Dan Thompson’s book review: The Seaside by Madeline Bunting

Ramsgate writer and artist Dan Thompson reviews The Seaside

In England, Madeline Bunting tells us in her new book The Seaside, you’re never more than 70 miles from the sea.

In Margate, although she doesn’t tell us this, you’re never more than 70 metres from somebody writing about the seaside, deprivation, and Brexit.

For this book follows a well-trodden coastal path. From the author’s childhood memories and teenage years by the seaside to middle-aged sea swimming, we’ve heard it all before. The seaside that is explored in Bunting’s book, and her journey through it, is a familiar one, told in a dozen Guardian articles.

Taking in the problems facing seaside towns, and their apparent demise, it is also a territory explored in books like Borderland by Phil Hubbard and the excellent Wish You Were Here by Travis Elborough.

Paul Theroux was probably the first to explore the connection between the seaside and poverty in 1983’s Kingdom By The Sea, and it is worth bringing his definitive work up to date even if the fundamental problems are still the same.

Bunting explores this deprivation in some depth – she gives detailed statistics for the crime, educational failings, and health inequalities in Thanet. She looks at the area’s history, from the Sea Bathing Hospital and Turner and the Royal Harbour to the many attempts to regenerate the area, from Turner Contemporary to Manston Airport.

And she finds much the same story playing out across England, from Blackpool to Brighton, Weston-super-Mare to Worthing. Seasonal jobs, DFLs, airbnb crowding out locals, crumbling infrastructure, and left-behind locals voting Brexit are common themes.

Bunting writes well, and the way she shifts between government reports and the beauty of sea swimming or watching birds creates a compelling story and a complete world. Her love for the seaside is obvious and authentic.

But there are flaws in the foundations of the book. Bunting knows seaside towns – she seems to be a regular visitor to Margate – but for this book, she visits seaside towns during Covid lockdown. That’s not the time for a fair assessment of the current state of play.

When she visits the towns I know well – Margate and Ramsgate, Brighton and Worthing – it feels like a superficial understanding of those places, a day tripper’s first impressions.

And the book is over-reliant on the books that came before: it references and quotes from Theroux, Elborough and others.

None of this is to say it’s a bad book, though. If you want an overview of seaside towns and the problems facing them today, it’s a good starting point. It gets beyond the Instagram gloss to the divisions that exist, often between council estate residents and more recent incomers.

But it sometimes feels like it is restrained by being written within the framework of what’s gone before, rather than finding a fresh angle.

It keeps nudging at the coming challenges created by the climate crisis, for example, and this could be explored much further.

Seaside towns have been struggling for at least 100 years, and this book never quite gets to the roots of why, or what’s to be done about it.

The Seaside by Madeleine Bunting can be ordered from The Margate Bookshop of Book Bodega, Ramsgate.


  1. The history of the seaside goes back to 1786 Margate was the first as for mentions about brexit what a load of twaddle people stopped using coastal towns when package holidays started UK citizens deserted seaside towns for the cheap holidays we weren’t in the EU then if anything the EU afterwards took away all of our industries that kept this country going with full employment it’s nothing to do with racism we are an island not a continent people should put our own country first instead of going to countries that rip you off on holiday and don’t like us anyway.

    • What I’m unclear about, is the actual BOOK about Brexit or just the review? I voted Brexit and I’m proud of it, but I’m also interested in the book IF it doesn’t preach how people like me are “racists” etc.

  2. I don’t think people should just read books whose authors agree with them about everything.

    And, obviously, Brexit is still a very relevant topic, and one which is not inappropriate
    for an exploration of contemporary life in Britain.

    • As a potential buyer, I’d like to make an informed choice. IS this book written from a Remainer point of view, or does the author take a more neutral stance than the reviewer?

  3. He’s the man when he lived in Margate got involved with this politically bias group rise up who slapped banners along Margate seafront telling visitors Margate beach was filthy in attempting to stop badly need visitors from coming here all exaggerated there figures if any bags left for TDC to collect were mostly one quarter of a big full saying the collected 30 or more bags was exaggerated comments like we don’t want these kind of people useing our beach it’s not there’s it’s all crown estate for everyone that’s the arty people for you yet TDC goes along with them not employing local beach cleaners this island needs employment not a lot of stuffed shirts doing it for nothing they are the first to moan about locals bring lazy which is not true they want employment even if it is seasonal all seaside towns are seasonal why did he move out of Arlington house to where he lives now.

    • I didn’t know all that, but I did see that he has a “Not my King” logo on his twitter page (I’m guessing he won’t be contributing to any articles on the Coronation celebrations!).

      • Hmmm . . . that’s interesting – thank you.

        It puts some perspective on the book critic being a member of a petty-minded minority who somehow think they have greater insight and intellect than the rest of us !

        • “Hmmm . . . that’s interesting – thank you”
          Goodness me, whatever next? A critic being criticised!

          • Well well …”Goodness me, whatever next? ”
            A critic criticising a critic criticising a critic ….

  4. I wonder what brings “John” to this conclusion. “Takes one to know one” comes to mind.

  5. Man reads book.
    Man gives opinions about said book – also known as a book review.
    Man is lambasted in comment thread for giving opinions about said book.
    Cue outrage in comment thread.

    Did I miss something?

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