Coast of Teeth is published by Signal Books
On the train to Essex, I realise I know little about Essex. And that little is scrappy and second-hand. Growing up in the 1990s, I recall the ‘Essex Man’ media stereotype. He’d flourished, so this crude narrative went, under Thatcher by dragging himself out of the working class on the spoiler of a second-hand car. Dodgy motors – along with watches, jewellery, video recorders and discount clothing – were the sources of the entrepreneurial Essex Man’s income, which he spent on tasteless nouveau riche trappings like mock Tudor houses, gaudy shirts and white stilettos for his trophy wife (‘Essex Girl’ was the complementary – though not complimentary – female version). Both boilerplates must have been dreamed up by middle-class snobs, for the claim was that Essex Man and Essex Girl had grown up in the sooty, shabby East End of London before moving further east to cleaner, brighter coastal resorts like Clacton-on-Sea, where I am headed now.
Sometimes Essex Man fled to southern Shangri-Las like Hayling Island, where I grew up. One case – although the only Essex Man cliché he observed was voting Tory – was the father of my childhood best friend Pete Taylor, who passed far too young in 2019. Pete dreaded having to visit his relatives in Essex during the school holidays and took revenge by co-writing with me a comedy screenplay that posited the county as a hub of hardboiled crime. The script was titled Chelmsford Confidential, a reference to LA Confidential, the neo-noir film popular at the time. Not a great pun, but we were only seventeen at the time. One of Pete’s most memorable inventions was ‘Clacton Contract Killers’, which paired an image of English seaside kitsch with that of Tarantino-esque assassins. Pete also created a character called the Reverend Chingford W. Manslaughter – Church of England vicar by day, Glock-toting gangster by night. While we were working on the first draft, I recall saying that ‘a Clacton’ sounds like an insult, as in ‘You’re a right Clacton, you are’. The word’s clumsy phonetics evoke stupidity or naïvety, like ‘dimwit’ or ‘bumpkin’.
So now, having never been to Clacton, Chingford or Chelmsford, I can only mentally associate these places with my much-missed friendship with Pete, my first efforts at writing more than twenty years ago and, most curiously, a Chandleresque criminal demimonde. The real Clacton is a disappointment on that last count, though it’s not without problems. These are evident from my 10-minute walk from train station to b&b. A topless guy squats and shivers in a Co-op doorway. A rain mac-encased woman tows a trolley of shoes and tinned food, her tongue enlarged from some illness, looking like a macaroon clasped between her lips. Two puffer jackets share a spliff, one to the other, ‘I’ve signed up to PIP but now Universal Credit are telling me I gotta find a job. What’s all that about, eh?’
After dropping off my stuff at the b&b, I trudge along the coast towards Clacton Pier where I’m due to meet Louis. I pass an ad for a Jim Davidson gig and a bus shelter housing a Gandalfian beard on a mobility scooter also getting stoned. The backdrop to the coastal road is cheerier. Out to sea, a rainbow flares through the inky clouds above a graceful procession of wind turbines.
The pier itself is drabber and could be confused for an industrial road bridge if it wasn’t for the ice cream cone-shaped helter-skelter, fake lighthouse, fake palm trees. A billboard boasts CLACTON PIER – NO. 1 NORTH SEA. But what’s the competition? Oil rigs? The pier backs on, germanely enough, to Pier Avenue, belted by arcades and cheap eateries. I find Louis, who observes that the latticework bannister on the mezzanine floor of Charnallies Restaurant and Bar – the largest single building on the avenue – has a 19th-century New Orleans vibe. Behind us is the subtler Venetian Bridge, built in 1914 as a facsimile of… the bridges you find in Venice presumably. Maybe seaside towns, located as they are at points where England interacts with the outside world via the ocean, import symbols from overseas to lend themselves some glamour and excitement. I don’t think we’ve been to a coastal arcade yet that hasn’t invoked Monte Carlo casinos, Aztec emperors, Egyptian pharaohs, plus all stripes of Americana, from the Wild West to Mississippi riverboat gambling. These may be the tips of conceptual icebergs that run deep into a popular unconscious formed when Britain was bossing Johnny Foreigner Land with crass assumptions about its mystery, exoticism and hidden riches.
Not that any of this makes for friendliness. I ask some teens exiting a snooker hall what it’s like in there.
‘Nice,’ mutters one of the girls, while the others pocket their hands and recoil from me.
‘Is it still open?’
I ask if there’s anywhere else round here you can get a drink at 11pm.
I try to bring the others into the conversation. ‘You guys from round here then?’
