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.