
The trouble is that people in the south of England are all so buttoned up. To get the real Butlin flavor, they tell me, one should go to a camp in the north.
Nothing is required of the individual but that he should enjoy himself in the Butlin way. He is relieved of all responsibility apart from this. In daytime, babies are immured in a separate place under expert care so as not to interfere with adult pleasures. Children under twelve are swept up and enrolled in the Butlin Eager Beavers with a secret system of signs and a special badge and a list of duties beginning with Kindness to Dumb Animals and tailing away to Respect for Parents. No one need think for himself from one end of the week to the other. And there is no excuse for anyone to mope or feel out of it. Some happy, wholesome, planned activity is in progress all the time, and the watchful, ebullient Redcoats are on the lookout for slackers.
In no time at all we are conditioned to accepting the Butlin pattern of life as the normal one. The world outside takes on a remote and shadowy aspect. The clays go by in a flash and yet we seem to have been here always. When we came the antics of the camp jester, strange of attire and fantastic in behavior, aroused screams of laughter on every side; now he is but a figure in the Butlin landscape. In the first hours we were a lit I le confused by the unremitting blare of orchestra, radio, and community song; now we look forward to the silence that must follow with apprehension, as a man on the spree dreads the time when he leaves off drinking.
On the last evening the Butlin rhythm works crescendo to a terrific climax. At dinner we applaud the waitresses, cooks, and washers-up with something like frenzy. The pimply youth whose nineteenth birthday is announced over the microphone receives an ovation such as he perhaps will never receive again. Afterwards our own dear Redcoats perform a pantomime written by themselves: the Cavaliers are convulsed. The pubs are gayer and fuller, more deafening. The march of the “Penny on the Drum" is as nearly bacchanalian as anything in this cool misty island is ever likely to be. The ballroom is a seething mass of revelers.
Presently we all form into huge circles and the men Suck their trousers up above the knee. The bony structure of the male leg and its coat of fur call forth shrieks of merriment from the ladies. Laughing uproariously we join hands and jerk our knees as high as we can to the strains of “ Knees up, Mother Brown!”
Hi de hi! Hi de ho! The glorious week draws to its close. The Master of Ceremonies lines the Redcoats up and we give them all, once more, a Big Hand. A Big Hand is also given, once more, to the producer, the organist, the band leader, the vocalists, the nurses, cooks, electricians, waitresses, and plumbers. Oh, and the washers-up. The Master of Ceremonies takes leave of us all, contriving to suggest in his speech that never before in the history of man has so much been done for so many. And it’s true! All this hath Butlin wrought for us. He cares! By now we are sizzling with emotion. We wring the crossed hands of our neighbors, whose names we shall never know, for Auld Lang Syne in a real sorrow of parting. Goo’ night! So long! S’been marvelous knowing you!
Good night, Campers, put your teeth in Jeyes’s:
Drown your sorrow, bring the bottles back tomorrow:
Good night, Campers, good night.
And come back next year and we’ll go through it all again.