Book Review: Wish You Were Here… England on Sea – Travis Elborough
Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams
From the vantage point of last year’s Margate Meltdown, the Ace Café’s annual Spring Bank Holiday charity motorcycle ride-out from North London to the Kent seaside town, Travis Elborough, whilst wryly observing the promenade juxtaposition and proliferation of black leather jackets and Mr Whippy ice cream, also reflects on the contemporary, happy camaraderie and intermingling of the Ace Café Rockers and a group of Mods from the nearby Deal Scooter Club. A far cry, he notes, from the violent clashes between Mods and Rockers in the town over Whitsun 1964, which lead local magistrate, Dr George Simpson to not only hand out punitive £50 fines to all those arrested, but also infamously to decry all those involved as, “petty little saw-dust Caesars.”
A speech which served the headline writers very well in stoking moral outrage of the, young people are uncontrollable, it was never like this in my day, variety. As ever it was, as Elborough reveals, “rowdy teenagers had, in a sense, been menacing Bank Holiday festivities since their inception in the 1870s,” and in following this line of research he has uncovered a wonderful article from the Bournemouth Times in 1938, reporting events from the August Bank Holiday and “frothing at the mouth at the mere arrival of ‘groups of youths, some wearing gaudy paper hats with inscriptions such as, ‘Come Up and See Me Sometime’, parading along the Drive singing the latest dance hits.'”
The seaside allure for youth culture is only one component, Margate but one stop along the route of Elborough’s hugely enjoyable exploration of the full English – be it served up by an eccentric landlady in a B&B, dished up en masse in an holiday camp, or under cling film on a paper plate and entirely fashioned from rock – seaside experience, from Brighton to Blackpool, Skegness to Scarborough, New Brighton to Bexhill-on-Sea, and all the people, architecture, and entertainments that give it such redolence, and which has proved such a successful international export.
But his Quadrophenia-tinged chapter does serve to highlight the facets that make Elborough such an engaging cultural companion, mixing astute personal observation with gems that only the most assiduous research uncovers, informed by a breadth of sources all of which he approaches with the same informed passion be they historical document, literary text, pop cultural reference, or beach hut conversation, both his erudition and enjoyment of his subject are always to the fore in Wish You Were Here, as they were in his two previous books, The Bus We Loved: London’s Affair with the Routemaster, and The Long Player Goodbye: The Album from Vinyl to iPod and Back Again.
As with the two latter titles, Wish You Were Here is not an exercise in nostalgia, Elborough is adept at choosing cultural subjects to examine and contextualise at points after periods of decline when they prove that the final words in their histories have not been written, in light of the London mayor’s competition to design a new Routemaster, the resurgence in vinyl record sales, and the renaissance that is gathering pace in even the most rundown English seaside towns, which lead Tatler to dub Hastings the ‘Notting Hill of the South Coast’ three years ago, and which makes Wish You Were Here as much a snapshot of the here and now and a penny in the slot telescope view of where we are heading, as it is a postcard of where we have been.