“A short story, strong on detail and told with love, distaste, regret. Describing the town’s gaudy pleasures, the writer shares sadness and foreboding, regret at childhood lost, and ends with a warning that, like coastal towns everywhere, it will be lost to the sea.” – Gillian Clarke
The Land of Oxymorons. A dull grey slab of land that is sectioned seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and yet the eyesore of The Tower breaks into your vision whenever you turn your head. A Pleasure Beach composed of overpriced food and hours spent standing around, doing nothing except listen to the distant shrieks of other people finally enjoying themselves. A Sandcastle crafted carefully by cranes- made of plastic and metal.
I used to swear, when I was younger and more adamant in the truth of every opinion I had, that I would never drag my own children there. Never watch them be blinded by pulsating LED trams masquerading as trains or boats, and overly bright McDonalds archways that curve over your head like the polished Gates of Hell. Never drag them to walk along a pier that seems to summon its own hurricanes and whip your face with sand, hastily flung from an empty beach. Forever empty. In all my years, I have never seen a swimmer brave that churning sea -a browning grey a few shades darker than a slice of damp, white bread.
‘Not even fish could swim in there’ was the childish belief that once occupied my mind. Fish were made for clean water- water you could see through. The kind where you could count the grains of sand on its bed; the kind that you find in aquariums, tanks, the backs of pet stores hidden behind the dwarf hamsters and the rabbits. Those were the kinds of water that fish belonged in. Fish didn’t belong in the ocean.
Regardless, my grandparents had visited Blackpool. My parents continued to visit Blackpool. It was as natural as breathing that I would be dragged along to maintain the pattern. So, I endured with petulant eye rolls and grumbled complaints, the trips to the Tower- more often just standing at its feet than a venture to the top-, the humid tours of Madame Tussauds, the yearly firework competitions, and regular browse of the never changing illuminations.
There’s a kind of aching tenderness to it all now, a soft regret that cannot be tamed. A wish to go back and smile at the fishless sea, to beg my mother again for the sugared doughnuts from the green cart at the pier’s end, to just take my earphones out and actually hear the sounds of the town I once despised, instead of the album of Wicked.
Because, despite it all, Blackpool remained a vague ‘home away from home.’ No, we never had a permanent location or even stayed the night at a hotel. The little patchwork moments of joy we made though, were enough to cover the town with a blanket of comfortable familiarity.
There was a reassurance to be found, I realized as I grew, in the way time never seemed to breach that town. A small, involuntary smile couldn’t be helped at the plastic mermaid illuminations, a loveliness in their consistency. The mermaids never changed- golden hair sprawled exaggeratedly around a face that didn’t appear painted quite right- and that was a balm. When all else could change, they never left, and my attachment grew to the point I would become concerned when I forgot their exact placement and believed them removed.
There was a fond annoyance at the sight of the pier where my mask has once fallen from my pocket, and I had to chase after it lest it be swept away to join the heaps of litter on both land and sea. The flustered memory of how bystanders had to turned to watch my sprint after the little, blue nuisance and hollered “Run, Forrest, Run” as though it was an original joke, whilst my brother supported Mum as she cried from laughter.
The humour and slight disgust at the one time Ryan had sneezed, only for the self-summoned hurricane of the town to catch the green snot and send it hurtling directly back into his face, exploding across his glasses like a slimy paintball.
The shared delight of all the times I would grin at my mother and ask her to buy me the doughnuts we both knew we wanted and waited patiently for her to pretend to cave under the pressure. She would always fish out a ten pound note she had prepared for the occasion, but we would act as if it was a merely a convenience each time.
Dancing with my stepdad as we waited for the fireworks to begin, eating the fish and chippy with greasy fingers because everyone knows that the wooden forks are useless. Annual school trips to the Pleasure Beach. Even the silly game of ‘who could spot the entirely-too-visible Tower first’ holds affection for me now.
