Standard Issue writers are penning a letter to their hometown. Or, in the case of Sadie Hasler, a beautiful billet-doux.
This is about you. (Don’t pretend to be shy; we all know you’re cheekier than that.)
You greeted us with snow when we moved to you, do you remember? In 1986. The worst snow for years, the weather people said. My sister, three, me, five, and my mum, 29, (five years younger than I am now *gulp*) – a three-county dash away from Leicester and from Dad.
One of my first memories of you is trudging up the road to the shop, the snow so deep that Mum had to widen holes with her wellies into which she’d lift-plonk my little sister who was too small to raise her feet above the stiff surface of the snowbed, while I delighted in stomping my own way.
It was always a happy memory for me. ”REMEMBER HOW DEEP THE SNOW WAS!”, I cooed for years, like it was the day the fairies came, but now I see this picture of my mum like a grim fairytale illustration: a newly single woman going for bread in a blizzard, about to raise her daughters alone. It makes me ache for how sad and daunted she must have felt.
Yet I loved you instantly, Southend.
We lived on Victoria Road, which trickled slowly down from the seafront in a slightly shabby part of you. Opposite our house was a desolate boatyard where no man ever went and no thing ever happened, and if you stood at the end of our front garden and looked left, there was the sea, crouching behind the flood wall waiting to spring out at you.
A pebble’s skim away to the right were the amusement arcades. The Kursaal, a boarded-up Victorian pleasureland draped in rusty chains (later spruced up for a casino and bowling alley); the extremely shit homage to Disney, Dizzyland, where joy went to die (now, wisely, a carpark); Las Vegas, the Hippodrome, Mister Bs, and Wonderland; all the faded pubs and hotels, old halfway houses and smuggler’s haunts and fisherman’s cottages; gaudy carpets, flashing neon lights, naff 10-pence judder rides and the hot sharp vinegar steam of chips piercing through the sugar haze of fresh doughnuts.
Everything fun had a slot (probably even some of the ladies of lore that worked in the more insalubrious of bars). Slack-wristed metal claws fixed by penny-pinching business men to clutch impotently at Bugs and Donald and Mickey and Minnie, and all the competing sounds: the thrust-drop-clink of coppers, pinball whizzes, tinkling melodies for victors and sarcastic shame-blasts for losers. It was all there, glinting like a penny in the sun at the top of our new road.
When I got old enough to play outside, and later as I got old enough to go further afield, Mum would fix me with her serious gaze and warn me that she knew every single one of the people who worked along the seafront, that they knew I was her daughter, and that they would tell her if I set even one foot in any of the arcades. Years later we laughed at her lie, which I had never thought of questioning. It worked. I stayed safe.
I don’t remember ever feeling sad that Mum and Dad weren’t together anymore, or that things had changed. I was at the right age for new starts I suppose, and Mum made everything so much fun, despite being at her lowest. How on earth did she do it? It baffles me. Perhaps it’s just being a mother. Perhaps that is what made you a town I will always love: if Mum could make you a happy place when she was so sad, then you could always be a happy place for me too. She set the tone with her strength. Seaside towns survive: people survive.
You are much maligned, Southend. Sometimes rightly, for you can be as downright shit and disappointing and dull as any other town in the country/the world; and sometimes wrongly, because you can be pretty bloody beautiful and fun and clever and inspiring (don’t be modest, you can). I despair of the things you do that don’t help yourself in this, and I cheer when you get things right. If someone from out of town slags you off I feel my cheeks pinken like they have pulled up my skirt and laughed at my knickers. You’re no different from a million other places that get shabby and regenerate and fill and empty with different people. Not really. People are people, and places are just wherever people are. That’s how it works.
So much history has passed up and down the river Thames on its way to London or back. You’ve seen it all go past from your armchair. Vikings, war planes, naval ships, mental windsurfers. I love that thing we grandly call the sea but which is actually just an estuary, the great big gob of the river. I’ve skinny-dipped in it, lost my shoes to it, swigged bottles like a pirate in it, got stuck in its mud, lost myself. I’ve kissed, been touched, cried in it. Even wanted to walk into it and let the waves go over my head like a duvet. But I’ve always come out again.
I’ve lost track of the number of times your beaches and skies and streets have sorted me out and I’m grateful. You have as many colours as any other place on earth; remember that whenever people are mean to you. Sometimes you glow pink and orange like the sea is on fire. Sometimes you are all kinds of blue at once. Sometimes you are streaked with stormy silver and grey, and sometimes like peaceful winter’s milk and you can’t see the horizon line and the sea looks like it goes right up to the moon.
Turner mixed his palette here, once, up by Hadleigh Castle. Nelson had a bastard child here. Dickens came here. H G Wells had a mistress stowed here. Royals came here to have their merry furtive affairs. John Fowles was born and raised here, hated you and couldn’t wait to leave, but I think he’d quite like you now you’ve changed your frock. And later my Dad moved here. We got to know each other in your pubs and strolled your streets, became friends, and then he died here. Leaving you would be a bit like leaving him.
I love this strange old sack of ghosts we’ve made together, Southend. It’s jumbly and weird, but I do love it.
Sadie is a playwright, actor, columnist, artistic director of Old Trunk theatre company, and frequently discombobulated multi-tasker.