Friday, 13 November 2015

In search of Banksy

Last weekend, I was in Weston-super-Mare, the seaside resort on the Somerset coast.

Weston was major in Victorian times, with great pretensions. 'Super mare' was added to give the place some class. It's just the Latin way of saying 'on the sea', but it sounds much posher. Bognor on the Sussex coast tried the same Latin trick in 1929, actually claiming royal patronage, by renaming itself Bognor Regis (that is, 'Bognor of the King' or 'King's Bognor'). The King in question (George V) disliked the place, and it's now legendary that when the town council petitioned him for this change of name in his honour, he sourly grumbled 'bugger Bognor!' They went ahead regardless.

Presumably these contrived modern Latinisms (quite different from the ancient naming of country villages - Twiddlecombe Magna and Twiddlecombe Parva, for example) were intended to impress, and confer a certain cachet on the developing new resort. A way, in fact, of warning the Lower Orders that only the Best People should come. Rather as if I abandoned plain honest Lucy Melford, and began to style myself Lucinda de Melford, in the hope that only Nice People would associate with me. A vain hope? Of course; and I'm not going to try; but years ago everyone of any education held Latin in very great regard.  

I wonder if there was a short period, early on, when those nineteenth-century town councillors, hoteliers, and local shop-owners would try to insist on the proper Latin pronunciation of 'super mare' (which is something like 'SOOP-air MAH-ray'). I can even imagine this pedantic pronunciation in train announcements at Weston station (and, no doubt, at Bristol Temple Meads, and most certainly at London Paddington). The speech of Cicero in West Country accents! But only for a while. Nonplussed looks on ordinary passengers' faces would have stopped that soon enough. So far as I know, it's been 'soopa mair' for a very long time indeed. Plebian but practical.

It would be fair to say that Weston - like many a British seaside resort - had its heyday long ago. It's no longer an obvious place to spend your annual two-week summer holiday. But it still has its sands, and lots of facilities; and although its glamour has faded, it would be churlish to dismiss it as the Resort of the Damned. For one thing, Banksy thought it a fine place to mount his Dismaland installation, which opened in September.

You know Banksy. The anonymous street artist who creates witty and faintly anarchic wall pictures in black spray paint, with stencilled lettering, who has gained enough recognition to mount legal public exhibitions. Dismaland was a spoof Disneyland. He set it up in the old lido on Weston's seafront. It drew in vast numbers of paying visitors. What they saw is on this video - It's all dismantled and gone now. But I wondered whether any vestigial traces of it remained. So, in Weston on a grey and windy Sunday afternoon, I sought out the venue.

I was walking in the right direction!

And this was the old lido. Hmm. Nothing to see here. But just behind me at this point were marks on the grass lawn that suggested snaking queues:

I felt like an urban archaeologist. I peered around. Some of the nearby metal signs were plastered in stickers:

Very International, very Prole Power, but - is it just me? - I felt that every message was deliberately expressed in coded language, to obscure the real meaning. Why was it all so cryptic? Why not speak clearly to the oppressed and misled masses waiting in line to enter Dismaland? Couldn't they have used Latin, for instance? And although Banksy was an Artist of the People, this stuff wasn't at all in his style. But wait! There was one sticker...

That was more like it.

But really that one sticker was all there was in the way of art - unless you counted the pavement direction marker - to show that Banksy had ever turned his eyes on Weston at all. So I walked on, determined to find the Soul of Weston instead. Surely it would be exposed with stark clarity in the bleak gloom of a November afternoon? I wanted my photos to capture the raw essence of this Somerset resort. See what you think. 

Let's caption this one Wish You Were Here! 

Despite the light rain, I kept cheerful. Strange structures, which I took to be nuclear test shelters of some kind, or at least tsunami shields, faced the beach. 

The stylish Grand Pier, rebuilt and reopened in 2011, and looking just like a Beijing People's Palace, emerged from the mist. I was disappointed that the foreground stall offering fresh whelks was closed. But I kept smiling!

Just then, a loud chuffing noise was heard - a real head-turner. There was a strong steam-engine smell. It was a steam bus!

Encouraged, I continued, passing the entrance to the Grand Pier. They wanted £1 to walk its length and visit the tourist honeypot at the far end. I let them whistle for that.

At night, it's all lit up. Here it was four years ago:

Let's face it, everything looks better when lit up at night. The Winter Gardens Pavilion does. It's a bit further on from the Grand Pier. Here it is in 2015, by day; and back in 2011, by night:

Surely not the same people in front of the Pavilion? Doomed to walk past for all eternity? Well, who knows.

One thing there's no lack of in Weston is food. There are invitations to feast all over the place. Several of these caught my eye:

How British! 

Hello, what's this? A restaurant offering an OAP Special! Fish and Chips. Scampi and Chips. Fish Cakes and Chips. What a choice.

This must be what Old Age Pensioners live on. And I'm an OAP. Damn. I'm obviously doing it all wrong, because I eat lots of other things, including green vegetables. This has churned me up. It's so worrying. How am I to have any credibility as an OAP if I don't eat lots and lots of fry-ups? And it wasn't by any means the only OAP eating enticement I saw. 

There you are. Senior Citizen Specials. Cod, chips, peas, bread and butter. Ham, egg, chips, peas, bread and butter. How very special. Here's a question for all my readers. See if you can guess the right answer. What item is essential for each and every OAP meal? Stumped? Flummoxed? Haven't got a clue? Well, it seems to be chips. Something I have once in a blue moon. OK, that's an exaggeration. Say only once a month. And if people are noticing that, they must be laughing themselves silly whenever I mention my State Pension. What a fake, they must be saying. I'd better step up my chip intake PDQ.

Another thing. Those old persons above are dressed in grey, have half-moon specs, false teeth, and funny little tongues. God's teeth! I just don't look the part. It's a nightmare.

And what do these OAPs do all day in Weston? Shop at the 99p store? Or Wilko? Both shops are in this picture, taken in the Sovereign Shopping Centre. (To be fair, there's a Waterstones bookshop in the same shot) 

Or do they spend their pennies in the amusement arcades? In between snacking on chips, I mean. I wish I knew.

Thankfully, I found the steam bus again. It was taking a breather. It needed quite a 'crew' to get the steam pressure up, and generally look after it. They easily outnumbered the passengers waiting inside. 

I wasn't tempted to enquire about a ride. It was getting wet and chilly, and the light was beginning to fade. The caravan called. This was my evening meal later on:

Chicken, new potatoes, carrots, broccoli, gravy, and a large smear of dijon mustard (more for colour effect, really). Not Masterchef, but hey, it was vegetable-heavy and tasty - and not a chip on the plate. It was also a hopeless travesty of what real Old Person's Nosh is like. I ought to be ashamed of myself.


  1. What struck me was how patronising the Senior Citizen meal posters were. Decades have past since it was polite to call those of pensionable age 'Old Age Pensioners' or even OAPs. And as for the caricatures of the two old folk in the Senior Citizen Special one... well, I ask you! Perhaps if, in your dotage, you've become a chip addict, such things don't matter.

    One thing does fascinate me, though. Do you think the GT registration on the steam bus is a wind up, or could it possibly be true? Mallard, eat your heart out, eh?

  2. Ticket concessions are one thing. Special meals are quite another, as if old people were little children, or all of them impoverished.

    GT indicates a London registration, and perhaps this steam bus puffed through West End streets at the start of its long career. I don't think there is any deliberate reference to fast supercars!



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