Writer and S&C founding editor Tom Sykes and illustrator Louis Netter are publishing a book next March entitled Coast of Teeth, a travelogue of 21 English seaside towns in an age of anxiety and absurdity. Their encounters are comical, sad, weird and beguiling – sometimes all at once. They witnessed a post-lockdown beach party turned violent in Bournemouth and Hampshire shores piled up with plastic waste and sewage dumped by a water company. They explored Jaywick’s trailer parks and makeshift homes that resemble a Global Southern shanty town and survived a pub in Scarborough celebrating Ulster paramilitarism. In this excerpt, Tom and Louis travel to Hayling Island, where Tom grew up in the 1980s and 1990s.
When I was small I’d be taken to play arcade games and crazy golf at Sinah Warren Holiday Camp in the southwest tip of Hayling Island. Now, as Louis and I note when we walk by, it’s a chicer haunt called Sinah Warren Hotel. It has a spa, ‘market kitchen’ and ‘garden chalets’. But when it was established in the fifties, the camp was the fake jewel in the toy arcade-prize crown of Hayling as a pleasure resort. In those days, wellness meant eating spam fritters every meal or squatting down to win a Knobbly Knees competition in which, yes, he or she with the knobbliest knees would win a cash prize. Equality meant that it wasn’t just young women who got to be objectified, hence the Glamorous Grandmother pageants. And childcare consisted of telling your toddler to stop blubbing when they’d fallen head-first into mud off the back of an ass during a Donkey Derby race.
By the 1980s, Sinah and Hayling’s three other holiday camps couldn’t compete with package holidays to Mallorca, where an English family could be guaranteed fine weather – as well as the unlimited English beer, full English breakfasts and English fish and chips they could get in any English seaside town.
But my generation wouldn’t let go of the idea of Hayling as a beach bum’s wonderland, even if the truth was less ritzy. In the summer, lads in parachute-baggy shorts with their hair in ponytails or – this being before the cultural-appropriation taboo – dreadlocks waited for hours in the sand dunes for a wave tall enough to surf on. This seldom happened because this was not Oahu. This was not even Newquay. (Had these wanna-Beach Boys got into a less trendy water sport, they’d have been in the right place. It is an almost interesting fact that Peter Chilvers invented the first windsurfing board on Hayling in 1958).
Despite all the proof to the contrary, many of my peers thought they were living on Bondi Beach, or near enough, thanks to the extraordinary grip Australian soap operas had over Hayling Islanders in the late eighties/early nineties. Although I was too nerdy for this, my fellow pubescents started bleaching their hair to imitate the almost catatonically laidback surfer dude characters they saw on-screen. They also fell for the cynical mass-branding of stars like Jason Donovan – watch his show, eat the chocolate he endorses, buy his harrowingly awful records. Later in life, a girlfriend to whom I introduced my Hayling-based friends remarked that they had their ‘own accent’, which was ‘kind of weirdly Australian.’ I don’t know if this was the result of some aggressive marketing campaign by the Australian tourism board, but in the nineties and noughties almost every Hayling Islander below thirty was heading Down Under, working in a bar and coming back a few months later with an authentic Aussie twang. This was a strange phenomenon, though not new. When a style goes viral, the symptoms can warp our behaviour in intimate ways, including how we talk. During Beatlemania, plummy Home Counties kids would affect Scouse accents. Punk-fixated Americans in the late seventies would drawl and drop their ‘t’s like Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer.
For me, this escape to Oz says something about the seaside’s pull on the imagination. Hayling Islanders at that time were yearning for an idealised version of what they already had but were losing. While coming of age in a declining seaside town they were seduced by a fantasy of a much better one (strictly speaking, Neighbours’ fictional setting Erinsborough is by a lake). This later inspired them to make the huge effort of travelling 10,000 miles just to find out if that much better seaside town existed. Concerns about fact versus fiction prompted my middle school headteacher to warn us in one assembly circa 1988 that Neighbours and Home and Away were ‘unrealistic’. He was worried about us making role models of characters who only worked sporadically and precariously in the service sector, and who spent their free time sunbathing, skulling lager or eating spare ribs straight off a barbecue.
Despite all the differences, Hayling’s social set-up was not unlike Summer Bay’s. There was – and still is – no industry outside of a few pubs, fewer restaurants and one funfair. Anyone with higher aspirations had to leave – or at least commute to Portsmouth, Southampton or London rather than Brisbane, which was venerated in Neighbours as some transcendentally glamorous New Jerusalem. To unwisely mix my religious metaphors, like the Prophet Mohammed, ‘Brizzy’ was only ever spoken of by characters and never depicted visually. As with Erinsborough, there was zero cultural diversity on Hayling unless you count a Chinese takeaway and an Indian restaurant where it’s likely the most popular order was steak and chips – the reflex repast of the terminally unadventurous Little Englander/Little Australian.
For my generation the Aussie idyll crumbled in adolescence. The culture industry was now selling us a rite of passage into young adulthood waypointed by pubs, nightclubs and concert venues. These were not really to be found in our sleepy, four-square mile blend of bungalow suburbs, fenced-off farmland and retirement homes, dominated by prissy old-timers who thought that drum and bass had happened sometime in the 1930s between Kansas City and bebop jazz. My peers and I came to hate Hayling. We fled to the obvious obverse: bustling university towns.
But that was then and this is now, as the psychoanalysts say. And now, in my early forties, I no longer dislike Hayling, despite what I’ve said above and what Louis and I find at the end of our journey. The street where I grew up, Eastoke Avenue, now has more union flags flapping from it than Shankill Road.
In my teens I wished Hayling would sink into the sea. Now, just as I have started to appreciate certain things about it – the slower pace, the cleaner air, the woods, the beaches, the marshes – it’s in danger of actually sinking into the sea given the climate emergency. Is this somehow my fault? Did I strike a Faustian deal that allowed me to escape Hayling and all its delusions at the cost of my hometown’s destruction? Even if I were to deny it, I might be obligated to, like a secret service agent is. So you’ll never know. Haha.
Coast of Teeth is out on March 6th 2023 and has received the following endorsements:
‘An enjoyable read. The illustrations have a certain mutant Donald McGill vibe.’ Will Self
‘A thoroughly enjoyable tour of seaside towns, the people who live in them and adventures on beaches. Hilarious and revealing encounters accompanied by brilliant drawings.’ Arthur Smith
‘This is how contemporary cultural analysis should be be done. Tight, funny, multi-faceted, the book casts fresh light on the seaside phenomenon, and presents its views with drawings that are reminiscent of Otto Dix or George Grosz.’ Sue Harper, Emeritus Professor of Film History, University of Portsmouth
‘I’m going to tie a hanky on my head and settle in my stripy deck chair … The perfect beach read for the outer edges of “this land”.’ Mark Stewart, The Pop Group