Coastal edginess, a brief history

The coast is an edge, obviously. It’s a fringe. Being swept or battered by the ebb and flow of tides, it is marginal. It invites thoughts of marginality. It can be, well, edgy. These ideas lead rather quickly to the liminal. If you bear with me, we’ll get to some of all that. The coast is the hem of the land’s garment. Now that there is a growing tendency for geographers and nature writers to become interested in mindscapes as well as landforms and land use, I fear I am being almost trendy in looking at the coast as a cultural phenomenon.

The coast is where civilisation definitely stops. Stand on land and you can breathe as its rightful occupier. You may be wet and cold, and be so because you choose to be or are just broke, but you are undoubtedly, biologically if not legally, where you belong. Six inches or six or sixty feet seaward of land and if unprepared you are drowning as an alien. Peter Lanyon, the mid 20th Century aerial Cornish landscape painter, loved all that: his glider was launched from a runway that ended in an abrupt cliff edge. His enthusiasm for these experiences can be called liminal. That is, Lanyon’s cliff-edge epitomises the coast as a place that people find fruitful in transitions, especially in their interiority. In short, coasts are liminal for those people who find them so, and many do.

People are drawn to the shore to meditate about the big things in life. Some of course come to end their lives off a lover’s leap. The more fortunate come and perhaps are reminded subliminally of how they are distantly related to creatures which crawled out of the sea. They may even be aware, as Elaine Morgan attractively claims, that the sea shore seems to have provided easy pickings for early Man – and more particularly early Woman (see Millam’s account of the controversy, in the Guardian). People often venture into the sea, as I do myself, as a salty and secular version of baptism, invoking old ideas of redemption.

The sea provides many possibilities for recreation but these are always underpinned by the understanding that it is wild and in command. Its rockpools inform a pool-dipping child, and remind an adult, of the presence of primordial life. But they are temporary, overwhelmed by waves twice daily.

The coast allows and awakens fantasies. This may be all the more the case for Britons. We are an island people. We live on terrain which is optimally – often fractally – coastal. We can easily consider our isolation and our freedom. So, incidentally, can the Japanese, rather differently. They have known themselves to be culturally influenced by other countries, and are not crazy about it. We Britons have become more contentedly or anyway vibrantly the scene of invasions of every scale and type and have developed the mongrel hybridity we are rather proud of. It saves us from delusions of purity.

Some of us imagine we can be doughtily independent, others want to wish away our separateness. Either way, we wonder about Robinson Crusoe and the Swiss Family Robinson. Whether these castaways came from water-bound or land-locked homes they used an island as their testing ground for scavenging on a scale civilisation normally forbids, and for self-examination crowded lives do not encourage. Islands quite easily take their place in our post-apocalyptic survival drills. Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Ransome’s Wild Cat Island testify to the power of pirate occupations on our minds.

In short small islands are both a threat and a lure, especially for the occupants of a middling-sized island which sometimes forgets how maritime it is. Islands are at once a castastrophe and opportunity. For the British, the precise limits set by the coast and the taunting horizons we saw all around us made us energetic and intelligent in empire-building. We felt at once confined and over-crowded and expansive and boundless.

Back on firm ground, and with less dreaminess, we can see the coast as a place to build. It has modern and frankly urban excitements and tediums. Dover is where England has scowled at threats from abroad and where exiles from rectitude embarked for louche France and points south, and whence religious people who loved Romishness or hated it went to begin an escape from persecution. Now the town seems curiously beached as lorries and cars arrive, and pass through, and Dover looks to be sidelined by its main trade. It is almost heartening to find that it is now attracting migrants, and again from beachheads in Normandy, though – off camera – many of them will be repulsed, where we can find them. And anyway, their ambitions lie well inland. As this is written Dover is the stage for a drama in which it does not star: Brexit will probably put the port in the news however it goes.

Anywhere between Dover and Eastbourne, England made concrete ears as high as small houses, the better to have warning of bombers, and comely bus-shelters to fend off the persistent south-westerlies. Concrete is natural to this coast, whose Dorset and Somerset quarries produce the necessary stone. Fossil hollows in stone blocks in buildings inland, quarried near the coast, remind city-dwellers of maritime inundations.

