I was introduced to Travis Elborough by poet and translator Sarah Maguire, of the Poetry Translation Centre, with a simple sentence: “Travis Elborough is a cult.” Though I didn’t know what it meant at the time, I was happy to be spoiled by the tour manager of our Mexican Poets’ Tour through the UK. Travis was more than mere manager; he combined the best aspects of tour guide, curatorial critic, and lomography photographer. During that time, in April 2010, Travis was working on the final edits of his latest book, Wish You Were Here (Sceptre, £14.99), which followed his critically acclaimed social histories of the vinyl record—The Longplayer Goodbye—and the iconic double-decker buses of London—The Bus We Loved. We corresponded informally about his latest book over the course of a couple months before the following exchange, conducted by email. Travis generously supplied his own photographs of the British seaside, featured throughout the interview.
© David X. Green
I’ve been to Dover Beach, and suffice it to say I was not impressed. I mean, where are the piña coladas? So maybe this is a strange question to start with, but because your book has so much to do with the English relationship to the sea, I wonder if you could present a sort of thumbnail portrait of your own relationship with the sea, and open that up to explore how the nation engages or interacts with the sea. (Basically, re-write your whole book in a few sentences.
In Dover’s defence (or defense, in US spelling), what it lacks in piña coladas it more than makes up for with plenty of chances to get caught in the rain.
I grew up on the coast. And most of my family still live by the sea, where they have engaged with varying degree of success (and sanity) over the years, in such time-honoured seaside professions as novelty trinket vendors, guest house proprietors, restaurateurs, publicans, café owners and windsurfing instructors. So I suppose my blood must be about 40 per cent saline or something.
Arguably, though, few other elements of the English landscape are experienced quite as universally or viscerally here. Almost everyone has visited the coast at one time or another. Like the weather, there is a lot of it—some 11,0272.76 miles and none of it further than 72 miles away from any point inland. And while its range and character varies wildly, it equally boils down to similarly inescapable combinations of predictably unpredictable dampness.
And that coastline and the weather are the things that define the nation above all else. As Jonathan Raban once observed, to leave these isles is always to go overseas.
Similarly images of deckchairs, promenades, ice creams and slot machines and the taste of sand in a sandwich and slosh of rain on an esplanade are such familiar parts of our collective consciousness, our folk memory, they almost feel implanted in our brains from birth.
But its recent history is much more troubled. From the 1960s onwards, you increasingly see in films like Tony Richardson’s adaptation of John Osborne’s The Entertainer, fading seaside resorts being deployed as metaphors for the nation’s imperial decline.
And I was keen to unpick some of that. Or at least try to in the book.
What do you think about On Chesil Beach? Do British people like the book simply because of their messed up sea-complex?
I have to confess I haven’t read Chesil Beach. I love his stories and some of the early novels (or novellas), The Cement Garden is a wonderful book, but can’t feign any great enthusiasm for his recent output. Which is probably more of a failure on my part than his. Time is finite and there always seem to be else that I’d rather be reading than the new Ian McEwan. Even typing those words I feel slightly weary. I can immediately picture an iceberg-sized display of shiny, just-off-the-press Ian McEwan hardbacks, stickered at a special discount price, in the front of almost every bookstore in England.
But that’s envy really, isn’t it? Where’s my iceberg of hardbacks?
To go back to the question, though, since the novel, from what I remember hearing about it at the time, is about frigidity, perhaps it is British people’s messed-up sexual complexes that explains its appeal. Though as I discuss in my book, traditionally the seaside was where newly weds honeymooned and consummated their marriages. (Mathew Arnold went to Dover for his, while less successfully T. S. Eliot went to Eastbourne with Vivienne Haigh-Wood). It is also where couples sneak off to have so-called ‘dirty weekends’, so the two are rather inextricably linked in the national psyche. Which I imagine is why McEwan used Chesil for his setting.
How did you get from vinyls and buses to the sea, a much vaster and wetter protagonist?
