Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

13 September 2019

Malcolm Guite joins young and old parishioners on an outing to the seaside

THERE is something repellent about those slick, chic, photo-shopped holiday brochures that sometimes drop through one’s letter box. Glossy photos show cloudless skies and golden beaches, which the young couple in the picture seem to have entirely to themselves as they pose, scantily clad and impossibly shaped, on luxurious sunbeds under a silken parasol, their flawless skin glistening in the Caribbean sun.

Even those pages of the brochure which reluctantly admit the existence of children admit only those who smile ecstatically from the splash pool or gaze up at their handsome and beneficent parents in awed and grateful admiration. There are no old people to be seen anywhere.

Dropping the brochures into the recycling bin, I long for some bracing antidote. And, happily, I have just been provided with one: the Linton parish outing to Great Yarmouth. Now, that’s a proper holiday event, a glorious world away from the brochures’ corrosive fantasy: a glad celebration of the world as it actually is.

We board our coach outside the Dog and Duck, and, as elderly ladies are helped aboard by the young and settle to their knitting, as a gaggle of grandchildren climb on with picnic baskets and swimming costumes, and as hard-working members of the PCC all clamber aboard looking at last relaxed and cheerful, I reckon, with some satisfaction, that we have three, perhaps four, generations: people from all walks of life, people of all shapes and sizes, all happily on board together and ready for the off.

We sweep out of the village and along the A11, flickering through Thetford forest, out into the wide flat lands of Norfolk, through the Broads, where one glimpses the windmills on either side and the strange sight of tall white sails, apparently faring through open fields, sweep over the bridge at Acle, and come at last to a halt on the long promenade at Great Yarmouth. From there, we set off in groups, or ones and twos, to explore at our own leisure and find our own pleasures, but each clutching our copy of “The Great Yarmouth Quiz”, set by the events committee: “Which saint is the Anglican church named after? How many of Great Yarmouth’s town-wall towers are still standing?”

Remarkably, Great Yarmouth still has 11 of its medieval towers; but, more remarkably, it still has most of the simple, old-fashioned pleasures of the traditional seaside holiday: the pier on which you sit in the brisk breeze eating your fish and chips, or lean out to see the donkeys trotting patiently across the sand bearing delighted children; the piratically themed “adventure golf” course, set up as a series of ships’ poops, and treasure islands, where pirate figures with cutlasses between their teeth loom over you as you practise your putting skills; and, of course, best and simplest of all, the beach itself.

I walked out over the sands, just to feel that I had at least touched the sea, and observed the family groups, the buckets and spades and sandcastles, the children running with half-melted ice-creams already covered in sand, and the old couples on deck chairs already covered in newspapers.

“Still going on, all of it, still going on!” as Larkin says in “To the Sea”, a poem that celebrates “The miniature gaiety of seasides”. The last lines of that poem sum up for me all there is to admire in these annual rites:

. . . these do best,
Coming to water clumsily undressed
Yearly; teaching their children by a sort
Of clowning; helping the old, too, as they ought.

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