To the Sea

I have become the custodian of our family photo album, the lever arch file of yellowing holiday snaps that my dad took in the early 1970s. There are pictures of me as a baby and in various stages of toddlerhood, and pictures of my brother and sisters in clothes they’d rather not remember: giant flares with patch pockets, orange nylon shirts, matching knitted cardigans and crocheted ponchos. It’s a delight, and I have – of course – made the Husband and the Dude sit through the whole lot, with an accompanying commentary.

Little me, Blackpool beach, summer 1976

Some of the photos are of the house that I grew up in, a 1920s semi that came with my dad’s job, as Safety Engineer for Parkside Colliery in Newton-le-Willows. He spent long periods of time on call in case of accidents, so a house near the colliery was a necessity. Parkside opened in 1957, and didn’t have the exposed winding gear that you’d normally associate with northern pit towns: instead, everything was enclosed within two enormous concrete buildings that reared up above the surrounding fields. They could have been office buildings, or strange, windowless blocks of flats. They were a soft beige colour that turned pale apricot in the sun. In rain, they darkened to dull purple, and then faded back to beige again as the water evaporated. When we went on holiday, they were the landmark we looked out for to tell us that we were almost home.

My brother and sisters, 1970. Parkside in the background.

Most of our holidays were in Blackpool. Blackpool wasn’t our nearest seaside resort – that was Southport – but it was where we went, largely because my dad’s cousin owned a series of guesthouses up near the North Pier and allowed our family of six to have a cheapish week away every year. Later, we used to go to Blackpool twice a year, at Easter and then in November, for weekends organised by the National Coal Board. These were an odd combination of quizzes, team-building exercises and first-aid competitions that involved gruesome mock-ups of underground disasters. Each colliery sent a team to investigate, treat the casualties and show what safety procedures they’d implement. These competitions were fiercely contested, but often, it was the Parkside team, led by my dad, that won. In the evenings, there’d be a dinner dance at the Winter Gardens, a washed-up comedian, and – each November – a Coal Queens of Britain competition, where the daughters of various miners would parade in swimsuits and evening wear. This was in the late 70s, and nobody batted an eyelid at the miners’ daughters and tired old jokes. I don’t remember much about our summers at Aunty Lilian’s guesthouses, but I do remember the miners’ weekends, the donkey rides and trips to the Tower, and the unusually cold Easter when there was snow on Blackpool beach.

On the beach, 1975

My brother and sisters and I went to Blackpool last weekend. It’s the first time since about 1977 that all four of us have been there together, and we wanted to find the guesthouses where we used to stay. The last time I went to Blackpool was in the summer of 1989, the day before the GCSE results came out. That was the summer I lost myself in the Brontës, and the garish lights and sounds, the smells of candyfloss and fish and chips, clashed with the thoughts in my head about the Yorkshire moors and escaping to somewhere where I could hide in a library for three years and read.

The lights and sounds and smells are still exactly the same, but the way to approach Blackpool is to take it on its own terms. It was a beautiful day, with wide blue skies and the sun glinting off the sea, and we had a fabulous time finding the spots that we’d been photographed in so many years ago.

Julie, Peter and Susan in Blackpool, summer 1970
Peter, Susan and me, Blackpool, summer 2022; Julie took the photo

Simon Armitage has been on Radio 4 recently, exploring ten of Philip Larkin’s poems to mark the centenary of the poet’s birth, and one of the poems he chose was ‘To the Sea’, published in Larkin’s final collection, High Windows. It describes ‘the miniature gaiety of seasides’, and it marks a rare note of positivity for Larkin, as the people he describes aren’t being sneered at for their tawdriness but celebrated for taking part in what is ‘half an annual pleasure, half a rite’. The people on the beach are all happily coexisting, doing their own thing: families playing games and making sandcastles, elderly people in wheelchairs being taken for a day out, swimmers gasping at the cold, and Larkin himself as a child, ‘happy at being on my own’. There’s a beautiful description of toddlers ‘grasping at enormous air’ (and what else do children do, when they’re learning to walk?) At the end, there’s a typically Larkinesque nod to human imperfection, but also a sense that for all their shortcomings, the people he describes are doing something important, something that absolves them of anything else:

If the worst
Of flawless weather is our falling short,
It may be that through habit these do best,
Coming to the water clumsily undressed
Yearly; teaching their children by a sort
Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought.

‘Teaching their children by a sort of clowning’: isn’t that gorgeous? And look at the rhymes, too: they’re there, not shoving themselves in your face, but just gently, under the surface, holding things together like the informal rituals they describe.

I’d like to think ‘To the Sea’ was about Blackpool, but apparently it’s about Rhyl, on the North Wales coast, where Larkin’s parents met. We had an annual trip to Rhyl when I was in secondary school, to the Sun Centre. I remember shingle and grey skies. I think we were sold Rhyl on the grounds that it was in another country, and was therefore exotic. It seems an appropriate place for Sidney and Eva to have had their first encounter, somehow.

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