Thursday, 1 September 2011

Going into the West

At the end of The Lord of the Rings Frodo goes into the West, with the remaining Elves; it should be a glorious moment as the hobbit embarks upon his immortality, but instead it is shot through with melancholy, a feeling of autumnal sadness.

The Celts knew that the immortals lived on an isle in the west; but it was also the land of death.

On a summer evening when the sea was misty, the sun sinking in pink wafting cloud, we drove to Morecambe. The tide was out, the sands of Morecambe Bay glumly gleaming. Two pensioners strolled along the seafront, the sky was grey above, three drunks sat outside a pub. Posters and neon proclaimed the attractions of the place - amusements, pubs, restaurants, those odd shops that sell plastic buckets and spades, masks, garish shirts, but nothing you actually want - but the streets were almost deserted.

We ate in a huge Thai restaurant, the only ones there till, just as we were about to leave, a couple came in for a takeaway.

We didn't want a huge meal. Could we have the noodles from the cafe menu?

"We're not really doing the cafe menu any more. It didn't work out."

It didn't work out. That seemed a good epitaph for Morecambe itself.

"But I don't see why we can't put something together for you."

And they did. It was good; pad thai, duck noodles, a pot of green tea.

"A toilet? Have you got a toilet?"

A drunk woman had crept into the restaurant, edging round the doorframe like a cat bent on stealing a piece of fish, half-afraid, half-daring. Her hair was frizzy and her speech was slurred, and the answer was that yes, they had a toilet, but it was way upstairs, and she'd be better off using the toilets in the pub. (I think, in fact, she'd already been thrown out of the pub, but it was difficult to make out the rambling story.) In the end she left, not making a scene but just fading out like a failing radio broadcast.

Before we left, I went to find the toilets - up a massive, dramatic staircase, and through a huge empty restaurant through whose massive window I could look out on to the expanse of Morecambe Bay.The rooms were immense, expansive; I felt like a dwarf. And indeed, since the glory days of Edwardian Morecambe we have all shrunk; we live in hamster hutches, we make tiny, frightened gestures, nothing is this size any more.

The wonderful Winter Gardens, with its over-the-top music-hall facade in terracotta, its tall curling gables, its bulging finials, was closed. And even this is a shadow of its former majesty; the baths, the ballroom, the bars, are all gone, leaving just the theatre.

New Morecambe starts after you pass the station - an awful shopping centre, a broad unsheltered road where pedestrians dodge the cars to cross, modern shed-like retail outlets on both sides. The road was wet with rain, and the lights were out, no sign of life to be seen.

The small streets that wriggle inland from the esplanade were the heart of Morecambe's shopping a century ago, and they still have the cosy feeling that always comes from being sheltered by tall buildings on both sides, and yet only a hundred yards from the challenging emptiness of the sea. But even here, no one seemed to be about; everything closed, even the pubs.

And then, strangely pristine at the end of the seafront, we spotted the Midland Hotel. Its fine sweeping curve, its Art Deco streamline sleek and bare, a vision of architecture diametrically opposed to the Winter Gardens' fiddly riot of ornament. It's been restored as a luxury hotel; but I wonder who stays there - Morecambe isn't the kind of place lovers of the Bauhaus typically turn up in.  Coming across the Midland Hotel is like cutting through a wrong-side-of-the-tracks scrapyard and seeing a spotless Lamborghini among the dented VW Golfs and burned-out Volvos.

More typical perhaps is the closed fairground, the land lying bare behind blank hoardings; demolished to make way for a retail park that only ever got half built. In Morecambe, if you build it, they still won't come, and it seems the developers found that it wasn't only fairgrounds that didn't pull the crowds.

The decline of the British seaside is a long term trend; even by 1987 it was obvious that the fairground was in trouble, and the amusement park was rebranded as Frontierland with a Wild West look and feel. But that didn't stop the crowds from leaking away, and the park started cutting back; ride after ride was sold, till it closed for good in 2000.

Now there's a single attraction left; the Polo tower, like a piece of Andy Warhol, a huge packet of mints rearing into the air. It owes its reprieve to the fact that it supports a mobile phone antenna; a twenty year contract forces the owners to keep the Polo Tower going at least until 2013. (Mobile phones are, of course, more important than joy in this grim land of ours.)

Poor Morecambe. It was the beginning of August, and still no one was here. The sun wouldn't shine, the streets were slick with rain, all the traffic was heading out of town. We joined the flow; on towards the Pennines and the Peak District, and away from the lands of the west.

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