My Home Town

        To see my town in glorious May sunshine is to see it at its best: the trees are bursting with vivid green leaves like fat tubes of toothpaste; the fountains gush white foam;  even the empty cans and bottles, the crumpled newspapers, cigarette packets and discarded plastic bags littering the Princess Diana Memorial Plaza in front of the Town Hall are brightly coloured and could pass for decoration if you don’t look too closely.

        Everyone in the small town where I grew up is obsessed with the weather, especially in spring and summer, since my home town is a holiday resort and good weather means a good season. Visitors arrive in the town by train and get off at the little station whose entrance is ringed with homeless people begging for money to buy drugs ands alcohol. From the station, it’s a short walk to the shops. My town is famous for its shopping and there are always different shops to see every time you visit. Businesses close and vanish overnight in the twon centre, often in mysterious circumstances. At any given time, every other shop window will be boarded up, which is bad for appearances, but on the other hand shows my town is fertile ground for new enterprise. Those shop owners who survive are garrulous, welcoming, down-to-earth and full of self-pity. In other towns, one exchanges cash for services. In my town, one exchanges cash for complaints and you hand over the exorbitant price demanded in order to hear how bad trade is this year, the various illnesses plaguing the shopkeeper’s family and why one should never expect to get what one pays for.

        Like all seaside towns, my town has something of the spirit of the fairground with its simple pleasures, gaudy, innocent fantasies and contempt for the general public as gullible rubes. If a holiday in my town means you get fleeced and sent home with empty pockets, isn’t that a traditional part of the experience? Holidays are for families, after all, for children first and foremost, and therefore bound to end in tears. Everyone who lives in my town regards him or herself as a realist,  a sharp, shrewd sort of  individual, good-hearted but not to be taken advantage of while at the same time being convinced that he or she gets taken advantage of all the time- so it’s only realistic to take advantage of everybody else as they do you. During the winter, which in my town lasts two-thirds of each year, people live off what they made during the summer season. The economy of the town is self-sufficient during these months,  meaning the locals have only each other to cheat.

        Nobody in my town has a proper job but they call themselves roofers, or car mechanics, or painters and decorators, or plumbers, or tree-trimmers, or layers of asphalt driveways or double-glazing companies or whatever trade is fashionable at the time. When personal computers started to become popular, half the town became computer engineers overnight. When mobile phones took over from computers, they all became mobile phone repairmen instead. What my fellow townsmen call themselves reflects their lively local wit rather than any professional qualifications, which are generally limited to painting the words “roofer”, “computer repairs” etc. on the side of their vans. Often their work doesn’t turn out too well, but that doesn’t matter since there are many old people living in the town and, while they don’t have much money, they can easily be persuaded to part with what they have and often don’t notice mistakes in the workmanship- or even if the job has been done in the first place. Because of the numerous OAPs in my town there are also many rest homes and nursing homes whose owners bitterly denounce each other for stealing one another’s clients and abusing residents. The final service performed by our old people is to act as the prey for the local criminals. Every Saturday, the local newspaper carries two or three reports of senior citizens being attacked and savagely beaten for their pensions.

        Whenever I return home, the first thing I do is to make my way to  the open-air café in the town centre, where I drink a mug of instant coffee and eat a toasted barm cake while watching the world go by. On a weekday morning, it can look as if the entire population of the town is either very young or very old, with nothing in between. Most of the old people are women. The men don’t live that long, but die of smoking or drinking too much. The young people are either children or, as soon as they’re old enough to leave school ( if not before) they become young mothers which in my view has very little to do with teenage sex frenzy and much more to do with what’s expected.  Breeding (together with looking after old people)  is the main activity in my town and those girls who do not fall pregnant while at school get themselves knocked up immediately afterwards. It’s rare to see a girl over 17 or 18 in my town who doesn’t have her own baby. The women in wear long skirts down to their ankles except for the schoolgirls, who shorten their skirts to within an inch of their life, showing an expanse of pale white thigh as if their legs spent most of their time underwater. As for the young men, they all have shaved heads and wear track suit bottoms and sports shirts as if they were on their way to play sports although in my home town, it just means they’re unemployed..

