Great Yarmouth: Last resort

The writer DJ Taylor grew up around the seaside town of Great Yarmouth. This summer he went back to find that the jewel of the Norfolk coast has become a byword for a dying culture
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The half-hour train ride from Norwich to Great Yarmouth must take in some of the most picturesque country in East Anglia: low, level plains dotted with windmills and piercing church spires. Here, at regular intervals along the track, the wayside villages of Lingwood and Brundall spring up from their nesting grounds amid the high summer foliage. Beyond, the early sun bounces off the surface of the Broads. Not much moves out in the Yare Valley apart from the flotilla of cars cruising the A47. The cattle stand motionless in the fields; the rooks seem chained to the telephone wires. Then, as the three-carriage sprinter whisks on in parallel to the Acle Strait, a change comes over the landscape. The long arm of the Breydon Water drifts in on one side; the file of traffic grows ever closer on the other. In the distance the tall buildings scatter the horizon as if thrown there randomly by the Queen of Brobdingnag on one of her strolls along the Norfolk shoreline. The sea, still a couple of miles away, is a nondescript grey expanse beneath the wide sky.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Great Yarmouth, jewel of the Norfolk coast. "Yarmouth, Sir," as Dickens once put it in a letter to his biographer John Forster, "the strangest place in the wide world: one hundred and forty-six miles of hill-less country between it and London": a thronged and clamorous ghetto of arcades and pleasure beaches, ornamental gardens and fish and chip emporia, krazy golf courses and bed and breakfast shacks, two piers and a marina, like a little chunk of Las Vegas parcelled up and deposited on the edge of the East Anglian flat. And here I am, three children fizzing at my heels, standing at the zebra crossing beyond the station concourse where the road bends east towards the docks and in the distance the derelict container wharves loom grimly into the sky. Already, 15 minutes walk away from the real action, the characteristic Yarmouth smell seems to hang in the air: a queer but instantly recognisable compound made up of candy floss, cooking oil and salt. Above our heads the gulls track back and forth above the crowded roof-tops.

The walk into town is not calculated to detain the casual stroller. An iron-walled bridge (from which the municipality has apparently removed last year's sulphurous graffiti) leads to a thoroughfare called the Conge, where delivery vans lurch to and fro, past a job centre, then to a market square packed with stalls selling second-hand paperbacks, cheap beachware and sea food. It's here, queuing up at the Lloyd's cashpoint, that we get our first glimpse of the amenities Yarmouth offers to its summer migrants. Marooned on benches half-way between burger bar and shopping mall sprawl the Fat family: father and mother and a couple of buxom children. It is barely half-past ten on a summer morning, the arcade proprietors and the bingo masters are still taking down their shutters, but already the Fats are stolidly wolfing chips out of vast Styrofoam panniers. So extraordinary is the sight, so intent the line of dense, ravenous faces, that the children and I stop and stare at it for a while. The Fats are unabashed. Heads down over their glistening provender (a late breakfast? An early lunch? Who can say?), they go on eating.

Vacation-wise, Yarmouth is a place of elementals, most of them beginning with the letter "s": sun (treacherous local climate permitting), sea (of annually varying quality), sand and shopping. Much of the latter takes place on Regent Road, the clogged highway that rolls down to the Front and the scene of unimaginably low-level commerce. Here there are video stores offering four DVDs for £5 ("Find one you've heard of and I'll buy it for you," I challenge my eldest son. He doesn't), "adult" joke shops selling chocolate willies, bargain joints resounding to the whine of Irish fiddle music. Business among the prowling families - perky grandfathers in England shirts and beach shorts, tinies glowering from prams, slack-jawed teenagers turning over the cassettes - is brisk. The accents are those of the West Midlands, Lancashire, Newcastle. There is not a black face in sight. For this is one of the last redoubts of the country's white working class: an ancient community, reeling under the serial assaults of the modern age, but still not quite extinct, here in a landscape of sea-front diners, pony and trap rides along the "Golden Mile" and small-hours roistering.

