Thursday, October 11, 2007

Not Grim Up North, Part 4: Blackpool

[Originally posted on; references are made to comments by other users there, which I cannot reproduce here.]

Sorry, Alya! For some reason my employer has no interest at all in Blackpool, so I'm having trouble finding the time for this.

My Blackpool report may displease the more refined, sensitive sort of English person, much as Blackpool itself does. Please remember that no matter how many gauche or disgusting people, things and events are described here, I am well aware that they do not represent the whole of Britain, and also remember that at all times I was having a stupendous amount of fun.

We were warned by our hotelier, well up the North Promenade, to avoid the area south of the famous Tower, as that is where the tackier people went, not "quality" like ourselves. Like many of the nicer sort of hotel these days, he had a strict "no stag and hen" policy, and even directed our attention to an article about a nearby place that had been trashed by a group of young men, furniture destroyed, walls smeared with excrement, vomit in the hallways.... We didn't see anything like that. But we did of course immediately headed south.

I've read a lot about "faded" Blackpool, which had me expecting closed-down rides and boarded up pubs and just a few stumbling alcoholics pitching in and out of the gutters, but the first thing you notice about Blackpool is that it is absolutely heaving with people.

I've seen the photographs from the forties and fifties, and while the sand itself was relatively empty -- no hordes of men in suits with rolled-up trousers and knotted handkercheifs on their heads, no fat ladies in housedresses reading the newspaper under an umbrella jammed in the sand. There were a few kids riding the donkeys on the beach, and building complicated damworks with bucket and spade. But along the promenade, it was a very different scene. Wall to wall.

Most of these people were drunk. Many of them, the ladies especially, were wearing matching outfits of some sort -- groups of eight or ten pink miniskirts with high heels, or matching hi-visibility vests with "Beaver Patrol -- Big Beaver", "Bald Beaver", "Shaved Beaver" and so on. The archetypical modern British hen parties were out in force, with L plates and giant inflatable penises, tottering along on impossibly high heels, to go with the impossibly short skirts and impossibly skimpy tops, wholly inadequate for the heavy, uh, job they were being asked to perform.

The boys also traveled in packs, but less organized. We rode in a tram with one, all track-suited and spotty, successfully confusing the conductor about who was paying what for whom, and braying about the (unlikely) romantic conquests ahead of them. "I want that one", they would say, pointing at likelies in the throng below them. "Hey, Bluey" one yelled out the window at a girl in a blue tube top. She turned to look, and the boy and his mates erupted in laughs and high-fives. I don't know if they were even old enough to drink, but I suspect they finished up the night drunk and disorderly, the courage of beer proving insufficient once again to land one of the imaginary compliant birds. Perhaps I'm naive.

The same could not be said for some of the other gentlemen we saw. Some of them looked like the only thing that was going to keep them out of some lucky girl's hotel room was a prison cell. While standing outside Coral Island, a massive pirate-themed arcade, we saw a fellow shouting incoherently, wearing a grass hula skirt with (possibly) nothing underneath. I wasn't motivated to take a closer look. Half the people there seemed to be in costume, with "Kiss Me Quick" cowboy hats (yes, really), or giant neon pink or green wigs.

At one point we took a break in a grimy but friendly pub to watch the football. My wife's been a Liverpool supporter since the early 80s, and I pretend to go along for the sake of family harmony. The regulars in the bar, who appeared to be mostly bikers and their diminutive, snaggle-toothed girlfriends, would take big gulps out of their drinks and then head back out to the doorway to continue chain-smoking. Inside, those of us watching the match (against Portsmouth) included a lovely couple decked out head to toe in brand-new Liverpool kit, the full top and bottom tracksuit combo, with replica shirt and, in her case, jewelry. Hers was red, his was black, to match the tragic dye job she was sporting on her straw-like hair. They were both 25 and looked 45, but they were good company, and we all had a good time (I suspect I had a better time than anyone there, as Liverpool squeaked by with an extremely tepid and unconvincing nil-nil draw). As we stumbled out into the afternoon sunshine, we said goodbye to our new friends, who were settling into a serious bout of binge drinking.

Despite the persistent raunchiness it was still a family's day out, with hundreds of kids of all sizes, shapes and descriptions on every block. Blackpool surely has the highest concentration of ice cream and candy floss (cotton candy to us Americans) and ice lollies and licorice rope vendors per kilometer anywhere in the world. It seems that one is no longer expected to buy a piece of Blackpool Rock; every shopfront was selling it by the dozen, or the ton. Frankly that's a little too much rock for me, but there were thousands of sugar-smeared faces all down the strand.

