THE SUZI FEAY COLUMN: White knuckled on the pleasure beach

THERE'S a blonde woman in the Blackpool Sea Life Centre wearing a Kiss-Me-Quick Hat. She's with a bronzed gent dressed all in white - that's bronzed as opposed to wind-whipped - and together they're adding a lubricious undertow to the teenage guide's glib patter. She holds out her hand and rubs the exposed snout of an affectionate ray while her companion sniggers in her ear. These two are a slightly younger version of the couples we see boosting up and down the sea-front in whacking great cars. At pavement level the old folks parade around, lagged like ambulant boilers. Why do so many of them end up in squally Blackpool? Perhaps they are forced by their offspring, who hope thereby to clip a few years off their span: "You're retiring to Blackpool, Mam and Dad!" "Oh, but we like it here in Jersey ..."

But there is something unsatisfying, something un-Blackpool about the Sea Life Centre, despite its high price. It turns out to be ... rather good. Imaginative. Stimulating, even. So it's a relief to see this chuckling couple goggling at anything penile with fins.

Our entire family upped sticks to Blackpool for a holiday when I was a child, and two incidents stick in my mind, both hemmed round with dread. There was a fruit machine in our guesthouse, into which I was one night persuaded to introduce a grudging couple of coins. To my dismay the machine began pumping out a flood of silver. I looked round nervously, afraid of being accused of some malfeasance, but on this occasion the adults' natural cupidity was in full approval. Far from inducing a love of gambling, this incident inoculated me against it. If I don't win immediately I give up. If I do win, I take it all away with me.

Then, on a wet afternoon, as I was playing hide-and-seek with my cousins, I slipped into a wardrobe which clicked shut behind me. The catch was operated by a button but no matter how much my cousins pressed it, the door would not release. The cousins soberly discussed leaving me in my Narnian predicament, as any appeal for adult help was bound to lead to accusation, however unjust, and thence swiftly to retribution. While they debated, I ramped around in a panic, rocking the wardrobe back and forth. This sufficiently impressed the cousins, but by the time everyone had been summoned from bar and snooze, I had slumped into catatonia. "Best get the fire brigade," clucked the landlady after fruitless efforts to release me. "Don't do that," shrieked an excitable aunt. "The fireman'll stove her head in with his axe." The sadistic laughter which greeted this sally caused me promptly to scream myself free. This was one of the defining horrific moments in a generally over-excited childhood.

Now, years later, this bloody image still needs to be expunged, so with my pals for the day, Nicole and Sharon, I take a bus down to the pleasure beach. (Our small sample of Blackpool bus drivers - four - reveals that while half of them are reasonably content with their lot, a quarter are shatteringly depressed, and a quarter disobliging.) "The World of Coronation Street" looks extremely promising. We all know Corrie has nothing to do with Blackpool, so this is a facsimile of a fake, the ultimate sofa-spud experience, as the promotional leaflet explains.

"You'll see a video presentation of cast-members reminiscing ... the current producer will tell you, via our video monitors ... take your place in Florrie Lindley's original shop for our video history of this fine establishment." One presumes "The Man Behind the Legend", Tony Warren, is not actually there in person to tell you about "which Salford terrace provided its inspiration", and that Kevin and Sally Webster ("listen while they put the kids to bed") are similarly pixillated. All this, plus Elsie Tanner ("...video montage..."), The Rover's Return ("...video history ..."), The Duckworths ("... Jack and Vera mysteriously appear and disappear ..." on video, perhaps?), and, best of all, "Your Star Guides for the day", Ken Barlow and Rita Sullivan "on video monitors." Cuh! It's money for old tape, isn't it!

But once we discover all rides on the pleasure beach are 50p a pop today, we are through those turnstiles. Mind you, we still manage to waste 50p on the phenomenally silly ghost mansion, scrambling about in pitch blackness on wobbly floors, watching spectral maidens with supernaturally huge busters float into view.

Now I begin to regret having scoffed at Nicole's fear of heights at Blackpool Tower. It turns out she is the world's only vertiginous speed-freak, and wants to go on all the big dippers. "Only 50 peeee! Only 50 peeee!" she wheedles. We compromise on what was probably the top white-knuckle ride of 1955, a rickety roller-coaster. Even at this low altitude I am nearly sick with fear, my nails cutting sickles of angst in each palm. Nicole still seems to think we are working our way up to "The Big One", but then I have a flashback outside "Alice in Wonderland", a ride I remember going on all those years ago. I start to think about wardrobes and have to make a dash for the River Caves, a gentle subterranean cruise which wafts you from Old Peking to Angkor Wat via the Valley of the Kings. The wardrobe is finally vanquished. Blackpool has worked its rough magic after all.

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