And so it was, that every year, the Mitton family holiday was a trip to Butlins. For those that have not heard of Butlins. Think cheesy holiday camp; the knobbly knees competition that commences at the Olympic size swimming pool at 2pm prompt, the Uncle Leslie show in the Gaiety theatre, the happy families and glamorous gran competition in the main pavilion, and then off to the Billy Beaver dining hall for some prison food. Not that I found anything wrong with this at the time. On the contrary, I longed for our summer jaunt. Two weeks, or was it one? away from our normal existence, amongst legions of jolly kids, who chased you around the chalet blocks with shit on a stick, or stole your carp that you'd just nicked yourself from the Rose garden pond.
Then one year, for reasons that I am unable to pinpoint, my dad decided that we would neglect our annual trip to Butlins and head for sunny Great Yarmouth. For those that don't know either of these destinations, the upgrade is akin to shopping at Aldi instead of Netto. If you still have no clue what I'm talking about, then you're either, too young, too foreign or too middle class.
So, off we set in our clapped out Ford Escort Mk1. This was our second Ford Escort MK 1 in as many years. With a twist of irony, the first had been resprayed in a shade of brown which could only be described as excrement coloured. Needless to say, the car's performance was also shit. That it made it to the end of the road was enough reason to praise the lord. Anyway, our Mk2, Mk1, was slightly better in performance and a rather nice shade of sky blue. It didn't matter that it had a large hole in the floor behind the drivers seat. In fact this should have come as standard issue, because it was easily covered with a rubber mat and if you crouched down to the floor close enough, a kid could (did) manage to empty his (my) bladder whilst the car was moving. Come to to think of it, every car we ever possessed seemed to have a hole in the floor - maybe my dad was onto a winning idea. Drill, a hole in the floor and cut down on expensive service station stops.
Every trip we ever made always went by direction of Burnley first. Burnley? Why Burnley? you may cry. Well, this was where most of my family lived, all on the same street as it happens. The routine would always be the same; ride over the tops, past Clowbridge reservoir, down Manchester road and then a sharp right onto Springhill (mum's anxious cries of watch out Malcolm, this is a terrible bend - are echoing in my mind, as I write). Past the Elgin factory, and up the cobbled street of Healeywood Road, calling in at many family members houses on the way up. This was before they opened up Clevelands road and therefore eliminated the bad Springhill bend, sometime in the late 80s (much to my mum's glee).
A quick stop in Burnley, would never actually be that quick, but to a kid, it would be lucrative. Uncle Edgar and Aunty Annie, would have saved their 5 pence pieces, all year in an old coffee jar and this would be cashed in and given to us, as we were about to embark on our annual holiday. Grandma's form of saving for us meanwhile, would take place in her bloomers. Here she had sewn a pocket, to save for our holiday funds. The running joke was that this was the place where my granddad was least likely to find it, although to my granddad this was no laughing matter. She would always summon us into the parlour at the last minute, where she would delve into her rather large knickers and produce a fist full of cash. My granddad, who was completely in the know about my grandma's secretive behaviour, would be pacing around in the lobby, in an attempt to catch my grandma red handed in the midst of her benevolent act. If he happened to walk in on us, by chance or as a result of his detective work, my grandma would shout his name, "Alfred" with such venom that you would think that it was he who was carrying out the sneaky act.
We'd set off eventually and as often as not, we'd look out of the back window, as we drove off down Healeywood Road, to see my grandma chasing the car at a pace that showed no evidence of her arthritic knees. It was routine that we would accelerate at such speed that we did not give her time to remember what she had undoubtedly forgotten. But she always managed to catch us, often with a Tupperware tub, brimming with freshly baked rock buns. By the time we had reached the bottom of Healeywood Rd, an argument would have erupted, with my mum upset at my dad's gestures, as he pretended to throw the rock buns out of the window at passers-by.
"Malcolm, she's spent all day in that little kitchen making those", my mum would say with genuine hurt in her voice, whilst my dad would make a comment like "Not as long, as the council are going to spend fixing the craters where they've landed".
So, this particular holiday, we were heading off in a different direction, and it was all rather exciting. The weather was perfect, the Top Trumps were ready on standby and the words "eye spy with my little eye", were enough to send my heart into palpitations. I wasn't always an easy kid, but I was always an easy kid to please. Besides, if I got bored I could always lift up the rubber mat and watch the road pass by, under my feet. Life did not get much better than this.
The route that we were taking, took us through the lowlands of East Anglia. I can't recall the exact path we followed, but I do remember that we travelled along the A1 for quite some distance. The anguish in my mum's voice, as our car shook it's way down the middle of 3 lanes, will live with me forever "Oooh Malcolm, please slow down, this is the most dangerous road in England", she would constantly warn him. My dad, who always tended to hog the middle lane, would concur, yet take no appropriate action. I never could quite work out whether he was oblivious to the fact that drivers were honking their horns and giving him a two fingered salute, or he simply didn't give a damn. To a child in the back seat, it was a constant source of embarrassment.
