Saturday, 26 June 2010

The last resort

I’m looking forward to Travis Elborough’s new book, Wish You Were Here: England on Sea:

I wrote these reflections on the seaside resort a while ago:

In 1986 the photographer Martin Parr published a book called The Last Resort, about New Brighton, a seaside town across the Mersey from Liverpool. Parr showed working-class day trippers surrounded by concrete and litter, snacking on lethal-looking hot dogs and turning unbecoming shades of crimson. The book made Parr's name but, understandably, New Brighton wasn't best pleased.

Parr's book alighted on an eternal preoccupation of the British seaside resort: social class. As the historian Harold Perkin has shown, this was often a question of land ownership. Where one or two landlords bought up all the land, as in Southport, the resorts had genteel pretensions. Where land was sold off in bits, as happened in Blackpool, "democracy created its own Coney Island".

When New Brighton was founded in 1830, it aspired to poshness: the houses were built on one side of the road only, to give residents a fine sea view. But it was soon swamped with rough sorts from across the water and by the 1950s had three million visitors a year. Then cheap air travel arrived, the tower (taller than Blackpool's) burned down, and tidal changes swept much of the sand away.

From the 1960s onwards Britain's fading resorts became a familiar metaphor for national decline, as described in Paul Theroux's The Kingdom by the Sea (1983): "So much had withered and gone, and reckless people had done damage with their schemes . . . The British seemed to me to be people forever standing on a crumbling coast and scanning the horizon."

Since Theroux wrote these words, however, our seaside resorts have met differing fates. If they are within second-home and mini-break distance for the so-called DFLs (Down from Londoners), they have acquired restaurants presided over by television chefs, and assorted downshifters. Beach huts sell for the price of New Brighton houses.

Less fortunate resorts rely on council-led regeneration schemes. After a flirtation with a Mr Blobby theme park, Morecambe has renovated its art-deco Midland Hotel, and Blackpool is pinning its hopes on stag weekends and casinos (while also applying to be a World Heritage Site). Sea and sand are barely mentioned. But the fate of resorts seems to depend more on location and the middle-class grapevine than large-scale projects.

Since the 1980s New Brighton has had regeneration plans - for a seafront theme park and a "pleasure island" set in an artificial lagoon - which all turned out to be castles in the sand. A few years ago the government has rejected a £75m scheme after a planning report criticised the "strong feeling of nostalgia" in its visions of a lido and model boating lake.

I visited New Brighton recently on a windy Saturday and, 20 years after Parr's book, the litter has gone and there is still plenty of beach, although the view of the Mersey Tunnel ventilator shaft may be an acquired taste. The appeal of the place is that it remains the seaside of our childhoods: mini-golf courses, flower beds surrounded by railings, coin-slot telescopes and shops selling windmills on sticks. The acts at the Floral Pavilion Theatre - Chris Clayton's Viva Elvis and Sooty's Izzy Wizzy Holiday Show - could have been playing there for 40 years. But the beach is deserted. Seaside nostalgics such as myself love New Brighton - but there aren't enough of us to pay the bills.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Here is another everyday life, unrecognizable yet recognized with its swimming-pools, white lacquered telephones, antique furniture … yet there remains one insuperable superiority: the demi-gods do not live in the quotidian, whereas the common mortal, his feet glued to the ground, is overwhelmed by it, submerged and engulfed.’ – Henri Lefebvre


  1. Great memories to me. As a child the ferry to New Brighton was the very height of 'poshness' for us Liverpool folk. It had an Olympic size swimming pool too.