'One day an idea for a novel came out of the blue.
It happened on a seaside holiday at Bognor when we used to go down and sit on the front and watch the crowds go by.
I watched that endless stream of people and began to pick out families at random and imagine what their lives were like at home...for a moment, as they passed your seat, you saw them vividly as individuals...'
Thus begins the introduction to Persephone Books edition of The Fortnight in September by R.C.Sherriff and written by Sherriff himself in his autobiography No Leading Lady (1968). And so, off we go on our Hot Water Bottle reading excursion for January.
Robert Cedric Sherriff had travelled to Bognor for a holiday with his mother (with whom he lived and to whom he was devoted) in September 1931 where those introductory observations took place.They lived in Esher in Surrey, not far from where I grew up and Bognor was our first choice day-at-the-seaside destination. My uncle would come and collect us in his Hillman Minx and off we'd go, six of us squeezed in plus the marbled rubber buckets and spades, the thermos and the egg sandwiches.
My time at Bognor as a small child became legendary in the family for this...
No, I can't explain it either and it hasn't happened since.
However it has left me with a fond affinity for Bognor so when Mr and Mrs Stevens and Mary (20), Dick (17) and Ernie (10) set off from 22 Corunna Road in Dulwich for their annual fortnight at a boarding house in St Matthews Road Bognor I was right there with them.
For anyone who is uncertain as to the whereabouts of Bognor, my childhood postcard collection to the rescue, and thanks to my school friend Shirley who sent me this from Eastbourne in 1964. The South Coast of England, there's Bognor on the left (click to enlarge)
Everything is planned like a military operation, with lists of tasks, 'marching orders' to be completed before the Stephens family can set off for the station, and if I tell you that it takes the first 106 pages to actually get to Bognor you might think you would be yawning in advance but trust me, you won't be bored. With the details come all the little insights into the lives of each member of the family. Insights that will expand and flourish as the holiday progresses.
Mr Stevens will shed his working life, don his canvas shoes and sometimes his hiking boots and breath in the freedom..
'The man on his holidays becomes the man he might have been, the man he could have been had things worked out a little differently.'
Mrs Stevens will spend a lot of time making every one believe that she is having a good time, Mary and Dick are both approaching the age (if not there already) when they might rather holiday away from the family whilst Ernie just revels in all of it. There will be long days on the beach, suntans and beach huts and cricket and back to the boarding house for lunch, tea and dinner. slowly the holiday works its magic with its power to transform and return home with new ideas.
I always remember a holiday in Switzerland that had me coming home and deciding that we absolutely had to hang our duvets out of the window to air every morning, and maybe we'd start to hose down the pavement outside our little terraced cottage each day too. In fact the duvet thing looked mighty incongruous and no one liked finding spiders in their bed each night, and the novelty soon wore off the hosing of the pavement.
But as always when I read it was the passing mentions of the familiar that triggered all sorts of memories...
'They passed the shop with the postcards in the revolving stand that would never push round - where you bought the little folding cards that let down a zig-zag strip of pictures...'
Themes of class, opportunity, thwarted ambitions, disappointments, inner resilience and a kindly consideration of others thread through The Fortnight in September wherein not a lot beyond the ordinary seems to happen, but yet all 1930's life is here. Family bonds are strong, there will be no dissent, no arguments, no meltdowns, no tantrums...and whilst few of us might have ever been on a holiday like it, how refreshing it was to read that it might be possible.
All too soon it will be time to pack up and set off for home, but yet again R.C. Sherriff, with his dissection of every element of a holiday, pins down the feeling......
'It was good to have a home that called you : a home that made you feel unhappy when you went to sleep in a strange bed on the first night away - that lay restfully in the background of your holiday, then called you again when it was time to return.'
Robert Sherriff's most famous and highly successful play Journey's End (1928) based on his letters home from the trenches of World War One, had been followed by a comparative failure, Badger's Green (1930) and would be followed by another, Windfall (1933).
With his confidence at an all-time low he had no pretensions that The Fortnight in September would ever be published and indeed he sent it to Victor Gollancz with profuse apologies and a sense of real embarrassment...
'...it seemed like offering a fruit drop to a lion.'
Imagine his surprise at the reply...
'This is delightful...I will gladly publish it..I wouldn't alter a word.'
And so it was. The first edition of 10,000 copies sold out within a week, 20,000 in a month and worldwide success would follow.
Robert Sherriff would eventually move into script-writing for Alexander Korda and I now discover (thank you Oxford DNB) that it is R.C.Sherriff I have to thank for The Dambusters, one of my favourite wartime films and also Goodbye Mr Chips .
J.C. Trewin, writing that entry for the Oxford DNB suggests that Robert Sherriff had an 'unfailing ear for dialogue' and, on reflection, perhaps it is the dialogue, along with the attention to extraneous detail, that made The Fortnight in September such a resonant and enjoyable read. I can remember the detail as if I had watched this on a screen, and like all good books I found myself writing a future for Family Stephens beyond the final page. Times are a-changing, the slow demise and disrepair of the boarding house perhaps an unwitting indication of upheavals to come. Who could have known that another war was looming and that all three children would have been of an age to serve.
So a really lovely book to curl up with in January, hot water bottle alongside and think about holidays past, memories galore and summers to come, and meanwhile I doubt I will ever forget this piece of sage reassurance from R.C.Sherriff..
'Clapham Junction is perfectly all right if you keep your head.'
If you have read The Fortnight in September I would love to know your thoughts...and did anyone else scrub the steps at Bognor (or similar) or was it just me...