At night, Blackpool comes up suddenly at the end of the motorway like Las Vegas on the desert. It shimmers on the Lancashire coast the way West Berlin used to if you looked at it from the other side of the Wall, a tantalising come-on, a glittering commercial for . . . excess. There's something potent in the promiscuous use of electricity, especially in these tight-assed days of conservation.

Who cares about the real world when the night glitters with millions of lamps made possible by 120 kilometres of cable and wiring; when there are illuminations of Hollywood's Stars ('Blackpool's own Movie Channel'), glittering clocks, dogs, butterflies ('a touch of springtime in autumn'), sea-horses, lizards, designer 'brooches', diamond rings, Larry the Lamp and pound coins. There are also Postman Pat, My Little Pony, Ninja Turtles and Rocking Petals (the latter based on those plastic flower pots omnipresent in airports which gyrate to the sound of canned music). Trams ablaze with lights glitter past the displays.

The l992 illuminations cost pounds 1.84m, but as one member of the considerable tourist establishment says, it brings people from much farther away than is usual in Blackpool - 'from the A/B Class'. Even those who normally feel obliged to sneer at Blackpool sneak in for the illuminations using the kids as an excuse.

The first illuminations were installed in l912, although as far back as l879 a carnival was held to publicise the world's first electric-arc street lighting. This event featured a 'Naval Attack on Blackpool' watched by l00,000 people on the promenade. The town that got a false start as a posh resort with bowling greens soon gave up all pretence at gentrification and turned itself into a workers' paradise. When I describe Blackpool to a friend from Moscow, she sighs: 'Ah, Sochi]' The resonance of a childhood holiday spent at a seaside resort is universal. Her Sochi is my Atlantic City, the Atlantic City of the Fifties, with its boardwalks and boarding houses, its tooth-rotting salt water taffy and skating rinks.

Autumn has arrived in Blackpool, the illuminations are on, the TUC has come and gone. The Labour Party has hit town. In the Winter Gardens, groups advocating compassionate farming jostle with BT executives; in the lobby of the Imperial Hotel politicians preen at interviews; Brian Gould quits and purses his lips a lot; John Smith sings in church. For the cameras, politicians eat fish 'n' chips and jellied eel and wear funny hats; behind the scenes they decamp to the September Brasserie ('eclectic cooking') where you can get crab packets in tamarind and an excellent Caesar salad. During this year's display of politics on parade, there is a moment of silence for the late Robert Maxwell, MP, but even more surreal is that on the first day of the conference, British Rail cancels its direct link between London and Blackpool.

Before I go, most of my friends, contemptuous of Blackpool's pleasures, give me the sorrowful big goodbye, as if I've been posted to Bosnia. They've been reading too much Paul Theroux. In his The Kingdom by the Sea, he says: '. . . the buildings were not only ugly but also foolish and flimsy, the vacationers sitting under a dark sky with their shirts off, sleeping with their mouths open, emitting hog whimpers. They were waiting for the sun to shine but the forecast was rain for the next five months.' Poor, sour Paul; he writes wonderfully well but he never has any fun. When I am in Blackpool the sun shines.

You can't spend much time in England without the myth of Blackpool being imprinted on your brain, like the lettering inscribed in a stick of rock. Blackpool is as necessary to Theme Park UK as Buckingham Palace. A friend once encountered a man in Tokyo who was obsessed with what he referred to as Brackpoo. In any attempt to decode these weird British Isles, it's a thrilling candy box of iconography, a purpose-built playground where life's a beach but no one goes in the water, where the vulgarity is extravagant and the philistinism insistent - almost all of the copious and beautifully printed tourist material, in five languages, fails to promote Blackpool's real architectural glories.

Blackpool does not care much if Edwardian theatres have been replaced by shopping malls but prides itself in being an international attraction. You can get Blackpool rock with the name of the town printed in Arabic. There are hotels that cater for gays and vegetarians. Blackpool is alluring, messy, ugly, wonderful and indubitably alive and its survival is fuelled by the crap sold to 17 million visitors a year on the Golden Mile. As a result, what should be the quintessential theme park is actually less pickled than Bath or Stratford or Creamwold-under-Thatch. Blackpool has a Darwinian determination to stay alive.

I had hitched to Blackpool on a coach from Manchester with a team from Granada Television. They have made a series based in Blackpool called September Song with Russ Abbot and are going for a night out to see Abbot's show.

Heading up the M6, it occurs to me this is the way millions of mill hands and miners from Lancashire and Yorkshire have travelled, leaving two weeks' rent money on the mantel at home, knowing they would blow every penny on pleasure in Blackpool. David Richards, who directed September Song, grew up in Oldham and remembers 'Oldham Wakes'. During these annual summer migrations, entire industrial towns shut down and went to Blackpool. Whole streets reassembled in boarding houses where landladies turned everyone out of doors after breakfast. Some rented you the bath tap; others advertised 'Colour Television and Use of Cruet'.

