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Blackpool in General
Member Name: duncantorr
Blackpool in General
Date: 11/03/07, updated on 09/06/13 (1819 review reads)
Advantages: Plus ca change....
Disadvantages: C'est toujours les memes shows
That's noted for fresh air and fun
And Mr. and Mrs. Ramsbottom
Went there with young Albert, their son.
They didn't think much to the ocean,
The waves they were piddlin' and small.
There were no wrecks and nobody drownded,
'Fact, nothin' to laugh at at all!"
At about the time when Stanley Holloway had music hall audiences rolling in the aisles with his monologues about the Ramsbottom family, I came to Blackpool for the first time. I was a babe in arms, brought to live in England from abroad, and stayed for several months before moving to London. I remember nothing of that sojourn.
In a review about my grandparents I have already related something of my visits to Blackpool as a boy. Suffice it here to say that I adored the place: the piers, the open-topped "toast-rack" trams, the tower, the beach that stretched to the horizon, the arcades along the front ("catch-pennies" as my grandmother called them), Pablo's two-inch thick ice cream wafers, fizzy pop from bottles with wire-hinged ceramic tops, Bloomfield Road stadium where the likes of Matthews and Mortenson still performed - I could go on in this vein endlessly. My heart still quickens to the litany of "Lytham, St Annes, Squires Gate, Blackpool South" the slow sequence of stops through which the train from Euston chugged before arriving at last at old Blackpool Central station, now demolished.
Returning as an adult was always enjoyable, but never quite the same. How could it be? To our cost, we all lose our childhood capacity for wonderment. My visits tailed off, and after my grandmother died I did not go to Blackpool for nearly twenty years, until 2003, when I made the journey to see my elder son who has - coincidentally - gone to live there. I have been several times since then and each time have been more struck by the degree to which it has changed, the degree to which it is unchangeable, and the degree to which it may have to change in the future.
Blackpool is not much given to looking back.
It is a town that lives in the present, not the past. It has buildings that could now be considered historic, but this is not how they are treated. The Tower complex and the Winter Gardens are not visited as heritage sites or architectural curiosities. They are visited because they still offer entertainment, the purpose for which they were designed and which they have always served. I doubt that one in a hundred of the people who pass through the portals of the Winter Gardens pauses to consider how the façade and interior décor relate to Art Nouveau and Art Deco (they are neither, but have affinities with both). Those entering are simply on their way to the bars or the ballroom, or to see a show.
In the foyer of the Winter Gardens, when I was there in 2003, amid the ornate tiles and the slot machines, I picked up some leaflets, including a listing of events. Names like Bernard Manning and Freddie Starr leapt off the page. Not so different, I reflected, from the Stanley Holloways and George Formbys of half a century or more ago. I read on down to find, sandwiched between Donny Osmond and Daniel O'Donnell the listing "March 15th-16th, George Formby". It can't be real, I thought, and of course it wasn't, or at least not in the original incarnation. But for a moment I had a vision of him, with slicked-back whitened hair and a superannuated ukulele in his skeletal fingers, playing to an audience of ethereal pensioners, while lads out on stag nights in untucked shirts and trainers vomited in the gutter outside.
Driving along the sea-front, with the tramway on one side and the succession of brightly-lit funfairs, pubs, cafes, arcades, aquaria and similar attractions on the other, one gropes for parallels from other countries. The Coney Island of the east, perhaps, or the Benidorm of the north? Both miss the point. If there are any similarities, then those resorts should be dubbed the Blackpools of the west or south. For they are the imitations. It is Blackpool that is the original, the archetype.
It is here, along the seven miles of beach across the promenade from the Golden Mile, that working class tourism was invented. Before Blackpool was connected to the railway network in 1846, the masses did not have holidays, or even days out. The history of boomtown Blackpool through the latter part of the nineteenth century is the early history of the leisure industry. Before then, leisure - like pleasure - was the prerogative of the privileged, enjoyed piecemeal and in accordance with their particular whims. Post-Blackpool, leisure assumed a mass-produced character and was provided on an industrialised scale.