Other items sold in the shops included every kind of tacky souvenirs imaginable. I love tacky souvenirs, and spend a good hour poring over the cheap football pins, thimbles, red phone box keychains, magnets, lopsided Blackpool Towers and Winter Gardens. Most of the other patrons were more interested in the vomitous perfumes and the big samurai-style swords, which was a little worrying. Mrs. Fnarf found the most adorable fudge and taffy shop in the world and was happy; her moods can be most simply expressed as "needs chocolate" and "has chocolate".

One thing that did not make us happy were the Jolly Gollies, little golliwog black dolls of a sort that had become offensive to sell anywhere in America by about 1959. They were everywhere (we even saw them in posh York), but here in Blackpool the many black faces we saw walking the promenade passed by them without comment.

I was however very happy to see another relic of a less sophisticated time, the dirty postcard, featuring a brightly-colored cartoon of some embarrassing situation involving a bursting bra, a bare bottom, and a red faced misunderstanding over a naughty, naughty double-entendre. I must have bought a hundred of them, and had my picture taken sticking through a life-sized version on a pier.

Blackpools three piers are my favorite part. North Pier isn't that interesting, but Central Pier is a delight. It's got the tacky tourist shops -- I picked up a Preston North End pin for a pound that turned out to be white with corrosion on the back -- and the colorful rides, including a large ferris wheel, dodgems (bumper cars to Americans), a waltzer, merry-go-round, etc. These are the more sedate rides compared to the terrifying ones down at South Pier. All the way around the pier are original Victorian white cast-iron benches, which sparkle in the setting sun. It's really beautiful, especially if you've been in the bar down at the end for a while. South Pier, in addition to the insane bungee-drops and other rides that fling you into the stratosphere at high speed, has more color and noise and music.

If you don't get enough rides on the piers, there's Pleasure Beach, a vast amusement park near South Pier. Add these amusements to the miles of arcades, and I don't think there's anything like this anywhere in the world. It's like Coney Island, but ten times as big, and ten times as alive.

If rides aren't your thing, and you've tired of dropping 10p coins into the coin-slider machines, you have many psychics and seers to choose from, all of whom post faded pictures of celebrities outside, to give you the impression that Harrison Ford or Pamela Lee Anderson has been here, which I doubt. Not mystical? Visit Louis Tussauds Wax Museum, or one of the celebrity impersonator shows, or go up the Blackpool Tower. We didn't go in the Tower because they wanted too much money, and we were getting burned out on attractions, as well as just plain burned; we had gorgeous bright warm sunshine the whole time we were there. We did sit for a while with the old people in the Winter Garden cafe, which was fun. Here we really did see old gents holidaying at the seaside with a necktie on, which was oddly comforting.

One thing I will never, ever forget about Blackpool: the food. While we had excellent fish and chips at the chippie attached to Coral Island, we ate a later meal at a cafe in one of the arcades. I had "beef curry" which was chunks of mystery meat in about a gallon of what appeared to be straight HP sauce, over rice. Absolutely vile; one of the most disgusting things I have ever put in my mouth. On our second night, we ate in the Tower cafe, and listened in embarrassment as the drunk woman at the next table hurled abuse at the poor Polish waitress -- "I can't f---ing understand you, b----, anybody got a f---ing Polish-English dictionary? Take this s--- away, these are Polish chips, I want f---ing English chips" -- all at maximum volume and vitriol. To be fair, the food wasn't great, but abusing immigrants, or waitresses, is simply not acceptable behavior in my circles. An interesting sociological experience, though!

At breakfast in the hotel one morning, I decided to have the smoked haddock. I didn't realize I was going to get an entire haddock filet, more than a foot long! Delicious, but I could feel my clothes starting to shrink around the middle.

The hotel was sweetly old-fashioned. As happens to us regularly in English hotels, water started to pour through the ceiling into the closet from upstairs. It's better than Liverpool in 2003, when the water was pouring out through the overhead light fixture! But it was clean and well-kept, and very friendly.

After walking around some of the less salubrious areas of Blackpool's back streets, taking pictures and hoping not to be robbed by some of the hard-looking fellows standing around, and me buying the world's stupidest-looking flat cap off a barrow in the Abingdon Street Market, we bought our tickets for tomorrow's trip to York. Blackpool was the one city in Britain where we never heard another American accent, and maybe most of our countrymen wouldn't be caught dead in such a tasteless, plebian place; but I absolutely loved it. It was like seeing Britain, or a part of it at least, when she's not putting on airs for tourists -- not overseas tourists, anyways. She's devoted to simple fun and good times, without pretension or put-on snooty heritage or "class". No bowler hats or brollies, no pearls, no stately homes, and no royalty except the ones painted lopsidedly on decorative plastic plates. Blackpool's not a museum, it's a party. I wish we had one where I lived.

Next: We take the train to York.

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