Coming off the M55, someone suddenly says, 'There it is.' The lights on Blackpool Tower beckon and, for a minute, everyone on the bus is 10 years old.

'HAVE YOU Spotted Dick?' asks the man in the stage restaurant. Replies the waiter: 'I haven't spotted Dick this week.' Russ Abbot is in his element; the audience loves it.

At the end of North Pier in Blackpool, immaculately restored to its Victorian wrought-iron, period grandeur, there are a few games where you can win a neon yellow chicken (stuffed) in sunglasses, a huge pub with a vast television screen showing MTV clips and the theatre in which Russ Abbot is playing.

Abbot is a pro; the show has pretty girls, skits, squirt guns, toilet jokes and double entendres as old as the century. I'm not sure if this is music hall for the Nineties, a bit of jokey nostalgia, or Saturday night on ITV - the shrewd manipulation of a crowd which, one television producer assures me, 'would rather see Jeremy Beadle than Michael Jackson'. A night at a show is an essential part of the Blackpool holiday, and although there are ice shows, Las Vegas nights, musicals and even an occasional jazz fest, the entertainment is relentlessly driven by television. It is a symbiotic relationship that brings in the dough. (At Granada, once known for its drama and current affairs, the only department that has any life left is Light Entertainment.) This season, Bobby Davro is also playing at Blackpool.

Abbot's show has a few inspired bits - a Noel Coward sketch no one much laughs at and a fat man dance that has a kind of Steve Martin-ish surrealism. There is also a feckless juggler who scores points off a couple of kids from the audience he has enticed on stage as helpers; the younger boy bursts into tears, leaving the juggler perched on a unicycle wonderfully helpless.

And there is Gary Lavini, a young violinist who appears in tails and cowboy boots. Boots tapping, bow sawing, Levini struts the stage doing Fiddler on the Roof, truly a dog dancing on its hind legs - brilliant technique and not a nanogram of talent. At the end, though, he fiddles Land of Hope and Glory and the audience roars; this is the working-class version of the last night of the Proms.

'It's been a terrible season. The opera house half full, first houses often empty.' In the bar on the pier after the show, Russ Abbot in a natty tweed jacket and a cap is smoking a Havana and chatting amiably. He doesn't want to run the gauntlet of autograph hounds at Harry Ramsden's new Blackpool outpost, so we all trail off to an Italian Restaurant. Along Blackpool's late-night streets, clots of kids swollen with beer are pouring from the pubs; there is talk of muggings and crime, but Blackpool, car theft apart, is a pretty safe place so long as you don't eat too much.

Everyone does, though; excess is Blackpool's middle name; people gorge on fried grease: burgers, chips, fajitas, fish 'n' chips are sucked up at regular intervals; squalling kids get their mouths stuffed full of candy floss. There are a million pubs, including Brannigans which is on the site where Gracie Fields once sang and where there is now world-class Karaoke; Brannigans boasts it sells more beer than any establishment in England.

Il Corsaro is covered in stuff; foreign bills plastered on the ceiling along with US license plates, cowboy hats hanging over a hundred keyrings, oil paintings, wine bottles, hammered copper tables, plasterwork, watercolors. Russ Abbot eats penne and drinks white wine and, like a good comic, talks business.

At 2am, I check into the Imperial Hotel, a huge brick edifice with a view of the sea and the feel of Moscow, what with the desultory service and hideous carpets. The next night, with the seafront trams rumbling under the hotel, I am moved to the Dickens suite where there are hairs in the bathtub, an empty fridge and a half-full bottle of ginger ale in a cupboard.

When I get up the sun is blazing on the promenade and the Irish Sea. Blackpool, I subsequently learn, once resembled a South Sea island, although that was 150 million years ago.

IN THE Tower Ballroom it is 10am and a lone organist plays the Tea for Two Cha Cha. Three couples take to the floor; one consists of two middle-aged women in pleated skirts. There is also an old lady dancing on her own. Once she came with her husband, but he has died and now she comes alone, every day, to dance. The Mighty Wurlitzer, the organ made famous by Reg Dixon, with its bird whistles and glockenspiel, is used later when the crowds pack the ballroom. The motto along the ceiling reads: 'Bid me discourse and I will enchant thine ear'.

The ballroom, enclosed by the legs of the tower, is wrapped in gilt and gold leaf and painted plaster and panels, all swirls and cherubs. Period Blackpool was built with grandeur and exquisite decoration: the Winter Garden is enormous, its ballrooms stuffed with as many chandeliers as a Moscow underground station; its meeting halls are movie sets and one has an entire Spanish village on the ceiling in 3 dimensions; at night lights in the little stucco haciendas come on.

The tower itself is layered with extravagant detail: outside Dr Cocker's Aquarium, where big turtles stare gloomily from their watery pens, there are ceramic fish made of wonderful blue tiles; the seats in the circus are red plush. At Jungle Jims, a children's playground, a plaque commemorates the spot where Albert was eaten by the lion.

