One of your greatest holiday reads for 2017 doesn’t have many words, and the pictures are dated, but I promise it’s a work of utter genius: enter Postcard from the Past, extracts from genuine postcards sent by British holidaymakers in the 1960s and 1970s. Yes, decades full of cramped car journeys, discovering Spanish resorts, and trying to get a tan by covering yourself in cooking oil.
Holidays were still expensive, and there was no such thing as a budget airline or a Megabus, so getting a postcard from someone’s travels must have been pretty exciting. Imagine, for a second, how you’d react when this came through their letterbox from a friend or relative: ‘I can’t explain what it’s like here. So I won’t bother.’ Hopefully the sender didn’t go on to present travel documentaries…
Postcard from the Past captures that uniquely British desire to sniff out mediocrity and awkwardness in any given situation. In the foreword, author Mark Haddon writes:
There’s a dogged refusal to be greatly impressed. Disappointment is met with a stiff upper lip and dry humour by everyone apart from the man who grew too many cucumbers.
The collection first went public as a Twitter account, where Tom Jackson drip-fed cryptic and often hilarious postcard messages, each one genuine. It gained a cult following. His success perhaps lies in tweeting a laugh-out-loud sentence or two from the message, and not the whole thing. By cherry-picking the lines, he sets up a little mystery. Talking to the BBC earlier this year, Jackson said, “If seeing the whole card was really interesting, everyone would be buying old postcards,”.
As an avid vintage photo and postcard hoarder, I can see what he means. Some people’s postcards are about as interesting as reading the phone book, until you stumble upon a throwaway comment that makes it all worthwhile (my collection includes: ‘At the moment we are at a sort of night club in Sweden. Just had tough reindeer’, ‘Met the nicest boy who is going up the Yukon’ and ‘On Sunday I got drunk! On free booze!’).
The thing is, I miss the self-deprecation that’s been lost to the pressure of ‘having it all’. We’re all trying to outdo each other with competitive country counting, and racking up nights in increasingly niche hotels. There’s not enough time to scribble on a postcard when we’re busy learning to wakeboard on a stag do, taking 1,000 selfies next to landmarks, or joining an artisanal vegan cookery course in Denmark. Having a distinctly average holiday just won’t cut it. That’s why Postcard from the Past is so fun to read – it’s full of innocent grumbling and daft observations (‘I’m sick to death of beautiful countryside’; ‘’Fortunately the gear box on the car has broken’).
Despite holidays being few and far between – in the 1960s and 70s, this might have been your only break for the entire year – some of the postcard senders are far more preoccupied with life back home: their pets, their plants, their neighbours.
Any glimpse of long-lasting fun is treated with suspicion (‘If anything it is too peaceful; one feels that there is something wrong – perhaps there is’), and some messages verge on the disturbing, which explains why broadcaster Samira Ahmed called Postcard from the Past ‘both poignant and deeply creepy’. I think she hit the nail on the head there. A few of the entries are just crying out to be opening sentences of novels: ‘Have ended up in Cornwall instead of Ibiza – it’s a long story’; ‘This is the last you will hear of me’.
The book’s postcards are often filled with innuendo, whether deliberately or not (‘The proprietor had an organ a bit like Uncle George’s’), and you wonder whether the recipient saw the funny side. The artwork may not be Donald McGill postcard standard (the king of seaside double-entendres), but the missives often are.
It’s hard to pick a favourite postcard from this book, but I think this one might sum it up best: ‘We are happily watching other people’s tents blow away.’ Now that’s what I call a holiday.