A mild morning in early May.
The sun shines, my scrupulous eyes need sunglasses, again, for I break them leaning back over the driving seat to the children, repeatedly.
Two old men running, slowly, a newsagency.
Unhelpfully one revolves the display, I choose, pay little but enough, wait on the change.
‘They’re worth it for the season,’ he endorses my purchase, smiling gradually, directing me the long walk to the sea, the sea first. Outside the sun has gone in, again I am surprised by, disappointed at the triteness of it, life, if you like, that the cliché about buying sunglasses is made so immediately true for this instance.
The weather end of the pier, a theatre above and old men fishing a stage below. I have never seen anything caught from a pier:
except my father hooking out crab after small crab at Southend, stamping on them and kicking them back for taking bait not meant for them, the only time I ever remember him fishing . . .
The tidy scrub and sandy cliffs slope back remarkably uniformly at about seventy degrees, ninety-degree cliffs of hotels stand above them, at one point a cable-car drops ninety feet or so, unseriously, a toy. A new church spire, spike, the only thing modern on the skyline, neither blends nor complements, is compromise, is nothing architecturally.
There is dark change in the west, a squall off the headland, I am pleased to know of rain at sea again, to be able to name it. I move towards shelter.
Old deckchairs newly varnished for the season, newly stretched with translucent plastic in striped traditional designs. Two old ladies sit down, impatiently tear open their printed horoscopes; both caw with laughter as the first (Aquarius too, I note) reads the as if handwritten headline THIS IS A HIGHLY PREGNANT YEAR FOR YOU.
The tide here seems most of the time to qualify as in, neither retreats nor advances far, and does not expose mud but very fine sand, classically sand-golden, an excellent if unexciting beach for young children.
But there are very few children of any age to be seen here, suddenly I am aware that most of the people around are getting on, indeed have got on, are old, retired, retired to Bournemouth, for the mildness, the climate, the comfort, for reasons of their own.
The public gardens that run north from the pier seem especially organized for the benefit of the old: being the floor of a small valley or chine, the local word, Wessex word, perhaps, chine, running greenly back, and dividing the town arbitrarily, parodying the countryside.
Here are a glassed-in bandstand of no particular period or style, a concrete mini-golf course of standardly unbizarre shapes, and sub-tropical sub-size subsidized palm-trees, no doubt a pride to the councillors, a source of surprise to some visitors, tatty, but undoubtedly palms, undoubtedly included in the pulchritude half of the town’s motto.
In the evergreen walks on the first slopes many well-to-do old ladies, and gentlemen, too, though fewer, yes well-to-do is right, sitting on benches in pairs, together, or a yard apart, watching the pigeons mating, the semi-rare birds in the clapboard cages, one woman writing a postcard in careful blue ballpen, another reading a letter on blue Basildon Bond written in careful blue ballpen, communicating.
Others chance the gentle descent towards the municipalized stream that gave the town its name, so small for such growth from it, now tidied between equidistant concrete banks and to a common depth, but mouthless, unmouthed: forty yards from the pier it shuffles through a grill into darkness, and there is no debouchement on the beach. No traveller would return from that bourne, either.
An intersection over the chine, a traffic island, the main traffic island of the town: up the sides of the valley the department stores mount and mount their signs in competition, attracting business, is that the expression? Bournemouth shops are very good, sounds like a truism, where did I hear that? My mother-in-law?
SPECIAL DISPLAY OF
AND SURROUNDING DISTRICTS
with green jade figurines and (how fashionably in negative) a blow-up of the Venus de Milo.
Jewellers for one form of their savings, to be sold if necessary, to put into something better, perhaps: in one window centrally a single solitaire for £1,750, in another viciously expensive ways of telling the time, but not how much longer, how little. And so many camera shops with displays of expensive equipment: much of it secondhand, used for how long in those fragile, unsteady hands? But I begin to impose, to see nothing but the aged in Bournemouth, perhaps quite wrongly, yet they are there, begin to dominate my thinking about the place, I only record what I see, what happens, how I feel.
And so many camera shops with displays of expensive equipment: much of it secondhand, used for how long in those fragile, unsteady hands?
There are health food stores offering for their salubritas (to name a few): rheum elixir, natural sedatives, formulae for kidney, bladder, heart, liver, gall; Lecithin (provides extra protection in middle and later years); royal gelée; super wheatgerm oil; pilewort and witch hazel suppositories; marshmallow and slippery elm ointment; kelp tablets; psoriasis ointment; toothpaste with azulene; lettuce-leaf cigarettes (no nicotine, a really good smoke); blood purifying tablets; bee cappings (for hayfever sufferers); concentrated artichoke bouillon (transfers fat into energy); Zimbabwe yoghurt (the only genuine goat’s milk yoghurt); cocoa butter; high-protein high-potency multivitamin and mineral supplement; and honey, the sweet natural life-sustainer, in pound jars and seven-pound tins, garnered from heather, clover, acacia, lemon blossom, orange blossom, sunflower; and honey and anonymously floral, local, blended: no one cannot afford honey in Bournemouth.