We shouldn’t confuse being coastal with being estuarine. Southampton, Glasgow, Bristol, Liverpool, and London even, became great cities by being away from the coast and its dangers, but quite closely connected with the sea. They were where empire builders met to realise the schemes they had concocted, and especially to turn their plunder or honest trade to profit. They suffered in all sorts of ways at different times, but especially by being handy for enemy bombers: silvery daggers pointed to their hearts on any clear night.

Less dramatc problems afflicted lesser towns by the sea. They accumulate in policy-makers’ minds as the Coastal Malaise. Old coastal settlements lack critical mass. They eked an ancient living and earned authenticity away from the burgeoning modern networks inland. They were unsuited to industrialisation and high speed internet in turn. Very few appealed to fashionable entrepreneurship. They faced the sea but their backs were turned against development. They were too scattered and too much farmland interposed itself between their salty livings and the burgeoning commerce and industry and culture inland. Even their stay-cation years (when Napoleon or Hitler shut the Continent to the British visitor) gave only temporary opportunity to a large indigenous tourism industry. When foreign tyrants were defeated and when cheap flights came along, scruffines and welfare dependents took over much of the erstwhile holiday accommodation. That was the story in parts of Brighton but even more of Blackpool, Hastings and Ramsgate.

Fishermen and various sorts of ferry ports and forts have for centuries peppered the coast. But for all the 19th and 20th centuries, the coasts of England became above all resorts. Brighton & Hove, more or less seemlessly connected, as one place and proper noun, was and is sui generis amongst them: first it was Bath-super-Mare and then became London-super-Mare. First it was Bath and then London with sea bathing. When the railway arrived the resort lost ton and became a place where a much wider range of Londoners and other cosmopolitans sought recreation and profit. It became the scene of religious revival as well as dirty weekends, and even a small outcropping of London’s gangsterism. It had been amongst the first seaside resorts of the gentry, amongst whom there were, naturally, a few scoundrels. It became the resort of choice for the masses – trippers – and the last resort for a good few.

Even lesser seaside resorts are built on permissiveness. They are all about innocent promenading and deckchairs, but those would be dull were there not also a dash of the sinister. The liminal comes in again: it is the idea that some places and times help detach our minds from their customary lassitude or functionality. In E M Forster’s terms, they are where and when we “connect”: we expand and we break down barriers, sometimes those between us and others, more often within ourselves. Liminality attaches to leisure, however squalid or sordid, or even commercialised. Some places invite the liminal by being cheerless; others induce it by producing rebellion. All sorts of people and all sorts of stages of their lives are drawn to places where they can reboot their consciousness. It is hardly surprising that they would gravitate to seaside resorts which are within handy reach but beyond easy surveillance by parents and spouses and where those who wait on them may well be respectable but are also discrete.

The Dirty Weekend was an especially seaside invention (as Rob Shields explored in Places on the Margin, a pioneer work in the geography of liminal spaces). The end of the pier show allowed the respectable working class a blue humour, probably raunchier than the inland music halls and more like sophisticated West End night clubs late at night. Punch and Judy shows allowed suburban children a violent theatre, more crudely comic and more recognisably domestic than the Grimm’s tales of their bedtimes at home. Andrew Davis makes a character say in his TV version of Jane Austen’s unfinished Sanditon (in an insight which was a commonplace after the railway and the summer holiday vuigarised things but probably nowhere on Austen’s radar), seaside resorts were the scene of unholy mixings-up of classes and types. It was all part of the disruption caused by mass mobility and leisure. I see from cuttings that in the 1870s Brighton recoiled from the licentiousness of night-time activity on its beach and the issue was interesting enough to excite the Chichester newspapers, miles down the coast and nicely inland from such affairs.