Thinking I might take something home for a desk-bound wife, I shoo the children into one of the cavernous gift-shops. A minute later, having established that the choice lies between a video entitled European Sex Games and a "Get Your Tits Out" T-shirt, I steer them out again. Yarmouth. Don't you just love it?

As a seaside resort, as a place, as a concept - especially as a concept - resorts like Yarmouth have problems. Yarmouth itself has more problems than some of the other places like it. Mr and Mrs Fat and their devouring progeny are not among them: another 20,000 Mr Fats each year and Yarmouth would be up there with the molten palaces of the north-west - Blackpool and Morecambe and Grange-over-Sands - as one of the premier tourist destinations for people who don't fancy "abroad" and envisage a holiday as a slightly glamorised version of their high street back home. The chief drawback is a level of dereliction whose continuance might cause even Mr Fat to wonder whether he wouldn't be better off elsewhere.

To the average metropolitan colour- supplement browser "Norfolk" means wheatfields, deserted backroads and airy solitude. Yarmouth, on the other hand, harbours some of the most depressed areas in England - worse than Sheffield or the London inner-city sprawl. The North Sea gas business still has a home here and there is a certain amount of light industry, but the docks are in moth-balls and the sea is fished out. Like many English seaside towns - the obvious parallel, perhaps, is Hastings - the place is a prime draw for asylum seekers and benefit tourists. "The assailant, described as of Eastern European appearance ..." "Police are looking for an olive-skinned man, who ..." run the local newspaper reports. Naturally, plenty of non-East Europeans commit crimes in Yarmouth too (Saturday nights on the Golden Mile are the customary provincial city orgy of drunks pissing in the streets) but this used to be a white town, more or less, and incomers obtrude. One group of incomers that particularly sticks out are the bands of Irish travellers who periodically fetch up here in their caravan convoys to the distress of the local landladies.

As I write, the municipality is engaged in a tense stand-off with a couple of hundred doughty Hibernians known as John Dawley and Richie Ned's Crew who pitched up on land owned by the pleasure beach one Saturday afternoon. Happily this invasion is as yet a f minor skirmish when compared to the largescale invasion of December 1999 when 1,500 caravan-dwellers camped out on the sea-front, caused the cancellation of the Millennium Night firework fest and, seen off at last by the bailiffs, left - I am quoting from the Eastern Daily Press - lavish piles of broken glass, empty gas cylinders and human excrement for the borough council to dispose of.

Inevitably there are periodic attempts to "regenerate" Yarmouth. Any serious scheme, though, will depend on better communications with the rest of the world, or even with Norwich. At the moment the latter consists of a single-lane A road and the hourly three-carriage train. Even if money can be found to dual the A47, pundits allege, the work couldn't begin until 2011. Another plan is to make Yarmouth more like, well, Yarmouth. Earlier this year the business pages of the Eastern Daily Press were aflame with the news that the Hilton Group were planning a "Vegas-style super casino" that would "re-establish Yarmouth as a key tourist destination" and bring "millions a year to the resort". Sadly, with the smart money on Blackpool as the site of the nation's solitary regional super-casino, Hilton have pulled out. There is still talk of a cinema-multiplex-cum-bowling alley, but no one is very sanguine.

Scarcely a day seems to pass here in Norfolk, in fact, without the breaking of some horribly symbolic news story, redolent of dust, decay and blighted hopes. Back in early summer came the intelligence that the council weren't prepared to support a re-opening of the Wellington Pier theatre. Come the end of June it was disclosed that the "Winter Gardens", a vast acreage of glass and iron along the Mile used as a children's amusement centre, was liable to fall apart should the winds blow much in excess of 30 mph. The lease-holding company is currently receiving coastguards' reports at four-hourly intervals. Great Yarmouth, ladies and gents. Its Golden Mile is now a Saturday night zero-tolerance zone, its glass palace may totter into the sea, and there's a travellers' colony parked up in the shadow of the pleasure beach. Meanwhile the pier-end entertainment continues. Heading the bill at the Britannia this summer are Cannon and Ball, the Barron Knights and the Chuckle Brothers. As I said, Great Yarmouth has its problems.

