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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear