On the morning of my 63rd birthday this month, I posted a quote by Kingsley Amis: “No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home at Weston-super-Mare.” Looking back at my long, louche life, it’s a philosophy I thoroughly concur with. But for me Weston-super-Mare is not a graveyard, but rather the crucible of my ambition.
Like Torquay and Llandudno, Weston recalled the glory of the British seaside before the siren call of cheap flights to countries where sunshine was the norm rather than an occasion for incredulous joy. In the Thirties, with a new airport of its own, Weston benefitted from the sudden thrill of mobility that struck the 20th century full-force. South Wales steel workers and miners flew with their families from Cardiff to Weston, especially on a Sunday when drinking was forbidden in their own country; over the 1937 Whitsun holiday, 2,555 passengers travelled on Western Airways from Weston Airport, a new world record. That year, Weston-super-Mare was granted Borough status, and “Ever Forward” became its motto. It seemed that Weston’s summer would never end.
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As a child growing up in Bristol — half an hour away by train — I was often taken to Weston on school daytrips; it was popularly known as Weston-super-Mud, because the “sea” (the Bristol Channel) was always miles away, and we would have to trek for what seemed like days across the soggy sand in order to paddle. It could be bleak in the spring and autumn, when the school outings occurred. And the fact that trains terminated there made one think of the end of the line; it was all too easy to imagine Weston-super-Mare as a place where the old were sent to die. Both Gertrude Stein’s line about her hometown, Oakland — “There’s no there there” — and Jan Morris’s notion that Trieste is “the capital of nowhere” came gloomily to mind regarding Weston-super-Mare in the rain. The last scenes of The Remains Of The Day were filmed here — in the Winter Gardens, a name which in itself conjures up tourists resignedly accepting that al fresco frolics are off the menu.
But during the long hot summer holidays, Weston was transformed into a pleasure dome, or so it seemed to my bedazzled eyes the summer I stopped being a child, when I was 12. I don’t mean sex — only grubby old men would equate the two. No, for me the end of childhood meant the dawning of ambition, the desire for something dramatically different from what I had expected of life thus far — and more problematically, what was expected of me, as a good little girl from a respectable working-class home in Seventies provincial Britain.
Though the Seventies now look like a Golden Age of fun and freedom — after the Pill and before AIDS — it was in many ways the last decade of the old-fashioned suppression of women. It wasn’t until the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act that a British woman could open a bank account in her own name rather than her father’s or husband’s. Good Girls got married straight from their parents’ care; if you left home any other way, the neighbours would probably gossip behind your mum’s back that you’d gone off to That London to be a prostitute.
You couldn’t blame them; going on the game made more sense than a pretty teenage girl from a blue-collar book-free home announcing that she was planning to be A Writer. But that, aged 12, is what I knew I wanted to do. No one summed up my interesting situation better than Kate Bush: “I found it very frustrating being treated like a child when I wasn’t thinking like a child… I felt I was being patronised, right through until I was 18 or 19. From the age of ten I felt old.”
The place where I imagined what I paradoxically thought of as my real life was at Weston Lido. I’ve loved lidos more than any other place for as long as I can remember; they’re the purest expression of public hedonism, both opulent and utilitarian, accessible to all regardless of age, sex or social status. If you go to the theatre or to football, you can get a better seat by having more money or by knowing the right people; at a lido, wherever you lay your towel, that’s your home. The Weston pool was a majestic Art Deco beauty — the largest in Europe — opened in 1937 in the confident knowledge that thousands would flock to it. It was 10,200 square feet of cold, turquoise water, with a slide on each side and a scooped-out section of some 15 feet beneath the towering edifice of the diving boards — the highest in the world.
Unlike the generally banal backdrops to my childhood, it seemed a suitably grand place in which to plan my exit to fame and fortune in That London. I would swerve my companions and hide on the upper terrace, slipping in and out of sleep in the sunshine, dreaming of leaving. There was always music on the terrace — my favourite was a tune that I later discovered to be Dimitri Tiomkin’s “The Green Leaves of Summer”, which sounds happy but is actually about grieving and dying and all that sobering stuff. I was too young and invincible to realise.
At the age of 17, I escaped, winning my first job as a writer at a music paper, taking to a life of — literally — sex, drugs and rock’n’roll every bit as easily as I’d imagined I would since I was 12. My life certainly turned out not ordinary, to say the least. By the age of 35 I had been divorced twice, losing custody of my beloved son Jack the second time; at weekends we would hop on the train to my parents’ home in Bristol, and then set out next morning to Weston. But the lido was no more; they’d concreted most of it over so it was a quarter of the size, demolished the majestic diving board edifice, installed a wave machine and called the whole hot mess The Tropicana — “It’s fun and fruity, wet and wild!” It would have been easier to get a decent swim in a spittoon — but so long as Jack was happy, I was too.
However, by the summer of 2015, Jack was grown up and hadn’t been happy for a long time. Mental illness was eating him alive. At the start of the year, I began work on a secret project for the artist Banksy, who had taken an interest in Weston; by the time the show was aired, on the final summer bank holiday in August, Jack had been dead for two months, a suicide. Walking around Dismaland, Banksy’s huge dystopian installation, set right there on the abandoned site of Weston lido (the Tropicana having given up the ghost in the year 2000), it was hard to grasp exactly how far I’d come since I daydreamed the summers away here back in the 20th century.
I’ve been a coke-fiend and a Christian, a grieving mother and a runaway wife, I’ve earned a fortune and lost it, lost my reputation and earned it — but I’m still a writer, and a good one, as I dreamed I would be when I was that 12-year-old on the Weston lido terrace. And in an unexpected twist, Weston itself is thriving once more; last year it was named among the best seaside towns in which to buy a property and also one of the country’s most welcoming towns. And of course, there was the Banksy effect: Dismaland attracted not just Brad Pitt, but around £20 million of tourist revenue in just five weeks — around three times what was expected. Since then, tourism has risen to the extent that last year, post-pandemic, Weston reported 100% hotel occupancy in August and September, with all weekends booked up until November; somewhat stunned, the local hospitality trade reported their best season ever. With international travel now a travail, and the summers so good once again, there are worst places to dream of escape. And there are worse places, I imagine, to spend two years in a geriatric home.