The Great British seaside reinvention

It’s all very well getting misty-eyed about steamy-windowed seaside caffs serving up crab sandwiches and pots of tea but the reality is that the crab was always tinned and the teapot always leaked.

The deadline for this column falls squarely in the middle of my Cameron-esque seaside holiday in Cornwall. Fortunately, I won’t have to waste any time posing with half a pint to prove that we’re all in it together – I don’t rule out the odd local beer but seafood, ice cream and scones are far higher on my agenda.

Despite being the only person in the world to be blind to the charms of clotted cream, I’m as overexcited about the food here as I am at the prospect of launching the puppy into the shallows to see if he can swim.

When did this happen? When did the coast – once a liminal zone where normal gastronomic rules didn’t apply and people ate sinister-sounding stuff such as “rock and chips” and whelks dumped in polystyrene tubs like gobbets of old gum – become a more exciting place to eat than London, a city of eight million people and ten million fried chicken shops?

It was a revolution that took its time. While the rest of the country was rediscovering good food in the 1970s, the British seaside was in decline. People wanted to eat calamari in the sun, not kippers in the sleet, and the few that still came couldn’t stretch to much more than a bag of chips. So that’s what was on offer. That and souvenir rock.

Perhaps luckily, my family was never extravagant enough to eat out in the 1980s and 1990s: instead, my dad would lug an unwieldy cool box a couple of miles down the beach in search of an apparently mythical perfect spot, the rest of us scuttling to keep up as he dismissed anywhere near a dog, a hostile windbreak or anything remotely useful (an ice cream van, for example).

In the cool box would be sweating sandwiches filled with squidgy, warm Brussels pâté (already studded, in one of the great mysteries of life, with crystals of sand), bags of prawn cocktail crisps and plastic bottles of enamel-strippingly tart lemonade. For pudding, we’d trek to a distant van, coins clutched in sticky hands, for ice cream sandwiches – a lump of vanilla and vegetable fat wedged between two wafers as bland as anything served up before the altar.

This is a picture that already has a nostalgic whiff of austerity to it: it’s all chargrilled squid and dulce de leche ice cream at the seaside, these days. Even the yellow brick has had a makeover – now, it’s “white vanilla bean” in a Belgian waffle cone. (I’m secretly pleased that my nieces and nephews stubbornly refuse to be tempted away from a diet of chocolate and strawberry. The offer of a lick of salted caramel is met with shrieks of revulsion, under-tens being innately conservative in their tastes.)

It’s the baby boomers who are to blame for the seaside’s reinvention. In the 2000s, they flooded back in their Bodenclad droves, looking to re-create cherished memories of bucket-and-spade holidays for their children – but with better food. Gurnard goujons, rather than frozen fish fingers, for little Matilda. Local good, E-numbers bad.

The few businesses still standing responded enthusiastically: the pub in a coastal village in Norfolk that I’ve been visiting for 15 years or so now charges £8 for a crab sandwich and £16 for fish and chips. The latter comes with crushed, minted peas, which I take as a personal affront. That’s not progress – that’s culinary vandalism.

Not that I’m saying I regret the revolution. It’s all very well getting misty-eyed about steamy-windowed seaside caffs serving up crab sandwiches and pots of tea but the reality is that the crab was always tinned and the teapot always leaked.

If a couple of quid more and having to read a blackboard essay on the crab’s ancestry and early life are what it takes to get a decent lunch out of the wind, then, crushed peas aside, that’s a price I’m willing to pay. Although maybe not £8. We are all in it together, after all.

 

It's all about lobster and salted caramel ice cream beside the sea these days. Photograph: Gabriela Herman / Gallery Stock

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt