These summer interludes of untimetabled liberty were profoundly valuable. Miranda France spent days wandering around the family farm in the 70s: “Solitude was a good preparation for knowing how to sink into yourself.” Maxtone Graham describes her book as a “non-fiction Famous Five”. But it’s also a wonderfully evocative and unashamedly nostalgic account of how our childhood minds were formed: “This is really a book about how we discovered who we were.”
Lots of books have tried to capture the essence of the summer holidays. Maxtone Graham’s is the best. There are moments when the quality of her noticing allied to a deep sympathy for the men and women who lent her their younger selves achieves a rare poetry. Here she is on the horrors of the journey: “Nothing could alleviate the core problems; the dreadful suspension of the low-slung cars, the constant lurching on the winding, bumpy roads, the pervasive smell of petrol from the spare can, the stink of dog breath, the animal odour of the leather seats, the stench of old vomit from journeys past, the hard-boiled-egg-and-banana smell coming from the picnic basket, and the poor interior design, which didn’t allow enough boot space or seating space, so offspring and soft luggage were wedged into each other in the back.”
Maxtone Graham’s homogeneous Britain is scarcely recognisable today. Nor, as the author makes clear, was it free of pain and loneliness. Yet I defy anyone who lived in it not to be irresistibly transported back to their eight-year-old selves, reliving the wild, eccentric, poor-yet-rich fun of pre-internet, pre-neurotic parented childhood. This is a joyous book, one to make you smile in recognition, yearn to talk to your best pals from the time and wish to record your own memories.
Maxtone Graham is a wonderfully spry and eloquent writer. Her tragicomic history of girls’ boarding schools, Terms & Conditions, seeds directly into this book from the start, with a vivid account of the school term ending. “Last this, last that. It was as if you were about to die.” She is fascinated by the repetitiveness of British summers: going to the same place every year, always having to know the ropes, stop at the same spot. “A single unprepossessing layby could accumulate deeply sentimental associations through years of stopping for tea from a flask.”