…where the food garnishes itself.
The great British seaside [Part 1]
On Yorkshire’s eastern seaboard lie many jewels. Nestling in a calm and sandy bay, with its history clinging like crusty barnacles to the salty bedrock of British seaside tradition, is Bridlington - that pearl of the coast. Sitting demurely between Flamborough Head to the North and Spurn Point to the South, it grins benignly out into the dark green North Sea and Holland beyond, beckoning travellers to take tea with her. She shrinks, like Scarborough’s younger sister, hiding her charms with modesty and jealously guarding her delights with wisdom and reserve. Where her elder sibling is brash - with her painted lips and awkward heels - Bridlington, on the other hand, is refined and gentile but don’t think for a minute that she can’t offer the same delights. She is vibrant with everything a pleasure seeker could wish for but without the vulgarity offered by her less restrained family member.
The seaside experience, extending deep into the British psyche like seaweed entangled firmly in our minds, is not about being beautiful - that is for the continentals. When you visit a Northern coastal resort like Brid, it’s time to let your hair down and be who are are (and sometimes who you’d rather not). Our suspension of disbelief is in full flight as we promenade along facade after facade of flashing lights, misspelt signs and indigestion inducing food emporiums whilst telling ourselves that we are having fun in spite of the rain. On the whole, we know that everything is not only skin deep and purely for our benefit but more importantly; we know that it is perhaps more that ever-so-slightly rubbish. In fact, secretly, we know it is significantly crass but we love it all the more for its paucity of depth
We embrace its honesty as it spews yet another greasy hot dog or donut stall at us and we laugh as we buy dreadful hats with rude motifs and browse hideous keepsakes and souvenirs which we will discard within the year. But most importantly, we want to engage in the whole spectacle. We have a driven desire to eat boiled sugar and seafood or fried fish and pale chips from paper as predatory birdlife swoop, because it’s bred into us. It’s traditional. Overweight and sweaty children, holding shafts of brightly coloured rock, run between the awnings and and paw their sticky fingers across the contraptions designed to extract our spending money. Mums and dads, with more flesh exposed than is decently acceptable, look on with teeth bared and cackle - confident that they are all having the commodity of fun delivered in spades. They know in their hearts that the facade is a tart but in that understanding lies the terms of engagement which brings a rush of thrill knowing that our relationship is transient.
Underneath the flashing lights and constantly chirruping arcades, however, lies an older version of self, which if searched for reveals another incarnation of now. A vintage version of itself which has layers of similarities stretching back to the hazy days of fishing fleet and shipping lanes, tobacco smuggling and piracy. In those days the air was rich with daring and adventure and you can smell the log smoked stories of ghosts and bravery in every inglenook fireplace of every stonebuilt inn.
But perhaps it was the Victorians and Edwardians who introduced the proletariat to the idea of venturing to the beach and the letting down of hair which, even then, involved a degree of equal daring to the seafarers of old. Every palace of fun looks down on the modern day with a knowing eye from the building tops which still proclaim the names of long forgotten music halls and flickery cinemas such as the Empire and Astoria. From the pavilions and solariums where the sun never comes to the flowered gardens where the benches regimentally face the watery horizon - everything is designed for escape, if only for a moment, from our ordinary and dreary lives.
In spite of the rain I’d urge you to smile when you visit such a place. She knows she is brash but if you take tea with her she can entertain you on her level. There is no need to recoil in horror if you feel above the vulgarity of it all, she knows that and always delivers all that you’d expect. When you take her at face value the rewards are bountiful so embrace the great British seaside with open arms as if she were a favourite grandma with her best party frock and a face full of make-up. She might plant you a slobbery kiss on the cheek but you know you always have the going home to look forward to.
The city streets of York are the last place on earth that one should consider taking LSD. However. If you are, in fact, the sort of person that would ever consider taking LSD in the first place (just to restate my observation) then York is the perhaps the last place you should do it and I’d like to explain why I think so.
Coming from an unremarkable, West Yorkshire market town as I do, my childhood and youth was spent roaming the terraced streets looking for like-minded lads my own age to go on adventures with. Not that it was completely like the set of Coronation Street back then but the many characters they featured in the ’60s and ’70s were ones that I could identify with and would see on a regular basis.
