Beside the Sea

Originally published in Idler 60.

One sunny day, I drove back from the Latitude Festival in Suffolk with Idler webmaster Neil. I can’t actually drive, of course, so Neil volunteered to do all of the steering wheel and pedals stuff. My job as I saw it was to sing at the top of my lungs all the way home to Scotland.

After an hour or so, we came upon something rather odd. It was the English Channel. We’d gone the wrong bloody way! If only we’d had a third person in the car whose job it was to read the map, we wouldn’t be in such a pickle. I still blame Neil for this oversight.

A speedy u-turn and a few verses of “show me the way to go home” later, I got to thinking about that sight: the sight of the Channel. It had risen up in front of us, majestically grey-green, a transit link to eternity. It had been accompanied by the dawning recognition of a major navigational cock-up but it had also come with a sort of ticklish, awesome excitement. The sea! The sea!

An awful city slicker, I hadn’t seen the sea in years. And now that we were zooming away from it, I was pinched by a sense of loss. How could I have forgotten about the sea? Are the city lights so exciting that I’d exclude that lovely salt water we all paddled in as children, screaming gleefully as the waves lapped in and out? Is the buzz of urban action worth sacrificing the connection with our aquatic, primordial origin? It takes a steely determination to forget the sea when you live on an island.

After this awakening, I decided to visit the coast more often — deliberately — and it has become something I do from time to time. My usual spot is Largs, near Glasgow, but I’ve been all over: Margate, Tenby, Rhyll, Eastbourne, Skegness, Blackpool, Prestatyn, Minehead, Brighton, Southsea. I have rituals on the coast. I like to build at least one sandcastle regardless of the weather. I like to pick up some litter to intercept its journey to the Pacific Trash Vortex (something that genuinely troubles me). And I like to bring back a shell.

It’s an idle idyll and one could do a lot worse than forsake the city in favour of the coast. I sometimes think of moving there for good. Here are some practical considerations when weighing up the matter of city versus coast.

It’s cheaper than living in town. A recurring theme in this column has been the importance of saving money — or at least living so cheaply that you don’t have to sell what remains of your soul to make ends meet. The less money we need, the less we have to work, and the more time we can dedicate to idling. One could sell up in London and buy half of Skegness if one were so inclined — or just buy a small place in Skegness, bank the rest of your London wealth and be happy.

You’re less likely to be hassled by busy-bodies. In the city it seems everyone wants you to be busy all of the time. It’s not just the people who are arguably invested in your activity — bosses, colleagues, partners — but neighbours and friends. It’s bizarre. If you’re not dashing around, trying to make ends meet, forehead contorted into what Bill Hicks called “furrows of worry,” you’re treated with suspicion. This is why tedious humblebrags like “busy-busy-busy!” and “phew, it’s been a monster of a week” are so commonplace. Given that everyone in Eastbourne retired years ago, they can’t very well take issue with you doing the same.

It’s safer. If your base of operations happens to be somewhere “a little bit out of it,” as Philip Larkin described his life away from the bright lights, you’re less likely to be hit by a car or clipped by a bicycle courier. You’re less likely to be hacked to pieces by a religious maniac or nuked by the tiny-handed one. The marketing slogans of seaside towns should say things like “Welcome to Rhyll. You’re off the political map. In a good way.”

Fewer encounters with status anxiety. People are probably more humble when they live in a town whose name is used so frequently as a punchline. You’re not going to be troubled by too many superflash millionaires in Tenby or Largs. It’s hard to be such an arsehole when you can taste the salt on your lips when you wake up in the morning or pass an afternoon watching a crab make its sideways way along the rocks.

A burgeoning artistic community. Someone followed me on Twitter recently. I remember it well because it’s quite rare and my computer almost exploded with delight. His avatar showed him standing outside something called the Margate Arts Club. I liked the sound of that so I Googled it and it looks fabulous. There are places like this — alternative, lovingly-organised small arts organisations — popping up all along the British coast. It is well known that the cool kids of London have been deserting pricey Shoreditch for cheap and cheerful Margate and it could be a happy thing for seaside communities. Just as British industrial towns reinvented themselves as artistic and cultural hubs — except for Birmingham, obviously — when the coal or oil or tweed or ran out, coastal towns whose tourist industry isn’t what it used to be can make a similar move.

A better class of eccentricity. In London and Edinburgh and Manchester, the sort of “eccentricity” we usually witness is in the form people who’ve finally snapped on finding that their car has been clamped. In Bognor Regis on the south coast, they have a Birdman competition, in which people leap off the end of the pier, wearing their own icarus wings and onion-fuelled rocket packs. That’s more like it. I don’t think anybody would begrudge your stringing up a hammock.

Away from the centre. Flaneurs and drifters need margins for a psychogeographically-meaningful experience (oh yes) and the coast is a margin. I’ve long been suspicious of Middle Places. Middle England, Middle America, the landlocked Middle East. These are the windowless offices of the world, cut off from the life-giving gazpacho that makes Planet Earth so appealing.