More use, I would think, are the wine shops, many looking individual, hand-owned, hand-run, not combined from the outside though inside there may be branded products and factory stock: but if I had money and time some of these shops look the kind where I might find fines bouteilles, not rare, but uncommon, strange unfamiliar labels, genuine dustencrusted, handled with casual love.
In the central area there are several covered shopping arcades, the best apparently also the oldest, Regency or early Victorian, from the outside, bowed half-round either side of a fanlight-ended glass vault. But even this has been thirties-modernized, mucked about, only if you look up can you appreciate its composition, symmetry: at ground level it is nothing, just shopfront. And similarly inside, the semi-circular glass roof and fanlight are good, but the pillars of the porch are crudely 1930, Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence.
The premises of the provision merchants appear to have changed little since before the war, either war: curved brass nameplates, mahogany woodwork of the windows, marble slab working tops for sliced tongue and jellied veal, glass jars of chicken breasts in aspic, patum peperium, preserved ginger, all the rest of the traditional goodies.
Down the centre of the arcade are angled glass advertising cases, locked, mahogany and brass again, with hand-lettered poster-paint showcards for hairdressing and tinting, dancing, restaurants, the Bournemouth Casino (members only), two discotheques, theatre and cinema (mainly and surprisingly sex films: ‘I came very near to being shocked’ D. Mirror ‘The love scenes are very frank’ Cinema) even more (though unintentionally) titillating are pictures advertising the Foot Clinic and the Public Baths Department: Gen. Manager and Engineer James G. Hawksby.
And one showcard that trips some trap of unbidden memory, I had
thought I did not know Bournemouth, but I do not know what I know, nor when I shall know. In this case it is Burley Manor for the friendly drink in the New Forest. Was this the hotel that she whom I have called all those names, Jenny, Gwen, Wendy, worked at all those summers ago, for the vacation before we became lovers, when she was still more closely bound up with the epileptic boyfriend?
She was I think a chambermaid there, was she was impressed with or remarked upon to me, later, and no doubt at the time to him, the stains on the sheets of one bed she changed there, five patches in the course of one night, the night of the highest count, a man and his secretary, was it, I was skeptical of five times, then, put forward the scatter principle to her as a working hypothesis. There it was she first read Lear, in a thunderstorm, romantically, she was not lodged at the hotel but with an old lady in a cottage of the New Forest, romantic again, would not at least one night let the epileptic come to her there, some form of emotional blackmail, he would not make anything permanent because of his deficiency, thought it would not be fair to her, who only wished for him to lean on her, become dependent upon her, or so I thought, I heard it all only at secondhand, and heard then only what she wished me to know, I was being blackmailed too, I never met him, unfortunately, it might have put things into some sort of perspective. Why was he there? Perhaps he arranged it, the vacation work, he was at Southampton. The woman who ran the hotel was some sort of good cook, she would be quoted whenever we argued about food, which was not often, as an absolute authority, scampi I remember featuring in one disagreement. She used to go for long walks on this vacation job, in the afternoons, when the chambers were made, I suppose, wrote a short story about it, or which came out of it, the experience, that is, about a girl (her) walking a long way across burnt heathland towards a hill with three pines on it, skeletal, I seem to remember but I might be wrong, the trees, that is, and they were stunted, naturally, burnt out even, I think, feel, three pines on a blasted heath! Too much Lear and Journey of the Magi, I said, probably, possibly, I didn’t like the story, said so, yet ten years, twelve years later I still remember it, as everything about her, perhaps not everything, but these things come back, she had the power over me. I stare at the rooms in the photographs, wonder if this was a hotel, the Burley, in the New Forest: feel sure it is, or could be, the name too means something, ha, so I want it to be?
The stoneclad but steelframed department stores, banks, insurance offices indicate that Bournemouth’s most flourishing building period was during the nineteen-twenties and nineteen-thirties: buildings not particularly good of their time, but certainly of their time, unmistakably. Now this architecture seems to serve nostalgic purposes for the retired, recalling the period of the Savoy, old ladies in touch again with the pleasures (or perhaps what they saw from a distance as the pleasures) of their youths: it means something that they again have them, although once more at a distance, ironically at another remove.
