The Word Rabbit

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This article was written on 10 Apr 2017, and is filled under Uncategorised.

Lincolnshire: landscape of memory

The landscape of my memory is very, very flat. There is a thin strip of land, which yields to beach on the far horizon and, above it, a limitless expanse of sky. It is utterly timeless, as though the idea of time itself loses some of its definition this close to the edge of land and the only sound is the breeze. For all that I would like to pretend this is a mysterious, strange place pulled out of my imagination, it isn’t. At all. It’s Lincolnshire and it’s where, as a child, I spent all of my holidays and which has become solidly part of my identity as if it had been stamped into me in the womb.

The familial connection to Lincolnshire was established years before I was born, because I grew up in neighbouring Nottinghamshire and it was easy for people to head across for their week away from factories or mines without spending wasted hours on trains or buses. When I was born, that tradition continued smoothly, without anyone needing to question it, which is why grandparents, parents and me were packed swiftly into the car about six weeks after I was born and driven to the coast since the annual migration had to be observed, no matter what the cost. As we kept going each and every year, sometimes in different months, but always for a week, it has become vivid and clear and yet fleeting and evocative.

We hired a bungalow which, in itself, felt wildly exotic, as everyone around me lived in the kind of fifties semi that seemed to have been squeezed out of a dull, grey tube, and the bungalow was down a cul-de-sac, quiet and remote from human activity. It was furnished, in part, as a homily to early seventies interior decor, so there were soft furnishings, in particular the bedspread of my bunk bed, itself a wild and exotic thing, that had dark purple flowers densely crowded in on each other. The armchairs were upholstered in an orangey brown fabric and, best of all, spun around, the TV was mounted in a round, white plastic pod, there was a radiogram that didn’t work and oddly fifties stainless steel dining room furniture ranged around a white melamine table. This wasn’t just going on holiday, it was like stepping into what seemed to me like a world of unbelievable cool.

From the window of the bedrooms, you could look out across the cul-de-sac at the other houses, and it’s here that I have an image in my mind, seen when I was perhaps four or five: there was an azure blue sky and, beneath it, the gable of a bungalow opposite with a life buoy mounted just underneath the eaves, with its red and blue colours brilliant in the sun. Whenever someone says ‘optimism,’ this beautiful image is what I see in my mind as it’s redolent of a kind of vaulting hope that is wholly within you and does not depend on others to flourish. There are no people in the picture and only a limitless expanse of sky and, even now, when the sky outside is grey and work beckons, it fills my heart with optimism.

The other thing that floats back is that there were houses made out of railway carriages, which seemed indescribably magical. In my head, these were on the way to the beach, but memory makes a poor repository for topography and it’s possible they were somewhere else, but even in the seventies, these were old carriages, stood in acres of grassland with nothing else around them. Some, I remember, had hanging baskets and all had net curtains, so that you couldn’t see inside, which only made them more magical and mysterious. As I think they were made of wood, they’ve almost certainly rotted away to nothing in the Lincolnshire wind, or else the land has been bought by developers, but I never remember anyone remarking on them. They were so much a part of the holiday that everyone else made them seem normal.

Going to the beach, an activity which seemed so formal it almost deserves capitals, meant the opportunity to muck around in the sand with a bucket and spade and, one blessed year, I was bought an Afrika Korps motorbike and sidecar, so I spent the whole week driving them around the beach which, in my imagination, was north Africa. And going to the beach also involved locating the family windbreak, a piece of equipment that foreigners would rightly find bizarre and whose sole purpose was to keep the same wind that must have reduced the railways carriages to sticks, off the family. Almost every family holiday snap since the war shows a collection of uncles, aunts, parents and grandparents huddled behind a windbreak, bowing under the pressure, and squinting into the camera wondering why nobody has yet invented the package holiday and in they’re having fun.

When sitting in a force nine gale that had become a sandstorm since we were on the beach starts to pale, there was the chalet. And this, too, felt like magic but passed unremarked. The beach was lined with them for about a mile, extending from the more rural and windswept south to the north of the beech, splendidly constructed of thirties era concrete with ornamental pleasure gardens  and shady arcades. The ones in the north were transparently posher and more uniform, while the ones in the south were agreeably rickety and it’s here that we always found something to rent. All chalets smelled of wood and old creosote, which to me seems beautiful warm and cosy, and gas, as they had a small gas hob on which you heated a kettle that whistled. What they didn’t have was a toilet, so you either discreetly walked around the back, or water, which is why, aged five, I was swept off my feet by yet another sandstorm walking to the brass standpipe about a hundred metres away as it was, and I quote, ‘my turn.’

After sitting on the beach and being blown over, or sitting in your chalet and watching other people get blown over had grown boring or the light was fading, you left the chalet and headed away from the beach. And here again my memory kicks in, because although this must have happened only once, I remember the concrete causeway, leading through the trees and off the beach, in the twilight and the phone box where it met the street and the dark houses opposite. We had to use the phone box to call home because there was no phone in the bungalow and it was our only link. For the rest of the time, it seemed, we were in our own capsule.

Not having access to social media, a phone or even to much TV, since the TV in the bungalow could just about be cajoled into getting a single, flickering channel and that was black and white, seems odd, but back then it was normal and would now seem like liberation. Just about the only thing I had to read was the TV Comic Holiday Special, in which the stars of television were rendered as cartoons for the fun and edification of the nation’s children. As I was always bought TV Comic when we went on holiday, this too has merged seamlessly with holiday memories, such that Basil Brush seems to live on the Lincolnshire coast along, bizarrely, with Busby, the British Telecom-promoting bird, who had his own strip for reasons long since lost in the fog of memory.

Like Roy in Bladerunner, when I shuffle off this mortal coil, these memories will die with me. They are not as exciting and strange-sounding as attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion or C-beams glittering in the dark of the Tannhauser Gate, but he was right that they would be lost in time like tears in rain. These are strange thoughts, but perhaps they’re inevitable when you push up to your mid-forties and start hear the first, distant flutterings of the wings on Time’s winged chariot.

Perhaps because of this, I’m dragging my immeasurably reluctant partner off to Sutton on Sea, where all these memories collide, for a trip that already seems like a mistake. It will be smaller, shabbier and changed in some great and fundamental way that leaves the hazy idea of the past altered forever. The carriages will be gone, the bungalow will have been modernised and the chalets will be smaller and meaner. Perhaps. And it’s this ‘perhaps’ that is the reason for going back. Some part of me, part which I quite like and which seems as strangely irreducible as my soul, says that there will be something of the old resort there, something of the elusive times I spent in the company of my grandparents who, although they have been dead for over a decade and a half, I still love as fervently. We’ll see.

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