Caught by the River

England’s Great and Turbulent Love Affair

Michael Smith | 19th August 2023

Madeleine Bunting’s ‘The Seaside’ shows the squalor and the beauty, the bleakness and the enchantment of life by the coast, writes Michael Smith

I began reading Madeleine Bunting’s book at the start of the summer, making the most of the crazy early heat wave that had finally banished the long winter and seemed to promise so much, cooled by the soothing sea breeze at our family’s little beach hut on the English Channel. I read it into the long luminous evenings, drinking chilled wine, rose-tinted like the sky, barbecuing mackerel so fresh it still smelled like the surf, spinning out the pleasure on our foldaway chairs for as long as we could, before heading home to get the kids in the bath and then to bed, and after a long tough winter and a tough few years, in golden evenings like these at least, it still felt like the shabby kind of paradise we first discovered when we moved here.  

I found The Seaside a thought-provoking book, at turns lyrical, romantic, bleak and brutally close to the bone. To tell the truth it was an uncomfortable read at times, forcing me to re-asses the place I love and look at it more honestly. ‘For over two decades, seaside resorts have been found to have the worst levels of deprivation in the country, while a raft of shocking indicators – from poor health, shortened lives, drug addiction, high debt, low educational achievement to low income – demonstrate the blighted communities which cluster along the English coastlines. Why was the country’s deepening inequality so starkly evident here?’

As it went on, I think I wanted the book to skip over all those bits and just talk about the nice stuff. I was in the process of trying to get a film away with Hastings borough council at the time, about the peculiar charms of the stretch of shore we call home, and Madeleine Bunting’s book was bumming out my vibe. ‘Decline and deprivation are evident in every resort I visited and researched, reflecting the characteristics of these places on the edge.’ I have to admit, the more I read passages like that, the more I became annoyed by them — I decided she was on a downer about the seaside, deliberately miserablist, relishing its shitness. ‘Everyday is like Sunday’ by Morrissey kept playing in my mind as I read more and more doom-laden stats: ‘The average weekly wage in Blackpool is a third below the national average,’ shock horror … ‘Inner Blackpool now houses the single most vulnerable population in the country in the most inappropriate accommodation, compounding disadvantage’, … ‘more than a third of all children in Thanet (e.g. Margate) were defined as living in poverty in 2019, (figures that can also be made to apply to places like Hackney) compared to 21 percent in more prosperous parts of Kent like Tunbridge Wells (one of the wealthiest towns in England) …’

I thought she’d missed the point. ‘I became interested in what gets exposed at the edge, what unravels or frays,’ Bunting wrote, but chunks of the book felt like a reduction of whatever that was to just the economics, analysed statistically, losing the intangibles and the oddities thrown up in the course of it all — for me what gets exposed at the edge, what unravels or frays is all part of the bruised romance of the place, its shabby elegance, its elegiac sense of lost glory, its end-of-land sadness,  its bittersweet poetry. I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to the British seaside, I grew up on it and it’s in my blood, and I felt like Madeleine Bunting was doing my home a disservice.

