Wish You Were Here: England on Sea by Travis Elborough – review

Travis Elborough's book covering three centuries of the seaside is amusing, unsentimental and occasionally unkind about an English institution

Travis Elborough is one of the few seaside commentators who can look back on his own seaside childhood without nostalgia. He has no interest in gazing, Betjeman-like, at "ribbons of light in the salt-scented town" or in revelling, as Graham Greene did, in the exuberance of seaside seediness. Instead, for Elborough the south coast of his childhood remains an expanse of bigotry and boredom. He grew up believing that life on land had contracted in overcompensation for the "undulating enormity" of the ocean. As Oscar Wilde once quipped of Worthing, the narrow waists and broad minds had long since changed places.

There is an element of disbelief in Elborough's observation that the seaside, long in decline, has become popular again. And this book is partly an attempt to explain this peculiar phenomenon by surveying three centuries of seaside commentary. Luckily, Elborough enjoys his coastal journey more than he might have expected. How could he not, when it leads him from the Midland Hotel to the De La Warr pavilion, from Agatha Christie to Jane Austen and from Ben Nicholson to the mods and rockers?

The resulting account is an enjoyable medley, as eclectic and cluttered as the seaside towns it describes. Along the way Elborough amasses some great anecdotes. There is the 1930s people-watching group Mass-Observation, combing the beach at Blackpool for sex only to find the odd instance of hasty petting. (If there's anything more British than not having sex, Elborough says, then it's not having sex amid the bawdiness of the seaside.) There are 18th-century hypochondriacs drinking seawater mixed with crabs' eyes.

Elborough also advances some fascinating hypotheses. He views the development of piers in the mid-19th century as a form of colonial growth marking the Englishman's "proprietorial self-importance". He suggests that murder stories have always been popular at the seaside because the crime novel and the seaside holiday are fundamentally similar experiences (predictable but none the less satisfying).

Of course, there is much left out. Despite one section being titled "fighting on the beaches" there is nothing about the second world war. There is also a quality of seaside experience which Elborough misses out on, too entertainingly sceptical to have time to dwell on the misty light, the fading ornamental balustrades, the trim white fences or the sopping esplanades which have been lyrically evoked by artists such as Virginia Woolf, WH Auden, John Piper and Benjamin Britten. It is bracing to read a history of the seaside written without nostalgia, but perhaps ultimately the seaside has more to offer the nostalgically inclined.

Lara Feigel

The GuardianTramp

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