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Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson: Sitting on a bench in Eastbourne, where else would one want to be?

The English like to moderate life's pleasures, which is why their coastal resorts suit them so well

Life isn't all bad. The next time someone asks my philosophy that's what I am going to say. "Life isn't all bad." I worked it out on holiday last week, sitting on a bench in Eastbourne. Downwind from me a brass band was playing make-the-best-of-it industrial music in the bandstand. It was just a brief holiday, barely a holiday at all in fact, more a recuperation from a holiday proper I'd had the week before. That one in southern Italy.

You probably think the comparison favoured Italy but it didn't. Surprising, but it is possible to sit on a bench in Eastbourne, looking out across the Channel, and feel there is nowhere else, the Mediterranean included, you'd rather be. Life isn't all bad, you think. Which is a better thing to think – better in the sense of more intelligent, but also in the sense of more calming to disordered nerves – than life is wonderful, which is the delusion the Mediterranean encourages.

Life isn't wonderful. Pasta is wonderful, tomatoes are wonderful, sunshine and the Italian language are wonderful, but they are not the sum of life. After pasta and tomatoes and sunshine comes the sadness. Whatever is intense must disappoint. This is something the English know better than any other people on earth. So we moderate our pleasures. We build the aftermath of disappointment into the satisfactions of the present. We are not heartbroken after sex, like the French, because we are always a little bit heartbroken while we're having it.

Similarly with our apprehension of beauty. Nothing is so beautiful here that we must at last turn our eyes from it in sorrow. This is what makes the Channel such an admirable stretch of water in summer. It gives you just enough of a sense of infinity. English country churchyards the same. They reconcile you to death by virtue of loosening your hold on life. Since everything living is so quiet, you might as well be dead.

That has come out a touch more negatively than I intended. There are profound consolations in life perceived as gently transient, mellow, half-lit. And nowhere provides these consolations in such exquisite measure as the English seaside. I don't say this to reconcile readers to necessity in times of hardship. It's true that English holidays will soon be all we can afford. And equally true that they will soon, if they haven't already, become all we can bear to embark on. Air travel is truly horrible now: the strip-searching, the lost baggage, the predation practised by the cheap airlines, loading you on like so many carcasses and charging you extra if you carry a bag bigger than a coin tray or wear anything on your feet heavier than flip-flops. These are serious considerations, but leaving them aside I would still recommend our own coastal resorts because they better suit our natures, better provide for what we want (which is less than we think we want), and so better and more lastingly please us. The Ionian Sea or Eastbourne. I say go to Eastbourne.

Let me enumerate the advantages. First the air. Soft like a mother's kisses, the air that glides in over Eastbourne. Italy has no air. Without doubt the heat is voluptuous and you succumb to it as to a harlot's embrace. All tongue, what passes for air in Italy. It takes you, robs you of your senses, and leaves you spent. The air in Eastbourne – slightly salty but chalky too, and greened from the Downs – is melancholy with the sweet memories of childhood, and the promises it breathes are prayerful and lenitive: all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Wellish, anyway.

And then the light. I know the argument: the Italian light enabled the Renaissance. Without Italian light, no Italian art. But Italian light was there all along, before any Renaissance. Superstition and unreason had flourished in it too. It is the light of fanaticism. Whereas the light in Eastbourne, filtered through amber clouds, is of the most refined and easeful yellow – corn yellow, kind to the eyes, unexcitable, the light of tempered enthusiasm, soothing and unfleshly, even slightly blurred as though to save us from the excesses of extreme clarity. In this light nothing is certain. And no man can call himself civilised until he is certain only of uncertainty.

Of the carnal beauty of the natives I will not speak. For noble profiles and golden limbs Eastbourne does not of course rival the Amalfi coast or the Venice Lido. For which reason, presumably, no one has yet written Death in Eastbourne. So far, at least, no Aschenbach pursues the ignis fatuus of aesthetic death-in-life in East Sussex. But then who wants to end up like the art-sick Aschenbach, comatose in a deck chair with your pomade melting? To Eastbourne come – by no means solely, but certainly in large numbers – the elderly and infirm, in hope of respite not contagion, in search of health not morbidity. The young and old make space for one another along the promenades and pier, the sprinters and the hobblers, the skaters and the wheelchair-bound. Here what you were and what awaits you reach a genial accommodation, the one not consumed by the self-conceit and desperation of the Italian passeggiata, the other not maddened into grief by what will soon be taken away.

And last, the benches. No one does a memorial bench as well as the English, and of the towns of benches I have investigated over the years – for I am a memorial bench aficionado – Eastbourne is by some margin the most populous and poetical. Readers of my novels will forgive me if I indulge emotions I have described in fiction more than once, but one cannot visit Eastbourne and walk the high coast road towards the chalk cliffs and not give way to bench-associated nostalgia. The best of benches – and these are the best of benches, both for sitting on and for reading – will always make you feel you have sat on them before, that the Doctor Timothy Littlemore Who Loved It Here and to whom the bench is dedicated by his Loving Wife was in some sense you. So you sit where you first sat, 40, 50, 60 years before, and remember how much you Loved It Here – the corn-yellow light, the soft maternal air, the brass band making the best of hardship, the Channel with its promise of a benign obliteration, your Loving Wife with her resigned grey English eyes – and you tell yourself, because it does you good to tell yourself, that life isn't all bad.