Three books about the British seaside that are about more than the seaside

While it won’t be obvious yet, these subjects of these posts will move chronologically through, well time. Last Friday I wrote about 1930s movies, this Friday it will be 1930s novels. However, to mix things up, I have decided to collect the non-fiction books I’ve read by subject instead of decade. I hope that’s ok with you. It’s mostly tough if it isn’t.

On that note, here are three books that I have read over the last year that use the British seaside as their starting of point but are about other things as well. The metaphor that links them all is obvious, but valid; flotsam on a beach arranged into something beautiful. In all three books the author is both the gatherer and the gathered. Apologies in advance for rambling thoughts and bad ideas. I’m kind of feeling my way back into talking about books.

David Seabrook – All The Devils Are Here (Granta, 2002)

A tour of the declining towns of Kent, and the (often very) terrible things that happened in them, that is dark, weird and sometimes weirdly funny. Seabrook can sum up a place with cruel brevity – “There’s no tourist season, making Deal the perfect refuge for the retired and retiring. You’re not going anywhere after this. It’s the spot where Julius Caesar landed, the end of the line.” – or riff for pages on the connections between various members of the British Union of Fascists and when and why they visited a particular villa in Broadstairs. It is a book of rabbit holes, of journeys into the connections between Dickens and patricide, boxers and serial killers and the alcoholism of Charles Hawtrey. It flirts with madness. Every now and then the book takes a disorienting turn that you couldn’t possibly see coming. In short, it is a marvel.

Adam Farrer – Cold Fish Soup (Saraband, 2022)

The parallels between this book and the last are also the differences. Does that make sense? No? I’ll plough on and we’ll see where we get, eh?

Both books are set in neglected seaside locations but while Seabrook portrays Kent as borderline unlovable, Farrer’s Withernsea is unloved (except by the people who live there, and some of them aren’t sure). Both books are part memoir but while Seabrook sometimes offers glimpses of himself in his text, Farrer gives you the lot; the bad and the good and the excruciatingly teenage stuff most people never let anyone see. Death looms large in both but in All The Devils Are Here it is a macabre backdrop and in Cold Fish Soup, the death is personal, close and raw. In fact Cold Fish Soup is, in part, a coming to term with that closeness. Despite that, it is the funnier book.

It is also something of a magic trick. It transforms as you read it from a history with hints of memoir to a memoir with hints of history. A lot of people start off writing a book then realise that the subject is actually a metaphor for the real subject, but it is rare for that realisation to not only remain within the text but become its driving force and its strength. It’s meta, but not in a show off kind of way, more like watching somebody realise something in real time. Of course, you can’t write that in real time so its actually a well fancy thing to do. As I say, magic trick. A magic trick with knob jokes and terrible teenage fashion. You can’t say fairer than that.

Charlotte Runcie – Salt On Your Tongue (Canongate, 2018)

While Seabrook and Farrer confine their books to relatively small landscapes (geographically, at least), Runcie’s stretches out across the whole country and from its ports out to the open seas. Salt On Your Tongue is an encyclopedic tour of Greek myth, folk tales, sea shanties, storms, shores and the things that wash up on them, bookended by the death of her grandmother and the birth of her daughter.

Again it is a memoir as well as a book about the seaside and again it couldn’t be more different from the books I have already mentioned. Infinitely kinder than the Seabrook, more ordered than the Farrer, and as long as the two put together, Salt On Your Tongue is as much about the sea living as the other books about the land abutting it dying. Death is here too but as a part of life as opposed to its interruption, I think. I don’t know. I mean they’re all about both, really. I hate comparing things sometimes. Is ‘abutting’ right in that context. It’s a sophisticated way of saying ‘next to’, right?

I’ll get better at this, I promise.

Salt On Your Tongue is great and All The Devils Are Here is great and Cold Fish Soup is great. You should probably read them all, yeah?


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