But putting the book down for a few weeks as the summer soured, its arguments niggled in my mind and worked their way into the back of it. After several weeks of timewasting, the council didn’t commission my film in the end, as they’re on the verge of bankruptcy and were apparently arguing about whether attracting tourists was an essential service or not. Things have to be pretty bad when a typically run-down British seaside town whose only real industry is tourism can be facing these kind of impossible decisions. So it was yet another summer broke down here. Then Southern Water, a privatised corporation that has cannibalised what was once a public service, decided to dump millions of tonnes of raw untreated sewage all along the seafront, this only asset of ours, making it unswimmable in, for the simple reason it’s cheaper to pay the fine and leave the sewage untreated, maximizing profits. It does this every year, and every year our rates go up. After the June heatwave we got a July like a dreary January, having to put the fire on in the pub we run, and having to instagram a little video of this fire to try and get some small trickle of punters through the doors in what should have been the busy period of a so far dismal year’s trading, and our family business, precarious at the best of times, continued to cause us sleepless nights, as the hospitality industry limped through the “cost of living crisis” (the government allowing their mates at the energy corporations to quadruple their profits while quadrupling our bills), and all this after we’d been left twisting in the wind along with all the other pubs and cafes of this seaside resort ever since the first covid lockdown. There were no vibes for Madeleine Bunting’s book to bum out, I realised, when the sea was the colour of sewage and the deserted stretch of shops and bars on its shore were looking sadder and sadder, some badly needing a facelift, some getting boarded up again. Her talk of the ‘precarious hospitality sector, seaside economies of family businesses with marginal profits and low-wage seasonal labour’ hit home like a jab in the gut. The image of the ‘insecure seaside economy of small business, akin to that of fairgrounds’ similarly stung. It was absolutely on the money though. Anyone dreaming of leaving the hassle and grind of the big city to open a smashed avocado and sourdough spot on the beach might want to read this book and consider its arguments. I’d recommend it to anyone thinking of selling a cramped expensive London flat to open their dream boutique b’n’b down here.

I love the place, through rose-tinted Raybans, but my Breton sailors’ tops are all threadbare and frayed, like the town itself is, like the English seaside is in general. More than I initially wanted to admit, I couldn’t deny the validity of the book’s bitter-sweet and often bleak observations. Bunting was right. Rather than just fall back on a romantic fantasy of the seaside as I am wont to do, she’d set out to write a state of the nation address about ‘Britain’s great and turbulent love affair’, warts and all. Re-reading the book, I realised the job she’d set herself was a difficult and delicate balancing act. ‘The fact most resorts are an extraordinary, contradictory mix of both success and failure is too complex a story; instead the portrayal of places like Clacton, Skegness and Weston is part poverty-porn, part class-based contempt.’ This book goes out of its way not to do that. It attempts to show the squalor and the beauty, the bleakness and the enchantment, ‘to trace an extraordinary national phenomenon of boom and decline, reinvention and struggle.’ Brutally honest perhaps, but coming form a place of righteous indignation, rather than just looking down her nose at the pondlife on the periphery. 

She frames her snapshot of the seaside at this difficult current moment wonderfully, conjuring a kind of social history of ‘Britain’s turbulent love affair’. There are clear historical reasons why the seaside’s the way it is, which the author lays out vividly, with great clarity, reasons I’d only dimly grasped before, or never even considered. It’s an epic, illuminating and often surprising arc. 

In a fascinating chapter she points out the shore had been seen as a kind of wilderness or wasteland before Scarborough invented the seaside resort. ‘The seafront was an English invention, the very idea of the beach as a place of leisure, now a global commonplace … from being a place of danger, dread and dirty work into one of healing, rest, and even pleasure … the first sea bathers in Yorkshire were viewed as intrepid as they braved cold waves. For centuries, a deep fear and horror of the sea and its dangerously unstable edge, the shore, was embedded in the western tradition.’ Much like the spa town, the seaside started as a place to take therapeutic cures: ‘A generous supply of brisk breezes and sharp winds, fresh air was fast developing a comparable therapeutic reputation to seawater, particularly to visitors from the polluted new industrial towns. Sunshine was of far less importance.’ But before long, early resorts like Scarborough or Margate began developing into places of leisure and pleasure as well: ‘This seaside edge licensed human ingenuity to become playful with space – the height of towers, the length of pier – and in due course with velocity and gravity, continuing to indulge the appetite for novel sensation.’

