John Betjeman, in his poem Beside the seaside, contrasted the children’s “coltish ecstasy” with the parents’ “week of idleness”.
The Book Club’s music-based event in East London, marketed as a seaside experience “with a fun-filled Shoreditch twist”, is for those suspended between childhood and middle-age. With its knobbly knees contest and Punch and Judy show it pokes fun at tradition – while yearning, perhaps, for its simplicity. Yes, it’s that modern urge for naivety again that ends so often in kitsch: the bingo, the DJs playing guilty pop classics, the plastic seagulls looming above our heads, and the dreaded donkey rides.
Without a sea, the beach is a desert, relieved only by the seraphic bartenders. People lounge around in deck-chairs, or group on benches. A cheesy 80s outfit takes the stage, but after a while the audience grow bored. Going to a concert ironically is like doing anything ironically – after a while, the joke wears thin. “Nothing,” Larkin reminds us, “like something, happens anywhere”: here, it is in abundance. A designated fun-dispenser near the stage punches beach balls at the hapless crowd. Some retreat to a bucking surfboard surrounded by foam waves, it being the nearest thing to approximate motion, albeit mechanised, in the proceedings.
…that ephemeral sense of Englishness which changes with every generation…
A lot has been said about this generation’s nostalgia for a time and place it never knew. At the Bookton-On-Sea event what they’re hankering for, with their Brighton Rock and their fish and chips, is that ephemeral sense of Englishness which changes with every generation yet remains the same. Orwell, in grasping for a definition of the English, wrote that “in no country is it easier to shove people off the pavement.” Looking around, that description applies. The audience mills about looking uncomfortable and vaguely self-hating, quietly complaining about the price of the beer, just as our forebears must have done under the same grey skies.
In failing to deliver the “fun-filled Shoreditch twist”, the organisers accidentally succeeded in recreating the authentic experience of the English beach – via our hallowed tradition of things not quite going to plan. The paradox of Englishness is that we are islanders cut off from the rest of the world, and further divided by privilege, prejudice, or merely social awkwardness: and yet somehow it is this very isolation that unites us. Farewell, then, to this little Shoreditch island so far from the sea. Strange to think that one day waves will come crashing through to rectify this human confusion: yes, and resolve the paradox of Englishness.