What I think they have in common is that they are all slightly everyday things that we can rather take for granted. We may forget or simply be unaware, for example, that before the arrival of the vinyl LP in 1948, recorded music could only really be heard in four minute chunks.
Similarly before the Romantics there was no such thing as a sea view, per se. And the seaside as a realm for relaxing was a distinctly British and largely Victorian invention.
So in each of my books what I like to do is simply turn back the clock to the moment when each of these ‘subjects’ was ‘new’ and move on from there.
The singer Cliff Richard, once regarded as England’s answer to Elvis, appears in all three books, so he could be seen as the component that binds them all together. Or perhaps not.
I’ve seen you read excerpts from this book at London’s Horse Hospital, and you accompanied them with records from your impressive collection. Why the integration?
I started reading with records when I was doing events for my book on vinyl. It seemed quite natural to do a little bit of a show and tell on that one. Or show and play Mantovani and triple-disc Emerson, Lake and Palmer LPs at people, as it were.
I was booked to do quite a few of the big festivals over here in the summer that book came out, Green Man and Latitude among them. And I felt that my readings would need to be more of a performance. Otherwise any audience I got would simply wander off in search of the cider tent or someone strumming a lute elsewhere. For these festival readings, I roped my wife Emily into the act. She span the records while I read, which made life much easier for me on stage. It was also a slight ruse. As a performer Emily would also be entitled to a free pass to the festival, so we could both go along.
When Wish You Were Here was published and I was asked to do some readings for it I found myself reluctant to give up on the records. Not only had I written parts of the book with certain songs in mind but the portable record player I used had become a good stage prop and something of a comfort blanket combined.
Essentially, I write cultural history, and if I can introduce a few sonic or visual elements that help entertain as well as inform in a live setting that is all to the good in my opinion.
Mine too. I’m very much a fan.
Does America have a George Formby? Hell, does America have its own sea-complex? What, off the top of your head, would this book have been about if we replaced England with America?
For their mastery of double entendre perhaps either Little Richard or Chuck Berry (particularly with his “My Ding-a-Ling”) could be your George Formby.
If it is down to uke playing, then maybe Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields is your man.
But it’s interesting you should raise this issue of American equivalents and what a stateside version of the book might have been like. My original starting point for Wish You Were Here was actually two movies set in Atlantic City. The first was Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens, starring Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern and the magnificent Scatman Crothers. And the other was Louis Malle’s Atlantic City with Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon. I’d seen both of these films on TV a couple of times over the years but in about 2007 there was a scheme to build a huge super casino in Blackpool, one of the biggest and best known seaside resorts in Britain. The aim was to make Blackpool a kind of Las Vegas of the Lancashire coast—and the town faces out toward the Atlantic ocean and historically its Pleasure Beach was the nearest thing to Coney Island in England. (Back in the early 1930s, the playwright J. B. Priestley wrote somewhat witheringly about the Americanization of Blackpool in his famous travelogue, English Journey.)
In the end, that scheme didn’t pan out. But I had started to see some interesting parallels between what was planned for Blackpool and the way casinos and gambling had been licensed in Atlantic City in the late 1970s.
Also the other big thing with seaside towns over here recently has been the whole question of gentrification. As house prices in London, especially, have continued to rise, so many formerly unprepossessing southern coastal towns have become increasingly attractive places for aspiring Bobos types to buy property. Now, while the game of Monopoly was conceived around Atlantic City, the British version uses the streets of London. And again I had some foggy notions about drawing an analogy or three here too.
A lot of English seaside resorts were developed in the late 18th century and early 19th century as the result of some fairly wild property speculation. Several leading coastal developers went bankrupt before their resorts turned a profit and/or had to flee to France to avoid their creditors. The area called Kemp Town in Brighton, is a prime example of this. Places like St Leonards were built as exclusive new towns—not unlike somewhere like Seaside in Florida, say, in the 1970s. So, I guess what I am trying to say is that I had far more transatlantic book in mind to begin with.