Home Coming: Bournemouth
A tour of one writer's hometown, one postcard-perfect moment at a time.
When you move around a lot as a kid, it's hard to say where your home is. Sometimes mine feels like it's a small corner of my nan's garden, where the ashes of her dog Shep are buried under flower beds and paving stones, and everything is still. At others, it might be south-east London, in a house with bay windows, looking out onto an old shipping dock in the dead of night. Or it's abstract: the familiarity of a favourite song, a film, something to tune out the bad weather.
Of course, I remember the houses I've lived in. There's the place where my sister and I slept on bunks, and mum and dad on a sofa bed in the lounge. The just-shy-of-a-year stay in a sleepy village cottage. The one where we were robbed, but the thieves couldn't find much of anything to take, and the vaguely nuclear-family-like suburb we moved into with my step-dad. These places never felt like my home, though, just a stop-gap to be showered and fed.
By the time I was old enough to make the memories of a hometown, I was already venturing away from mine. The usual teenage stuff: careening dangerously down dual-carriageways, red-eyed in the passenger seat; bunking the three stops to the next town in a train toilet; skating; house-parties at a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend – formative but transient moments with a rotating cast of people who are now getting married, have deleted Facebook or work on cruise ships – ghosts of the shell of a previous life I think I may once have lived.
All of which is to say, neither where I lived the longest (close to Basingstoke) or where I was born (Reading) feel like my hometown. I've also lived in London almost as long as anywhere else. But, as it says on those kitsch kitchen ceramics, home is where the heart is. And while there are scattered fragments of it all over, the largest chunk is in the seaside town of Bournemouth.
There are family ties by the sea. My granny lives here, and her sister, auntie Liz, owns a flat in the same building my great-grandparents used to live in. My nan chop-chop-chopped a living in a high street hairdressers, and her sons – my uncle and dad – crawled into the world at hospitals down the road.
I've spent a decade's worth of summer holidays spilling Calippo shots all over the beach and three years at its (terrible) university. Bournemouth has been host to binding experiences, all of them firsts: from football boots, to apple bongs, to the kind of trust-breaking heartbreak that defines your early twenties. It is a home, away from home, that feels like home.
But enough of all that saccharine prosaism. The first thing you need to know about Bournemouth is that it's lush. The area was marketed as a health resort in the late 1800s, and because pine trees were believed to be an air purifier (perfect for all the tuberculosis going around!) they were planted everywhere.
Brighton has baggies of ketamine among its pebbles, Margate has sausage roll racists, but Bournemouth is defined by its gardens – a strange seaside forest. The Upper and Lower gardens are both Grade II* listed (AKA the GOAT) and run for several miles, from the River Bourne and down to the sea, encompassing flower gardens, an exotic bird aviary and a park bandstand.
If it wasn't clear already, this is the kind of town so about beautification that when an IMAX cinema was constructed on the beachfront in 1998, it was despised to such a high level that local residents banded together to vote it the most hated building in England, as part of a poll conducted by the Channel 4 show Demolition.
An area with the fourth highest land value in the world, "Britain's Palm Beach", is also at the end of the seven-mile stretch of seafront (the number one ranked beach in the UK). It's called Sandbanks and it isn't strictly in Bournemouth, but it might as well be. Basically, what I'm saying is: this is The OC of the UK, only with fewer Newpsies and way more Tories, students and beige-clad OAPs.
Beyond all the structural glass and flowers, though, the generic markings of a British beach town remain. A malt-scented Harry Ramsden's, stag and hen-dos, at least 15 sticky-floored nightclubs and, of course, the arcade. As a child, this synapse-stoking fantasia of brightly-coloured lights and copper coins was my shit.
Every year, no less than 15 minutes after parking up the car, the question would hang in the air: "When are we going to the arcade?" "Is it time to go to the arcade?" and the absolute most droning beg of all: "Pleaaaaaaaaaaaaaaase can We gO to tHe aRCaDe?" repeated over and over until my hands could finally be dirtied by old two pence pieces.
But, like much of the UK, Bournemouth is also going through a Five-Guysification. A cleaning up of the muck, a wiping of the tables – the introduction of a polished sheen. Though some places of note remain – the infamous LGBT-friendly area known as "The Triangle" and its countless bars, for example – one cornerstone of Bournemouth arts culture, the venue Sixty Million Postcards, has been turned to picture-perfect ruin.
When I worked in its kitchen as a student, cooking burgers and chopping potatoes into fries, it was a dark yet warm hovel of a bar. As its name suggests, the walls (and ceiling) were heaving with collected trinkets; a special place that prompted you to leave a piece of yourself there. Which my girlfriend at the time did, placing a 100 trillion dollar Zimbabwean bill among postcards from France, provisional driving licenses and lager-fuelled graffiti.
It wasn't just the decoration that made Sixty Million Postcards memorable, it was also the only place in town where you could watch bands. And everyone – or at least everyone it feels important to see when you're 18 – played here. Foals, New Young Pony Club, Friendly Fires. There were magazines, too: VICE, The Stool Pigeon (RIP!), Crack, DIY. And events: art fairs and jumble sales. Today, the pub has been given a stroke of paint, the postcards tossed out. Based on what I imagine to be the demented vision of whoever's currently in charge, the garden is now full of beach huts. Essentially, it has become a glorified Pret-a-Manger with beer and tattoos. Just look at the way they've presented their (admittedly not great, in retrospect) musical legacy:
I guess the one place that can't be made more palatable is the beach, but that hasn't stopped the council from trying. In 2009 they built a £3 million artificial surf reef in Boscombe – the side of Bournemouth they don't want you to see, home of early-2000s drug cafes and alcohol dependency rates well above the national average. It bombed, though. Mostly because £3 million can't buy you surfable waves, but also because the sand is for everyone. Unless you're my Grandpa Mac, who hated naturally-occurring granular material so much he wouldn’t set foot on it, waving from what felt like miles away on the promenade, cigarette in hand; my granny next to me in her dresses, looking at my works of art (big fat holes).
When you're younger, you're always waiting. The next party, person or piece of pub quiz knowledge is out there for you to find, just beyond the horizon. And then, splash. You’ve jumped off the cliff, university results in hand, and you’re submerged in what is the rest of your life. I’m not sure if the hanging around ever ends, the pursuit of it all – at least, not for me. Some things you don’t ever really know. But when I pause for a second to take a look in the rearview, I can see the memories glinting. It just took me until my mid-twenties to decide to take stock of it all and have a proper look.
When I did – and I think about this a lot – Bournemouth is the only place where I have special memories with nearly every single member of my messy extended family. My step-dad, ferrying me to and from university at the tail-ends of the year (and picking up a speeding ticket in the process). Barbecuing on the weekends when it was dad's turn to look after my sister and I; being joined by my uncle and my cousins because it was also theirs, then falling asleep on the motorway drive home. Pizza Hut with my granny. Telling my mum I loved her for the first time, I can really remember, on the first day of university. These things that might seem insignificant unless you've lived through them, because I guess that’s how it all works, especially when you look back at the pieces to make a whole.
I think Bournemouth is the reason I like living by the water, like the house by the docks in south-east London. Or maybe it’s because water is calming, and I'm thinking about it far too much, and that's OK too. But of anywhere I've been, it makes me feel warm to be here. The memories are multitudinous and long-ranging: of winning three colouring competitions, aged seven, at the local fish and chip shop; getting faded with best friends and their eclectic music tastes in second and third-year houses; returning here with people I care about, now that I’m older and I realise it’s because this is where I feel at home. There's something about the fresh, salty air.
After all these years, and all this searching, I feel like I can finally swim.