From these beginnings in Scarborough and Margate, Bunting charts the development of our seaside resorts into crucibles of modernity, brashness and excitement, as Britain neared the apex of its industrial revolution, quintessentially in Brighton, with its historic sense of naughtiness and permissiveness, due to the Prince Regent establishing it as the home of the Dirty Weekend, and its progressiveness and modernity, its sense of it being on the edge of not only the land but the future: ‘Brighton pioneered a novel urban architecture designed to delight … the pier was the first invention in what became a long seaside tradition of offering new vantage points, such as towers and Ferris wheels, from which to view the familiar world. To intensify the dizzying disorientation, attractions were later developed for speed and to disrupt gravity, such as roller coasters and big dippers.’ This continued well into the 20th century. Quoting a novel from 1938, when Brighton was ‘a riot of colour, commercialism and sexuality, where the life of sensation in unedited and raw energy is on display … the town has given full rein to the possibilities of experiment, spectacle, performance, play, transgression, and indulgence … always the spirit of carnival bubbled close to the surface.’

In the Blackpool chapter Bunting makes the astute observation: ‘the contemporary nostalgia for a perfect past on the coast is in sharp contrast with the history of the seaside resort through the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century when they were considered the epitome of modernity and progress. (With) the first roller coaster, the first helter skelter, Blackpool indulged appetites for the outrageous, the scandalous and freakish, drawing on fairground and circus traditions to horrify and fascinate.’ In 1934 JB Preistly described Blackpool as ‘A great roaring spangled beast … the huge mad place with it miles and miles of promenades and shops piled high and glittering with trash.’ Madeleine tells us about the biggest resort of them all, ‘Blackpool invented the mass working class resort, when the textile mills closed for repairs and maintenance in the summer.’ In perhaps my favourite line in the book, in the Blackpool chapter I think, she describes how ‘the Victorian and Edwardian seaside resort was a crucible of conflict between classes and lifestyles, as wealthy and status conscious visitors and residents competed with plebean locals and roistering excursionists,’ and how ‘Blackpool has been shorthand for everything about working class culture that the middle class judge as crude, cheap, tacky and vulgar.’ But the fact remains that so strong was its pull, it was the only place Frank Sinatra played outside London on his 1950 UK tour. It remains an absolutely astonishing fact that even in the 80s Blackpool was still the biggest seaside resort in Europe, and had more visitors than the whole of Greece and more hotels than Portugal.

But by the late 70s and early 80s, things began falling apart. Morecambe, Blackpool’s more upmarket neighbour, where Coco Chanel stayed in the once-glamorous art deco Royal Midland Hotel, was a textbook case in point. ‘By the late 70s and early 80s Morecambe was changing. Morecambe used to have two theatres, a fairground, the Winter Gardens, two cinemas and an outdoor pool, but within two years all that had gone. What happened in the 80s to seaside towns was catastrophic. Slums were cleared in Liverpool, Manchester and the Midlands under Thatcher, and their inhabitants were sent to Morecambe. The town became known as the single-mother capital of England; it was total social breakdown.’ Sadly, the same was true for St Leonards, where we live, and a host over other towns on the Edge of England.

The sorry state many of our seaside towns are in today, the victims of English society hollowing out, the gap between haves and have-nots returning to Victorian proportions, makes for bleak reading. Once I read ‘the scale of Blackpool’s plight is evident in the statistics,’ I’m ashamed to say my mind seized up and wandered off to less painful tasks.  

But if the nadir experienced in places like Blackpool or Morecambe marks a kind of rock bottom, then what about the current bounce being experienced by a lot of dysfunctional and dilapidated coastal resorts, especially those in the orbit of London, with the influx of trendy arty types from the increasingly unaffordable metropolis, and with them the twin blights of sourdough bakeries and Air B’n’B, exemplified in places like Margate and St Leonards? I think the thorny issue of gentrification is a devilishly tricky one that trips most people up, and unfortunately Madeleine is no exception. 