Disorder sometimes descended into violence all around the coast. The Mods and Rockers both scootorised and subverted the promenade passeo. In he early 20th Century, Weston-super-Mare, Herne Bay, Eastbourne and probably in several other places, the seaside murder had its own special flavour. One scenario involved a young women who was independently venturing away from home for the first time and coming across footloose young men whose scavenging waywardness turned pathological. (The case of Field and Gray, 1920.) In another, seaside resorts offered female targets-in-residence and easy comings and goings to a committed wandering predator. (The case of George Joseph Smith, 1915.) Wickedness went on whilst railways posters eulogised the joys of walking the downs and fells with the sparkling seascape beyond. A century before, an English murderer was often a well-rooted young man slitting the throat of a girl who had spurned him.

In Brighton & Hove the 1934 Trunk Murder (there was another) showed the resort’s seemy side at full throttle. It was a like a curtain-raiser to Brighton Rock (1938) in which Graham Greene gives us Pinkie, the Brighton hood in a classic noir. Such criminals do not seem to have proliferated in seaside resorts, but they fitted nicely into an audience’s preconceptions. John Osborne gives us a more obviously or seemingly cheerful seaside figure in his Archie Rice, The Entertainer (1957 on stage and more especially in the 1960 film): the summer season vaudevillian. Archie is an out-dated performers who preys on a young seaside beauty queen and theatre hopeful as he drags out his career’s decline. His business has been swept aside by TV and by holiday camp entertainments which purvey the same general smut as him, but in a sanitised form. On stage and in the film, he was played beautifully by Laurence Oliver, himself a weekend resident in the town amongst plenty of showfolk of every sort.

Osborne was famously anti-Establishment, but he was as much a romantic, lamenting the passing of a small Bohemian army of vagabondish types who were suited to a broader age in which even respectable people understood that it was worth giving actors an unspoken license to be outlaws. They were a component in the phoney glamour of the seaside, as were fairground people. If it was generally acknowledged that these itinerants were often reprehensible, it could hardly be said that the young hadn’t been warned.

“Sanditon” and all the real coastal resorts had their origins in classy tourism. They soon became more mixed and more various, both respectable and rather low. After WW2, because so many army camps had prepared for invasion from the Continent or invasion of it, there were masses of empty low-rise barracks which soon housed a new industry, the holiday camps. (Inland some of these camps were being turned into the new intensive chicken farms, for meat and eggs.) Fields which between the wars had seen Boy Scouts and Young Fascist camps now catered to the all-in holiday which suited the consumerist working and lower middle classes. They might offer less mucking about but they delivered wholesome fun, hygeine, exercise and entertainment.

Between wars, though, there had been a more individualist development spearheaded by people of every class who had the spark of bofemiansism. As chronicled by the mild anarchist Colin Ward, and Dennis Hardy, in their Arcadia for All, they bought patches of land by the sea and to put on them they acquired disused railway carriages from entrepreneurs who quickly spotted this new market. They made a fringe on the coastal fringe, their verandas often stepping straight on the shingle seeshore, with a natural garden of maritime brassicas. They still do, but mostly the carriage dimension of these wooden homes is being subsumed under a more convenient and spacious chalet effect. Occasionally the new look is almost the Hamptons.

The People’s Arcadia flourished because the town and country planning system was very weak until the late 1940s. Its laxity allowed a suburban sprawl of bungaloid development. Anywhere on the British coast, farmers were developing caravan sites, increasingly with static vans which could notionally be moved but hardly ever did from the day they were installed until decrepitude required they be sold off. In some places – Aldwick prime amongst them – chic Tudorbethan developments catered to the affluent. But it was a far more dramatic rash of bungalow estates which attracted hordes of ex-London upper working class, and especially retirees newly enriched just before and soon after WW2. They invested in cars and a toehold on the coast their fathers had only visited in charbancs and guest houses. They were mostly Tory and some turned eventually to UKIP and thence to the Brexit Party.

We should not for a moment accept that the coast must merelt suffer from its edginess, its liminality. Increasingly, there are excellent signs that there is a coastal renaissance in train. I hope to look at that upbeat process in a later post.

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Publication date

11 September 2019