THE BRITISH SEASIDE: Holidays and Resorts in the Twentieth Century

by John K. Walton

Manchester University Press pp 216

The British Seaside

It is hard to describe quite how one’s heart sinks at the phrase “the excitements of liminality” the first time one comes across it. A book about the seaside in the 20th century promises so much in the way of narrative and fun. Of straining canvas windbreaks and dazzling water, of burying dad in the sand and forgetting to dig him up again, of accidentally trapping your arm in your deck chair.  Ah, but that’s not the real story of the British seaside, of course — or not to a distinguished professor of social history who has built a career on Blackpool. When John K. Walton went on holiday as a youth, one suspects, he sent the following postcard. “X shows location of bednights. Fifty per cent of parents aged between 22 and 29 having a good time. Bought hard sugary confection called ‘rock’! Wish you were here. P.S. Excitements liminal!”

Which is not to say The British Seaside: holidays and resorts in the 20th century is not a worthy piece of popular culture scholarship. You can tell from the index the spread of its interest, when you find Bill Bryson adjacent to Bude, Erving Goffman alongside Grange-over-Sands, Paul Theroux with Thorpeness, and Cliff Richard with Rhyl. Walton’s strategy is to present the 20th-century seaside phenomenon through a series of well-researched thematic chapters, each covering the entire period: the resort system, the visitors, transport, seaside pleasures — and so on. Among his declared aims is a refutation of the “resort product cycle”, which argues too reductively (from an industrial model) that the fate of all resorts is “saturation, pollution, stagnation and decline”. And that’s a worthy goal. Good old cycle-bucking Brighton (where I live) is currently self-styled “The Place to Be” — this clever slogan showing a sophisticated response to the fact that being “the place to go” is no longer adequate for a resort town’s continued fortunes.

But still, you can’t help missing the other stuff. So there is no candy floss in this book? No whiff of  donkey saddle, no echo of steam-organ carousel music, no piercing screams from the roller-coaster? No. In fact, stop whining or we’ll all go home. As if to bury all hope at the outset, Walton’s first chapter is a dry and lengthy presentation of comparative “bednight” statistics, the second a survey of paid holiday provision and changing resort preferences, and the third an analysis of the transfer from rail travel to car. In the course of these chapters arise many thought-provoking facts, such as the sobering statistic from a 1990s European Union report: that 35 per cent of British households could not afford a week’s holiday away from home. But the overall effect, unfortunately, is of a sand-castle made without water. The facts and figures don’t stick together! Upend the bucket, remove it . . . and ta-da! they just slither away. For instance, what to make of this passage about holiday habits in the 1930s?

“At the top of the scale, 80 per cent of men in the highest class (professional and managerial) and the twenty-five to thirty-four age-group took holidays away from home, while among women of this status the peak of 83-85 per cent carried through from sixteen to forty-four years of age. Interestingly, this figure was nearly matched by young women (aged between sixteen and twenty-four and mainly unmarried). . .” And so on.

Where the book becomes considerably more animated and narrative is in its later chapters on seaside economics and politics.  Our author finally seems to have remembered to carry a bit of water on his spade and get mixing! Why are resort towns (aside from Brighton, of course) notorious bastions of conservatism? Because of the small businesses economy, the number of retired people, the absence of ethnic groups, and the “deference” culture of insecure service jobs. Walton clearly has a story to tell in this section of the book, and even lapses into anecdote — telling the uncharacteristically amusing story that when Tony Blair learned he had captured Hove at the last general election, he said “Don’t be ridiculous. You’ll be telling me we’ve won Hastings next.”

Whether Walton ever disproves the resort product cycle, I’m not sure. But if you have visited Morecambe in the last ten years, it will come as no surprise that it has the highest number of anti-depressant drugs issued per capita in England. Sometimes the excitements of liminality are just not enough, it seems. But then, did they ever put it on the posters? Come to Skegness for the Exciting Liminality? I don’t think so.

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