Just for the sauce of it

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The Independent Culture
Brian, the proprietor of a Brighton seafood restaurant ("The Freshest Fish at Affordable Prices") was in no doubt at all on the matter: "The old style, traditional English seaside holiday - bucket and spade, yeah? Dead, mate," he assured me. We were standing at the time on his not-at- all sunny forecourt, and Brian was grappling quite bravely with an outsize parasol in the teeth of the sort of loud, ferocious and buffeting wind that threatened to lift up even the red checked and heavily weighted tablecloths and whisk them over for a cheap and impromptu Awayday to France.

"In the old days," he went on, "all we got was families - same two weeks, same every summer." He broke off at this point to haul inside a propelling metal sign (extolling all the glories of not just the knickerbocker, but a glaringly Technicolor and vast array of other gooey attractions as well) before it took off vertically, and flew away for ever. "Families, yeah," he concluded, now that the two of us were safely inside, and the first fat and heavy lumps of rain scudded off the windows, before they began to stream. "Miserable buggers, the most of them. But when the weather was like this, mind, it was very good for the sales of teas. Teas and ice cream. Yeah - we moved troughs of the bleeding stuff."

No less a personage than the Chairman of the British Resorts Association, Mr Ron Cussons, broadly goes along with the sentiment here. "Oh yes," he supplies eagerly, "dead as a doornail, all that `Mum, Dad and the Kids' business. Sandcastles and guesthouses are no longer the point, and nor are those two precious weeks in August. The successful seaside resorts are all-year-round affairs. The saucy postcard era is gone for ever."

Well I'm very sorry, but the purveyor of affordable fish as well as the spokesman for our great British resorts are both quite wilfully wrong about this: all reports of the death of the traditional seaside larky jaunt are, I'm pleased to say, hyperbolic in the extreme (Brian's place was chock-full of the very people he said didn't come any more, and so - before the rain - were the beaches and pier).

True, there was a moment when the traditional hol sustained severe injury and entered a coma (some time early in the Sixties, when the awful pull of Espana had first begun to bite, and our own seaside was frequented only by mods and rockers, intent on smashing up the deckchairs and chucking them from the pier, prior to doling out something on broadly similar lines to one another). Since then, though, the hastily marshalled life-support system - that hideous litany of endless and faceless conferences held in likeminded hotels - though still a major earner and crowd puller, has come to be not quite so vital, as more traditional attractions continue to reassert themselves.

The leading resorts have awakened from their slumber, picked themselves up, dusted themselves down, and started - if not all over again, then certainly from the point at which they were so rudely interrupted: buckets and spades, donkeys and bandstands (in Eastbourne, the military band does the 1812 to fireworks, twice a week), whelks and rock, burying your old man up to his neck in the sand and gagging on candy floss - all are alive and kicking. And nor is the saucy postcard era dead either - no no, it's here to stay: Donald McGill and his many imitators are still major sellers, as are bottoms and bosoms made out of lurid pink rock, and miniature lavatory pans (just a fortnight ago, Bournemouth unveiled a three-ton statue incorporating Christopher Crabbe Creeke, the town's first sanitary engineer, sitting on a lavatory and stroking his beard). But do note the word saucy, though: saucy, really, in as far as it goes and as good as it gets - actual sex we leave to all those hot and sticky places abroad, along with a good deal else that's altogether too strenuous.

A touch of masochism, however, still seems very much on the agenda: why else would entire families struggle to erect not just deeply uncooperative deckchairs, but a furiously flapping windbreak in the midst of the sort of wind that quite clearly will never be broken? Or doggedly consume bridge rolls in which the crunch of cucumber is easily outdone by that of the layer of sand? But these days, of course, the average punter does not have to choose between a British resort and somewhere sun-kissed and exotic. He can come to the seaside for a bit (and that traditional way of getting there, the train, is still favourite, no matter what you might have heard) and maybe later in the year top up the old melanoma on some hot Riviera or other.

