11 AUGUST 1961, Page 9

Seascape with Figures

By SIMON RAVEN ,HAD a good day, love?' said the fat woman on the front to the boatman. 'Took on a party of four this morning,' said the boatman, 'and they caught enough fish to fill a bath-tub, and how much of it do you suppose they gave me?'

'Go on? How much?'

'Not a one.'

`Go on? It's a mean lot comes down here all right.'

`Here' is a respectable resort not far from where I am at present living on the Kentish coast. The golf courses and preparatory schools bring a trickle of rather constrained upper-middle-class custom, which chews fibrous steaks in the two best hotels but eschews, with unconscious wis- dom, the misleading wine lists (`No halves of No. 7, sir, she forgot to cross it off'). For the rest, while we get a few unabashed working-class traditionalists (braces, stout and cockles), the majority of our summer visitors are tight-faced and genteel couples in their early thirties, who are doing rather well out of the affluent society and have dressed their two children to look as if they might be attending a fee-paying school. English Youth (as distinct from children) does not come here for its holidays . . . though local resources yield some prime specimens clothed in crash-helmets and resentment, and French sixth- formers come over in large numbers to improve their English and to be beaten up, from time to time, by the crash-helmet brigade.

But despite all these, and despite the trim and well-mannered Royal Marine 'recruits from a near-by depot, the main emphasis stays on the artisan couples and their neatly blazered children. It is these who enjoy 'breakfast and evening meal' behind the lace curtains in Ocean View; who sit for hours in their parked Austins on the finest day; who putt without interest on the municipal putting green; who go fishing (once) and neglect to share their catch with the boatman ... though Heaven knows what they do with it in Ocean View. It is these who are `the mean lot' which comes down here and whose meagre disburse- ment will keep the town going from October until next June. And yet, if the town wants more of their money, it makes little effort to entice it out of them; marmoreally conservative, the town just offers, year after year, what it has been offer- ing since 1900, and then complains because the guests don't buy more of it. For the descendants of notorious wreckers (castigated in the rumbling couplets of Defoe), the natives of this coast have become oddly unadventurous.

Consider : the beach here is full of pebbles, so that people are only too glad to get off it and amuse themselves on the front, some two miles in length, and featuring several pubs, all appar- ently owned by the same brewer and carrying identical brands of drink, some cafds which would serve tinned fried eggs if they could get them, a cramped roller-skating rink, the putting green aforesaid, and a scabby little den full of pin-tables. Small wonder that the family groups grow ever more depressed and querulous as the day proceeds, until, feet dragging and faces drooping, they are reduced to seeking reassurance in their cherished car, whence a child is dis- patched every fifteen minutes to buy another round of the frozen chemicals which pass for ice- cream. The puzzle is that they come here at all. Yet year after year they do come; with memories that can only be of boredom and malignant waitresses, back they come every year and spend just enough money to sustain the shoddy carnival in business against the following summer.

Why do they come? The golfers, the sea-fish- ing enthusiasts, the French schoolboys .. . these have their reasons, certainly, but they account for a bare 10 per cent. of our visitors. What about the rest . . . the flotsam families trailing in their tidy clothes from end to end of the front? And once granted they are here, why. if they are so bored and edgy, can't they take their nice little cars and drive inland into the country- side (which is exquisite) or along the coast to one of the many open beaches of sand?

Well. listen to this.

SHE: I wish we were home.

HE: Why, dear?

SHE: Because if we were home I could make us a nice cup of tea and we could sit down round the table. But here, that Mrs. Thing at Ocean View won't have us in the house after ten.

HE: There's lots of places on the front We can have a cup.

SHE: No' thank you. Those nasty girls slam- ming it down in front of you. I can't think why we came at all, really.

HE: You know bloody well why we came. Because your bloody mother wouldn't let me rest till I'd arranged what she calls a proper holiday for you. Everyone else does it, she says, and it's only right you should do it for Rita.

So. They came in response to social pressure. But why here? Listen again.

CHILD (male): Dad, why can't we take the car and go somewhere?

DAD: Because we've come for our holiday here.

CHILD: I only meant go somewherenear. You know, have a picnic. In a wood, or a beach which doesn't have houses.

DAD: What about it, Mum?

Mum : Don't be silly. If we went somewhere like that there wouldn't be any people, now would there?

CHILD: We don't need people.

Mum: I like to be where there's people. It doesn't seem right not having them. It doesn't seem safe, somehow. Anyway, it's silly like 1 said.

DAD: Hm.... I suppose your mother's right. SECOND CHILD (female): Oh Mum, why can't we go to a wood and have a picnic?

Mum : Give over, Doris. You're lucky to be having a holiday at all. . . .

One might have known it. The citizens of a mass society must be where others are, or else the world might end and they not know of it. The citizens of an affluent society must have someone to whom they can show off their care- ful acquisitions . . . even if it means sitting in the car for hours, so that everybody knows it's theirs . . . lest these acquisitions, like fairy gold, should become meaningless overnight. They must be in a town : any town. Whitstable, Rams- gate, Broadstairs . all would serve equally well, but it happens that it's difficult to get rooms this month, so they've come here instead. I find them dispiriting. I long for the day in mid-September when the Guinness Clock will be taken away for another year, and our Salvation Army band can play once more, unheeded by the sea, on a deserted front.