Issue 16 The Sea Winter 2004/05
The Sunset Coast
A grassy embankment flanks the length of the broad promenade between Heysham village and Morecambe—a remote, struggling resort on the northernmost coast of Lancashire, in the northwest of England. Crossed with an undulating maze of narrow paths, the steep escarpment falls away from a walled parade of neat suburban villas. Today, the grass on the bank is long and unkempt; and along the promenade—with its spectacular view across Morecambe bay towards Arnside and the Cumbrian hills—the old, ornate iron balustrade has been patched together with sheets of wire meshing.
Postcards from the 1920s and 1930s, however, show a very different scene. All those years ago, the grassy bank and its maze of little paths were a popular seaside attraction in their own right. They were called Sunny Slopes, with benches, gardens, and a boating pond. At the Morecambe end stood the imposing bulk of the Grosvenor Hotel—a rust-colored edifice of late-Victorian (1898), haute bourgeois architecture. With the vast bay windows of its salons and breakfast room—crimson-papered, palm-lined, with heavily framed photographs of the King—overlooking the sea, the Grosvenor represented the last summer of 19th-century English imperialism.
Morecambe’s Grosvenor hotel was demolished in 2002, despite many attempts to have the building preserved. But still, when you walk this promenade today, recreating in your imagination how it would have appeared a century ago, the defining sense is that of formality and grandeur, of a rigid code informing every aspect of the scene. This would have been a social landscape, above all, richly eloquent of the minute gradations of the English class system. And thus hotel, promenade, and boating pool would all have held their place within the broader pattern of the seaside resort.
Two great piers (one swept out to sea in a storm, the other burned down) were the focal point of Morecambe proper, with the Winter Gardens and the Alhambra theater completing the grid of their exuberance. Then the high terrace of smaller “family” hotels, for the less well-off; and the oyster restaurants, and the tearooms. And lastly, at the promenade’s furthest end—the coast road heading off around the bay towards Carnforth and the Lake District— you would find the ceremonial landscaping of Happy Mount Park, with its “Japanese garden” and beds of bright flowers, and sun- facing benches “reserved for the blind.”
With their decaying confections of fantastical architecture, rotting Art Deco, dance-hall glitterball, and ornamental balustrade, English seaside townshave become like a melancholy but intoxicating Venice of the national vernacular. In their faded grandeur abutting sea-front dereliction, accompanied by the atonal electronics of unplayed arcade games, these are the places where popular culture, from Victorian gaiety to the accelerated fantasies of Pop consumerism, have played out their imperial phases for much of the last 100 years. They make eloquent a mass of contradictions; and in their every detail you can glimpse an earlier age—the more so in those run-down resorts which bespeak Graham Greene’s pronouncement that “seediness has a very deep appeal; it seems to satisfy, temporarily, the sense of nostalgia for something lost; it seems to represent a stage further back.”
To a particular kind of cultural tourist, the seaside towns of England have always articulated an extreme form of romanticism, firstly in a literary idiom that would then be updated by Pop. From T. S. Eliot’s apostatical reference to Margate Sands, through Paul Nash’s essay “Seaside Surrealism” to the “sopping esplanade” from which W. H. Auden predicted England’s decline, the seers of British modernism set out a particular—and enduring—relationship with the ritual landscape of the English coastal holiday. In the protracted twilight of Edwardian gentility, what they found there was the quality Frank Kermode once described as “the sense of an ending.”
An intense, ritualistic romanticism is fundamental to the cultural identity of the English seaside and has been since the British modernists of the interwar years looked back on the ruins of an older order. As described by John Betjeman—the architectural historian and great poet of English suburbia and provincialism—writing about Margate during World War II, the seaside landscape had become eloquent of an earlier epoch; of an innocence and order remembered in the face of uncertainty and fear. Thus, the principal imagery of his poem “Margate, 1940” is that of sunlight, dusk and darkness:... As soft over Cliftonville, languished the light Down Harold Road, Norfolk Road, into the night.
The remembered Margate is bathed in the soft dusk tones at the end of a summer’s day, to which is compared the town during wartime; where the terrace is now “dark,” the poet’s memories are of “fairy-lit sights.” In terms of a psychological imprint, it is as though the seaside towns have absorbed generations of summer days, and that they now acknowledge that accumulated history with a kind of autumnal melancholy.
The English resorts took their place throughout the greater part of the 20th century as articulations of pleasure and repose, health and holidays. (Morecambe’s town motto, for example, later to be borrowed by the Miss Great Britain “beauty contest” which the town’s swimming stadium used to host, was, “Beauty Surrounds Health Abounds.”) The seaside architecture, amenities, and gardens were built to suggest a fantastical, exotic environment—dedicated to a carnival by the sea (however chilly) and to a world distinct from the daily routine of work and family. From the aristo cratic mansions of Brighton, to the gentility of Broadstairs or Worthing, to the working-class exuberance of Blackpool, the seaside resorts of England were concerned with both social codes and displays of exotica. In Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom, for example, with its extravagant rococo interior, a fantasy of the Neapolitan riviera is painted on the backdrop of the stage; while running across the proscenium arch, a line from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis completes the sense of romance: “Bid me discourse, I will enchant thine ear.”
