All nations have them: a location in their climatology where the air is at its balmiest, the sunshine hours at their longest, The winter is forbidden ‘til December and exits March the second on the dot. By order, summer lingers through September…
No, not Camelot – or anything like the magical castle of Arthurian legend, the suggested sites for which, in England, have been banished to some very uncongenial spots, where the rain never stops falling before sundown and by eight, the morning fog has just set in.
The places whereof I speak owe nothing to the land of T.H. White’s fantasy, although to their residents they are, without doubt, intended for happily-ever-aftering. As the seaside towns of Florida are known as ‘the Sunshine Coast’ to Americans, so the English Channel coast towns of West and East Sussex are known to the British by less flattering names, the pick of which run along the lines of ‘Costa Geriatrica’, ‘The Elephants’ Graveyard’ (thank you, Rudyard) or ‘God’s Waiting Room’.
Although largely undeserved, it is easy to see why these towns attract such disrespectful collective titles. As the spots furthest south that may be reached without a passport, they soak up the sun-seekers of an elder generation like sponges. And once absorbed, the great majority only leave there in a box.
I was a working partner running a restaurant in one of these towns, Bexhill on Sea, for some years. My youngest son was born there. My customer base for most of the year had an average age of seventy-six, which encouraged little in the way of long-term promotion because they were constantly ‘moving on’. There were some precious friends and regulars with whom relationships were all too brief, and usually curtailed by a visit from a son or daughter with the news that they would no longer be able to dine with us.
There were good times, too. The De Le Warr Pavilion was nearby, so if a show drew a crowd we always benefited with filled tables and visits from the ‘stars’. Jon Pertwee (of Dr. Who fame) was a favorite example. After his stand-up gig at the theatre he performed another, completely spontaneously, for our customers. An immensely funny and very generous man, he too, sadly, has ‘moved on’.
We always staffed up for these occasions, with good reason: a well-known orchestra played an annual concert at the De La Warr. They would eat with us after the performance, and invariably the process would cost us a number of our staff who quite rightly saw an invitation to a late date with a musician more tempting than washing crockery into the early hours!
Bexhill had its share of ‘characters’: the old lady who solved her crowd problems by stalking down the center of a busy pavement sweeping her walking stick before her like a mine detector, or the elderly matron whose garage we rented and who occupied two apartments in the most expensive block on the seafront. One for herself and the paintings of her famous son, and another, specially air-conditioned, for her harp (my short story, ‘The Harp’, owes much of its substance to her).
There were nights, though: long, cold, hard nights when gales blew in from The Channel so fiercely they forced the restaurant doors open and sent our elderly clients scurrying for their lairs. And truthfully those clients were themselves a minority, for there were many hundreds, or thousands more who never emerged from those faceless apartment blocks, but kept huddled in their self-imposed isolation behind their windows staring blankly at a view of the sea, waiting for visitors who never came: for children who were too busy, or lived in countries far away.
I once nursed a pint or two with one I counted as a friend, who was very wise, as together we discussed the meaning of wealth. Eddie, who was a soldier of fortune and had seen a lot more of the world than I, had a view of financial probity which has, with the years, become very much my own – a philosophy which says there is a finite amount of benefit to be gained from money in the world, and every little that is gained, is at the expense of someone else. Eddie viewed those apartment blocks as prisons, called their tenants unkindly ‘the meaningless rich’. When I took him to task on that, he replied thus:
“After your first seventy years, money has no meaning. You work all your life scrounging and scraping to achieve wealth; worry, connive, scheme, and for what? To sit on your own behind one of those windows watching as it ebbs away.”