The Margate chapter’s a bit of an exercise in DFL-bashing from a safe distance, I’m sorry to say, and I think this chapter lets the rest of the book down a bit. Ah the poor DFLs, (“Down From Londons”), those demonised economic refugees of Hackney and Peckham, with their bicycle baskets full of pastel de natas and their daft hair, who as often as not are young creative types struggling through life and a historically dysfunctional property bubble caused by the same asset-driven rentier economy we’re all trapped in, stuck in their own kind of neoliberal precarity, priced out of their old swathes of the metropolis, trying to make a go of it by opening a deli full of locally foraged mushrooms and dicey local natural wine and discovering the reality of small family-run businesses struggling to make ends meet at the periphery … but Madeleine Bunting never sees it from their point of view, as she never talks to any of them, just deals with them in the abstract, as a type (‘pesky DFLs’ they’re even referred to), because most of the chapter has the air of someone googling the YouGov website from their home in London, or quoting the pages of a report by a bitter University of Kent sociologist with an axe to grind. Surely it’s not the influx of hipster DFLs and their new vegan cafes’ fault that locals (some of the most deprived in the country as we keep being reminded) have been priced out of what is still one of the cheapest housing markets in the South East? That’s more the result of 40 years of neoliberal market distortion, isn’t it? Arty DFLs are being blamed for rocketing house prices and the widening chasm of wealth inequality and subsequent social dislocation here in a way that reminds me of any other form of immigrant–bashing. Like any group of immigrants the DFLs surely are the symptoms and not the cause. It’s not their fault houses are unaffordable. The DFLs find houses unaffordable too. That’s why they can’t live in Lewisham any more. As a writer, when you’re parachuting into an unfamiliar place that’s abandoned because of lockdown and you’re unable to connect with the human beings there, it’s easy to fall back on statistics and sociology reports, easy to imagine people in the abstract, as categories, as either locals or DFLs (or pesky DFLs), seen in such abstracted and amorphous terms that they all become reduced to awful affluent colonists out to make a killing on dirt cheap property, intent on flipping the place with their unpackaged quinoa and craft beer outposts. True, in a place like Margate, or St Leonards, as in Hackney before it, there are plenty of these twats to go around, but this misses the point that these twats normally arrive like class-vampires to feed on the arty types with their precarious financial arrangements and flair for shonky bar construction who had to clear the ground and build natural wine emporia for the twats to lord it up in beforehand. The cycle repeats: first the cool people, the people with more taste than money move in somewhere really cheap and run down, followed by the twats, the people with more money than taste, once it’s been spelled out to them it’s actually safe and maybe even cool for them to live there. Plus ça change.

Curiously, the coastal capital of twatdom, twatsville itself, the city in Southpark where everybody goes to smell their own farts, gets a glowing revue. ‘Praised for its reinvention since the 80s, where the capital moves to the coast … this is where London goes to meet the edge.’ Yes folks I mean Brighton. ‘Kemptown developed a thriving nightlife, and what was once a shabby, crime-ridden part of town is now an area of boutique hotels and smart restaurants, and is home to the biggest LGBTQ community in the country.’ Why is Margate all bad DFLs, but Brighton is somehow all good DFLs?  I don’t get it.

As property became increasingly unaffordable in London, Brighton benefitted from the spillover in the 90s; now house prices almost match those of the capital.’ It sounds like an estate agent wrote this bit. This was just an earlier version of the process that’s underway in Margate today, which is still relatively affordable and early in the game, while Brighton was in this stage a generation ago but has long left it behind. As a microcosm of the dysfunction of 2023 and those sensitive souls trying to navigate an alternative route through it, Margate seems to me a pretty close contemporary analogue to the Brighton that was an alternative mecca of 80s and 90s Britain.

Despite this strange inconsistency, I have to say the Brighton chapter was my favourite part of the book. It really comes into its own here. It’s lyrically and often beautifully written, coming as it does from Madeleine’s first hand experience of living there as a teenager, and captures the flavour of the seaside in all its magic and illusion and precarity: ‘I feared the magic of Brighton couldn’t last; it was too much fun and no one was telling us off. Its freedom was intoxicating. Brighton was a dream factory of idealists, fantasists escapists and adventurers.’ She evokes perfectly the ups and downs of the transitory, precarious nature of a city by the sea where people come and people go: ‘living in Brighton you were always on the edge of other people’s parties,’ but then again, ‘Nothing in Brighton felt as secure or permanent as it might appear to be … the grand regency terraces were shockingly badly built by speculators and about as robust as stage scenery … the sense of liminality was visceral: all was in flux …’

