It was the early seventies when I embarked on the two-year working in England and hitchhiking Europe odyssey. The journey was also known as the traditional rite of passage for twenty-something-year-old Aussies. Similar to most twenty-something-year-old Aussies doing their rite of passage, I wasn’t going to London and Europe to find history, culture, and sophistication; I was going for the adventure, thrills, and naughtiness. During the last few months of having farewell drinks with the mates, I explained to them how I was going overseas to search for inspiration and idealism in the ordinary. My years as a young teenager, adolescent, and maturing adult, seemed to be made up of chaotic events and occasions that confused me. It was these confusions that were the focal point of my search for idealism in the ordinary.
One of those confusions was Dad and Granddad building a plywood teardrop camper. It wasn’t that I didn’t think they were skilled enough to throw together a camping trailer; it was that I didn’t think they understood the existential aesthetics of a Masonite teardrop camper. Some would have doubted their carpentry skills. Granddad was a tinsmith by trade, but he had a collection of woodworking tools in his backyard shed, and dad was a smooth-talking suave salesman who was everybody’s best friend and would give anything a try. They built the camper on a small trailer dad bought. I think they made the design up as they went, and it ended up as a small camper with a small door on one side, just big enough to accommodate two people in sleeping bags. It would hardly be called a camper by today’s standards; it didn’t have a rear galley kitchen with a stove to cook on, a fridge, or running water, and there was no inside cabinet storage for plates, spices or a french coffee press. And there was no insulation in the walls, floor, ceiling or door, and no reading lights.
During my preadolescence and early teens, the new camper set the stage on many holidays for the family to uncover the idealism of the teardrop Masonite camper trailer. Dad majestically towed the camper behind the Holden FB station wagon on every family holiday, and it was the showpiece of our tent and trailer campsite. Our holidays were a mashup of camping and caravanning.
The tent, stretchers, folding chairs, Li-Lo, Primus, Esky, rolls of toilet paper, a couple of torches, and all of the other camping stuff were now neatly packed in the camper instead of being crammed into the FB. And this made room in the Holden for nanna and granddad to join us on our family camping and caravanning holidays. When we arrived at a camping ground, everything came out of the camper and was set out alongside the FB until the tent went up next to the camper trailer. It was a square white canvas tent with wooden poles and ropes and a lace-up in the middle of one side that became the front of the tent. After dad attached two guy ropes to one of the corner poles, granddad raised the pole into place and held it until dad hammered in a tent peg and secured the ropes to it. While dad and granddad were putting the tent up, I busied myself assembling the hessian roll up folding camp stretchers; I sometimes struggled to get the wooden leg sections aligned and attached to the wooden stretcher frame and the springs hooked into place.
I was overjoyed when I became old enough to help dad put the tent up. I was a man at last, and doing a man’s job; emancipated from a boy’s job of wrestling with the stretchers and trying to inflate the Li-Lo. The Li-Lo is an air bed mattress. We had two green Li-Lo’s. Some might say they were buoyant, superbly comfortable, and easy to blow up. I tried blowing them up a couple of times but only managed to get them to be soft and plumpish before I was dizzy and lightheaded. I think I was breathing faster and deeper than usual, thereby causing some of the carbon dioxide that should have been staying in my body to go into the mattress. Dad suffered the same dizziness whenever he was blowing up the Li-Lo and eventually bought an accordion-style air pump made exclusively for inflating Li-Lo’s. The inflated Li-Lo’s were wrestled into the camper trailer, transforming it into an under-the-stars boudoir. The camper was nanna and granddads bedroom whenever they went with us on our family camping and caravanning holidays. My brother and I slept on the Li-Lo’s in the teardrop camper when nanna and grandad were not holidaying with us.