I'm guessing that the month was July or August. What sticks in my mind is, the fact that it was a total scorcher of a day, with the sun beaming through the windows and causing the back of our legs to sweat on the fake leather seats of our cars interior. By the time we reached the flat lands of East Anglia, we were all crying out for a break, and what better way to divide the journey than to go strawberry picking, right? Or maybe not as the case may be.
We passed field after field of strawberries, each farmer displaying their own hand written sign, inviting us to come and help them pick their juicy delights for a reasonable sum of cash. I recall that we drove past an awful lot of signs whilst looking for the cheapest option before we eventually made the decision to stop. To say that my mum was a tad frugal (god love her), is a vast extension of the truth. We're talking about the lady that found great pleasure in taking a pair of scissors to the supermarket so that that she could relieve the supermarket magazine of all the 10 percent off coupons at the back. The next 10 people to pick up the magazines after my mum had been at them, must have been rather disgruntled when they got to the back pages, only to find that the discount vouchers had been liberated by the hasty scissors of my dear mother. Her frugality was a theme that we learnt to live with in the Mitton household.
We knocked on the farmhouse door and once the painful experience of parting with the cash was out of the way (I seem to recall the figure of £2 - although even in 1977 this seems a paltry amount for 4 peoples pickings), we were directed to the field. It was here that my mum called a house meeting and gave us strict instructions to eat as many strawberries as we possibly could as we walked around the fields. To an 8 year old child this was an invitation that did not have to be repeated. And then we were off, like 4 lunatics, eating our way through the fields, merrily making jokes about what a fantastic deal we were getting. My mum swelling with pride, as I shovelled handful after handful of strawberries into my mouth. Considering our baskets were only half full, the fields behind us were looking awfully bare. By the time, we had filled our baskets we must have eaten half of our body weight in strawberries and none of us were feeling too great.
The remaining journey to Great Yarmouth, can only be described as hell. You see, the Mittons are a family of farters. The speed that we had consumed the strawberries, in combinbation with the amount that we had consumed, came together and resulted in one almighty volatile anal reaction. And boy! did these farts smell. My dad being the main perpetrator of these crimes of the anus, decided that he would give the farts their own label. With each new expulsion of gas, he would proudly warn us by calling out "Here comes another strawberry flavoured poo poo", before raising his arse cheeks and firing his latest creation. The direction which his poots were fired, depended on which of us showed most disgust at his latest battle cry.
Much worse was to come. We arrived in Great Yarmouth without a place to lay our weary heads. I have no idea why, but our family had decided that we would not pre book a hotel this year. I can imagine my dad's voice "No, no, Kathleen, we don't need to pre book anything. There'll be loads of hotels with vacancies". How wrong he could be! After a few hours driving up and down Great Yarmouth sea front, knocking on the door of every guest house in the whole town, we finally gave up.
"We'll have to sleep in the car", my dad conceded.
Despite the fact that the car smelled like one giant toilet, these words were music to the ears of an 8 year old child. To whom, it all sounded very exciting.
Blocking the windows, the best you can, to block out the outside world, is all good and well if the car has not already been contaminated by your own father's strawberry flavoured poo poos. Otherwise, this action makes a bad situation that little bit worse. My mum's plea's to my dad to curb his fruit flavoured bottom burps, fell on deaf ears. Sleep was almost upon us, when he almost killed us with the worst smelling fart in his (arse)nal. To this day I don't think I have witnessed so putrid an odour. My poor mum was totally disabled by his latest release of gas, causing her to projectile vomit all over the car. My sister and I, could take no more and filled the car with our own particular nastyness. Which in turn, set my dad off.
Before we could say "Open the windows", the interior of the car was filled with the vile smell of second hand strawberries, ejaculated from either my dad's arsehole or the whole families intestines. (Years later, Stephen King would write his own similar tale - the Body/Stand by Me).
Even after cleaning out the car, the best we could. The car still smelt like a strawberry compost heap, and we had the added hinderance of having to sleep with the windows open. Needless to say, there was very little sleep that night because not only were we sick, but also consumed with hypothermia.
The next day, my dad made a telephone call to Butlins in Skegness, less than 50 miles away. A subdued Mitton family, surrounded the phone box, anxiously awaiting my dad's reaction, as he asked the question "Have you got any vacancies"? The positive response was met by a round of spontaneous applause.
And so, our summer holidays in the summer of 1977 were spent at Butlins afterall and it was here that I learnt of Elvis's death. The summer of 1977, it would seem was to spell the death of many things. My trust of my father's arsehole, my love of strawberries and my desire to sleep in a car, to name but three.