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1995, Bognor Regis

Butlins, Bognor Regis  

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 of nostalgia.

'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 no one.

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 behaviour.

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 waiter.

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 Glyndebourne.

'Bugger Bognor,' 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

   
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