"Progress" is Blackpool's town motto, adopted at the time of its most rapid and ambitious development. It always strove to be ahead, or at least abreast, of any rival. For example, in 1879 Blackpool became the first place in the world to have electric street lighting, before London or New York.
If Paris built an Eiffel Tower, so did Blackpool (albeit on only half the scale). If Brighton was to have two piers, Blackpool had three. It had ballrooms, theatres, music halls, a zoo, and a "great wheel" - all these within the 19th Century. The electric tramway opened in 1885. The Pleasure Beach with its rides, sideshows and funfair attractions, was built as early as 1905, the illuminations instituted to extend the season in 1912.
Between 1801 and 1901 Blackpool's population, which numbered fewer than 500 at the outset, increased a hundredfold, its visitor-customers by many fold more. It was around this time that the practice of "wakes weeks" was introduced. Whole towns in the industrial north would close for a week while the population moved en masse to Blackpool, the weeks being allocated by informal agreement between town councils and mill owners. It suited the employers, who could allocate a week for factory servicing and maintenance while being able to rely on a full workforce at other times. It suited the employees, who would holiday among relatives and friends. And it suited the hoteliers, publicans and landladies of Blackpool, who could rely on a constant stream of guests throughout the season.
Incomprehensibly antiquated though this concept now may seem, something of it still lingers. Blackpool is still somewhere you go in groups, batches even; it is no accident that it is a favourite venue for works and club outings. You go in the knowledge, even the expectation, that you will be treated as the raw material in an process of controlled excess, to come away with a thicker head and a thinner wallet, the cost of a communal sense of fraternity and of having had a good time. And if you have not had a good time, at least you will have had no worse a time than any of your confréres.
Two words dominate members' opinions of Blackpool. Under Advantages: Fun. Under Disadvantages: Tacky. Neither concept would have come as a surprise to Blackpool's holiday-makers of a century ago, although the word "tacky" might have needed translation.
Fun has always been Blackpool's stock-in-trade and probably always will be. There are fewer full family holidays taken there nowadays, more day-trips and weekends, but the difference is one of degree and emphasis, not in the intrinsic nature of what the town has to offer visitors. The drunkenness and rowdiness may be more shameless, the sex less surreptitious, but these things have always been a feature of Blackpool's nightlife and of its appeal.
Whether you call it tacky or tawdry, there has always been a downmarket quality to central Blackpool. It has some genteel suburbs, sedate retirement resorts along the coast and inland. It even has some large and expensive hotels that put on airs. But in its heartland, Blackpool is relentlessly brash and banal. The "Golden" Mile is tarnished gilt at best, even brass, shameless in its offering of basse cuisine and unoriginal sin.
Don't think of it as tasteless, think of it as tastefree, and you will be on the same wavelength as hosts and visitors alike. Similarly, where I said shameless above I should have said shamefree. Blackpool is free from self-consciousness of any kind, and it is precisely because it has this liberated quality that the tawdriness is part of Blackpool's charm or, at least, of its allure.
I know seaside towns; they run through my life like the pink sugar lettering in a stick of rock. Apart from Blackpool, I have lived in Brighton and Whitley Bay. I was once engaged to a girl from Scarborough and my in-laws live in Swanage. There are friends I visit in Southend and Torbay. None of these places begins to compare with Blackpool. Brighton is as big, Southend as tacky, but neither has quite the vulgar vigour of Blackpool, the sheer scale and single-mindedness of its dedication to selling short-lived euphoria in the name of fun. None has the verve to sweep the visitor up in its wake with quite the same all-embracing exuberance. Nowhere is it as easy or as natural to let down one's hair, don one's kiss-me-kwik hat and enter into the spirit of the thing.
In the lounge of a hotel in quiet, middle-class St Annes, I picked up a brochure for the recently expanded Blackpool Airport. Thirty-six pages, all devoted to services flying holidaymakers out of Blackpool rather than in. "Thomson," I read, "a global player in the tourism game, has chosen to fly from Blackpool.... The company was quick to recognise the importance of featuring Blackpool Airport in its glossy brochure and to date it has carried tens of thousands of happy people from the North West to Tenerife, Majorca and Alicante." First Choice flies from there too, it seems.
