England’s Faded Glory


Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside
I do like to be beside the sea!
I do like to stroll upon the Prom, Prom, Prom!
Where the brass bands play:
So just let me be beside the seaside
I’ll be beside myself with glee.

In England, you are never very far from the sea; so, last week, having flown to the country of my birth to attend a conference, I took advantage of the opportunity to make a couple of trips to the coast. I should say that some of my happiest memories are, as a child, spending Augusts in Wales camping beside the sea. That it usually rained non-stop and that we kids would spend countless damp hours under canvas playing vingt-et-un for matchsticks in no way detracts from the memories. I do remember that the moment the sun came out we would dash down to the sands, get the most dreadful sun burn, and have to spend the next week being coated in chamomile lotion to soothe the pain. I don’t think that anyone had heard of skin cancer back then.

England was, and still is, a very class-ridden society—the sort of society that the Republicans are desperately keen to impose on the USA. These divisions were reflected in the sea-side resorts. The genteel, middle-class towns would have stately hotels, carefully manicured lawns and flowers along the promenade, and usually a theater where the summer stock was George Bernard Shaw and that sort of thing. Eastbourne, on the south coast between Dover and Brighton was (and still is) one such town. Owned and developed in large part by the Dukes of Devonshire, it is a favorite retirement location. Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s bulldog, ended up there.

An old joke plays on Dover’s being the jumping off point for Europe: “Dover for the continent. Eastbourne for the incontinent.” Judging from my visit last week, there is still much truth in the quip. I saw powered walking chairs by the hundred. It was unseasonably hot. Shirts were off. I suspect that chamomile lotion was much in demand over the weekend. I will say that, dreadful as much English food still is, you can get terrific fish and chips in these places. And mushy peas to die for. (Actually, Lizzie tells me she would rather die than eat mushy peas, thank you very much.)

After the conference, I went around the coast to the Isle of Thanet, the easternmost point of Kent. Actually it is not an island anymore. The channel separating it from the mainland has silted up and the land has been drained. With sandy beaches, it has always been a magnet for Londoners seeking a holiday. And it comes across as much more working class than Eastbourne. The hotels are more modest and the amusements more downscale. I would think you would have been more likely to see Charley’s Aunt at the local summer theater than Major Barbara.

As it happens, the English painter J. M. W. Turner had connections with Margate—his dad was a barber and not one of the nobs. A new art gallery – the Turner Contemporary —has just been opened on the sea front. It has a terrific small exhibition of Turner’s work reflecting the four elements of air, fire, earth, and water. I am always impressed how, 50 years before the Impressionists like Monet, Turner captured light and the way that it transforms the objects on which it falls. I know that Laurie Fendrich is now in full warrior mode dealing with the presidential election, but it would be great (hint, hint) if in one of her columns she could discuss Turner and how he could have come from a country about to plunge into the pre-Raphaelites.

The real giveaway about Margate’s social status is the prominence of fish stalls. I don’t mean regular fish, but mollusks (cockles) and crustaceans (shrimp actually) and sea snails (whelks). A great favorite of the English working class, they are boiled and served cold, preferably covered in salt and vinegar. It sounds revolting but actually, once you get over the looks, they are pretty tasty. In fact, they remind me of calamari with perhaps a little more punch. Undoubtedly revealing my true social status, I love them.

But in a way, going to the English or Welsh seaside is a bit like going down memory lane. The fact is that today the Brits would rather pile into a cut-cost plane and fly down to Spain or Morocco or wherever: places where they can get absolutely pie eyed on cheap booze, really work on their skin cancer options, and as like as not come home with an affliction that requires a discreet visit to the local STD clinic. (Okay, okay, I am generalizing. But I speak with authority.)

For all of the gallant efforts like the Turner gallery, the seaside resorts of today have a look of time past not time present. I wonder if they are not, in a bit of a way, a metaphor for the country itself. I don’t mean that there is nothing new and vibrant in Britain. Of course there is. But again and again I have that rather sad feeling of a country a hundred years past its sell-by date. There was a confidence and meaning and purpose and pride back then that seems to have evaporated—as is evidenced by the continuing turmoil about Britain’s relationship to the EU and the likely escape from the union of the land to the north.

I love England. But I think I was fortunate 50 years ago to come to North America. I do wonder, however, if a hundred years from now—given our total inability to face the future or to deal with the changing world—people will have the same reaction to the USA as I have to England.

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