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May 26, 2008

Lilian Pizzichini asks, is Lowestoft the most depressing town in England?

Posted by Lilian Pizzichini

When Lincoln Allison recently visited Suffolk he found the quintessence of Englishness; when Lilian Pizzichini visited she found the most depressing town in England.

Lowestoft is England's most easterly point and one of its most depressing. To walk up the high street is to experience the death of small-town life as we used to know it.

I remember Streatham High Street in the late 1970s. It had everything: a department store with haberdashery and cream cakes, a library with books in font sizes other than large, a quirky bookshop, spangled boutiques, family-owned restaurants, the Cats' Whiskers discotheque, two cinemas (ABC and Odeon) and an ice rink. There was a strong Italian contingent as well, with a deli and trattorias to choose from. The pubs attracted varying clientele - the tweedy suburbans, the fashionable Lacoste crowd, and the rough and readies. It was a high street with character, like any other in England at that time.

The main point of interest in Lowestoft High Street was a group of middle-aged, faded revolutionaries selling the Socialist Worker outside W. H. Smith. That's how dead Lowestoft is.

I tried the seafront: the beach was very clean, the tea shoppes sold fresh cakes and crabs, Tarot readings and rock. But the air reeked with stagnation. The sea itself was seagull grey with taupe stripes where the rays of the sun penetrated the murk of the clouds. The sun here is harsh rather than warming.

The "Sunshine Coast" is the promotional line the Suffolk tourist board is plugging. It is the country's driest region with record sunshine, and the Claremont Pier, the tourist brochure tells you, is the first point to greet the dawn. It is also for sale. Included in the lot are an amusement arcade containing 150 machines, ground-floor bar and restaurant, and first-floor nightclub. When I visited on a Friday night, apart from the amusement arcade, they were all closed.

The town has a rich heritage based on its fishing port … the brochure says. I could not find it. I looked out to sea and saw a dredger dredging up mud. Admiring the spectacle was a railway enthusiast from North London here to see "The Special" arriving at 1.30pm - a diesel engine - all the way from Birmingham. I found the high spot of Lowestoft on the Kirkcliff promenade leading away from the town centre: Vasco de Gama, a Portuguese café. Maria Sol cooked me clams with garlic, olive oil and coriander. The clams were from the freezer, probably imported from Portugal, but the atmosphere was rustic and her customers friendly and surprised that an English person had ventured into their café.

They walk in and walk straight out again,
said Maria Sol. But this small Portuguese community is thriving. We have to trust to entrepreneurial immigrants to bring our dead high streets back to life.

My Friday night journey continued to a "contemporary wine bar" where the contemporary barman asked me if I wanted a "large" glass of contemporary wine. I asked for a "normal" glass and was served my wine in a super-sized 250ml glass. My solitary measure of Merlot was dwarfed by the bowl of the glass. But this is what contemporary bars do: they encourage their customers to drink in large quantities whilst proffering the illusion of sophistication.

In the 1980s oil and gas industries were the main employers in Lowestoft. Now it's Bernard Matthews and Bird's Eye, purveyors of all that is bad in English cuisine. Lowestoft, along with Great Yarmouth, is the subject of county council regeneration plans. This would seem to mean a concrete shopping mall for Lowestoft and a "Super Casino" for Great Yarmouth. Like the super glass of wine, the super casino offers instant gratification for a jaded populace.

Having read Lincoln Allison's review of Suffolk, I did not recognise the county he celebrates for its Englishness. But I did recognise its flatness. Pubs bordering Lowestoft, in Blundeston and Oulston Broad, had Sky TV and fine microwaved fayre. The Englishness I found was living in a past as flat as its beer and unsure as to its future. Maybe it is a feature of Englishness to be unimaginative and ascetic - when it comes to food, unless you're a "foodie", that is almost certainly the case. In the rest of western Europe, there is no such thing as a foodie. Everyone, not just Jamie-Oliver wannabes in Tesco, likes the finest ingredients.

Further inland, I discovered a village called Somerleyton. A man in a pub told me that Lord Somerleyton was in the "Queen's inner circle" and owns most of the countryside around these parts. I went to his estate. His son, Hugh Crossley, employs around 100 local people in the Somerleyton farm, restaurant and hotel. He told me that his family bought the estate in the 1860s. They were self-made industrialists looking for leisure and space. The hall was bought as a pleasure palace and the land looked after itself - or rather tenant farmers did.

Hugh decided to assume his ancestors' spirit of entrepreneurialism. He has transformed his estate into a nearly self-sufficient fiefdom. The estate is regenerating itself, borrowing from local tourism models but respecting the land and its people. I stayed in a woodland lodge bordering a lake, surrounded by rhododendrons and bluebells. What struck me was that the Vasco de Gama and Hugh Crossley have a lot in common. On a small scale, and in their own way, they are regenerating English society.

Lilian Pizzichini's first book, Dead Men's Wages, published by Picador, won the 2002 Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction. She is currently writing a biography of the novelist Jean Rhys for Bloomsbury.


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Lilian Pizzichini needs to open her eyes. She also needs to get out and about more. After Lowestoft, perhaps she should visit nearby Cromer. It lacks employment of any sort. There is no Bernard Matthews or Bird's Eye there. Out of season the streets are deserted, the pubs empty. You can get bed and breakfast with a sea view on the cliffs for £25 per night. The place reeks of camp-decay, the like of which I last saw at the Travellers Club in Pall Mall, London, at the other end of the class spectrum. The essence of Cromer is captured at the fading, grand, mostly empty, Hotel De Paris. It fills up occasionally to entertain groups of oldies to twist the night away, complete with low-life organist. But I love Cromer. Just like I love Lowestoft. They are quintessentially English.

They are mostly inhabited by adventurous cockneys in retirement, looking precisely for the old, familiar, polite, safe and friendly environment they grew up in. These quintessentially English people would feel uncomfortable in the kind of “posh” England Lillian dreams of. What’s wrong with that?

Meanwhile, if Lillian spent a weekend in Harold Hill or Elm Park, in Essex, where I am from, she would discover places even the Socialist Workers Party have deserted. If she survived the trip unharmed, she’d have to acknowledge that Lowestoft and Cromer are comparative safe havens full of tradition, culture and possibilities.

My retired father retired from crack-ridden Elm Park and the infamous Elm Park Hotel for community-driven gentility of Cromer. My grandparents retired from Fords of Dagenham to Lowestoft. So I speak from experience.

I’m proud to be English. I am proud of the people and culture Lillian clearly despises. The great thing about the England is that it offers so many different versions of authenticity. Lillian, unfortunately, can only recognize her prejudices as being English.

Posted by: paul seaman at June 11, 2008 01:56 PM
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