Robert Duncan retraces childhood memories…

Old photo of Robert DuncanLast week I went with my family to the Isle of Wight for a couple of days. It was lovely, balmy weather, and very nostalgic. After all, this little treasure is the last bastion of the great English holiday, the place where our family would head for, for our three or four week summer holidays, from when I was a tiny little curly haired chap all the way to when I was a surly ‘too cool for all this stuff’ sort of a git. Add all those weeks together, and I’ve spent over a year of my life there. My ward Sam says that every time I start reminiscing about this seaside paradise it sounds like the Famous Five.

Post-war, faded colours that emulate those early postcards, beach huts, rubber shoes, shrimping nets, sun burned ears, ice cream sodas on sunny days, Horlicks on the miserable ones, where we sat staring out to sea, hands round warm cup, hoping the lifeboat would go out so we could watch the drama. Bembridge, for that is where we were, and all our friends year upon year, has a real landmark – the lifeboat pier. No matter what time it was, day or night, when Mummy and Daddy would wake us up, maybe at 3am, with instructions to put on our dressing gowns and assemble with all our little chums on the sea wall, because the maroons had gone up, and the lifeboat was going out. The excitement, the pride in our brave boys, and the cheer that went up when the doors were opened, light spilled out onto the waves, and the wonderful boat tore down the slipway and splashed into the angry sea.

Back home for cocoa and bed. Warm. Lovely. Falling asleep with the thoughts of swimming, shrimping, rowing or sailing our little yacht Himalaya (lug sail, clinker built) the next day. Or just sitting on the sea wall with Jenny Southwell, wishing I could summon up the courage to kiss her.

In later years we would walk up to the holiday camp and break in, using their playground deep into the night before returning to the Southwell’s beachside house for a few hands of Vingt-et-un. (Behave – that’s a card game.)

My brother, who was seven years older than me, and my hero, would dash off relentlessly to sail into the distance, organise swimming races or get a beach cricket team together, probably wondering constantly why his wheezy curly haired git of a little brother wouldn’t join in such excesses. My sister was a different story. She did (and still does) encourage me in anything I did/do. When she wasn’t off with one of numerous local lads, one of which asked my Dad if he could marry this thirteen year old, she would spend time with me, building sand castles, walking, talking, rowing and generally advising what my next move should be with the likes of Jenny Southwell and Wendy Green.

“Take her for a walk along the footpath to the harbour. Buy her a milkshake. Enter some of the regatta events…”

Aaaagh – the very thought. If there was one thing that ruined these idyllic times, and got far more dinner time chat than it deserved, it was the Beach Regatta. Organised by the formidable Joan Battersea (say it through the nose and you’ll get what she was like.) She would bark orders through the constantly attached megaphone, scaring the hell out of everybody, especially wheezy blond curly haired boys.

The dreaded days would arrive. Everybody from the village of beach huts would gather excitedly around the notice board, trying to spot what heats they were in, who they were against. Jenny against her nemesis, Linda. Mary my sister tipped for success in the swimming races. The brother entering into everything. Me rather grudgingly put in the 50 yard dash on the beach. But it all ended eventually. Prizes given. Cups and medals shown off. Small curly haired boys ignored.

And before you knew it the late August sun was dimming, the café shutters were put up, and the deckchairs were folded and stashed in the hut, along with buckets and spades, shrimping nets, strange ropes needed for sailing, and the inevitable pair of oars.

Tired but happy, we helped Dad load the Rover75 for the journey home, the boot full to the brim, us tucked in the back surrounded by picnic baskets, travelling rugs, favourite saucepans.

Bembridge was over for another year. Nothing to look forward to apart from the car ferry, and a couple of days at home before I was deposited back at some dreadful school, where I wouldn’t see this wonderful cast of the legendary seaside holiday of the fifties for at least six weeks.

Wait a minute. There’s still the photographs to look forward to. Eight black and white images, taken on my box Brownie, if I can bear to wait a week while Kodak processes them.

Hmm – I wonder if that one of Jenny Southwell will come out…