Sleepy doesn’t even begin to describe the town of Seaton. It’s comatose. And, like Alex Drake in Ashes to Ashes, it’s woken up in an alternate-reality version of 1981. A fact eerily alluded to in the handwritten “RIP Seaton” signs plastered about town. There are shops selling antique tat, shops selling general tat, shops selling general tat and also some old records, a Costcutter and a Boots. There are a few pubs, letters missing from their signs. There are more fish and chip restaurants than anything else. The colours are garish and the lettering almost universally ugly.
We decide the only thing to do be done is to have fish and chips in the wind on the beach, so we head to the seafront. At “Frydays” (which advertises, as well as its various awards, that it’s on Google maps), we order cod and chips and then wait, watching the diners slowly finishing lunch. We are the youngest people in the room by at least 50 years, and everyone appears to have ordered the exact same thing: cod and chips.
We take our boxes down to the edge of the water, nesting amongst the rocks with our backs against a concrete wall. The beach is open and bland; the sea, pale and windswept, is beautiful, and a few swimmers bob near the shore. My fish drips with grease and the mushy peas are especially mushy (pre-masticated, perhaps, for the benefit of the toothless senior citizens). Vinegar, mayonnaise, the smell of sea salt in the air and the heat of the sun on our faces. Surely this is a quintessential English experience. After, we lie back exhausted on the stony beach, as if it's been a great effort just to consume so much fat. I wash my hands in the sea. Our minds are heavy with sleep and our hearts drooping with a strange kind of sorrow for this dying town, and its dying population. To the left and right, nothing but a stony beach; and handsome cliffs glinting in the sunlight, and a green-and-blue ocean full of fish but peaceful to the naked eye.
We make our way back to the car via a few shops. One sells jewelery, old tables and chairs, fossils, used postcards, model cars, glass bottles. I buy an edition of Browning's poetry, English Essays, a volume of Modern English Usage from 1926. Ben finds a book entirely devoted to the Dewey Decimal System, which once, a stamp inside informs us, belonged to the Sexey Boys' School. Then we move on to the record shop--"Soundbytes"--which also sells cassettes, video tapes, DVDs, and an odd assortment of useless objects (statuettes, old beer mats). I wonder aloud if it's coincidence that all the shops also sell wooden canes outside.
We don't hold out much hope for Beer. Surely the novelty of the town will merely be in the name--but we feel we must go, anyhow, so that we can make all the requisite puns, so that we can say to our friends when we return that we had a beer in Beer, ha ha ha, so that we can laugh at all the signs ("Beer Social Club" etc).
Surprising, then, that Beer turns out to be lovely, a handsome village tucked into a hillside, with a steep ramp leading down to a beach teeming with fishermen and boats. We buy two fresh plaice and spend a few minutes making plaice jokes ("looks like we'll need plaice mats tonight," I say). We watch a pair of fishermen lug a dead conger eel the size of a sumo wrestler from their boat. They dump it in a bucket, where its milky flesh is still apparent, and carry the bucket (struggling with the weight) down the beach, to an apparently random spot, where they dump the eel out and, watched by a gaggle of curious children, begin to gut the thing.
We have a few beers in a garden overlooking the sea, and remember our awkward youths. We were uncomfortable, geeky kids: black painted nails, Doc Martens, computer games. I recall with some chagrin a photograph of my 14-year-old self, in fishnet tights and dyed-maroon hair, staring seriously into the camera on the Fourth of July.
The sun sets slowly over Beer; we make a few more plaice puns. How far we've come, I think, half-ironically. How far we've come.