Of course, thinking rationally, this should be no surprise. Blackpool's visitors - predominantly day-trippers and weekenders - come from a range of perhaps two hundred miles. They travel by car, coach or train. Blackpool's own residents, planning their own main holidays, will head south by plane like so many others from anywhere else in Britain. Nowadays coals are sold to Newcastle, and cotton goods to Manchester; that tourists should pay to leave Blackpool is no less a sign of the times. But to anyone familiar with Blackpool's history, it jars.
I've said that Blackpool has always lived for the present, not the past, but on reflection I think this might be wrong. A hundred years ago, it lived for the future.
There was a breath-taking ambition to the town in the Victorian and Edwardian eras that seems to have seeped away through the twentieth century, like air from a deflating tyre. Certainly there was investment: in ever whiter-knuckle rides for the Pleasure Beach, in the Zoo adjacent to Stanley Park, in brighter lights, in new electronic amusement machines. Nevertheless, the impression left is of running to stay in the same place, to keep up rather than to forge ahead. The concomitant concern is that the late 20th century may prove to have been a plateau in Blackpool's success, with only decline to follow, rather than a pause on an upward curve.
The straws in the wind seem to be blowing the wrong way. A few years ago the Labour Party dropped from Blackpool from its roster of conference venues and though this may reflect even more adversely on the image-consciousness of modern Labour than it does on the merits of the town, it cannot be good news for the hoteliers and restauranteurs. Tourist numbers are still high, with over seventeen million visits yearly to Blackpool, but the numbers are at best static and the average length of stay is falling. The Pleasure Beach is still the most-visited attraction in Britain and one of the two or three most-visited in Europe, but with fewer customers last year than the year before. Behind the glitzy front is a drab town, reliant on seasonal low-wage employment that trails much poverty and deprivation in its wake. The social statistics are mostly miserable.
There have, of course, been new plans drawn up, new ambitions aired. The most recent grand design has been to exploit liberalisation of the gambling laws to reinvent Blackpool as the Casino capital of Britain, the Las Vegas or Atlantic City of the east. Even when these plans were first mooted, there were doubts. Why, enquired a nagging voice in the back of the mind, why here, on this unlovely stretch of northern coast, when it would be so easy for prospective punters to jet off to sunnier climes to do their gambling?
Now, even this ambition has been dealt a body blow. The licence for Britain's first super-casino is to go elsewhere, and - worst of all - to Manchester, just fifty miles down the road. Not only will this create a rival tourist attraction in the heart of Blackpool's catchment area, but it reduces the likelihood that any subsequent licence will go to Blackpool, given the proximity. Blackpool's planners will have to return to the drawing board, and scratch their heads.
You wouldn't think a winter weekend, with a cold wet wind blustering in off the Irish Sea, was a good time to visit Blackpool, and you could be right. The rides on the Pleasure Beach - even the much-heralded 'Big One' - were closed, the promenade sparsely peopled. Half of the arcades and stalls along the front were also shut, and looked shabby with it, paint peeling, letters missing from signs: South Pi, for instance, above the gaudy main entrance to the South Pier. Maybe it will all be spruced up in the coming month or two, ready for the summer season. Maybe.
Out on the Central Pier, I gazed northward across an almost empty beach towards the Tower - only half a dozen despondent donkeys and their minders huddled together against the gale, with no one buying rides on them. For once, it was hard to enter into the spirit of the place.
The froth cresting the breakers was tinged with brown, perhaps merely from the sand, perhaps not. One was reminding of the quip "not so much swimming as going through the motions" which as likely as not originated in Blackpool, and of the advice that one had heard of children being given, to build their sandcastles wearing rubber gloves. Maybe it was just the cheerless weather, but it seemed to me that the outlook too was bleak.
Am I being unfair? Certainly it seems unfair to contrast a youngster's rose-tinted memories of golden summers long ago with the jaundiced observations of an ageing winter visitor. Nostalgia is an unreliable guide to anything, and melancholy neither trustworthy nor enjoyable.
But I can't be the only person making such comparisons, and no one said they had to be fair.
© first published in its original form under the name torr on Ciao UK, March 12th 2003, updated 2007.
Summary: Tired and tawdry, not what it was, but perhaps still fun
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