‘Near,’ says the girl. Everyone else stays eye-uncontactable.
Later it comes to me that these kids might have thought it was, for a whole suite of reasons, a bit strange to chat with two tipsy old farts their dads’ age.
We do manage to find a pub still open. According to not overly reliable TripAdvisor comments, the Moon and Starfish is the worst Wetherspoon’s in the entire country – a laurel over which there must be fierce rivalry. Louis and I know immediately that we’ve been to much worse. It’s boisterous but also more hospitable than the teenagers were. Blokes apologise in classic English style for no other reason than wanting to let you past them in the corridor. From the next table I eavesdrop on a Geordie saying, ‘Aye, it’s alright here, like’ and a local responding, ‘You’re welcome any time, mate.’
When we hobble outside at 1 am, we’re caught in a power ballad crossfire. From the right we’re barraged by a karaoke version of ‘Show Me Heaven’ which, delivered by a flat, baritone voice through a distorted microphone, sounds like it’s being sung by Pinhead the demon from the contemporaneous Hellraiser horror films. The no less diabolical ‘I’ve Had the Time of My Life’ strafes us from the left, out of a nightclub with the Orwellian name ‘Truth’.
The eighties theme stretches to the Clacton Pavilion. Louis and I go there next morning to find reboots of Pacman and Space Invaders machines, and a scalloped old dear on death’s door playing a Tim Burton’s Batman slot machine. While she must have been at least 124 when that film came out in 1989, Louis and I were kids then and it’s depressing that, for total lack of new cultural ideas, the songs, films and games of our youth are now being lazily recycled – and heavily monetised – by the seaside fun industry in the same way as those phoney pharaohs. I’m not sure how good Maria McKee and Michael Keaton were the first time round, much less the second. Nostalgic pick-me-ups while their kids are ily bankrupting them in the bowling alley, circus, seaquarium, 5D cinema, adventure golf course and manifold other pulls that admittedly do make the pavilion enjoyable. Only the terminally But maybe they give parents of my generation a nostalgic pick-me-up while busily bankrupting them in the bowling alley, circus, seaquarium, 5D cinema, adventure golf course and manifold other pulls that admittedly do make the pavilion enjoyable. Only the terminally cynical would get bored here, whereas I’m just moderately cynical.
Ever ginger about where to sit, draw and make notes, Louis and I plump for Luca’s Ice Cream Parlour. I soon realise it’s attached to a kids’ soft play area. My heartbeat hastens. In any sane world, a law-abiding middle-aged man who doesn’t look too dodgy should be free to go in public where he pleases. But in the real world, plagued by paedophile paranoia, a law-abiding middle-aged man who looks a bit dodgy in a certain light can fall under suspicion for being around children if he isn’t accompanied by a child of his own.
A waitress comes to our table. ‘I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave,’ she says firmly but respectfully. A fiery blush spreads over my face. Have we been barred for alleged noncery? Perhaps feeling bad about distressing me and/or now entertaining the possibility that Louis and I are a gay couple, she asks, ‘Do you have children in the play area?’
‘This space is reserved for parents only.’
She smiles. I smile. Louis smiles. She smiles back. Then the thought flashes that perhaps we’re all smiling too much, like we’re creepy and she’s placating us.
‘Of course, of course, of course.’ Louis and I both say that phrase a few too many times for comfort.
Rather than learning from our faux pas, we go and do something potentially even weirder than sitting near children: we play children’s games amid loads of children. In our defence, we’re professionally obliged to at least have a quick go on them – the games, that is. Like the model village, the coin drop machine captures in miniature something of the economics and geography of seaside towns. The metal cliffs are piled high with 2ps and 10ps, the odd few slipping over the edges like eroded shards of sandstone. The claw machines are as literal a manifestation of the phrase ‘money-grabbing’ as you’ll find. However, they require more skill than simply dropping coins, as you guide with a joystick a sinister metal pincer – like the one replacing the hand of Tee Hee, the baddie from the James Bond film Live and Let Die – towards a poor innocent teddy bear. Never in my life having won a thing from these infuriating devices, this afternoon I finally do win something. When a furry, police tape-yellow Pacman toy tumbles out, I hold it aloft like a football captain showing off his new FA Cup. I’m sure that looked weirder still.
Do these slot machines and their hard-to-attain rewards typify the misplaced hope that many seaside townies have about luck smiling on them – winning the lottery, say, or marrying someone rich – and climbing out of their humdrum jams? In the Great Depression, punters who’d got used to doing without the finer things were obsessed with the Clucking Hen contraption, which laid gaudy metal eggs in return for a penny. According to Kathryn Ferry, Britain was importing 5 million such eggs from Germany until World War II broke out and Hitler redeployed the manufacturers to making bombs and bullets instead.
