Camp life

Photography - Alan Sillitoe on why, as an alternative to Borstal, Butlin's wasn't all that bad

Butlin's was a magical name when I was a kid, though in a somewhat negative sense. Many people may hope to get away from their environment, but all the getting away I heard of was when someone was taken off to approved school, Borstal or prison. The only postcard I received from the seaside came from a cousin who was taken to Dovercourt for a week with his approved school.

My first look at the sea was when my mother wangled me a place at a camp for poor boys in Skegness. We didn't live in tents, as I had hoped, but in a huge Edwardian house. We were well looked after, and taken to the typical Thirties treats, but I didn't regard myself as poor (although we were) and only wanted to get back home.

One heard of Butlin's, of course. If you were unmarried and had a job at Raleigh (the local cycle factory) or Players, you could save enough to go there for a week or a fortnight. Whoever did came back to say how marvellous it was - whether true or not - was looked on as if returning from a sort of paradise.

I had no wish to go myself, and, in any case, no one in our family could afford it. Those who had jobs wouldn't have taken their wages much beyond the local boozer. Butlin's sounded attractive, but it was unknown territory, and there was a better use for hard-earned money than to spend it on something you may not have liked.

Our True Intent Is All for Your Delight shows us what Butlin's was like in the Sixties and Seventies. Introduced by Martin Parr, this atlas-sized book contains over 100 beautiful coloured photographs by John Hinde. Whether one would like to stay a week in the conditions portrayed is one thing, but the colour and detail, the composition and perspective of each place is astonishingly pleasing and interesting.

Butlin's had little time to take off before the Second World War, but flourished afterwards, when everybody had work and not much to spend their money on in the period of austerity and rationing in Labour-run Britain. People flocked there, partly because most of the men (and a lot of the women) had lived in camps during the war, but perhaps mostly they liked the pseudo-decor of a Thirties liner, the cleanliness and the sparkling colours, and the shouted guarantees of a good time. Many must have felt safe and protected when the gates were locked at night, and hot current shot through the surrounding wire. The reactions of others would have been to bring out the wooden horse and organise the Great Escape.

Ten million people "enjoyed" a Butlin's holiday, but the demise of the business came with the advent of packaged holidays abroad. Although accommodation was provided, it was a situation with more uncertainties. People had developed socially to the extent of wanting more freedom, and the mass popularity of the holiday camp was virtually over.

These coloured photographs, deceptively plain and simple, give a good idea as to what it was like at Butlin's - certainly more than any writer could have done - and of an aspect of the English character at a particular stage of its development. It will never be the same again, and yet the ways of people's enjoyment ought never to be scorned.

"Our True Intent Is All for Your Delight" is showing at the Photographers' Gallery, Great Newport Street, London WC2 (020 7831 1772), until 18 January 2003. The book of the same title, by John Hinde, is published by Chris Boot (£24.95)

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