All seem like traditions that I should have had the option to uphold. But I don’t. You see, Blackpool is going under. According to all the reports, it will be swallowed by the sea by 2050. When I first heard it, I had been suspended by a vague disbelief, my mind stuck on the looping mantra of ‘No, no, that can’t be right.’ Areas of my actual home city are supposed to also be swept into Poseidon’s embrace, but that seems less inconceivable somehow, to me, than Blackpool.
Blackpool was untouchable. Blackpool was timeless. Blackpool was mine, and no one else was supposed to be able to claim it. If only to be a subject of scorn, Blackpool was supposed to be immortal.
But it isn’t.
It will be lost to me now. My favourite eyesore will no longer blind me with its’ abundance of LEDs, I won’t taste the exact sugared doughnuts that I crave, and my children will never dance with me before the fireworks.
I will never take my own family and finally jump on one of those disguised trams and find out where they actually go. I will never have my wife drag me kicking and screaming onto the Big One whilst our kids laugh at my horror. I will never be the swimmer who braves that ocean.
I suppose Blackpool’s Sea will finally have its fish- battered and drifting in the drowned wreckage of an old chippy.
‘You never know what you have until its gone.’ I always found that phrase a touch too condescending, as though whoever was speaking was threatening me, suggesting that unless I acknowledged precisely what it was I had right at that very second, they would snatch it from me.
I know exactly what I had with Blackpool. Memories. The Good, The Bad and The Tolerable. A strong mixture of love and hate that I don’t think any other place will be able to recreate with me, simply because they could never be My Blackpool.
I have lost my Blackpool- it has become my Atlantis. Soon, my elephants will take the place of my childhood dragons. My turtles will become the Loch Ness Monsters of my time: no longer seen but we like to pretend that they’re still there. All that once seemed so untouchable will become nothing more than a handful of memories I share, some words on a page.
And it’ll no doubt be strange, watching my children and realizing that I’m probably going to have to find them their own cities and towns to fondly despair over, now that mine are gone.
I hope we manage to keep my children’s lands afloat.
We asked our 2021 and 2020 Orwell Youth Fellows to interview our new 2022 winners and runners up. Below, 2021 winner Jennifer Yang interviews Cerys Shanks about the importance of place in forming bonds with loved ones, and how travel writing inspired her winning essay ‘Blackpool’. You can also read Jennifer’s 2021 winning essay ‘On Keeping a Time Capsule’ here.
- In your essay, you mentioned that ‘And it’ll no doubt be strange, watching my children and realizing that I’m probably going to have to find them their own cities and towns to fondly despair over, now that mine are gone.’ If places that we form strong attachment to (like Blackpool) disappear, how, do you think, can we form bonds with loved ones?
I believe that forming connections would certainly be difficult. One of the key parts in good memories, at least for me, is where they took place, because you can’t help but smile when you return to those locations. However, one of the key parts of being human is our ability to adapt, and we can connect through this. If you can’t bond through a mutual place, then there will be other things, like favourite foods, music, sports and hobbies. The main issue is that a lot of these factors are interconnected, and as a result the climate crisis has the potential to damage all of them.
- I noticed that your prose style is dense and rich, maintaining paradoxical emotions such as love and hate – are there authors with similar styles that you particularly admire?
My prose style has developed over the years. I have a habit where whenever I read a book, my writing becomes alarmingly similar to the author’s style for a short period until I find the next novel. As a result, I can’t say for definite if there are any particular authors that share a similar style, although there probably are, because I tend to think of my writing as a strange blend of every book I’ve read and enjoyed. My favourite authors and styles tend to change constantly as a result.
- Except for the experience of going to Blackpool regularly, are there essays/ stories/ poems that inspired your writing?
Whilst I was trying to write my entry for the Orwell Youth Prize, we were discussing travel writing in English Language as a possible option for coursework. Quite a few of the samples provided to us included descriptions and a slightly mocking edge towards the towns or cities. This definitely inspired the idea behind my piece.
Enter the 2023 Orwell Youth Prize here.