Wednesday, November 17, 2010

 

Blackpool - England's Worst Resort?

We always took our children to Blackpool for the illuminations. There are those sepia-tinted memories – donkeys on the beach; families on deckchairs, dad with a knotted handkerchief on his head; the Tower standing sentry; clanking trams and the three piers.

It was a long time since we'd visited, for this journey we started just down the coast at Lytham, home of the Open Golf tournament. It isn't an 'in your face' tourist resort, far more genteel and refined, you can tell, up market charity shops, expensive jewellers, chic clothing shops, classy restaurants and renovated Georgian houses. People are dressed casual but smart and the tans aren't fake but the result of holidays in exotic locations.

We got the bus to Blackpool and in the process crossed a metaphysical boundary or border. In some parts of the world this transition is one of stark and brutal contrasts. Drive out of Cape Town Airport and you encounter the outskirts of Khayelitsha township, half a million people living in desperate conditions, a few miles down the road there are the manicured lawns and electrified security fences of the white suburbs. From the third world to the first world.

Lytham to Blackpool wasn't a similar experience not a different planet but still a different country. The shops that were open had giant signs that screamed in red and black letters, 'Sale!' or 'Bargain!'. Entrepreneurs with an eye for opportunity had established temporary covered markets in front of abandoned shops. Closer to the sea front the boarded up guest houses with incongruent or ironic names – 'Majestic', 'Rest a While' and 'Number One'.

Whatever happened to the happy, wholesome holidaymakers? However it's written this will sound snobbish, condescending and patronising but obesity has replaced gaunt, thin and emaciated as the new poor. Not only that there was the old working class tradition; family photograph, wedding, funeral or holiday – you wore your best clothes. People in Blackpool seem to be on a permanent 'dress down day' – grubby trainers, stretchy track suits, lank hair, pasty faces.

Blackpool was the favourite resort of the mill hands and miners, as late as the 1950s there were 70 trains a day off loading thousands of punters. The fall in visitor numbers has been dramatic from 20 million in the 1970s to 10 million in 2008. Between 2008 and 2009 the numbers of overnight stays plummeted by 26%. Over the last twenty years half of the guest houses have closed.

The bus took us past the 'Golden Mile', a complete and utter misnomer, a terminological inexactitude and a contradiction in fact. It's a collection of junk food emporiums – fish 'n' chips, pizzas, hot dogs, hamburgers, doughnuts – interspersed with sleazy sex shops. Blackpool isn't alone in its misery you'd find the same in all the other fading sea side resorts – Rhyl, Hastings, Morecambe, Southend, Margate

Blackpool in its heyday was the quintessentially working class resort. It also represented the best of that old world – collectivism, solidarity, hedonism, an opportunity to let off steam, the coarse end-of-the-pier humour. Sadly in a desperate bid for business it has gone down market and become the stag and hen party capital. The excessive drinking culture has turned most town centres on a Saturday night into a Bacchanalian version of the Wild West, but in Blackpool it's ramped up ten fold. There's also the loosening of certain social conventions – what is it about urinating in the street? If I owned a shop I wouldn't want to spend the first hour on a Monday morning removing the smell of piss from the doorway.

Middle class people have never really gone on holiday to Blackpool and for the current metropolitan elite it's off the radar, invisible. If you've moved through that charmed circle of public school, Oxbridge, the City and Parliament, the chances are you won't have encountered, visited or stayed in places like Blackpool. Both the Labour and Conservative Parties have abandoned the resort as a conference venue. The convenient excuse was that there weren't enough five star hotels, in reality it was an embarrassment, they didn't want foreign journalists to experience such a stark alternative to Cool Britannica.

Blackpool is another country. As the economic geographer Danny Dorling has described we are a nation that is drifting apart, where each section of the population, the rich, the middle class, the poor, live apart – they don't live in the same villages or parts of town, their children attend different schools. Their life experiences are separate, a form of social apartheid unseen since the 1930s.

Only in the most extreme circumstances do the chattering classes or the media discover the hidden underbelly of society. When Shannon Matthews disappeared the press pack descended on her Dewsbury council estate and found three generations of families who hadn't worked and so many people never moving off the estate – even to visit Blackpool.

A feature of news management is to always accentuate the positive. A town or city is 'on the up', the background music is 'Things Can Only Get Better'. In fairness you can't accuse Blackpool Council of that, in their bid for the Super Casino in 2002 they spelt it out in simple terms and described a town of 'intense deprivation' with a tourist industry 'moving inexorably towards terminal decline... Blackpool is on the critically ill list and will be on its death bed unless radical action is taken soon.'

Catharsis and confession is always preferable to complete denial but the last throw of the dice, the bid for the Super Casino, ended in failure. Not that Atlantic City is any kind of poster boy for urban renewal. Gambling resorts create more addicts.

Walking around the town centre and its noticeable how many teenage girls there are with babies (one in twelve are pregnant before the age of 18). If aspiration is the best contraceptive there's little chance of that, weekly wages are £100 below the national average. Like other seaside resorts Blackpool has a transient population, combined with endemic poverty that leads to other problems – the numbers on the child protection register are double the national average and the suicide rate for 15-19 year olds is eight times higher.

We didn't stay long, the Tower (recently acquired by the council) is well worth a visit and for children the Pleasure Beach has got some fantastic rides, apart from that there just isn't much to do, there's a few tired shops, Blackpool has never really done culture so pass on museums or galleries, the bracing wind puts the beach out of limits and I don't want to get smashed out my skull on bargain booze.

Going back to Blackpool was like visiting a friend in a precipitous spiral of decline – they're buying clothes from the charity shops, the red bills are piled up behind the mantle piece and the fridge is empty. The next step is the Sally Army Hostel. It's with overbearing sadness, but it has to be said, Blackpool is cheap, tacky, tawdry and depressing. Even the powerful smell of fish and chips cannot mask the overwhelming aroma of mould and decay. The brutal truth is that Blackpool is slowly, inexorably sinking into the Irish Sea and I can't see the current government throwing them a life belt.


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