Going backwards to Bournemouth

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The Independent Culture
WHEN MY grandfather was well into his nineties, he conceived the desire to visit the house where he was born. So we got in the car, drove up to Southport, and found ourselves a hateful little bed-and-breakfast joint, run by a joke landlady (hairdo like a madman's doodle, mark-of- Zorro scarlet lipstick at 45 degrees to her own actual personal mouth) and filled with scary furniture, brushed nylon sheets, and mad minatory notices about running baths and flushing toilets and not touching the piano, thank you very much and oblige.

In the evening we went for a walk along the beach so that he could remember being a boy, and then next morning we drove to Upholland and found the big house where he had been born, up on the hill behind its hedges and mad rhododendrons. It belonged to a bank now. Executives were sent there to go on courses, and they wouldn't let us in.

- I've seen it, though, my grandfather said.

The other day I decided I wanted to see Bournemouth again. We used to go there when I was little. It seemed silly, wanting to see it without an excuse. What do you say? I was happy there and I want to have a look at it again and enjoy remembering it? No. You can do that if you're an old man, a valetudinarian, but not if you are vigorous, with responsibilities and diversions and a life.

I spent a long time trying to come up with a pretext and then though, to hell with it, I am silly so why can't I be silly, and got on a train. We ground our way through a crop of seasonal thunderstorms, then, as we passed into the New Forest, the weather turned around. We rattled through sodden vistas of yellow gorse and endless tumbled heath and deadfall; the place-names began to change - Downs and Hursts and Stones - and I fell into a trance of reminiscence.

The taxi-driver took me from the station to the Swanage Ferry and I realised that writing sometimes just doesn't work. I can give you the components but not their resonance. The great chains still rattled and shuddered as the ferry crawled hand-over-hand along them, from the bleak scrub of Studland to the Thirties seaside architecture of Sandbanks. The Haven Hotel still stood, bleached white, an illusory promise of cocktails and long cars and men called Basil with cigarette holders and long-limbed second wives. The giant ice-cream cone still guarded the door of the Haven Ferry Stores, and I remembered being stuck in the car in the ferry queue: Daddy can I have an ice-cream? Can I have a spade? Can I have a beach ball? And the antiphonal cries of No ... No ... All right then.

Odd images, dream-like as childhood memories are, crept back. The original ferry, steam- driven, with the man who worked the surprisingly small engine hovering over its hot brass and oiled pistons like a man at ease in his own dining- room; the clanging ferry gates, which so entranced me that, later, at my other grandfather's house, I played Ferryman, opening and closing his metal driveway gates so incessantly that eventually they dropped and wouldn't work properly, and I got into trouble. The advertisements were still there and the ferry bulkheads, advertisements for hotels and car dealers and Jesus; and the people using the ferry still looked the same, slightly alien, immersed in secret business, with the contained self-congratulation of people who lived here, by the sea; people who got to go on the ferry every day.

The taxi-driver took me back to Canford Cliffs and let me out on Grand Parade, now mostly overcome with estate agents. The knickerbocker-glory shop was empty, a pompous notice from some legal blowhard Sellotaped to the window; but the Newsagents and Novelty Shop was still there, a basket of beach-balls standing outside, ready for the season. I remembered expeditions there to buy my bucket and spade - multicoloured rubber - and my steam- yacht - also multicoloured rubber, with a funnel.

It must be 35 years since I was last there, but my bearings came back almost immediately. Down the road I reached the clifftop park where a green snake once lowered itself from a tree and met my eye, both of us frozen with alarm. The path down through the wooded cliffs to the beach still smelt of pine and the soft corruption of the soil; the sea-light still struck hard upon the eye as you emerged from the submarine darkness of the path into the little village of white beach-huts, and I could smell the methylated-spirit stove, the hard-boiled eggs, Ambre Solaire and hot child's skin; I could feel the cotton of my little ruched yellow swimming- trunks.

There were some changes. The drain out- fall had been grated over; the toilets were no longer so mephitic; the rusting cafeteria had been converted to the Surf Lifesaving Club, as though it were a hobby, and three Surf Lifesavers stood on its roof, waiting like gods for someone to drown and be saved. And the fantastical scale of the place had gone, too, along with the mysterious Tree-Walk high and illuminated among the branches of Branksome Chine. Did it ever exist?

And there was Backwards House, where we used to stay. I would come hooting up the Chine - "Doodle oodle oodle oo" - and then invariably turn round to do the last 50 yards in reverse. "Why are you doing that?" my mother asked. I was three, living in my dreamtime; God knows what was going on in my mind, but "Going to backwards house," I replied. And Backwards House it became, where I fell in love for the first time, and for the second, and where once we were woken before dawn to see Mrs Jubb chasing her husband along the clifftops with an axe.

But Backwards House was now a Rest Home, old people put there to bleach and fade. Perhaps my little visit was secretly valetudinarian - get your goodbyes in before you need to say them - but one thing I do know: when Charon comes to ferry me across the Styx, we'll be pulled across on great chains; the other side will be yellow gorse and scrub; and I hope I have time for a vanilla cornet from the Haven Ferry Stores before I go - backwards, I hope, and hooting my little song. !