I never saw a British seaside town I didn’t like. Foreign travel crippled them. EasyJet and Ryanair bayoneted the wounded. And yet here they still areby Sam Leith / July 17, 2014 / Leave a comment
I’m in Cromer, on the Norfolk coast. Crows maunder on the fairway—or so I imagine. Ever since reading Robert Lowell’s Waking In The Blue, I can’t see a crow on level ground not “maundering,” though here it’s not a fairway but a bowling green. I think. Anyway, crows there are; and they maunder. On the cliff path there are poppies—one or two, bright red in their pomp. And out further over the railing, from the window of the flat where I’m staying, from the cross-streets of the main road, going nowhere, is the level grey sea. The sea here doesn’t have so much as a fleck of blue in it. It is a rich palette of greys, and the sky above is a completely different set of greys, and it is completely lovely.
I never saw a British seaside town I didn’t like. Foreign travel crippled them. EasyJet and Ryanair bayoneted the wounded. And yet here they still are, as bravely cheery as the exclamation mark in Westward Ho! I especially like the towns that responded with futile tackiness—with bleak arcades and Vegas-themed chip shops—but places like Cromer, that aim for a 1950s sort of gentility instead of a 1970s sort of vulgarity, also touch me. They’re both manifestations of the same thing. They have history and they have by definition—hanging out like some enormously solemn and portentous metaphor—the sea.
I’ve come on holiday by myself. It’s not so much a holiday as a sort of solitary furlough, granted by my kindly wife at the point at which both of us are going mad from the three children under five and all the rest of it, and because only one of us—the one without breasts, crudely—is in a position to relieve the pressure by getting out for three days. I’ll owe her. According to the compound interest of marital debt, which makes Wonga.com look like the RAF Widows’ Benevolent Fund, three days for me in Cromer in 2014 will add up to two weeks for her in the Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur in 2015.
So here I am, breathing the sea air, alone as I almost never am. You only realise when you’re authentically tied—to spouse, to children, to the timetables of school and taxman—quite how absurdly and pointlessly free you were beforehand. How little you appreciated it. And at the same time how barren that freedom was. To be alone again is to recapture that freedom, and to intuit in it the edge of anxiety—that in something you long for, and feel guilty for longing for, you’ll find not bliss but that barrenness again.
“Beyond all this, the wish to be alone,” is Philip Larkin’s line. It is the first line of the poem, so “this” is unspecified but implies anything you might care to mention. Beyond all what? Typical Larkin. Grand gesture; a morose Hull librarian’s version of Marlon Brando in The Wild One—“What are you rebelling against?” he’s asked. “What’ve you got?” he replies.
The poet goes on, in his Larkinish way, to suggest that the wish to be alone is the same as the wish to be dead—“Beneath it all, the desire for oblivion runs”—which it obviously isn’t. How are you supposed to enjoy your own company if you aren’t there? If us North London dwelling non-Larkins wanted to be dead, we could simply hoof ourselves over that very convenient bridge onto the Archway Road, which would among other considerations save our relicts the £50 train fare to Cromer. The desire for fish and chips and a solitary pint, we reckon, isn’t the same as the desire for oblivion—which, after all, we’ll get sooner or later whether we like it or not.
Instead we come here and keep an eye on the sea, and we relish the solitude. And yet… we find something to take the edge off it. I wrote a little over 6,000 words today, which is a lot for a holiday. Tomorrow, perhaps, I shall see if it’s possible to go for a ride on a donkey.