Sunday, 25 October 2009

Torquay in October Sunlight

Not my photographs, just plucked off the web, but there is something peculiarly truthful about the bottom one. Torquay was early British Seaside to my family, the learning of the seaside code of fun. We started in Kent and, over the years, worked our way across the south coast, venturing at last into Devon and Cornwall.

This time it was the invitation to do the pre-dinner reading on Saturday night for the Torbay Poetry Festival. The train journey involved a change at Newton Abbott, from intercity express to a very-much-local train that looked like trains looked a good thirty years ago, all benches and facing seats, combining the best of Edward Ardizzone and with the best of Soviet Pioneer Railways.

Torquay was bleached in late afternoon sunlight. Something about the shape, the space, the light, the colours, the form of the station itself suggested joy in aspic, the fantastical married to the very plain indeed. Walking down past the public gardens, past the crazy golf, seeing nothing but sea and bay and grand hotels d'un certain age everywhere, each grander yet slightly more uncertain of itself than the last, induces a sweetish pain in the soul that I'd identify as nostalgia, but nostalgia, so to speak, without an object. It is not a case of missing something that was once there but of touching the heart of something that has become a slightly lesser version of itself, something which, in that descent, had become more humane. You get this feeling in Cromer too. Not in poor old Yarmouth, nor, at the other end of the scale, in smart, knowing, Southwold. Torquay, of course, is considerably grander than Cromer ever intended to be.

The poetry festival was at the Grosvenor Hotel, as in the second picture above. Two Regency buildings are joined by a sixties (I imagine it is sixties) extension housing the reception desk. It is the extension rather than the Regency that moves me now, or rather the combination of the two. The extension seems to have aged more than the two buildings possibly could. The extension is from the age of optimism and cheap modernism. Hotels everywhere from Switzerland to Romania were presenting this functional holiday face to the world. Here is that face awaiting its period sunglasses.

The morning after the reading C and I took a pre-breakfast walk. It was a beautiful October day, the sun warm but a cold draft nipping round corners in the shadows. The light was chalky and fragile. Torquay hotels move to a certain dance, the truly old fabric, and the more recent extension that somehow feels even older, shifting or wafting like a curious couple across the ballroom floor. And it is a very crowded ballroom. Every house in every side street in the bay is a hotel or boarding house: menus, terraces, dining rooms, signs indicating Vacancies or, occasionally, No Vacancies in widows or by gates. The customers are not the rich, not even the well-to-do middle class, but something a little lower than that and descending. It was all descent, nothing too precipitous, quite a gentle descent, but distinctly descent. There was a tiny chaotic Polish shop on one corner with a Greek Orthodox church nearby next to the broken hulk of a building that was little but facade. The news agent was gruff. He looked as though he hated being opposite the Polish shop.

And the sails drift in the bay. A few people are playing crazy golf. The prom is generously wide. The tide is in.

I loved the touches of the fantastical. The mad faintly oriental gates into the park. The sprightly, convoluted ironwork on mansard roofs, the red spirals round the columns along the platform, the bridge across platforms that feels a little like some corridor in an old lido. The joyful things.

These are very quick impressions. I would like to say more about the redemptive yet haunting quality of the English seaside. It is as if the whole country had found itself at a lost resort, a reminder that everything here is really island, all edge and unknown interior.


The festival is itself is remarkably well attended and full of enthusiasm thanks to Patricia and William Oxley and their team of helpers. Aldeburgh is very professional now, as indeed it has to be. Torbay is simpler, more a marvellous lark or flight of fancy. It is not a university or an institution or a place of pilgrimage. It's a soul binge in a partially-grand hotel by the sea. It is the seaside. I don't know that I have ever read to a keener, more uplifting audience. And I left the envelope with my cheque in it somewhere in the hall during the book signing.

1 comment:

Gwil W said...

George, a lovely piece of writing. I think in a previous life you designed those iconic Great Western Railway holiday posters showing long gleaming trains steaming over pea green fields under denim blue skies and smiley yellow-beaked seagulls.
Can the deck-chaired-crab-puddled-rot-yer-teeth-rock-jolly-fat-lady-and-weedy-hen-pecked-husband postcarded English Riviera bounce back to something like former glory I wonder. I'm afraid the way the pound/euro exchange rate is going it may bloody well have to.