Clacton Pavilion’s size is matched by some of the games within it. The Xtreme Big One must be the Burj Khalifa of claw machines, at over ten feet tall and pillow-sized items of Spider-Man merchandise – again literally – up for grabs. At the seaside, images are not only constantly copied but adapted for different formats. These Spider-Man prizes are by-products of a multinational racket that evolved from a humble sixties comic book. Less lucrative yet more eerie are the polyester doughnuts that line the shelves of a tin can shooting range… that stands opposite stalls where you can buy real doughnuts. Other seaside foods are so iconic that they’ve been almost infinitely reproduced. And why not in an age when all kinds of other data are proliferating on a mind-blowing scale? I think back to our trips to the West Country and how it would be very easy to walk out of just one gift shop wearing a T-shirt depicting a Cornish pasty, a baseball cap depicting a Cornish pasty and two Cornish pasty-shaped slippers, with a Cornish pasty-shaped pencil case in one hand and, least excitingly, an actual Cornish pasty in the other. At some dystopian rupture in our near future, will the hot, meat-filled snack that we know today as the Cornish pasty be eclipsed by innumerable replicas of it? Again, why not when you consider that, although dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, they continue to appear in movies, theme parks and the highest echelons of the British government. Just as the Campaign for Real Ale was founded in the 1960s out of terror that traditional beer that tasted of something was being submerged under an avalanche of mass-produced pastiches of a beer that tasted of nothing (Watney’s Red Barrel et al), perhaps there will soon be a Campaign for Real Cornish Pasties.
Such a campaign may already have started in a pub that we must negotiate to escape the pavilion. Before a deafening live band doing a lesser Britpop cover, families are scarfing meals that I thought had been extinct in this country since we realised, some time towards the end of the last century, that hot cuisine could be a touch more stimulating than triads of tinned legumes, cremated potatoes and shreds of low-grade flesh, whether served naked, battered or pastry-incarcerated. When I was bumming around as a young fool in Southeast Asia in the noughties, I met a French chef who’d catered for English tastes some time before this great realisation. After sighing when I told him I was English – as French people will when you tell them you’re English – he said that, while working in a Swiss hotel in the eighties, he’d been driven to distraction by tourists, mostly from London and Essex, ordering nothing but chicken and chips. He’d spent years perfecting his blanquette de veau, crême brulée and béchamel sauce recipes, only to be reduced to bunging prefab crap into a microwave.
On his 1933 tour of England – which took in bits of Essex – the playwright JB Priestley slammed the ‘barbarism’ of ‘English cookery’. There was an exception to the rule: the ‘venerated and idealized’ steak, as he put it. ‘When an ordinary English waiter mentions any other dish,’ continued Priestley, ‘he is a realist and his very tone of voice tells you what that dish really is – muck.’ But the waiters here in Clacton, almost ninety years later, have no steak to offer, only mucky-looking chips, baked beans and pasties, pies or fish fingers. In the interest of balance, though, there’s another restaurant inside the pavilion called Armstrong’s which is excellent, as Louis and I find out that evening. The fresh, subtle and global menu rescues us back to the English culinary present.
Venturing beyond Pier Avenue we’re faced with two contrasting Clactons.
1. Rough and Ready Clacton
Northwest around the junction between Rosemary and Jackson Roads, businesses play on the anxieties and profit from the weaknesses of the have-nots. Tattooists and manicurists supply that enduring demand to look good next to everyone else. In the social media age, the contest has gone gladiatorial. If you’re hard-up enough to steal things you can fence them, no questions asked, at the neo-pawn shop Cex (pronounced ‘sex’). For me there’s nothing less suggestive of love-making than a hooky food mixer, but maybe I’m just prudish. The already cash-strapped will have to tighten that strap after a visit to the bookie’s, the payday loan shark or Argos (tempting folks into personal debt since 1972). Greggs and McDonald’s are a cheap means to a short-term salt ‘n’ sugar hit, but in the longer term they’ve contributed to Clacton being named in a recent government investigation as one of the unhealthiest coastal populations in the country. Further invitations to slash your life expectancy are made by old-fashioned tobacconists that these days must be as endangered as their patrons.