Grim faced, old women in dark overcoats - their hair strangled into what was known as a ‘bun’ - leaning over picket fences or clattering galvanised buckets about in their outhouses would (more often than not) shout at us youngsters to: “Stop playing football in that ginnel. You’ll make my sheets dirty.”
At the time, it meant nothing at all, but as I look back and remember fondly the scuff-kneed, sticky-haired escapades of my childhood, I am struck by a few distinct and mind altering changes. Firstly, I should explain to any non-Yorkshire speaking readers that a ‘Ginnel’ is an old Norse word for ‘a narrow path sometimes linking streets at different heights’.
This in itself is not a particularly interesting fact but it is deeply fascinating when you look into the Northern culture and realise just what an impact the Vikings (and indeed the Romans) had on, not only our quirks and habits but our language and speech patterns.
Ok. Let’s fast forward a lifetime to the present day. I currently live in the venerable and historic city of York - capital of Yorkshire and the only city in that county that does not have an affiliation to any of them, be they North, East, West or South. It is: like the Vatican city. With its mighty blah-blah cathedral and incumbent seat of northern Christian importance, the place is so far removed from my entire early life so as to make the ‘true’ experience of what it actually is, something of a purely hallucinogenic one.
Granted, the day-to-day reality is no different to any other, similar town of its size. People go about their business, eat burgers, drink franchised coffee and generally function like residents of any lesser place but under the cobbled streets, something else lurks. Something occasionally glimpsed and photographed by Japanese tourists or by the coachloads of Scots that arrive like angry hoards to hunt for Christmas gifts.
It is the sheer history of the place; the way that the new nestles with the ancient; the commercial with the benignly decorative that the mysteries (and indeed the hallucinations) lie. Walking as an ‘outsider’, which I often do - and to this day still feel - I am never tired of being bombarded with fragments of curiosity washed up on a shore of fractalised detail like the splintered remains of a thousand shipwrecks, their cargoes bobbing in the lapping surf for all to see and pillage.
It would not be uncommon to walk down a single street and witness buskers performing on a welsh harp or an upright piano, just doors down from a legless beggar. A wiry underfed dog, shivering at his side as fur coat-wearing intelligencia pass by. Their jewellery jingling softly as they ponder which quaint coffee shop they should visit.
Astride this scene, stand crooked buildings bearing the faded paintwork of times long passed. Merchants and insurance brokers for the sugar trade, milliners and apothecaries, scriveners and spice blenders. All nestling, shoulder to shoulder amidst Dickensian windows and back alleys straight from The Pirates of the Caribbean (true! Google it.)
It is no wonder, then, that this place was the starting point for the main city in my current novel “Valvepunks” which follows the progress of a bewildered (but brilliant) old man and his young acquaintance as they go into deep space in the future in search of a love interest from World War II, finally arriving in the city of Divinestopia (working title).
Built underground in caves (walled city), Divinestopia (York) is a uniquely organic jigsaw of the ancient (the inhabitants of the planet they are on) and the modern (the presence of the antagonists). The buildings are interleaved in precision geometry leading from the filthy outskirts (York’s underbelly - yes it has one!) to the ‘inner sanctum’ where the palaces and fountains are. Its inhabitants ranging from the drones to the privileged intellectuals who exist contemptuously side by side in two completely different worlds in the same space. A beautifully horrible yet horribly beautiful place.
No surprise then, that York should have inspired a vision of a ‘selective utopia’ - a place that wasn’t all bad (depending on one’s perspective) nor all that fantastic. Divine and dystopic all in the same breath. Even the secondary main character is named after one of the shops in York, such is the wealth of detail inherent in this complicated city.
So, weary traveler, if you wish to experience York to its fullest, you might choose to visit for the day, spend a few nights at one of our many thousands of hotels, guest houses and Inns or perhaps even read my book for a glimpse of the mind altering effect it can have. But I would strongly suggest that you never, ever take LSD whilst walking its streets. You might never return.