There were times as a young adult that I sometimes wished I’d spent more time assembling the stretchers instead of holding the tent poles. The wishing came when I spent cold, dank, Saturday afternoons with a couple of mates at the Western Oval standing on the sloped terraces in front of the grandstand, with the proud brotherhood of Footscray football followers. I was surrounded by the smell of meat pies and tomato sauce, cigarette smoke and beer, balancing on tiptoe between busted beer bottles, spilled beer and puddles of vomit, with a Four N Twenty in one hand and a beer in the other. And then a roar from the crowd would erupt. It meant a goal scored, a spekkie taken, or a player was flattened by a shirt front and now lying motionless on the ground. When a shirt front happened, runners dashed onto the oval carrying a folded canvas stretcher. After opening the stretcher, they lifted the hardly conscious player onto it and stretched him off the ground to applause from the terraces and the outer. I’d take a long drink from my beer, turn to my mates and tell them; if I’d spent longer with the camping stretchers instead of the tent poles, I’d be the one getting the applause right now.
As I matured into a young teenager, our camping caravanning holidays seemed to follow the same mundane routine. Unload the camper, put up the tent, blow up the LI-Lo’s, set up the stretchers, unfold the camping chairs, set up the Primus stove, put the wooden toilet seat and rolls of toilet paper and the torch by the tent flap, and see if the caravan park office had ice for the Esky. I found myself losing interest in wanting to uncover the idealism of the teardrop trailer. I was like our fellow campers. I stopped showing awe and wonder at dad and granddad’s Masonite teardrop camper trailer.
I learnt England was the home of caravan holidays and for those who have a love affair with caravanning when I was a teenager sitting in a darkened Hoyts theatre watching Carry On Camping. Carry On Camping hit the screens in 1969 and is the 17th release in the 31 Carry On films series. The classic Carry On comedies blend the traditions of the British music hall and the seasonal pantomime. Pratfalls, groping women, sight gags around cleavages, homophobic wisecracks, double entendres, males dressing up, smutty jokes, and slapstick routines stitch together the narrative sequences of each film. Carry On Camping follows the standard Carry On formula and is a series of vignettes laced with innuendo, double-entendres and slapstick.
Sid and Bernie are best mates and partners in a plumbing business. They keep having their amorous intentions snubbed by their chaste girlfriends Joan and Anthea. The boys suggest a camping holiday, secretly intending to take them to a nudist camp. Of course, they end up at a family campsite and meet up with the weirdest bunch of campers you can imagine. Coachloads of sex-starved teenage schoolgirls and bands of hippies all add to the laughs.
It took halfway through Sid and Bernie’s escapades for me to see past the fat people jokes, women’s knockers double entendres, and the camera peering up ladies dresses to see Carry on Camping for what it was. It was my insight into why cars towed caravans and how England became the home of happy campers. And then I knew that if I could brave it, my quest for finding inspiration and idealism in the Masonite camper trailer had to begin in the mother country. Years later, I boarded the S.S. Galileo at Port Melbournes Station Pier after spending the day consuming farewell Australia beers. The Galileo’s mooring ropes slid into the water, and I could hear the band on Station Pier playing Drunken Sailor and the sound of paper streamers breaking as the ship pulled away.
During the seven weeks of the S.S. Galileo sailing across the Southern Ocean, along the coast of Africa, and into the Mediterranean Sea, I planned out the start of my search for uncovering the idealism of the teardrop Masonite trailer in the home of the caravan holidays, and those who have a love affair with caravanning. I’d start by visiting the head office in West Suffix of The Caravan Club of Great Britain, and even though I wouldn’t have a caravan or camper, ask to be granted special permission to attend their National Rally and if I could pitch up. The rally takes place on the grounds of a stately home and can attract up to 10,000 caravanners at a time. As I planned my quest, I pictured the nights I’d spend sitting by the light of a kerosene lantern with those who live the romance of the caravan culture. I’d listen as the caravanners told their stories of yore, stopping by the side of a quiet lane, getting a farmers permission to pitch up or to park a teardrop camper.
I started my two-year working in England and hitchhiking Europe odyssey in the mother country by sharing a small room in a three-storey row house in Tooting Bec. During the long hot summer, I worked as a lifesaver at an outdoor swimming pool nestled in the corner of South London’s Brockwell Park. I spent my free time before I headed off to Europe and the hippie trail to India, enjoying the adventure, thrills, and naughtiness of London and England. I never visited the Caravan Club of Great Britain’s head office, so I never did discover the idealism of the funny little teardrop trailer towed by a FB Holden station wagon that I sometimes slept in on a family holiday.
The Caravan Club of Great Britain