This evocation of 80s and 90s Brighton comes closest to the seaside I know and love, a place for dreamers, oddballs, theremin players whose theremins are broken, potholed pavements full of dogshit and white paint spills, and a strange threadbare sense of freedom, half-boarded up streets opening out to the magnificent blue distance, the big blue world beyond … and all of this falls through the sieve of statistics about social deprivation, low payed precarious work, or drug abuse; it quickly evaporates under this kind of lens. We didn’t move down here to the margins to be fit or to get rich. We didn’t move here to be just down the road from Tunbridge Wells. We were priced out of London, but we still wanted to live in a place at right angles to the manicured lawns of the commuter belt. We came to this drinking town with a fishing problem to be free.

The seaside town economy has always been seasonal, and usually precarious, even at the height of its success. Hidden behind the glitter and glamour lay poverty and a struggle to get by on meagre profits. Seaside resorts have been dominated by small, often family–run businesses … wages are well below national average and levels of indebtedness as amongst the highest in the country, poverty the result of low-paid, unskilled work, and inevitable need for loans to cover everyday emergencies such as a broken washing machine.’ This books relies a lot on statistics, poor health indicators, and too often boils everything down to money, or the lack of it, pointing out stark realities that often seem painfully familiar, like another kick in the bollocks. But the meaning of the seaside, its beauty, falls through this net of economic & NHS statistics, and resides in the subjective experience and the feelings the seaside evokes, which are at odds with all that, and are where its magic lies. This book is at its best when it tries to capture these intangibles: 

The seaside is a liminal space and it allows people to throw off constraints of time, behaviours, dress. It represents freedom. I would describe the beach as a “thin place”, where the sense of something older and much larger than oneself is strong,” says a man she talked to in Worthing. ‘Where we are betwixt the familiar and the completely unknown, there alone is our world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence,’ a Franciscan priest waxed metaphysical in the early 1800s, as did Byron and Turner and countless artists and poets since – and poets and artists are still drawn here now, Empire Coaches full of them, to its peripherality, its freedom, its relative affordability, and its beauty. 

Maybe most poetically, Madeleine captures these intangible feelings in passages of her own lyrical personal reflection: ‘On my day in Worthing, after my swim, I lay back in the sun and listened to the sound of seagulls, waves breaking and children’s cries. The simplicity of the seaside’s pleasures are part of its charm. I felt the space, light and water soften me.’ In a beautiful passage, she observes an 18 month old girl on the same beach: ‘She looked around her, her face full of amazement, at her parents lying on the ground, at her feet in the sand, at the bucket and spade in her hands as her sister showed her how to dig. She was being initiated into the many meanings of the seaside: how daily life was set aside, and her parents lay as if sleeping, instead of towering over her, and it was hard to drag my eyes away.’

In the last chapter there’s a quote from a social worker from the Somerset seaside that I think sums the whole bleak beautiful mess up perfectly: 

It suffers from an economic peripherality, but there is an independence, and a deep attachment to people and the place. On many national measures we’re at the bottom, but in studies of happiness and wellbeing we rank high. We may have no money and sometimes things are shit, but we have the things needed for wellbeing. We rely on each other and on our connectedness to nature, and that’s what affects our security and thus wellbeing. Who determines what the good life is? We shouldn’t be seen as left behind. The levelling-up agenda implicitly tells people: you must become like us. It’s condescending. There’s something about being on the edge. It influences the culture of a place and makes it more a bit more independent, even radical; it has to find solutions. Peripherality is not all negative. It’s also great to be on the edge. Being on the sea means you see the horizon., and its hard not to feel a connection to place and to know your place. It grounds you, and makes you constantly aware of your smallness in a bigger scheme.’


‘The Seaside’ is out now and available here (£19.00), published by Granta.