Wish you were here
England on Sea
Hardcover. 256 p. London: Sceptre, 2010. ISBN 978-0340935101. £14.99
Reviewed by Clare Griffiths
University of Sheffield
Wish you were here is part of that booming market for popular non-fiction which offers its audience entertaining accounts of the history of everyday objects and commodities. Travis Elborough has already contributed books on the long-play record album and the London Routemaster bus. His history of the English seaside traces a familiar story of development, from the eighteenth-century ‘discovery’ of the coast as a place to visit, often on health grounds, to the establishment of seaside culture as an important symbol of the English at play. He engages with the dualities of the seaside, as an idyll of innocent childhood holidays but also as a place of illicit assignations and criminal behaviour. His account is also a tale of changing fortunes, reflected in part through the architectural record: from the speculative elegance of fine terraces and esplanades, through the modernist moments of the mid-twentieth century, to the decline and seediness which came to afflict coastal towns as fashions changed and as cheap package holidays to more reliably sunny climes lured families away from the traditional British resorts.
Elborough’s rationale for writing a history of English attitudes to the seaside makes much of his own roots on the coast: he grew up in (and seemingly grew to loathe) Worthing. It is disappointing that so little of this special insider knowledge makes it into the book since Elborough is at his most amusing when describing the difficulties of being young ‘in a place where almost everyone else has gone to die’, and when turning his journalist’s eye on the absurd details of seaside tourist tat. The text never quite turns into a travelogue, uncovering stories of the past whilst wandering through the places of the present. A book along those lines might have made for a more credible and enjoyable excursion. As it stands the account is rather more ambiguous: is it aspiring to be a cultural history, or simply a diverting discussion of the topic, driven by its anecdotes rather than analysis?
The premise of the book was promising, offering an interesting organisation of chapter topics: health (or rather sickness), sex, humour, modernism, holidaymaking, the romance of the coast (particularly in Cornwall), the less respectable side of the seaside resorts, and the development of the seaside as a place to retire or have a second home. These topics allow for thematic discussion, whilst also pursuing a larger story about change over time. To keep those two elements—theme and narrative—in balance, is a challenge for any author, and, to his credit, Elborough pulls it off. Unfortunately, the result is strangely unenlightening. Elborough is happiest when summarising novels and films, often resulting in long digressions away from the main topic. The best part of the book is on the holiday camps that Billy Butlin furnished with creative use of army surplus, promoted through the endorsement of celebrities and offered to the customer as a glamorous escape from domestic life. Here, Elborough’s feeling for detail and appreciation of the social context come together to good effect. Elsewhere, the text often feels too derivative and insubstantial. The contemporary analysis of the seaside is particularly disappointing, since one would have expected this section to find the author in his element. Instead we are offered a familiar survey, hitting the easy targets.
Some of the book’s problems lie in its production. It would have benefited from more careful proof reading, as well as greater editorial intervention to remedy some basic problems of punctuation and too many predictable errors in the use of English: ‘principle’ for ‘principal’, ‘lead’ for ‘led’. In common with much of the seaside culture it describes, Wish you were here can be diverting at times, but it has a slightly ephemeral feel. It bounces off, rather than contributes to the cultural history of the seaside and modern leisure.
Cercles © 2011