From the top of the tower, you can see how the town itself is laid out: the long promenade on the front, with the sea beyond; the three piers sticking out into the Irish Sea; the Pleasure Beach to the south; the grand hotels at the northern end. In the streets just behind the promenade and the Golden Mile opposite it are 3,000 guest houses and private hotels, and behind them is an almost endless network of little brick houses, a depressing industrial backbone to the fringe of glamour and light.

In the layout of Blackpool you can read its social stratification. The well-to-do live beyond the mean streets, where the green fields begin to show, or to the south in towns such as St Annes. The richest people in town own the slot machines. Boarding house proprietors make up an odd class of their own; most have been in Blackpool for decades; many are former miners or retired couples. They are the true believers.

'There is a buzz in Blackpool,' says Gillian Percival, the proprietor of the Strathmore Guest House. A fit blonde, she sits in her impeccable dining room where the tables are crisp with peach linen and lace and the walls are lined with commemorative plates her clients bring back year after year.

At the Strathmore, there are 14 spotless rooms; pounds l6 buys one for a night, as well as breakfast and what Gillian insists on calling dinner because she wants no truck with fast food. She has been here more than 20 years. Have things changed? 'The kids are allowed to leave table when they want,' she says. 'Dinner's no more a family thing.'

She is an avid publicist, still. 'After all,' she says 'you can have three nights in Blackpool for what it would cost you to spend a night in London to see Chris de Burgh.'

JANE SEDDON, a mainstay of the Blackpool tourist establishment, is my native guide to the wilder shores of Blackpool. In mid-afternoon we hit the Golden Mile. She makes her way easily through the throbbing crowd, but then although she arrived when she was six weeks old, she almost passes as a native Blackpool aristocrat, otherwise known as a 'Sandgrown 'un'.

Jane provides the following information about Blackpool: in a city of l50,000 more than a quarter of the population works in the tourist trade; more still depend on the trickle down from it. 'All those BMWs only get sold if a season is good,' Jane says. You can judge the success of a Blackpool season by the places locals go for their holidays - the Seychelles in good times, Spain in bad.

This is also a company town. Bernard Delfont's First Leisure Corporation owns all three piers, the Winter Gardens, the tower, various hotels; Lord Delfont's nephew, Michael Grade, is a non-executive director. As we head towards Louis Tussaud's Waxworks, Jane notes that, being fanatically royalist, Tussaud's has already removed Fergie.

Every fairground loves a freak. At Louis Tussaud's, for instance, an entire section is devoted to disease. There are miniature lepers, the genitalia of a hermaphrodite and the innards of the world's only pregnant male - all of it perfectly detailed. A friend who went to Blackpool as a child in the Forties recalls his obsession with the waxworks because of a glass bottle containing 'the Member of a Confirmed Onanist'.

Ripley's Believe It Or Not is advertised with a picture of a black man, his mouth impossibly distended by what appear to be two tennis balls and a golf ball. But then Blackpool's first amusement establishment was called Uncle Tom's Cabin and there is a ride at the Pleasure Beach that takes you to a native encampment complete with straw huts and chocolate-coloured life-size figurines holding spears.

The legacy of the Victorians at play is invested in the 'educational' activities in Blackpool. In the Tower itself is 'The Dawn of Time', a cave ride where, as you bump through the dark, the history of the world is revealed in backlighted tableaux: the Dinosaur period smells like the Body Shop, and early man, having discovered fire and cooking, smells like breakfast. There is the zoo. There is Sea Life, a 'green' aquarium where you can learn the environmental problems of sharks from Rolf Williams, who calls himself 'a shark freak'.

The Golden Mile: 42 discos; 394 machines that eat your money but never deliver the stuffed bunny; 3,241 stalls selling candy, pirated video tapes, joke turds made of plastic, Christmas ornaments, cotton candy, seafood in tiny styrofoam cups. The sidewalk is packed; the pleasure of Blackpool for this heaving holiday mob is in stuffing its face and spending its money, in jamming up against each other, shouting and shoving like bumper cars at a fair ground.

BLACKPOOL's fairground is the Pleasure Beach. With its antique rides - Sir Hiram Maxim's Flying Machine packed them in in 1904 - this is the Coney Island of my childhood. It has the wooden roller coaster and the laughing mechanical toys. As the Wild Mouse whips on its track, and the Big Dipper drops and the Avalanche goes into free fall, a small boy stands looking up, caught between the thrill and the terror of the rides. The Pleasure Beach vibrates with the long gone anticipation of a million kids; adults have left behind a different kind of souvenir. 'When they drained the lake,' says Jane Seddon, 'they found false teeth.' The little train that goes around the grounds is driven by a midget who waves and calls out, 'Tell them you saw a very handsome man.'

In Coasters, an eating place on the Pleasure Beach, there is a period photograph, taken perhaps in the Fifties. In it, there are young couples riding the roller coaster. The girls are in their summer dresses, the men in jackets and ties and straw hats, and the look on their faces is of absolute joy and liberation.

(Photographs omitted)