International readers of this blog may already be sneering at the concept of the ‘The Great British Seaside‘, but as the Greenwich National Maritime Museum’s nostalgic exhibition shows, there’s plenty that’s wonderful and interesting about a British beach – it just rarely includes sunshine.
In fact the British seaside seems to be enjoying a bit of renaissance, at least as indicated by the highly anecdotal evidence of markontour’s recent forays to Margate. Forty years ago, Terry Ray Jones was so convinced that the traditional British coastline was under threat that he dedicated his short adult life to photographing every inch of it.
The resulting images are a case-study in stoic British holidaying. From Blackpool in 1967 we observe rows of deck-chaired, suited day-trippers (and I mean wearing jacket, trousers, shirt and tie, not bathing suits), squashed on to a soggy beach. No sunglasses are in evidence, but one many has wedged a white handkerchief beneath his spectacles and is enjoying a quick snooze before the tide comes in.
Elsewhere, an older man looks down in disdain on a snogging couple taking advantage of a little privacy behind a beach shack.
These two are clearly having fun, but almost no-one else is smiling until a shot of a laughing boy, watched by two giggling girls, trying to climb out of a sand hole that’s deeper than him. A middle-aged couple look on, the man sitting up to scowl at the noise intrusion, while the woman smiles wistfully.
Further north, it takes more preparation to be beach-ready. In Scarborough a well prepared old woman in her Sunday Best, dog on lap, waits for a kettle to boil on the hob of her well stocked beach hut, while she surveys the beach.
Jones’ subjects seem to have enjoyed at least a few golden rays, unlike the sturdy beach goers emerging from the mist in David Horn’s vision of Aberadaron on the Welsh coast. The skies are glowering and most people are sensibly indoors, but one flabby old lady is sticking it out, snoring asleep on a deck chair.
I didn’t write down the dates of Martin Parr’s photographs, but the shell-suits suggest the 1980s. One such adorned gentlemen is pictured sitting on the promenade, looking pleased as punch due at the giant white teddy bear held roughly on his lap, and presumably just won with a lucky bit of target practice. Moustache in full flourish and staring directly at the camera lens, he is manhood personified in his own mind. His girlfriend looks less convinced.
Elsewhere, two seagulls are captured finishing off some left-over chips while a Union Jack flutters in the background. How British is that? Well, as Parr’s Essex series shows, it’s only one expression of the British seaside. His more modern portraits show the diversity of today’s beach visitors, including an extended Caribbean/British family, who seem to have brought a whole kitchen on to the beach, and a group of smiling Sikh women dipping an icon in the sea.
Markontour has never been much of beach fan: too much sand in sandwiches and shivering bones from being encouraged `into freezing seas at Skegness and Swanage in my early youth. But ‘The Great British Seaside’ is all very nostalgic and lots of fun, reminding me that I do like the idea of the Great British Seaside. It’s just best enjoyed from the comfort of a London gallery!