Brian Poole strode
on stage to a barely tepid reception. Most of those filling
the nightclub had not been born when the Tremeloes had their
last number one hit record. Even those who had, looked puzzled
because this was Brian Poole and the Electrics.
The Tremeloes, apparently,
are still performing their numbers on some kind of circuit,
whereas the Electrics have achieved the dizzy heights of
Butlins in Bognor Regis, the Sussex resort whose only claim
to notoriety is its choice by the doctor of King George
V as the place for his convalescence before he died.
Poole was dressed
in black slim-fitting trousers, made all the more unfortunate
because he was no longer slim. He had the sort of top-heavy
bulk that hung over his waistband in the way that a button
mushroom overlaps its stalk.
It took some quizzical
nudges and murmurs among partners in the audience before
it dawned - this man used to be someone. Armed with this
realisation the reception warmed appreciatively. It did
not matter that the drummer, who might have been taken for
Richard Gere under soft-lighting, was announced as a 'former
stripper' or that he performed a fire-eating act in his
white cotton vest during one of the numbers. When Poole
crooned Silence is Golden, if you shut your eyes and muffled
your ears a bit it was just about possible to attain a hint
'It will be better
tomorrow night when they have the Nolan Sisters,' said a
stranger on the next table. In the end Brian Poole and the
Electrics went down, if not a storm, then something more
than a heavy shower on a blustery day. They were dancing
in the aisles, dancing on the stage, dancing by the Poole.
There may be better
places to be than Butlins in Bognor on a cold day in April,
but fewer where you could experience a good night so cheaply.
The nightclub was the posh part of the camp. Next door was
a massive hall, like a mall with bars instead of shops on
the periphery of a large seated area packed with parents
and prams, children and grandmothers, sons in over-sized
jeans and mini-skirted teenage daughters staggering under
the influence of drink. Frustrated teenage boys with a smattering
of down on their chins vainly tried to get themselves beer
at the bar by presenting fake birth certificates that fooled
The gassy beer drawn
from pumps that appeared to have successfully resisted the
Campaign for Real Ale was slowly but surely inebriating
the imbibing throng. But there was no trouble, no yobbish
Standing by the foyer
of the cinema under billboards for Dumb and Dumber I noticed
a woman of uncertain age. The scene looked like a record
sleeve for a 1970s band such as Roxy Music or Supertramp.
She was wearing a bright red basque, black suspenders and
stockings and a grin as enigmatic as Lewis Carol's Cheshire
Cat. Who was she? Why was she there? I walked on a little
way, resisting the impulse to ask and when curiosity demanded
that I turn back, like Carol's cat, she had disappeared.
An overwhelming feeling
of oppressiveness came over me and I began to search for
a way out. A man in a blue coat asked me if I had lost a
child. 'No, just the entrance,' I said. 'We don't want you
to find that,' he said but helped out nonetheless.
Outside the fence
it suddenly became clear what had been troubling me. This
was the seaside and I had not seen the sea. You have to
get on to the sea wall to be reminded of that once great
holiday attraction that seems to have lost some of its appeal.
Two grumpy old men wearing bobble caps and wind jammers
were crouched by a groyne, huddled together in the face
of a stiff sea breeze whipping at the waves.
The tips of their
glass-fibre beach rods were quivering in the wind. 'It's
impossible to tell whether its a bite or not. We just reel-in
occasionally and sometimes there's a fish on,' explained
one of them. The fishing was poor. 'Nothing but undersized
things,' his partner complained, 'not that we eat them when
we catch them. I can't stand fish.'
They were members
of a sea angling club and weighed their good-sized fish
for a points tally at the end of the year. 'It's just about
the cheapest kind of fishing you can get,' said the oldest
of the men, who looked so fragile that a good wave might
have seen him off.
This was as exciting
as it got in Bognor. The town was like any other soulless
south of England shopping centre, its pedestrian precinct
peppered with all the usual high street names, including
a McDonald's restaurant. McDonald's was the only place open.
I wasn't hungry but went there anyway. The brain had closed
down for the day but the stomach proved capable of making
its own decisions.
What I did not know,
but what my stomach had somehow sensed, was that dinner
in the camp would be a big disappointment. I had wanted
a vegetarian course until I saw it and switched to chicken.
Like the fishermen, I should have weighed it and settled
for the points but I somehow forgot the earlier burger and
ate it anyway.
The previous day
the waiter had meticulously taken down orders for pudding
in advance to make sure that we would all get what we wanted.
On the menu was chocolate mousse, strawberry mousse, chocolate
or vanilla ice cream or gooseberry pie. Most had plumped
for the Black Forest Gateaux. 'Sorry that's off,' said the
The ritual was repeated
as he took alternative orders, each time the guests being
told that that too was off. It came down to the gooseberry
pie. I wondered if the order-taking had been a clever deception.
Maybe it had only been gooseberry pie all along.
If this was a restaurant
critique the conclusion would have to be that the food was
adequate. It fed you. Breakfast was middling except for
the pale orange liquid that was described as orange juice.
Whatever it was, it was so precious that the waiters carefully
poured the cups back into a plastic bottle. 'Now that's
resource management for you,' said a fellow guest who looked
remarkably like the one who had been so disparaging about
Brian Poole the previous night.
It is easy to be
disparaging about Butlins. Easy as pie. But people still
go there in their hundreds and when you step back from your
prejudices you begin to see why. It is not just that it
is a friendly place. It can laugh at itself and there is
a warmth that one recognises from a good soap opera. It
is a cheeky place where the children are allowed to stay
up far beyond what should be their bedtimes.
But among the clientele,
the fatties, the oldies the plains and the ordinaries, there
is a strong sense of decency. It is a place where disabled
people can get up on the dance floor, free from gawpers
and where old people in wheelchairs can enjoy watching drummers
eating fire instead of sitting in circles in a home, and
where Asian families can mix with whites, free from racial
taunts. It is as much a part of Britain, if not more, as
said George V, reputedly his dying words when it was suggested
that he went there. An understandable sentiment, perhaps,
echoed by two other grumpy old men on a wasted fishing trip,
but ultimately undeserved. Brian Poole could have put him
straight. Nobody dies at Butlins.
© Financial Times