A stranger in paradise can easily miss its beauty

The subject of complaint matters less than the general tone of weary disgruntlement
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WE SEE them coming. In their estate car, Mum and Dad, a couple of bored children in the back, taking a traditional East Anglian holiday. They've caught crabs at Walberswick, done the son et lumiere at Blickling, poked around a few churches and now they're going to look for the Great Raft Spider at Redgrave Fen. They might stop outside the house and ask if it's for sale, as if acquiring a bit of property is as much part of the holiday as buying ice-cream for the kids. Then they go home to complain.

The eminent political journalist and biographer Simon Heffer seems to have had a particularly beastly time this year, to judge by his disgruntled holiday diary, once an August favourite in The Spectator and now, poignantly, appearing in the New Statesman.

He had been coming to Norfolk with Mrs Heffer since the 1980s. This year, on holiday with their two tiny sons, he had found vulgarity and decay at every turn. "Nasty signs designate every rural slum as a `historic market town'." Where once there had been empty beaches, there were "ready- made tourist attractions for the brain-dead". The young male children sported "the sort of haircuts favoured by US marine corps". Subsidy-fat farmers now had great combine harvesters rather than the charming ancient machines of old. In ghastly theme-parks, there had been grumpy staff, rubber dinosaurs and steam engines that didn't run on time.

As it happens, a small steam engine runs by the old course of the Waveney, 200 yards from where I am sitting now. It occurs to me that perhaps among its passengers earlier in the month, there sat a grumpy London journalist with his family. If I had known, I might have found a use for the surfeit of Victoria plums we've had this year to give the great man another item for his diary. "Mad locals pelt rotten fruit at passing steam trains."

Of course, one shouldn't take this sort of nonsense too seriously. In the world of the metropolitan diarist, where the subject of complaint matters less than the general tone of weary disgruntlement, the litany of moans could just as easily have included excessively efficient theme parks, the appalling privations suffered by farmers, and the long hair worn by the younger generation.

"I fear we may have to think about going elsewhere", promises Mr Heffer, and I would suggest that next year he goes to the West Country, where vulgarly picturesque scenes abound, theme-parks have decent dinosaurs and trains that run on time, and rural slums have been abolished.

One of the joys of East Anglia is that, with its beauty and variety, there's a sense of windblown melancholy, a mood captured beautifully by WG Sebald in his account of a walk down the Suffolk coast, The Rings of Saturn. "The east stands for lost causes," he writes, contemplating the lost city of Dunwich and the centuries in which the works and aspirations of man have been eaten away by the North Sea.

Perhaps it is this which makes this part of the country a holiday destination for the more discriminating. Whatever you might read in the New Statesman, the northern shoreline of Norfolk, for example, is not thronged with the brain- dead. Here are middle-aged couples with floppy hats, binoculars and neat white socks - people so polite that, even when calling the dog, they remember to say "Please". Families sit on shingle beaches in contented boredom, staring out over the grey sea, throwing stones. In pubs, teenagers who have been coming here for years with their parents gather to gossip and flirt, chattering like swallows on telegraph wires, preparing to fly south.

For fear of mixing with the brain-dead and their offspring, the Heffers probably avoided Cromer, where this year the end-of-the-pier show is gloriously celebrating its 21st anniversary. Hosted by a double act superior to Morecambe and Wise, the Seaside Special '98 has a fine traditional line-up - a rubber- faced young comedian, a square-jawed crooner, a keyboards-and-drum combo bravely impersonating an orchestra, and a chorus line of four girls, spilling heartbreakingly out of their costumes, dancing and smiling, their eyes fixed with defiant optimism on some distant spot at the back of the theatre.

Laughter and sadness, summer giving way to autumn: this true East Anglian moment is caught, better than by any jaded diarist, in Sue Roe's poem "Femme at the end of the pier at Cromer" from her recently published collection The Spitfire Factory (Dale House Press). "Whelks in the sea at Cromer whelp/when the girls come on in shimmering heels/ Cromer rocks when Femme makes her curtsey/ it thunders applause from end to end/ wanting an encore, wanting more."