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CJ Stone's Britain: Brummagem-by-the-Sea (Weston-super-Mare)
'English seaside resorts aren't fashionable any more but Weston-super-Mare is one of the fastest growing towns in the country'
The Guardian Weekend December 6th 1997
- CJ Stone's Britain: Iron in the Soul (Ironville)
In the centre of Derbyshire, there nestles a model village of the 19th century, where life now often ends at nine
For a start the weather was disappointing. I was in Weston-Super-Mare to visit my old school friends, Pam and Joe Field. I'd pictured a nice Graham Greeney, out-of-season, sea-side resort scene: drizzling rain over the dismal mud flats, a vista of faded browns and washed-out greys, with maybe a forlorn-looking couple walking a soggy dog along the promenade, angling their umbrellas against the wind. Instead of which it was brilliantly, sparklingly sunny. It was unfair. I mean, it was Autumn. So instead of deserted streets and a deserted beach and gloomy, deserted cafes, the town was heaving with jolly holiday makers with their jackets off, eating ice-creams in short-sleeved shirts, being obscenely happy all over the place.
Oh well. Entering into the spirit of things, Pam, Joe and I all had ice-creams - mine was wild strawberry flavour - and then went to play mini ten-pin bowling on the pier. I started off with a strike - which was as disappointing as the unseasonable weather - but soon got the hang of the game as I got progressively - and satisfyingly - more hopeless. In the end I couldn't have hit the pins if I've have launched myself at them and tried head-butting them down. Joe won, hands down. I got the feeling he's used to it.
I have to tell you about Joe and Pam. We were all in the same class together at school in Birmingham. Joe and Pam were childhood sweethearts. They still are childhood sweethearts in a way - in a niggly, huffy, middle-aged sort of way - and I envy them their consistency, as I'm sure they envy me my apparent freedoms. As we were bowling Joe said, "you're bowling them much too straight, Chris. Bet you never thought you'd be accused of being too straight."
They contacted me through this paper. We hadn't seen each other in maybe eighteen years. And in between time we've all grown middle-aged. (They were always a touch middle-aged, though, even at school.) But they've grown older in the proper, decent, time-honoured way, getting good jobs and a nice home and bringing up three lovely girls - one of whom is now at University - while I've done it in the same way as you might walk over a cliff in the dead of night. Crunch. Ouch! What happened?
Joe is a waste-management consultant, while Pam is a part-time teacher. Both of them are members of the Labour Party. Pam said, "don't mention packaging." I wasn't sure if she was referring to waste-management, or something else, maybe Peter Mandelson or something. They live in Worle.
Weston-Super-Mare (which means "Weston-by-the-Sea" in Latin) was once called Weston-prope-Worle, which means "Weston-near-Worle". That was prior to 1348. But Worle remained the dominant town until the nineteenth century, when sea-bathing became fashionable, and they changed places. Worle became a suburb of Weston. These days the pendulum seems to be swinging back the other way. English seaside resorts aren't fashionable any more, or nowhere near as fashionable as out-of-town shopping resorts. Weston is apparently one of the fastest growing towns in England, due mainly to the massive housing development at Worle, and to all the shopping centres and car-parks and garages that have grown up in its wake.
Time and tide wait for no man: The never-ending beaches, ice-cream stalls and cafes belie the image of a retirement Mecca for Brummies.
Worle is just horrible. It's miles and miles of dinky lego-land, '70s and '80s housing, just off the M5, with twitching curtains and people who like to polish their cars endlessly, with two utterly soulless pubs, and nothing else to do but to drive to the shops. Joe and Pam have been here for 12 years and told me that, in that time, there have been five murders. One particularly gruesome one had the police finding a completely decomposed corpse sitting in his armchair in front of the fire. It's no wonder really. People go quietly insane here, with the reek of car-polish and the subtle oppression of the supermarket.
I actually went to the local Safeways with Pam. She has an interesting approach to the whole shopping experience. As we all know, the problem with supermarkets is that they make you buy things you never knew you wanted in the first place. So you go in to get bread and milk, and you come out laden with carrot and coriander soup in cardboard cartons, and a multitude of tins of different flavoured mackerel fillets, and jars of savoury pickle which will almost certainly end up gathering dust in the back of your cupboard for years to come. But Pam's approach is simple. Knowing that, by looking at an object, you will be sure to want to buy it, she simply doesn't look. She rushes round like a contestant in Supermarket Sweep, resolutely refusing to glance either to the left or the right. But if her eye does accidentally alight on something gaudy or snazzy or colourful, she sweeps it into the basket. That way she gets everything she doesn't want, and guarantees a satisfying return to the shop at the nearest convenient time.
Going into Weston-Super-Mare on a Saturday afternoon - which we did after the visit to Safeways - is a kind of blasphemy for Pam and Joe: a bit like watching a porno-movie on a Sunday morning for a Christian. They're both fanatical Aston Villa supporters. So even while we were doing our pleasant, Saturday afternoon things, on this pleasant day, in this pleasantly sunny sea-side town, there was a terrible mood of desperation hanging in the air, like a grim cloud. We went into an electrical shop, ostensibly to look at computer appliances, but really to get the half-time results. After that the cloud lifted. The Villa were one-nil up.
Half of Weston seemed to cheer up at exactly the same moment too. Half of Weston are Brummies. If they're ever contemplating another name-change in the future, I would suggest "Brummagem-by-the-Sea". It's the nearest sea-side town to Birmingham and - of course - having spent innumerable summers here, sunning themselves on deckchairs, on the endless beach that never sees the sea, when it comes to retirement this is obviously the place where Brummies want to come. They shouldn't have built the railway. Originally conceived as an up-market bathing resort - sea-bathing as a natural complement to hot-springs bathing in nearby Bath - once the rail-link was finished in 1884, the Brummies all poured in, and Weston had a future of donkey rides and kiss-me-quick hats and bathing beauty contests to look forward to. And you can't moan at that. There's nothing wrong with donkeys.
But, anyway, despite my disappointment over the weather, and the soulless character of Worle, I had a very enjoyable weekend. We had a takeaway curry on the Saturday evening (the owner is a Villa supporter too, and gave us an extra portion) and then went out for a drink. On the Sunday morning we drove over to PC World near Bristol, as Joe and Pam's other interest, aside from the Villa, is computing. They like to go on the Aston Villa website on the Internet, where they correspond with Villa supporters round the world. Did you know that there were Aston Villa supporters in Finland? Neither did I.
- CJ Stone's Britain: Hops and glory (Burton-on-Trent)
Once, Burton-on-Trent meant beer, and beer, Burton-on-Trent. Where better, then, to down a pint? The Guardian Weekend February 7 1998