But at least in Bournemouth the buildings are real, honest, indifferent quality though they may be: not like the London Hilton, whose interior décor seems to have been designed deliberately with this nostalgia for the past in mind, for the widows whose husbands died in making the fortunes they now spend in the surroundings they could not afford while they were young.
The Dancing Years at the Pavilion
Coachloads of old ladies and the occasional gent arriving from wherever in the car-park courtyard, which is graced by a modern fountain of the kind that gets the modern a bad name. The theatregoers must call it ugly and modern, synonymously: and they are right, too. It is almost as if it had been designed for the purpose of reinforcing their prejudices, as a sop; to confirm their opinions: if we put up something ugly at this time then it must be ugly and modern. As opposed to pulchritude et salubritas, which is what they had then, in the past, ha.
It consists of aluminum tubes of varying heights and diameters, this fountain, which variety in no case makes proportionate the tininess of the nozzle at the top of each; to these are strutted fibreglass bowls, orange in colour, which fill and spill, fill and overspill, pee weakly from a lip into a pool which is foam-covered, detergent-like.
The ladies stand for the queen: the one in front of me has a cardigan torn near the trapezius, perhaps they are not all well-to-do, perhaps they are just ordinary, perhaps these are also homes for the less-well-off. The more-or-less-off one next to me, here with her daughter, perhaps, who looks much the same (hairstyle, twin-set, the eyes, the manner) hums the familiar themes of the overture; then the orchestra descends on its hydraulic palms, the lights dim on the grey and tinted heads, the scene number blinks to red one on the proscenium arch, and the curtain goes up to reveal the lederhosen-and-football-socks never-never land of the romantic German past. Rudi Kleber is a young composer living at an inn just outside Vienna in 1911. He is poor – so poor in fact that he is being thrown out because he cannot pay his rent, and his piano, which now stands in the garden, has been sold over his head. All this has happened while Rudi was picking flowers in the early hours of the morning with Grete, the fifteen-year-old girl whose aunt owns the inn. When a party of officers and actresses come out from Vienna to have breakfast in the garden, Rudi offers to play waltzes for them in the hope of raising money to buy back his piano. They are joined by Maria Ziegler, star of the Viennese operetta, who is so taken with one of the waltzes that she buys it for a thousand Kronen, and moreover persuades her lover Prince Metterling to allow Rudi to occupy an empty studio in his palace. Little Grete is being sent to England to school . . .
There is theatre at its most primitive, basic – in the uncomplicated, unsophisticated sense, unreal, not like life in any meaningful way. Here they are, for instance, sympathising with and sighing over the poor starving artist, but what have they ever done to support any artist? Do they even know the difference between an artist and an artiste?
Yet their attention is rapt at this illusion, they enter this world just as children used to at a pantomime, this new novel Novello world where it is shocking for a woman to be seen smoking in public, affectionate jokes are possible about England’s weather and comfortably idiosyncratic people, where the fold-worn scenery and scraped furniture are not allowed to be distinguishable from what they stand for (and in certain ways they will stand for anything). The unsteady, jockstrapped ballet can only be there for some curiously remote form of stimulation, the fat women tolerated only for their doubtful voices, while the harsh crudeness of the lighting and the chorus of senior amateur citizens are equally willingly accepted by this full house.
Yet the night before my father went overseas, in the army, during
the war, they took me to see a Novello musical, I remember bits of it, set in a large country house, some kind of shooting, flintlocks, two kinds of parting, there were Novello and two women, one I liked, one I didn’t, no doubt as I was supposed to, We’ll Gather Lilacs was one of the tunes, don’t remember others, or the titles, and that night I cried because they wouldn’t let me sleep in their bed, and on the last night before my dad was to go away, perhaps to get killed, they wouldn’t let me sleep in their bed with them . . .
‘I never have been able to come out with the words DARLING or DADDY,’ says the girl in her early twenties, sleeking up her fur-necked beaver lamb coat yet again against the draught in this hotel’s Italian restaurant, very much enjoying the control a woman of her age has in situations with a fifty-year-old man than whom she is in any case taller.
It has come to the point where there is no such thing as a local speciality in the exclusive sense: for everything is available everywhere, flown in that morning from anywhere, with the dew and the bacteria and insects still on it. There is no reason why the food in Bournemouth should be any better or any worse than anywhere else, it is merely well or indifferently or badly cooked. And the same staff cook it: which leads me to see that this so conservative town, this comfort-station for the elderly, is ironically serviced by foreigners: the Irish (though they might argue whether they were foreign), the West Indian nurses, the Chinese and Indians with their restaurants, and the hotel restaurants run by Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians.
I grow tired, my mind coasts.
I retire, move towards sleep, am only tired, not retired, very pleased to have work in me yet.