My family and I visited Robin Hood’s Bay and Whitby today – both favourite haunts of long standing – to celebrate my son’s birthday. While we were having lunch in The Dolphin, an ancient fishermen’s pub in Robin Hood’s Bay, the array of real beer bottles decorating the bar triggered reminiscences of staff trips to the East Coast when I first started bookselling. (There was also an association here with Beryl Bainbridge’s Booker-shortlisted, Guardian Fiction Prize-winning novel, The Bottle Factory Outing.)
I was bemused when I first learnt of the annual ritual of the staff trip. It seemed to me to belong to the period of charabancs and bathing huts – and to be about as outdated. Every year, our small library supply company would close for one day in June or early July, and the whole staff, of about thirty-five people, would climb on to a specially-hired coach.
My first staff trip was to Scarborough; later ones focused on walled cities – Chester, Lincoln, York, Durham – and the last of all, some fourteen years after the first, was to the Beamish Museum. Scarborough was the most popular destination; we went there at least four times. The company paid for the coach, a stop for coffee en route and a slap-up lunch in a hotel. Everyone was then free to spend the afternoon as she or he chose before piling back on to the coach in the early evening. The venues for coffee and lunch were chosen by the boss, a redoubtable connoisseur of hostelries across the country. He didn’t travel on the coach with the rest of us, but followed close behind in his latest Jaguar (except for the year that he was persuaded to leave the car behind, when somehow we managed to abandon him at a motorway service station; he was not amused!). Each trip brought its own adventure. That first far-off time in Scarborough featured the stock clerk, lying prone, very much the worse for wear, on the floor of the lunch hotel, while the boss prodded him with his umbrella and shouted, Captain Mainwaring-style: ‘Get up, you stupid boy!’
To be honest, I thought that these staff trips were paternalistic and more than a little condescending. When eventually I became managing director, I abolished them and gave everyone an extra day’s holiday instead. I was surprised and somewhat humbled when the following year I received a small delegation of fellow employees imploring me to reinstate the annual expedition. I did as they asked, but I didn’t claw back the additional day’s holiday, allowing them to keep it as well. I shall never know whether the outing satisfied some primeval need for a bonding ritual or whether this outcome was just an instance of canny Yorkshire folk managing to have their cake and eat it.