        My town is a matriarchy which reduces the men to irrelevance and impotent rage. The streets of my town are full of expensive and luxurious prams, which stand out because they are the only brand-new purchases one sees: everything else is second-hand and bought from  charity shops. The charity shops are the most successful shops in my town. People buy their clothes from charity shops and car boot sales and donate them to other charity shops or sell them in other car boot sales. For our old people, the charity shops are a mixture of a recycling system, a self-sufficient economy and a form of entertainment. For everyone else,  saving money on clothes means they have more to spend at the pub. Pubs are the only other businesses beside charity shops whose success is guaranteed. Each year, the pubs grow bigger and shinier and have more elaborate features- as do the prams. The citizens of  my town, men and women alike, enjoy nothing more than a “good night out” , by which they mean drinking themselves insensible for the cheapest possible price.

         Besides babies and the elderly, the other sort of people you see a lot of  in my town are disabled people, handicapped people, people with deformities and learning difficulties, autistic people and Down’s syndrome people, of whom everyone says “I’ve nothing against the disabled but I don’t like to see so many of them.” I often run into groups of  the disabled and their minders when I’m walking through one of our town parks. The disabled hold hands and speak to one another in simple declarative sentences. “There’s a plane in the sky” one will say to which another will reply “There’s a bird on the tree” causing me to wonder if they don’t have a firmer grasp of reality than us so-called normal people.

        My town has a pier with a miniature railway running along it that used to chug to the end of the pier and back. But the pier became unsafe and shut down years ago. Rather than try to repair it, my town decided to build an enormous state-of-the-art leisure and sports centre on the foreshore. There is always enthusiasm for such grandiose projects in my town whose leaders are good friends with the developers, when they aren’t actually developers themselves.Even though few, if any, developments ever get finished and end up surrounded by supposedly temporary fences and concrete balconies and walkways that go nowhere, everyone seems to make plenty of money out of them regardless. The developers involved in the big ports and leisure complex went bankrupt soon after erecting the steel skeleton, leaving the would-be leisure centre as  a rusting dinosaur, alongside the open-air sea-bathing pool, which had to be closed to the public years ago after gangs of vandals ripped out the filtration pipes under the mistaken impression that they were made of copper.

        Despite the loss of these important attractions, my seaside town considers it  has plenty to offer the holidaymaker, although this doesn’t include either a beach or indeed  the sea itself. The sea has retreated several miles farther “out to sea” from the promenade due to erosion and changes in the coastline. However, given the  raw sewage problem on our stretch of coast, the local tourist authorities see the absence of sea as an advantage rather than a drawback. .

        Some of the things my town still has are: an 18-hole pitch-and putt, a little dipper, a Model Village and a Marine Lake. The railings around the lake have all rusted and the ironwork shelters are covered in graffiti and have their windows smashed. Everything about my town is a little rough around the edges and not what it used to be, as is true of many Victorian seaside resorts. It’s broken down and gone to seed in some ways. If you choose my town for your holidays, you can’t mind a bit of squalor- perhaps you’ll even like it, as some people do.

        My town stages top-flight professional entertainment throughout the year at the Floral Hall which last year included an imitation Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis jr. in “The Rat Pack Show” and an imitation Charlie Chaplin in The Charlie Chaplin Show. Over the course of the year, you can see clones of many of the world’s most famous entertainers at the Floral Hall.

        The golf in my town is said to be very good.

        The last time I visited my town, I stayed in a bed and breakfast place above a pub. The drinkers in the beer garden  below my window kept me awake. I lay listening to their laughter and the chink of glasses until past midnight, when the noise began to die down. Suddenly a voice started shouting obscenities. I could hear running feet, a banging gate and other voices raised in anger, along with some girls screaming. When I got up and looked out of the window, I was just in time to see a boy punch a girl in the face before his friend dragged him off and began beating him in turn. As is the way with drunken fights, there were long pauses in between the action when things went quiet and it seemed as if it was all over until the screaming and the fighting started up again. From what I could gather, the cause was the usual one: somebody’s girlfriend had gone off with somebody else. Eventually, I got out of bed, put my clothes on and went downstairs to a phone to call the police, expecting to find the hotel deserted since nobody had made any attempt to stop the fight. To my surprise, the bar was full of people drinking and having a good time. No one was interested in the fight and everyone tried to dissuade me from calling the police, which didn’t matter since the noise had woken the neighbours who called them anyway. Soon, the police arrived in their cars with their blazing headlights and the combatants ran off, leaving the policemen and women to stand around chatting and flirting among themselves for a while. As someone who grew up there, I can report that the self same fight takes place in my home town every night, night after night, year in and year out, so I can’t blame the police for not being very interested in it either. All contents © mike bygrave 2014