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Weston-super-Mare made me a writer The geriatric town was the crucible of my ambition

There are worse places to spend two years in a geriatric home. Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

There are worse places to spend two years in a geriatric home. Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images


July 20, 2022   5 mins

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.

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.


Julie Burchill is a journalist, playwright and author of Welcome to the Woke Trials, available now. Her latest play, Awful People, co-written with Daniel Raven, comes to Brighton Pier in September 2023.

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J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

Another interesting essay from Julie Burchill (haven’t seen her on Unherd for a long time although I noticed she’s been busy over at The Spectator).
I suspect a lot of foreign travel won’t come back post-pandemic. It’s crowded, expensive and, as the author notes, “now a travail.
I’m on vacation this week and I’m enjoying a staycation. Yesterday I walked our local beach, visited the Marina, and ate lunch at a rather seedy restaurant. There was only one person working and she was overwhelmed so I placed my order and sat outside in the shade, closed my eyes and listened to the waves and the families and the dogs barking. When the waitress eventually arrived with my lunch she apologized for being late and I told her not to worry about it. I’d had a great time enjoying the day.
Good luck to all the Weston-super-Mares of the world. There’s much simple pleasure to be had without the hassle of travelling abroad.

Gill Holway
Gill Holway
1 year ago
Reply to  J Bryant

I couldnt agree more….as long as its not raining!

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Gill Holway

Even when it’s raining, people watching and reflection on places and their past is fascinating – the rain adds another perspective.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
1 year ago

Thank you so much for this warm and kind reminiscence of Weston Super Mare. My loving but hard up parents sent me there on the Greyhound coach for my holiday – when I was six years old and on each of the eight succeeding years – to stay at first with my grandparents in Carlton Street ( part of a lovely community of stone build houses near the sea front, sadly now long demolished) and later with my Aunt Peg and her family in Brendon Avenue, which looked out over the town and across the Bristol Channel. The magic of the place stays with me – even in my 74th year.

I have taken my family several times for visits but it has not proved possible to transmit the magic to them. We enjoyed our holidays mostly in France and I understand why. But for me holiday and Weston Super Mare will be forever together in my mind.

Thank you for your essay – and thank you Grandma, Grandpa, Aunty Peg and of course thank you Weston Super Mare.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

What a wonderful paean to WsM, thank you.
At over 32’ (10m)chucking oneself of the high diving board was truly ‘a near death experience’.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

I agree with Julie’s opinion of herself as a writer. She is a good one. Thank you, Weston.

ralph bell
ralph bell
1 year ago

Love ur writing, so full of hope, tragedy, melancholy and humour.
Hope to see u lots more here and The Spectator

Ed Cameron
Ed Cameron
1 year ago

It seems that not even this association can retard its rise:
ï»żJeffrey Howard Archer, Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare.

Alison Sutcliffe
Alison Sutcliffe
1 year ago
Reply to  Ed Cameron

And didn’t John Cleese hail from Weston-super-Mare too?

Stuart Raison
Stuart Raison
1 year ago

He did, although he’s not been too keen on it of recent times:
“I do not care for Weston-super-Mare, and so I’m glad that I’m not there.”

David Giles
David Giles
1 year ago

My teenage self enjoyed the Tropicana. My middle aged self longs for the Lido.
It is good know though that Weston is thriving again, maybe a nostalgic trip back is in order.

Anna Knowles
Anna Knowles
1 year ago

I used to live near Weston and am glad to hear of its revival.
I recall shopping there one day and noting that there seemed to be a huge influx of black people and wondered if they had come to find work in the town. Then I heard their accent – pure, 100% Brummie. There was a long-standing tradition of Brummies taking their holidays in Weston, and it seemed a new generation was continuing the custom – I thought that was rather nice.
I often wondered too about the plaque on Weston Station depicting a dog, a retriever, with the simple engraving ‘Dandy, the orphans’ friend.’ There’s a story there.

Steve Byrd
Steve Byrd
1 year ago

The lido terrified me as a boy. (That’s why I’m no writer, I suppose). I haven’t been there since my dad’s funeral, three years ago. But I can hear the siren calling . . . Thanks, Julie

Steve Elliott
Steve Elliott
1 year ago

Weston-super-Mare – YAY!
We used to take the paddle steamer across the Bristol Channel to Weston-super-Mare- very exciting for a kid.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

But Julie your life has been quite ordinary. Self obsessed ‘artistes’ like yourself, and Banksy with his take on the artistic cliche of dystopia (yet again, do artists ever consider the apparently mundane?), never seem to appreciate the hugely varied, challenging, exotic and painful experiences that all humans, even those in suburbia doing boring jobs, experience.

But your focus on the special ‘ordinariness’ of Weston seems to acknowledge how damned interesting all people and all places are. Like the bag being blown about in the wind in American Beauty. It’s sad that the vast majority of artistes and intellectuals, and their young acolytes, typically don’t realise this until after their glory days are over.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Stewart
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

A bag being blown about – rather like the blue balloon that brought the author happiness in Umberto Saba’s poem that begins:
“In quel momento ch’ero già felice
(Dio mi perdoni la parola grande
e tremenda) chi quasi al pianto spinse
mia breve gioia? Voi direte: “Certa
bella creatura che di lĂ  passava,
e ti sorrise”. Un palloncino invece,
un turchino vagante palloncino
nell’azzurro dell’aria, 
”
Forgive me if quoting an Italian poem in an English publication seems pretentious but it is one that resonates with me much as your reference to the bag in American Beauty does to you.

Stuart Raison
Stuart Raison
1 year ago

This year the Tropicana is being repurposed for another art installation, this time a repurposed oil rig named the “See Monster”. Delays mean it will only open just as the school summer holidays end. https://seemonster.co.uk/

Adam McDermont
Adam McDermont
1 year ago

Hi Unherd, why can’t I edit my last comment?

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

I remember the diving boards at the Lido. Terrifyingly high but I am not sure they were highest in the world

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

They weren’t.
10m high diving boards were introduced in the 1904 Olympics, so there were plenty around by 1937 when WsM’s was completed.
Currently there is an excellent one in Sheffield, much used by ‘Red Wall’ nutters.

Last edited 1 year ago by CHARLES STANHOPE
Adam McDermont
Adam McDermont
1 year ago

‘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.’
Choosing independently to go ‘on the game’ is never a blameless choice. I cannot believe the flagrant obliviousness of the author here to the way many of you might perceive this piece. I had heard decent things about Burchill.
The Heritage Site | Adam McDermont | Substack

harry storm
harry storm
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam McDermont

She was referring to the gossips, not the girls who went off to London.

jane baker
jane baker
1 year ago
Reply to  Adam McDermont

If you read her autobiography or memoir I Knew I Was Right (a very Burchill title),you’ll discover that though the drugs and rock n roll played a huge part in her life once she got to London,in fact she was as chaste as any Victorian maiden but in a bolshy contemporary way. I think she was virginal when she married Tony Parsons. The usual case of People marrying someone they find out they don’t like (mutual) that people seem to be prone to. I think with this remark she was being ill advisedly flippant.