Rough and Ready Clacton’s axis is the Rajul News and Booze cornershop. Attached to it like an umbilical cord is a perpetual queue of dazed clients, and it’s the booze they crave rather than the news. And this ain’t rhubarb, truffle and caviar-infused premium gin or obsidian barrel-aged rice ale, this is overproof rum which, as the implausibly chipper clerk clarifies, means really strong rum, as in 80% ABV really strong rum. In a cabinet beneath the till is a jar of clear liquid with a faded Dolmio spaghetti sauce sticker around it.
‘What’s that?’ I ask, expecting it to be moonshine.
The clerk eyes me with alarm. ‘Just liquid for cleaning, sir. Not for sale.’
Such exploitation of insecurities makes Rough and Ready Clacton the inverse image of the plusher seaside towns we’ve seen. In Bournemouth there are high-end vets and pet-grooming boutiques that cash in on the moneyed Englander’s adulation for animals. The same social group can get a fix of metropolitan sophistication by going to restaurants serving meals on slabs of wood rather than plates, their menus riddled with adjectives like foraged, curated and artisanal.
Although not plush in the same way, the parts of Clacton west of the pavilion are closer to some ideal of a twee and quirky English seaside town.
2. Twee and Quirky Clacton
The further we progress along Marine Parade West, the more salubrious the housing seems to get. Lately-painted terraces with prim detonations of roses and tulips, some shielded by fences topped with coils of barbed wire. Everywhere George crosses and union flags. On the lawn around a detached mock-Georgian three-bedroomer are thirty well-crafted ceramic statues. A charcoal-toned stag, horse, orangutan and otters face-off with more colourful and conventional garden gnomes with beards and pipes. Behind them a red-coated, tri corner-hatted Napoleonic soldier and a marble-effect Roman goddess in a toga. I can see no unifying theme other than these objects were put here by someone who likes objects that have no unifying theme.
Clacton’s unofficial model village is more coherent. The front garden of a maisonette is crowded with Star Wars, Noddy and Snoopy figures, amongst other toys plucked from English childhoods past. Girdling the village is a scale railway with Thomas the Tank Engine half-parked in a green-doored garage. On the maisonette’s façade is yet another George cross and a tarpaulin sign thanking the NHS. Next door is that other English icon, the red telephone box, though rendered uncanny by a replica of Michelangelo’s David standing inside it. The neighbours are in on the eccentricity, displaying these signs:
BEWARE OF THE PARROT
SORRY GONE TO THE PUB – TRY AND FIND US
REMAINS OF TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED
Maybe such silliness is a legacy of Clacton’s salad days when redcoats wowed the post-war crowds at the Butlin’s holiday camp. There must be enough Clactonians still alive who fondly recall those tacky times – and others with an ironic liking for them – to justify the nearby Westcliff Theatre putting on a Best of British TV Comedy show starring Jeffrey Holland. He’s known for Hi-De-Hi, an eighties sitcom set in a fifties holiday camp in the barely-fictionalised environs of Crimpton-on-Sea.
Heading back along Marine Parade West, as the North Sea wind picks up to sting our eyes and chill our sinuses, we find more gentle subversion. A cake tin-shaped Martello tower, built in the early 19th century from bricks and super-strong mortar, has on its roof what looks like a present-day boat cockpit, its sea-facing windows fitted with windscreen wipers. Martellos are relics from another age of anxiety, though the anxiety then was about foreign invasion. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, seventy-four such towers were built along England’s shoreline and kitted out with big guns to repel Frenchmen. An information panel claims that, in recent years, Clacton’s tower has been used as a museum, a restaurant and a vantage point by the coastguard and navy. In the 2010s it was, bizarrely, a children’s petting zoo.
To get home to our b&b we must negotiate Rough and Ready Clacton again. We’re reminded of its rough-and-readiness by a couple of startling sights. The first is a memorial stone to Ian Dibell, an off-duty policeman who was ‘killed unlawfully’ in 2012. After hearing gunshots near his home, Dibell found the culprit in a car with the windows open. Dibell reached in to try to confiscate the weapon and the man shot him in the scuffle. This is not the only incident showing that the gun crime plague has spread from Greater London out to once-politer spots like Clacton. In separate cases during August 2021, a teenager was detained on firearms possession and drug charges, and a shoplifter was found to be carrying a replica pistol. A fake gun was used to rob a convenience store in 2019.
Our second shock of the day is seeing a woman collapsed on the pavement outside Magic City. She’s face-down, the feathery lining of her anorak hood rippling in the wind. Standing over her is a lad in a camouflaged parka like that of a white American domestic terrorist. He is shaking and muttering to himself and therefore not much use to her. Fortunately, a saloon car ambulance arrives and its team check her over. That they don’t exactly race her onto the stretcher must mean she’s not too serious.