No British seaside resort is complete without its retinue of gift shops, all selling tat of one kind or another to people wanting 'something for the mantelpiece'. I say 'tat', but that doesn't necessarily imply cheapness. You can pay purse-denting amounts for some of the stuff these shops sell. But mostly it won't break the bank. Of course not: the shop owners want the people who come in - whether holidaymakers or day visitors - to buy several items, without feeling robbed. These things will be 'souvenirs'. They may well have the name of the resort on them. They will be for the homes of the buyers and their nearest and dearest.
I have to say it's a very old-fashioned notion, to buy some object as a 'souvenir' that will probably be both useless and impractical. The kind of souvenir I personally find most meaningful is a set of photographs that I've taken myself, and definitely not some manufactured thing in dubious taste - such as the plastic seagull in the photo above, perched on top of a shell with ILFRACOMBE painted across it. And yet I bought that, in November 1994. I knew it was awful; but that was the point. It was a joke gift, intended to make my then quite-new friend M--- smile. I also presented her with a T-shirt, which she liked better.
She couldn't take the seagull seriously, and (setting a precedent for several later gifts of mine) handed it back to me. But I didn't mind. I kept it. Which is why it's still in my possession. I took that photo only this morning. Here's another view, further away and from a lower angle, so that you can properly savour this very typical souvenir of Ilfracombe:
I know my tone is just a little mocking. It's hard to take this stuff seriously, even as an indicator of lowbrow British taste, your particular field of study if you were (say) a sociology student. And yet most children go through a stage of loving seagulls on shells, and little mermaids, especially if given to them as a present by Mum and Dad, or a favourite aunt or uncle. I'm not chortling at them. And I confess that over the years I've developed a soft spot for this seagull, and wouldn't now part with him. He represents a tradition of nostalgic seaside Britishness that I value more and more. This plastic seagull, on his ridiculous shell, speaks of simple tastes and simple, uncomplicated, unsophisticated pleasures - the sort a young child would have, or used to have when I was young. And somehow a souvenir like this taps into the essence of down-to-earth, hearty family life.
In my own case, the seagull stands for all those bucket-and-spade days in a lost childhood. My seagull is of no value, and no consequence, but he's still a bit of fun, still worth cherishing, and I have space for him in my home.
My Mum liked seaside souvenirs too. Her speciality was tea-towels. At one time she had quite a few of them. But they have all gone. Still, because she liked them, I rate and respect tea towels.
My own strange appreciation for slightly tacky seaside gifts began when young. Here are two from the early 1960s. First, one I bought for myself, in 1962, when I was ten:
Yes, it's a little seahorse, whom I immediately named Sandy:
Again, these are all photos from this morning. Sandy the Seahorse has lasted well. He's now fifty-five years old. I bought him with my pocket money at Westward Ho! - it was during a family coach trip from Ilfracombe. Which shows you how long my connection with North Devon goes back to. Twice as long as my connection with Sussex.
This next gift, bought in 1963, came from Barry Island. We lived in Barry, but The Island - which had the sand, the funfair, and better facilities for day trippers from Cardiff and the Valleys, was only a short bus or train ride away.
I think Mum bought it for me, as we were soon to leave Barry for Southampton, and some kind of (useful) souvenir would be a nicely sentimental momento. This one had an upper part that you flipped over each morning to show the new date. You also twirled knobs on the base to change the month and day. You had to be the sort to do this without fail every day, and never forget to, but I was that kind of child.
I used it for years. But while I wanted to remember Barry (where we had lived), I wasn't so keen on recalling Barry Island (where I had gone to school). So at some point I scratched out the 'Island'.
So much for souvenirs from long ago. What can one buy nowadays?
Well, some truly dreadful things. I was on Eastbourne pier a week ago with my surfing friend Rheya and her Mum. We climbed right up to the top of the dome at the end of the pier:
Next, we stopped at one of the souvenir shops on the pier. While Rheya and her Mum went in to look at tea towels, I studied the gifts on display in the shop window. Yuk. Things to make you cringe:
OK, I own Sandy the Seahorse - that doesn't mean I'd love to possess a seahorse-themed mug. Don't even think of presenting this kind of thing to me. I mean it.
At least that was something with a potential real-world use. But these...
I suppose they must sell this sort of plastic rubbish in fair quantities, or else they wouldn't waste window space on them. Although why anyone would want (for instance) a plastic crouching unicorn beats me. The collection of figures and creatures in the picture just above had digital displays, and they were perhaps meant to be bedside or kitchen clocks. They were endlessly in motion, cutely bobbing around in a way that would enthrall babies and the utterly mindless. Nevertheless, harmless enough. But these things seemed very sinister indeed:
For goodness sake. Skulls. What kind of gift would these make? And who for? I can just about see the 'point' of a Union Jack skull mug, ugly and unattractive though it is. Some man might like it. But who would want that vile little 'tattooed' skull with menacing blue eyes? It's loathsome. Perhaps it has a battery inside, and functions as a nightlight for an infant Hell's Angel? How reassuring it must be, to see that glowing in the dark. I can't understand who would ever think it suitable for a gift, and who would ever want to receive it. It doesn't even have 'A Present from Eastbourne' engraved on it. It's utterly nasty and pointless, and takes you into a malevolent world of fear and violent death.
Rheya's Mum got her tea towels all right. They were colourful, but in the best tradition of these things, and my own Mum would have bought exactly the same. (I wonder, however, what she would have thought of those ghastly skulls)
Afterwards we had an early evening meal at Harry Ramsden's. It was pretty jolly. Rheya and her Mum are very good company.
I can't remember why we were making a thing out of putting a finger on the vinegar bottle, but I'm sure the reason was a perfectly hilarious one. Harry Ramden's is basically a superior fish-and-chip restaurant, but has much else on its menu, with daily specials too. I had Chicken Caesar, and enjoyed it very much. Rheya had sausages in batter with chips, and got rather more than she bargained for:
By the time we finished, and were walking along the seafront back to Fiona, the light was fading fast. The pier looked pretty, and with the sea so calm its lights made a good reflection:
Eastbourne has good seafront lights to show the way. No need to buy plastic skulls with blue laser beams in the eye sockets.