In Britain, though, there are resorts and resorts. "Seaside" is a very loose and all-encompassing term - particularly when applied to an island such as ours which is, by definition, surrounded by the stuff: but naturally we don't mean just any old strip of damp fringing, but all the paraphernalia that goes with it. And nor do seaside enthusiasts seem unduly stressed by all these gruesome reports about a polluted and murky sea, where all that floats need not be a Li-Lo, and whose spume and foam should be addressed with caution. Swimming - actual immersion - has not really been the point since the old, striped bathing huts were finally hauled away and sold off to interior designers, theme-pub owners and possessors of lush acres close to somewhere like Weybridge (the most unfortunate of the huts ended up in grim and inevitable Coastal Heritage Trails).

If the beach itself were the whole attraction, then in Scotland - not a part of Britain one immediately associates with the broader implications of the seaside ethos - there are plenty of fine and unspoilt stretches, but they lack not only the attendant and gaudy amenities, but also such things as lifeguards and rules about dog-walking, these days deemed essential to any resort that takes itself seriously (while Scotland's climate too may hardly be deemed a positive factor).

In Britain, one quickly becomes aware of the divide between the resorts that have more or less everything to offer, and which others are still just about somehow holding on (some whole towns are as creaky and rotten as the unrestored and ancient shoring which - touch wood - keeps their dowdy piers' heads just above water.

Seaside resorts, it is true, face a unique set of problems - the constantly peeling surfaces and crumbling infrastructures need the sort of constant investment that only the money-spinning attractions can possibly provide. Pressure is therefore on for year-round occupancy of all available hotels and guesthouses. Success stories such as Eastbourne - more than 350,000 staying visitors filling the nearly 9,000 beds (with two-and-a-quarter day trippers taking up the slack) - contrast sharply with the once great resorts that are steadily losing the battle.

In Hastings, Margate and Southend, the overabundance of hotels and guesthouses has been converted - controversially - into multiple occupation and benefit- based accommodation, the inevitably neglected buildings combining with this new strain of resident to bring the place even lower, and hence immeasurably less attractive to the dwindling band of holidaymakers.

It is all an uphill battle - but the most attractive places, I think, still manage to lend the timeless and traditional stuff with the sophistication and investment these days judged vital. Brighton is a good example - although, I suppose, they will not for a long time demolish the concrete stumps (called "hotel", "cinema" and "conference centre") that have been callously erected along the front, in all other ways it seems wonderful - and particularly attractive to Londoners, being less than an hour away. Here, of course - as in other first class resorts such as Scarborough, Eastbourne and Torquay - those damned conferences are omnipresent - but still there flourish the garish shops selling rock - rock as in ruining your teeth as opposed to your ear drums, though there's no shortage of that sort either - and all the other varieties of vulgarity that we really should treasure.

Blackpool, of course, has always been a (hugely successful) law unto itself: supremely showy and brilliant, if you like that sort of thing - and if you don't, there are always the discreet and fragrant charms of Southwold, or Frinton, which this year fought off plans to open its very first pub.

But whereas many of even the finest resorts may have failed to clean up their beaches, they have certainly cleaned up their collective act. No more are the very worst expressions of the seaside holiday - that bracing and character forming experience - the order of the day: hawk-faced guesthouse landladies with timetables and lumpy beds are no longer a byword. Nor is frankly disgusting food, endless milky tea and foamless warm and warmer beer: unless, of course, you want such things - in which case you will find them (nothing changes absolutely).

Hoteliers in the brighter resorts seem more than happy with the now established year-long season - just don't mention to any of them the "W" word. No - not the War, but the Weather: the one thing no amount of investment nor head of tourism can meddle with, and one of the chief reasons why Abroad continues to matter. But apart from last year's blip, the British summer does seem to be improving (doesn't it?) - and what, after all, is the odd spit or spot of rain to us? We're British, aren't we? Yes we are - and (along with all the good bits) we can take it.

Joseph Connolly's `Beside the Seaside' is published by Mitchell Beazley (pounds 16.99). The novel `Summer Things' is published by Faber and Faber (pounds 6.99)