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Wish you were here?

The saucy seaside postcard is part of British culture - but do naturists get a bum deal, asks Paul Rouse?

Of all the hundredth anniversaries marked in 2014 - from the start of the First World War and the film debut of Charlie Chaplin to the births of Alec Guinness and Dylan Thomas - one centenary possibly went by largely unnoticed: the introduction of the naughty British seaside postcard.

Note the ‘naughty’ reference. Sending postcards from the seaside had been a tradition since late Victorian times, but they had invariably depicted local landmarks, sea views, cute animals or, at most, a bathing beauty showing a well-turned ankle. It wasn’t until 1914 that the most famous exponent of the art, Donald McGill, began to add a more risqué element, with the occasional suggestive comment from a would-be suitor to a pretty girl, or a wry remark aimed at a Scotsman in a kilt.

McGill himself had actually begun producing arty postcards a decade earlier, but as the halcyon summer of that year turned into the growing horror that was to become ‘the war to end all wars,’ he started what was initially almost a one-man campaign to produce something that would put a smile on the faces of the troops at the front, with increasingly-saucier designs and nearer-the-knuckle humour.

And so began an industry that would gather huge momentum throughout the 1920s and 1930s, in line with that of the British seaside holiday industry itself. Whilst scenic cards continued to maintain their own popularity, at its zenith, the saucy postcard industry alone counted for sales of some 16 million a year, and McGill even merited the attention of the most noted social commentator of the day, George Orwell, in a lengthy essay. Following a decline in the 1940s (when another war got in the way of most people’s holiday plans) and the 1950s (under a particularly prudish Conservative government, which even tried to bring obscenity charges against McGill) there was a revival in the more liberal 1960s and 1970s when sales soared again.

But by the 1980s, with public attitudes changing, the artwork deteriorating and the humour flagging - in line with the exhausted bridegrooms featured in the many honeymoon bedroom scenes - the genre had well and truly had its day. Despite the occasional attempt to bring it into the modern age by reproducing some of the classic designs on T-shirts or mousemats, the saucy postcard now remains little more than a collector’s item for nostalgic enthusiasts and a distant memory of holidays gone by.

Four years ago however, McGill's grandson opened the Donald McGill Postcard Museum in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight, and after relocation and extensive remodelling, the museum re-opened this summer, bigger and better, in time for the centenary celebrations. So perhaps a revival is, if you’ll pardon the pun, on the cards?

Themes

A very British thing (naughty postcards from France or exotic destinations further afield tended to feature actual naked women rather than cartoon versions), it’s probably fair to say that many readers - if only as sniggering teenagers or inquisitive kids not entirely sure what the adults were smirking at - will certainly recall many of the lurid designs and double (or should that be single?) entendre jokes that epitomised the genre.

Most featured not only stock comic figures such as busty young women, fat old ladies, drunken men, hen-pecked husbands, leering lotharios, stupid policemen, shy vicars and the aforementioned honeymoon couples, but also stock-in-trade locations - the pub, the beach, the bedroom and, inevitably as time progressed, the naturist camp.

And along with Carry On Camping, it could be argued that to this day, the seaside postcard is mainly responsible for most British people’s perception of naturism - especially given that the large majority won’t have actually experienced it for themselves, or taken the trouble to differentiate between the truth and the cliché.

For a start there’s the vocabulary. Naturists were almost invariably nudists. Nudist camps were as often as not nudist colonies. And years before Clover Spa, the seaside postcard industry appeared to have invented the nudist hotel, where even the waiters went around with nothing on. Then there were the ‘amusing’ names of these places: Breezibums, Chillibodies, Barebuds and the like. Not to mention Snogmoor, a clear indication of what obviously went on in these dens of iniquity.

As the stock characters became even more caricaturised - the blondes bustier and dumber, the younger men more lecherous, the older men more pervy, the older women fatter and more disapproving - so the ‘jokes’ became even more predictable, cruder and unsubtle, the majority involving variations on the theme of erections (involuntary and otherwise), or mistaking the male member for something else and then (over)reacting accordingly. Hilarious, what?

In fairness to Donald McGill, who actually died in 1962, most of the postcards from this later era were produced not by him but by others who followed in his wake - companies or individual artists such as Bamforth, Pedro and Brook Richter being among the most recognisable names.

Harmless fun? Perhaps. But if naturism in the UK is still, in the eyes of many, stuck in a volleyball-playing time-warp somewhere around the Suez Crisis, or its proponents are all leering lounge lizards, pneumatic nymphomaniacs, obese shrews or sex-starved inadequates with bristling moustaches, you know who to blame, don’t you?


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