Yesterday’s post (and for those of you with short memories, it was the one about weekends) anticipated some of what I’d intended for this one, especially in some of the comments it spawned. One opined that the beginnings of the six-week school summer holiday, tying-in as they did with the old agricultural calendar that required children to help with the harvest, are irrelevant now that the majority of the population don’t live and die by the rural economy and should therefore be reduced. As far as I can remember, a reduction in the traditional length of that holiday was proposed several years back and may well come to fruition eventually (or do the teachers themselves oppose it?). Not having children myself, I haven’t really paid attention.
Did yesterday’s commentator speak with the voice of someone whose own children have long since fled the nest or someone who’s never sired any? I can sympathise; we’re at the time of the year when the school gates are poised to be locked for the longest period of all. I’ll admit I find it intensely annoying when I’m out and about during the summer holiday period and you can’t get away from the brats. Paedogeddon has left them unable to roam alone out-of-the-way, so parents are obliged to entertain, whether that be clogging-up the motorways en route to a theme park or clogging-up the shops. It’s bad enough when the pavements are buggy-lanes for yummy mummies and their fleet of Mothercare tanks, but when you wander into a supermarket and every aisle is crammed with whiny little Caesars free from the smack that silenced their predecessors, compulsory sterilisation doesn’t seem so Nazi after all.
But then, put yourself back in your pre-pubescent head and remember what you did whilst your parents were at work. You were at work yourself, albeit unpaid. In many respects, attending school is akin to being an intern for eleven or twelve years. Yawning through a religious lecture in assembly, long, tedious lessons in stuffy classrooms bored rigid, the sadistic ritual of the games lesson, dodging the bullies at break, enduring the dinners in your very own Bush-tucker Challenge, and then manoeuvring your way along the obstacle course that takes you back home in the late afternoon. After months of surviving that for five days a week, boy, have you earned the six-week summer holidays!
‘Term time was gone as if it had been wiped out. Real life was beginning again.’ This line from Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ echoes the sense that childhood’s heart doesn’t reside in the playground, and how all the best memories of it emanate from those days when we were free from school. Alice Cooper captured the euphoria of the countdown to the final bell of the term in his 1972 magnum opus and it’s worth recalling that unrestrained joy when questioning the wisdom of the six-week break from it all. The fact that time moves at a more sedate pace during childhood also means that six weeks can often seem more like six months, making the September return to the educational grindstone a child’s extended equivalent of that Monday morning feeling.
Before strict rules were imposed and parents were criminalised for taking their child on holiday during term time, most of the family vacations I recall rarely took place during the six weeks of summer. I always thought that was a good arrangement. The annual holiday happening in the midst of the summer break somehow seemed to shorten it and make me feel as if I’d been robbed of a fortnight. I preferred being at home in the six weeks because everyone was doing their own thing; on holiday, we were forced into doing everything together and the usually miserable experience made me realise that the best way for families to function is to minimise any prolonged time they have to spend in each other’s company. The six weeks should be spent with friends, doing what you want to do when you want to do it. It’s the only window to a world in which you dictate your own day that a child has.
Of course, there are many totems of this period that are now long-gone and to evoke them as somehow being perennials wouldn’t reflect whatever the experience for children today is. The notion of a special sequence of appointment television programmes on BBC1 specifically aimed at the holidaying audience, whether they be dubbed foreign serials (the final episode of which always seemed to air the day you went back to school), repeats of ‘Jackanory’ or that series of ‘Scooby Doo’ with guest-stars on it, are irrelevant in an age in which entire channels aimed at children are transmitting hour-upon-hour, every day, all year round. Similarly, if mum also works, being left in the capable hands of a trusted and responsible neighbour is probably impossible now unless said neighbour has been vetted by social services and has undergone a CRB check. And, naturally, the freedom to replicate the exploratory independence as seen in the pages of Arthur Ransome or Enid Blyton is a no-go today, what with the child-catcher lurking in every bush and behind every tree.
It strikes me that in discussing the subject of the six-week school summer holidays I’m understandably falling back on my own personal experience of it and remembering it as it was 35-40 years ago. Never having relived it through children of my own, I’m rather out-of-touch. I should imagine, however, that having to monitor and chaperone a child for a couple of weeks short of two months is a strain for both the guardian and the guarded. Perhaps the limitations placed upon what were once given freedoms means the parent never has time-off from that particular role and the child is as supervised and restricted as they are when at school. If that is indeed the case, perhaps its removal would be no great loss to the child after all. What a shame.