Wish You Were Here?
By John P. Houghton.
Travis Elborough, Wish You Were Here: England on Sea, Sceptre, 2010
The imagery and icons of the seaside are scattered throughout England’s cultural scrapbook, although many belong to a bygone age that was only ever half-true. The sun was rarely as hot and the illuminations never as bright as we remember.
Visit the seaside today and you’re more likely to come across windsurfers and fancy restaurants or, at the other end of the market, pawnbrokers and asylum processing centres, than donkeys and distorting mirrors.
The postcards in the scrapbook are fading and being replaced with new images, but the stories they tell still resonate powerfully today.
Travis Elborough’s Wish You Were Here engages with the English pre-occupation with the seaside in an “attempt to consider what its story says about us and what stories in turn we’ve told ourselves about the seaside”.
Reading the book feels like a stay at an eccentrically run boarding house in the care of a whimsical proprietor. The shelves are stacked with interesting curios, and the teller of the tales is engaging and passionate about his subject, but at points the experience doesn’t quite deliver what the ads promise.
The book is organised broadly chronologically. Each chapter takes a cultural shift or historical event to explore how the notion of ‘the seaside’ was formed and gradually occupied an increasingly prominent position on the cultural landscape.
The early chapters are the most engaging. Elborough’s breezy but arch style fits perfectly the story of how the upper classes’ need for bathing salts in secluded spots to soothe their syphilitic loins, and the labouring classes’ desperation for a week of sun and air created an entirely new industry for moving people to, around and back from the seaside. An industry which in turn spawned its own fashions, artistic movements and technologies.
To the dismay of many existing residents, obscure coastal backwaters became places of economic and cultural significance. Locations for recovery and indulgence, of difference and sameness, and of virtue alongside vice. With a splattering of seamen to salt things up a bit.
Remarkably, the associations made over two centuries ago remain with us today. As Elborough puts it, “sex, inebriation, retiring from the capital and dubiously funded property: so many of the recurring leitmotifs of Brighton, and plenty of other seaside resorts in its wake, can be traced back to George’s day”.
Many of the cultural shifts of the past century also found their unique expression, and sometimes even their inception, at the seaside. The rise of the teenager and the tabloid obsession with out-of-control youths peaked with the coverage of the Mods-v-Rockers “battles”. And a remarkable number of other cultural conflicts, between conservatism and modernity in art, architecture and attitudes to gender and sexuality have been played out at the seaside, albeit often in code.
However, as the book progresses through these issues, the story become a little ragged and increasingly proceeds by way of anecdote and brief reflection. This style doesn’t give much space for a coherent story to develop.
The chapter ‘Thoroughly Moderne’, for example, starts with a discussion of the seaside’s role in early detective fashion, then skips through brief discussions of the impact of the car, changing architectural patterns and their links to political and social movements, attitudes to nudity and body shape, and changing fashions.
Elborough has a keen eye for telling details and his writing style can sustain the breezy pace, but a few too many chapters leave the reader wanting more engagement with the topics they cover. At one point in the chapter ‘Fighting on the Beaches’, Elborough rounds off a diversion into 1950s music and teenage fashion with this: “Which, finally, dear reader, brings us back to the little matter of the seaside…” An honest tactic for getting the story back on track, but one which only underlines the danger to the writer and the reader of getting disoriented by such a diversionary, flighty style.
If there is a central thesis running through the book, it’s the umbilical reliance that city-dwellers have on the seaside. As we’ve become increasingly urbanised, we’ve ‘fled’ to the seaside more and more regularly. Even though by the end of the last century many people were visiting versions of English seaside towns that had been recreated on the Costas of southern Europe.
And yet the places we flee to would not have existed without the industrial innovations in mass transportation and communications that were forged in the cities and which made it possible for masses of people to travel.
The urban dweller’s attraction to the seaside is equally torn, between the expectation of fresh air and good clean fun, and the allure of the seaside’s “seedier underbelly”, as Elborough describes it. We visit the seaside to escape the vices of the city but secretly hope to find them there too. The saucy postcards and bawdy puns of Hi-de-hi both speak to this peculiarly English double-think of “the seaside as a prelapsarian realm” and as a place with a “curious kind of dissoluteness”.
The other absence in the book is Elborough himself. He involves himself only rarely in the story and even then seems reticent about doing so. In the introduction, he offers the explanation that “this was never intended to be any kind of personal story. Though I will appear from time to time”.
But this reader at least wanted more of Elborough’s own stories and reflections, not least because they throw light on the issues which he explores. His childhood determination to leave Worthing, a town “where almost everyone else has gone to die”, has of course been followed an equally powerful yearning to return, as “the salt water in my blood would inevitably draw me back, as a tripper, anyway”.
Elborough’s more personal reflections contribute to the bittersweet tone of the final chapter on the future of the English seaside, a subject not served very well by the punning title ‘End of the Pierrot’. Elborough is fairly liberal with the use of puns, and while they’re done with a knowing wink to the postcard, they won’t be every reader’s taste.
The past thirty years have been pretty brutal to many seaside towns, and some have been stigmatised in the popular media. Yet Elborough argues that their “remoteness and melancholy ruination” may prove to be their salvation as, in another twist in the relationship between the town and the seaside, people flee to them to escape gentrified and sanitised urban spaces. Visit a place like Margate, with its growing number of small art shops and venues, and one can see what Elborough means.
There are signs of cultural and economic resurgence, and a revived interest of ‘staycation holidays’ but the combined impacts of recession and spending cuts don’t suggest an easy future for any seaside town. The “tide has definitely turned”, Elborough concludes, but only time will tell in which direction.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John P. Houghton is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities. He has worked with a number of seaside towns on regeneration strategies, and has written on the subject.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 27th, 2010.