IT WAS not always thus. Dickens, who visited in 1849, found an olde-worlde fishing port, came away enraptured by the great waste of pebbled beach and the warren of tiny streets known as the "Rows", and in setting parts of David Copperfield there galvanised the local tourist boom: Thackeray, touring East Anglia a few years later, declared himself ready to travel the extra 20 miles from Norwich simply on account of the Peggotys and their upturned boat-house. A century and a half later, Yarmouth is a town of ghosts: not merely Mrs Gummidge and Little Emily but the herring girls who came down each summer from Aberdeen to work the quaysides and the merchants with their big houses set back from the Front. Personal ghosts, too. My grandmother's family, the Castells, were from Yarmouth, dwelling across the river at Cobholm, where my great-grandfather was a master-baker. My great-uncle Ernest drove trains for the local railway company and in later life took the money on Britannia Pier. My great-uncle Reg even married a Fellowes, one of the great local ship-building clan, which in Yarmouth terms was the equivalent of getting hitched to a Rothschild. My grandmother remembered the Zeppelin raids and a dull, subliminal thump that regularly inserted itself into her consciousness during 1914-18 - the rumble of guns from Flanders.

Much of my childhood, consequently, was measured out in trips to Yarmouth. As a pushchair-borne infant I was wheeled away from the Front while Mods fought Rockers on the sands. Later there was an annual pre-Christmas foray with my grandmother in the family Citroën: elevenses with Great Aunt Sheila, Uncle Reg's relict, in her big house on Southtown Road; shopping in the town arcade, where you could buy exotica such as dried bananas and licorice root; fish and chip lunch with Great Aunt Daisy - a tiny old lady with a red countrywoman's face and no teeth - in her council flat; home along the Acle Strait into the winter dusk. But there are no more Castells, at least not in this part of the world, just as there are no more herring girls come south for the summer to gut the piles of glittering fish.

Meanwhile, back in the 21st century, having given the children £12 to check out the facilities at "Joyland" (ghost-trains, giant snail-rides, etc) I allow them a pound each on the amusement arcade Penny (or rather two-penny or even ten-penny) Falls. Felix, a resourceful boy, makes his stash last half an hour, which is generally agreed to be good going. We lunch on Boots' "meal deals" on the beach, nervously contemplating the darkening sky. Oddly for a seaside resort, the sand is all but deserted. There are other Great Yarmouths, of course: St Nicholas's Church with its rolling graveyard, quaint little streets where the trippers never venture, acres of heritage there for the taking.

But something has died, or is about to die, here and that thing is old-style seaside culture: that ancient, superannuated, sepia-coloured world of my father's and to some extent my own childhood, made up of sticks of rock and comic postcards, bowling greens staffed by leathery old men in Sunday suits, with soundtrack by George Formby, Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard. Not long ago, the EDP printed a series of "seaside specials", commemorating the "great stars who've performed in Norfolk". There they all were - all that cheery, splendiferously toothed gang I remembered from early- Seventies light entertainment pictured in summer-season promo shots from the age of Heath and Wilson. Eric and Ernie peer from behind the curtain of a mocked-up bathing tent as one of the "Pamela Devis Dancers" shuffles by. Bruce Forsyth, with apparently electrified hair-do, cuts the celebration cake for the cast of Showtime at the Wellington Pier. Tommy Cooper clowns in his dressing room, while Benny Hill gets a trim at the sea-front barber's.

Tommy Cooper! Benny Hill! All as dead as the dodo, of course, vanished into the mausoleum of folk memory, to be replaced by Jim Davidson's "adults only" summer show and piles of porno videos: just the usual modern bastardisation, in fact, of a more or less decent original. The great merit of old-style seaside culture - any sort of popular culture before the machine age - was that it created itself: it contained the things that the people who patronised it wanted from it. Even now, enough of its elemental vestiges remain to create a bizarre illusion of bygone English life: a kind of lost world of summer shows, warm beer and endless cigarettes, so that, approaching the grey towers and the distant sea, it would not be too fanciful to see a pterodactyl taking flight into the pale East Anglian sky.