Howard Jacobson: The strange experience of being the youngest person on an entire coastline

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Remember Ogden Nash's repellent conga? 'And round and round there dragged and wound/ A loathsome conga chain ...' My feeling exactly. Rather than dance a conga, I would do the hand movements to "The Birdy Song" or join in a hokey cokey or sing along to "Hi Ho Silver Lining".

So what am I doing, limpet-mined to the waist of someone else's grandmother and conga-eeling it round the bandstand in Eastbourne on Boxing Day? A good question. Trying to relax, I suppose. Trying to lose some of my inhibitions. And making a bit of a thing of my youth. Everybody here is at least 80. I might look 80, but I still have the wherewithal to shake a leg without the help of a stick, scaffolding, or a nursemaid. So I conga.

And, having eased me into the conga, they are now making me do "The Birdy Song". This is what it must feel like to have a part in EastEnders.

It's a strange experience, being the youngest person on an entire stretch of English coastline. A Martian dropped here would guess that we are at war and have decided to sacrifice our great-grandparents first, by putting up a defensive wall of them around the country. As we age we gravitate outwards – if that doesn't make a nonsense of physics – heading for the sea where we can sit and stare at our extinction in the waves.

There are thousands of old people out today – a grey mist stretching all the way to Beachy Head. It's the unseasonally mild weather that has brought them out, a day so exquisitely pure it seems to have been cut from crystal. A day on which you expect to see for miles, or at least you would had you eyesight left to see with.

Since 11 September I have learnt to mistrust skies of adamantine blue. Show me an impregnably blue sky and I begin to hunch my shoulders, expecting death. But here on the Sussex coast, where death is all around, there is no need of forebodings.

Out of the hotels and boarding houses they limp and tap, a forest of canes come to Dunsinane; out of cars and buses they unfold themselves like broken deckchairs; along the promenade they shuffle crab-wise, the heel of one foot never advancing beyond the toe of the other. Narrow your eyes against the glare of the sun coming off the Channel and you would swear that the human clockwork has finally broken down and that everyone is moving backwards.

Slowness – let's hear it for slowness. It's the right speed for memory. The young agitate themselves mindlessly only because they have nothing to remember. The trouble is, although the old have come to the Sussex coast to remember and die, something in the air makes them want to forget and live. Hence the conga. Ay-ay-ay-ay-conga! It breaks the heart to see it, everyone trying to be young when young is such a trashy thing to be.

And everyone trying to have personality. When did this happen? The old used not to have personality. The old used not to need personality. They had the gravity of their years. In my day, people with personalities were sent away to Butlins to become Redcoats in obscurity and spare their families the shame. Having personality then was on a par with under-age pregnancy. Parents of kids with personality tore their hair and wondered where they'd gone wrong. Then came telly, and suddenly a personality was de rigueur.

The day after Boxing Day I am conga'd out, too ill to move, which is how I like it, and the day after that I am driven back to London wrapped in blankets. This makes no sense, since if you're more dead than alive the place to be is Sussex. They think I've got a virus, but I haven't. I'm suffering from exposure to old folks with personality.

I lie in bed for I don't know how many days, trying to get world darts on cable – now there's a sport which has the courage to eschew personality – but all I can find are reviews of the year, every one of which features Britney Spears. So that was what 2001 was about – Britney Spears.

Come New Year's Day they reckon I should venture out. Trafalgar Square is their suggestion. See some people. The sky is still as blue as Housman's remembered hills, which means the end of the world is nigh. In fact, what's nigh is a procession. A snaking line of celebrants, thousands long, blowing trumpets, waving banners, shaking tinsel pom-poms, most of them with such bad complexions you'd think they'd want to hide under the bedclothes until better times and not stand nakedly hallooing at strangers from carnival floats. But spots stop no one now.

Apparently this is the The New Year's Day Parade, a London event for the past 16 years. So how come I haven't heard of it until now? Have I been in a coma for 16 years? And why is it so American, with American marching bands, and goofy American balloons, the only local reference being an empty truck saying Haringey – though for all I know that's Haringey, New Jersey.

There's something unbearably forlorn about parades. They have neither rhyme nor reason. What's that vintage car doing here? Why a fire pump? Why that vicar on a penny farthing? It's like being invited up to a sad person's attic, and shown his things. Or it was. Now parades have personality. Forget sad, today the whole world's got pizzazz.

Feeling another conga coming on, I wheel myself slowly home.