Obviously, there will always be Middle Places and I don’t mean any overt offence to the good people who live in them. All I’m saying is that they’re not fit for human life and that when the robot uprising happens, we should move to the seaside and let the robots have Coventry.

A sense of escape. The sea — even if you never venture in — is suggestive of great journeys, of distant-yet-tantalisingly-close otherness, of adventure, of life. Imagine waking each morning and throwing open the curtains, not on a garbage-strewn alley or a trainline, but onto the sea — an eternity of possibility.

The seas and oceans are Planet Earth’s USP. Don’t wait for a distracted driver to accidentally deliver you to the coast on the way back from a festival. Go on purpose! Now! Five trillion fish can’t be wrong.

*

I found this alternate version of the seaside column in my files. I can’t remember if it was spiked by the editor or if I decided not to submit. It’s funny though, so here it is:

Move to Bognor
Robert Wringham has a drastic plan

The raison d’etre of this column is to give you a practical, applicable-to-life escape plan as a bonus when buying the Idler. I like to think of it, if this is not too grand, as the free fizzy lolly or chew bar they tape to the front of the Beano.

Some of the escape plans so far have been potentially complex routes out of servitude, requiring new mindsets and the exercise of willpower. Today’s escape plan is rather more simple: move to Bognor. That’s right, Bognor Regis, the ever-do-slightly naff seaside town on England’s south coast. Wait! Hear me out.

Before we rush off together, let me be perfectly clear: I’ve never so much as seen a photograph of Bognor, much less been there. A quick poll among my friends reveals that I don’t even know anyone who has been there. But so colossal is the computing power of my brain, I can offer this Jeeves-like miracle solution based on a few prejudices and a handful interesting facts. If you don’t like this approach, you can take a flying leap (ideally from Bognor pier, where they used to hold a homemade flying machine contest for people willing to plunge into the Channel while wearing a pair of Icarus wings. See? Facts!)

No, the idea came to me in bed, at home, some 460 miles away from the town we’re talking about. I was flipping through a book in which I learned that Bognor council once assembled a task force with the mission to attract 500 million pounds of foreign and domestic investment with which to rescue the crumbling seaside town. Quickly finding that this was too ambitious, they pragmatically adjusted the goal to half of that amount and, later, half again. When even this proved impossible, they settled on the more realistic target of zero pounds. Even I, an unfeeling millennial blank, found this rather sad. A once-adored seaside town, reduced to nought. A finished place.

My heart cried out a little for Bognor and I idly fantasised about relocating there, heroically bringing my money, skills and general coolness to save the seaside. Maybe the Bognorians would make me their king. My next book could be written from a humongous, completely affordable house near the seafront and be about “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Bognor Regis.” It could be a sort-of off-the-beaten-track biography, taking in my life in Dudley (my birthplace), Glasgow (my home today) and Bognor (my one true home and final resting place). It could be called My Three Holes.

There’s a lot to be said for living somewhere commonly thought of as a bit shit. I speak from experience. When my peers were all trickling off to London in pursuit of a career, I fled North in the hopes of avoiding that fate. I have never regretted it, even for a second. I feel very welcome here, enjoy a sense of community, live in the very nicest part of town, and have savings where others have debts. You could sell up in London — escape your horribly expensive bedsit with the mushrooms growing on the walls — and buy half of Bognor. All the litter, noise, pollution and puddles of sick you associate with town would be gone from your life. You’d no longer waste time, money and brain on commuting across a busy city. Your humble neighbours are unlikely to instill the sort of crippling status anxiety you get in the capital. Oh, and you’re unlikely to be nuked one day by the tiny-handed one.

Bognor has all of this and is totemic of the sort of place few would think to visit anymore let alone up sticks and move to, but I’d sooner live in Bognor than any other punchline burg I can think to name — Bilston, Shetland, Gravesend, Slough, Shitterton, Splott — in part because it happens to be on the sea. Remember when that used to be the finest thing imaginable? When a dip in the sea was the high point of summer? Whatever happened to the idea that sea air is restorative (which, incidentally, led to Bognor Regis’ royal-sounding name after George V spent some recuperative idle time there)? I’ve long fancied that middle England and middle America — famous culture voids — are so awful because they’re the windowless offices of the world, completely divorced from that life-giving element and the possibility of escape it brings.

Too remote or out on a limb? Maybe. But it’s close to London when you think of the ludicrous definition of the commuter belt and it’s almost certainly one of those south coast spots from which you can see the lights of Calais at night. Strange to think of, but you’d be closer to continental Europe than anyone else in Britain if you ran down to the end of that pier.

So move to Bognor. Not literally, necessarily. One could move to any smallish, perhaps coastal, edgeland in pursuit of low-cost quality of life and still be following my escape plan in the spirit intended. But, also, you could move to Bognor literally.

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