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Portobello's beached

Detailing his tour around the British coastline in The Kingdom by the Sea, Paul Theroux claimed our seaside towns were filled with "old couples sitting side by side in cars, facing out to sea as if waiting for death."

It's less than comforting, but then, if you think about it, this island race's connection to the seaside has always been ambivalent. Many readers will probably spend some time this summer by the sea, but the seaside largely figures in our collective memory as Mods and Rockers fighting at Brighton or brave local heroes drowned saving pet dogs.

Furthermore, we talk of going to the sea, but what percentage of resort holiday-makers in Britain are ever brave enough to go into it, or on it? Most resorts are emphatically set up to entertain visitors in ways that help them actively avoid getting wet. It might be our climate, or our history, but there is certainly something peculiar going on in our seaside resorts.

If you are astrologically inclined, my fascination with the sea might be put down to my being an Aquarian, but I tend to believe it is a matter of geography.

I have early memories of the blindingly hot and crowded beach at Portobello, Edinburgh's Costa Palaver, on bank holidays in the 1950s. Only a 10-minute walk from my house, it was my first encounter with the brine.

Looking at old photographs of mobs of hugely overdressed people wedged on the sands (in every picture of my dad on the beach, he's wearing suit, shirt and tie), it's easy to see how package tours to Spain gained such popularity.

There is a dreadful earnestness about folks' expressions: "We are here to enjoy ourselves", they seem to mutter through their fixed smiles, against a backdrop of garish red and orange windbreaks.

I left Edinburgh for Southport, in the north-west of England. Overshadowed by the much brasher Blackpool, it sought to be more like Bournemouth and has ended up, to the horror of its elderly residents, a day-tripper venue for Brookside scallies via the commuter line from Liverpool. In many ways, it epitomises the strange status of our resorts, not least because the sea only reaches the beach four times a year. The rest of the time, it is a glittering promise, anything up to three miles away. The lifeguards have to use amphibious DUKW vehicles to reach any stranded bathers, for fear they be too exhausted to rescue them by the time they arrive at the low-water mark.

It does leave a lot of beach, though. In the Sixties, you could get flights in a Tiger Moth that took off from the beach; the first airmail flight landed there; Stirling Moss once broke a land speed record on these sands; and, in the election campaign of 1970, Jeremy Thorpe arrived on the beach in a hovercraft that struggled manfully to defy gravity despite the presence of Cyril Smith on board. All fascinating facts, perhaps, but not much to do with families actually bathing in the sea.

As teenagers, we were far more drawn by the deserted Pleasure Beach complex on cold winter days than we ever were attracted by candyfloss and the House of Fun in the summer. Even pals in the Sea Scouts rarely ventured on to the water, and our excitement, rather than gleaned from maritime activities, revolved round backstreet rumours of the Kray twins seeking a slice of the local casino action.

In this, we found echoes of perhaps the archetypal seaside novel, Brighton Rock, in which Graham Greene portrays the sleaze of the back alleys of that southern resort in the 1930s, as boy gangster Pinkie erodes the innocence of the waitress Rose in a welter of razor-slashing and Catholic guilt. Even then, Greene seemed to acknowledge that what goes on behind "The Front" in our resorts is of more significance than the sea itself.

Youthful holidays were spent in a delightful resort on the Irish west coast but, I remember, despite a beautiful crescent- shaped strand and wonderful cliff scenery, our interest was in after-hours traditional music sessions and pitch and putt, rather than boating or swimming. The only folk who bathed in the sea were teenagers, dispatched into the freezing Atlantic by parents hoping it would dampen the youthful ardour aroused by nights spent in the ballroom.

So there we have the peculiarities of the British and the sea. We enjoy visiting towns situated by the sea, but its presence seems almost incidental. Maybe it's a reflection of seaside resorts' Victorian origins - we can look but we prefer not to touch.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Reg Dixon, on his steam organ in the Blackpool Tower, got it right when he played the traditional seaside anthem: we prefer to walk along the prom, prom prom and, rather than be in it or on it, we choose to be, for the most part, beside the seaside, beside the sea.

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