Actually, I think I’ll take a short break from thoughts of funerals and music. The English Summer is here, in all its glorious singularity (floods in the north-east, hailstorms, etc) and the time is right to celebrate the great British seaside town.
I have two favourite English seaside towns. One of them awaits me after I have crawled through the next four weeks of work at the Fiction Factory, so I’ll deal with that later. The other is Broadstairs.
I recently visited Broadstairs and stayed a couple of nights and it reminded me, as it always does, how much I love the place. One thing that I love is that it appears not to have changed in any major respect since I used to come here as a child. So bringing my own children here has always acted on me the way the taste of cake did on Proust. It prompts an upswell of memories and half-remembered emotions from those childhood summer days. When the sun shone all day, the sea was always perfect, and ice creams were more delicious than is ever possible these days. As the sun sank low, exhaustion would finally allow my mother to catch me and scrub the sand from my arms and legs before leaving me in bed to lie awake and listen to the sea, my shoulders and limbs singing with sunburn.
It isn’t just nostalgia that powers my love for Broadstairs. You could go there now, having never been before, and you would love it too. Sit on the beach in the perfect sandy semi-circle of Viking Bay and look up at the town crowding the cliff-top above. In a certain light – squinting a bit maybe, and allowing your imagination to be just the tiniest bit promiscuous with reality – you could be looking at a small Italian town, with its uneven arc of houses painted in a variety of pale and pastel colours under a porcelain blue sky.
There are several beaches, but the main one in Viking Bay is perfect if you have children; prettily enclosed by the cliffs with the broad (ahem) stairs which give the town its name, sheltered from rough water by the harbour wall, on the end of which is a cafe where you can get fish and chips and fresh crab sandwiches. And on the beach itself there are swings and trampolines for the children to enjoy when you’re not throwing said children into the sea.
The Italian illusion is buttressed by the two excellent cafes overlooking the sea; Morelli’s and Chiappini’s, and by the excellent Posillipo restaurant (‘With its authentic Neapolitan dishes,’ its website gushes, ‘Italian wines and breathtaking views of Viking Bay, Posillipo Broadstairs creates a classic Italian feel’… what did I tell you?).
Other things I love include several fine pubs and the unique Albion bookshop. This is a place I guess you either love or hate. For me, a second-hand bookshop in which the thousands of books are not only on shelves but piled in apparently random heaps all over the shop, upstairs and down, that’s heaven. I rarely visit the town without returning with a bag of books. They are usually unpredictable in title and content (a guide book to the Kentish Stour, a book on the Bush White House in the build-up to the Iraq War, a memoir of an IRA informer), and I have to confess that they often remain unread. The real fun is the hour spent in the Albion hunting them out and then examining them over a coffee and cake in Morelli’s.
Not everyone shares my love of this place, hard as that is for me to comprehend. My good friend Jerry has a completely different mental image of it. I mention Broadstairs and he remembers a dead rat falling off the cliff while he and his family were on the beach. It does no good to point out (as I continually do), that the rat incident happened on a different beach, not in Broadstairs at all. You know that way people make associations between places and memories? I’m Proust, so Broadstairs means cockles and beer and sitting on a wicker chair looking out to sea while sipping milky Chiappini’s coffee in one of those glasses inside a metal holder. He’s Orwell’s Winston Smith, so Broadstairs stirs memories of rats.
And I must admit also that the town is prone to the same higher forces that affect any seaside town in Britain. Hence on my recent visit we struggled to put up our beach tent against a frisky northeasterly that whipped up the waves enough in normally-placid Viking Bay that people were surfing. It rained frequently, and when it didn’t the lifeguards politely warned us out of the sea because a local sewage treatment station had accidentally polluted the whole coast. And a man who went swimming from the next bay along from us drowned in the rough seas, while we innocently played Boule with our jumpers on.
So I don’t claim it’s paradise. But you can’t let these things put you off, not even the weather. Broadstairs in any case has its own micro-climate. There have been times when we’ve left London in the rain, and it’s continued raining all the way down the M2, only for the skies to clear as we entered Thanet so that by lunchtime we were pretty much alone on a sunny beach as less brave or enthusiastic Londoners dipped their Rich Tea over the weekend papers, assuming we were sheltering miserably under the bandstand.
Broadstairs isn’t completely untouched by the modern world. On my recent visit I couldn’t help noticing that several shopfronts were empty in the narrow high street; broken teeth knocked out by the blows of a recession doing damage to every high street in the country. But I know it will survive and I confidently expect to bring my grandchildren here, if and when I have any. Their parents can laze on the sand while I lead another little one by the hand down the beach when the tide goes out, just as I did my two daughters and my son, and just as my parents did with me. Down the beach and out to the paddling pool that is only revealed at low tide. There we will drag our fishing nets among the rocks and weeds to pull out the baby crabs and tiny fish left behind by the sea.
Another small child’s eyes will widen at the sight of a crab scuttling round the bottom of a plastic bucket. The sun will slip behind the Dickens Museum on the cliff above the beach as the salt and sand dry on our legs and we eat fish and chips with wooden forks, and I will think about the many times I have done this before. And the unknown (but presumably smaller) number of times remaining to me to do it again. And it will be enough to know that others will come here after me.
[Postscript: My Proustian delusions don’t extend to the old children’s TV programme, The Clangers, but I know that some people get misty-eyed over them. So those kind of folks will be thrilled to know that Oliver Postgate, the creator of the Clangers, lived in Broadstairs. There’s a plaque on his old house to tell you so. Fetchingly decorated with a mosaic picture of his creation.]