In the historically “working-class” northern English resorts such as Blackpool or Southport, the extravagance of the architecture is, if anything, more pronounced than in regal Brighton or genteel Weston-super-Mare. In Blackpool, where the mill and factory workers of Lancashire, Yorkshire, Glasgow, and the Midlands would take their yearly holidays (thus leaving their home towns more or less deserted, as the workplaces closed down for a week), the circus at the Blackpool Tower was advertised at its opening in 1894 as “a palace of pleasure in itself.” Similarly, the gaudy and often brash (tasteless, even) amusements along Blackpool’s promenade earned its frontage the title “The Golden Mile.” To this day, the holiday season ends each year with the famous “Illuminations”—two miles of electric light displays, running almost from Saint Annes to Fleetwood.
As with Nigel Henderson’s photographs of London’s East End in the 1940s, Alfred Gregory’s intoxicating photographs of Blackpool in the 1960s seem to enter the very consciousness of their subject. In terms of a broader cultural history, Gregory’s images describe the impact of mass media and mass consumerism on the English seaside town; how the first generations of the Pop age enjoyed (or endured) a heady conflation of traditional amusements (the piers, donkey rides, ice cream, side shows) and the new populism of rock and roll, television variety shows, and burgeoning permissiveness. Seen now, of course, these photographs of girls wearing novelty cowboy hats and boys with quiffs strolling down wet side streets past lurid doorways to strip clubs, fortune tellers, and steam-filled cafés have all the romantic appeal of a lost English glamour—the terrain of a social- realist film from the early 1960s, as it might be reclaimed in a song by Morrissey.
A little further south from Heysham village, the coastal flatlands known as Middleton Sands still house the ruins of the old Pontins holiday camp—its ranks of derelict guest chalets grouped around a main building that was designed to resemble, and included original fittings from, an ocean liner. With the slogan “Cruising on Dry Land,” this Pontins camp was typical of its era—the post-war, early Pop epoch of British holiday camps, the dawn of bottled colas, teenagers, and the Twist.
Visited now, the place has all the bewitching, elegiac charm of any Gothic ruin; the paint is peeling on the dry-docked liner with its scarlet-and-black funnels; the BMX cycle track is cracked with weeds. What remains is a ghost of the first Pop age and the golden years of the coastal holiday camps. Prior to their decline in the face of cheap holidays to Spain and Majorca, these camps were encoded with an erotic Pop glamour of dance crazes, novelty competitions, and glittering red guitars, cutting across an England of National Service and meat teas.
This is the landscape that we see in a film such as The Leather Boys (1963), depicting the ill-fated honeymoon of Reg (a biker with his heart in the right place) and Dot, his teenage bride—played by Rita Tushingham. Typical of its genre, The Leather Boys now takes its place as a classic example of the British social-realist cinema known as “kitchen sink” drama—a label reflecting the concentration of such films on primarily working-class, frequently dour and industrial settings. Within these films, Rita Tushingham—best known for her performance as an unmarried teenage mother in A Taste of Honey (1961)—comes across as the embodiment of dreamy, teenage angst.
In The Leather Boys, she plays the role of a young woman whose premature marriage has curdled her youth—the declines of her hopes being framed in the setting of a damp seaside resort. Like Sir Laurence Olivier’s performance as a fading vaudeville comedian in the film version of John Osbourne’s misanthropic seaside drama The Entertainer, the gradual dereliction of happiness in The Leather Boys becomes almost too in love with its own sense of hopelessness. With regard to the identity of the English seaside resorts, however, these films exemplify their relationship to a sense of requiem and elegy.
As the seaside towns developed in step with the history of popular culture, so in their dance halls, winter gardens, and ballrooms you can feel Pop’s ghosts around you—even as the seaside’s first duty to commerce requires that it be busy with the latest pop craze. Morrissey’s epic hymn to the melancholy of the English seaside, “Every Day Is Like Sunday,” was both a celebration and a lament. David Bowie’s appearance as Pierrot, walking down the beach at Hastings in his video for “Ashes to Ashes” was like a prose poem on the whole abstraction of remembered youth.
When the Rolling Stones played at Morecambe’s Floral Hall in the autumn of 1964, the group was just approaching the zenith of their stroppy Mod cool—prior to the beginnings of their acid dandyism. Speaking with local people who went to such concerts—seeing Brian Jones on the promenade, Andrew Loog Oldham looking unapproachable to one side—what emerges is the recollection of Britain’s first Pop landscape, in which the seaside venues, holiday camps, and fun fairs were a vital feature.
As seaside gentility has remained in our consciousness of England’s resorts, so too have the slick, vulgar, exuberant, and sexy manifestations of Pop. Out of this conflation—the imprint of Pop’s innocence and the faded grandeur of Edwardian formality—the seaside towns of England now own the potency of their current identities. And hence their increasing popularity and increasing gentrification in the south of England as homes of choice for the formerly urban young middle classes.
In the lobby of the 21st century, the state and status of England’s coastal towns have become a persuasive statement about the greater changes in not just British society, but a deeper, allegorical, sense of ourselves. For more than any other aspect of the English landscape, these seaside towns have come to represent an intense, endlessly renewing contract with nostalgia. It is rather as though their original purpose—for holidays, retirement, and convalescence—has been subsumed by the heady way in which they seem to describe their past within their present.
Michael Bracewell is the author of six novels and two works of non-fiction, including a survey of Englishness in popular culture, England Is Mine: Pop Life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie.
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© 2005 Cabinet Magazine