Taking pleasures sadly
Blackpool, like some spectacularly nippled Alp or Everest itself, is there and so, one supposes, that is reason enough for some to go to it. But mountain climbers risking life and limb going Up icy Alpine or Himalayan breasts have at least got their mothers to blame for bottlefeeding them. What excuse do the political parties of Britain have for Blackpool?
Of course Blackpool is all cloth caps and Clogs, or at least nowadays, cloth caps and Plastic macs. It is the traditional watering hole of the North Country working man. I ' once started to do some research for a book on Wakes Weeks when the mills, or, rather t'mills, were shut down for refitting and the men and women and children workers, too, in those days, were given an enforced and unpaid holiday. It would have been a fairly typical Piece of bogus sociology, a non-book really, but it was not finer feelings about the social sciences or even the morality of producing non-books which ended the effort. It was the time required in Blackpool researching the thing. I know the town as yTu know some mad aunt or particularly bitchy ex-wife and it is definitely a relationship I could have done without.
At first I thought that Labour went to Blackpool out of sentimentality. I figured the Tories went to Brighton for the same reason, and that out of some esoteric sense of fun they alternated the party conferences so that the socialists could have a good time watching the Tories being uncomfortable in belligerently lower-class Blackpool and vice versa. It is no doubt a sign of my rather amazing political naiVeteor a sign that I have too nice a heart and look for romance and fun in places where there IS only cold calculation. The simple reason they use Blackpool for party conferences is that Blackpool has the conference space and the hotel space to accommodate them all. And People sometimes wonder why they find me staring sadly into space!
There are, of course, some things to be said for Blackpool. Some of the horSes which drag the opened carriages, landaus I think is the Proper term, along the seafront are fine-looking animals. There is a giant Yates Wine Lodge there which, like all Yates Wine Lodges, is filled With men and women who look as though they have just pulled off the French Revolution. The Australian wine of a Yates has to be tried but it is a dangerous voyage of discovery.
But to the point, the Yates in Blackpool has champagne on draught. I come from a generation which cannot recall tram cars, only the old tracks of them, but Blackpool has trams and you would have to be fairly well blinkered with imagination to think yourself back in the good old bad old days while riding a Blackpool tram through the garish honky-tonk of the Golden Mile. You can still, however, hop on one and ride to Fleetwood and the smell and feel of the real sea. There are also some good restaurants, a bit on the outskirts of the town. These are the places the locals go to.
There are also some good fish bars tucked away in the centre of Blackpool. We found one the other day, Robert's, right on the seafront. Oysters £1.50 a dozen. The only trouble: they had no drink in the place. Can you imagine an oyster bar with no stout! The customers have to nip around the corner in the wind and rain to that big Yates's and then come back with a bottle of wine wrapped in a brown paper bag rather like the winos one sees in the long grass by the side of the railroad tracks in the lost soul parts of great American cities. They do a good chip in Blackpool, too, and that cannot be denied: and if your wit runs to false teeth and kippers made out of rock, Blackpool is your man. I heard a story that they also do fried eggs, bacon and chips made out of Blackpool rock but, like the reporters from the People used to do, I made an excuse and left the room.
Besides the research I did for the aborted Wakes Week book I was once ordered to Blackpool for a week by the old Manchester Guardian to cover all the summer shows. Skiffle bands were still in vogue at that time unfortunately, but I recall with some delight the late little Jimmy Clitheroe in something called Fryin' Tonight, and I happened also that summer week upon the great North Country comic, Albert Mowdley, doing an act in which the drum kit he played could be turned into a tram car. But the summer shows of Blackpool then and now are a hideous thing. I don't suppose they are any better elsewhere, but in Blackpool they seem really to reach a degree of grotesquerie unmatched anywhere else. The true grotesque, the combining of the human and the animal form, is seen both on the stage and in the audience in Blackpool. And one day I happened along by some theatre in Blackpool and there, in Dayglo letters on the poster announcing the bill of fare on the stage inside, it said we could see such and such a fellow and underneath his name it said "The Original Al Jolson." Blackpool — the whole North of England — is filled with fellows making a living out of imitating Al Jolson and George Formby.
But in the winter, surprising, I suppose, to those that only know it for a party conference or a fortnight's summer holiday, things change, everything becomes calm, and there is even some respectable theatre in Blackpool in the winter. After the bizarre week of summer shows, I was amazed when the Guardian sent me back to Blackpool in the winter and I found real people there attending real plays. (There was one famous performance of Waiting For Godot done in Blackpool when the actors, eager as any persons of sensibility to catch the last train out of the place, speeded up Beckett's laconic lines, raced through the play and really did catch the last train.) But the town at conference time was new to me. I was amazed at the numbers of tourists still about. They seemed all to be Scots and surely this must be some sort of an argument in favour of the proposition that the Scots take their pleasures even more sadly than the English. Of course everyone knows that it is all set speeches in the conference hall. A few hecklers. Chaps with leaflets. But nothing much is going on. I puzzled for some time what it all reminded me of. And then it struck me. We were all standing in that long bar made to look like the sort of ship Errol Flynn or Tyrone Power used to command on the Celluloid Main when suddenly I realised that this was all just exactly like a wet day at Headingley or Old Trafford or one of those other immense and depressing Northern cricket grounds when you know that nothing very much is going to happen and that at best it will all end in a draw. At the Labour Conference Mikardo and Jones turned into something like Lillee and Thomson but it was really a dead wicket. It looked better on TV than on the pitch.
Reporters and chaps, and ladies with officiallooking badges and fans would-stand about the bar. They talked just as they would have talked in the beer tent a a cricket match. That is, they spoke of great moments of the past: the longer ago past naturally the better. Then one of them would rush out to see if a wicket had fallen or if Benn or Foot had reached a half-century yet. Then they'd come back. No. Nothing. No wickets fallen. No sixes tonked intoithe crowd. The man from the New York Times, a Mr Robert B. Semple Junior, must have sensed the same thing because we started talking about baseball, which can get in its own way as bogged down as cricket or British party conferences. The Boston Red Sox, he told me, had won the League. Coming out of the Winter Garden my taxi driver turned out to be a man from Boston who had married a Blackpool girl. I told him ;about the Boston Red Sox. There were tears in his eyes. "I used to watch 'em all the time," he said. "Now you've made me homesick." Love is a dangerous thing when it can end you up in Blackpool.