Seaside, stripes and scuppered plans

I was looking forward to writing a lovely blog post about our short trip to Southwold. We’ve been there several times, and always enjoyed it so much that it was an obvious choice when we were looking for a last-minute short break. I was really looking forward to writing about tasty lunches in independent cafes; browsing in quirky shops; long windy walks along the seafront and across the common; the genius Hunkin machines on the pier; the odd sampling of Adnams delightful beers; people-watching from one of the many, many benches (has any town got more benches?); delicious treats from local fishmongers, bakeries and butchers taken home for simple dinners. But Mann tracht, und Gott lacht, eh? Man plans and God laughs…

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We arrived a little early to collect keys for our holiday cottage, so drove on up to Blackshore Harbour for lunch at the Harbour Cafe. We had a lovely lunch watching boats sailing into the harbour. Then we walked back to the car along the gravelled track, I turned my ankle and somewhere, I could hear God snickering.

Husband nobly caught me as I flew past him, saving at least some of my dignity, though I did swear very loudly and publicly, probably audible to several small children. But I knew what it meant: me and my ankle have a history strewn with ruined events. We opened the book at a Bjork concert at Wembley Arena in 1996 when I put my foot in a pothole in the poorly lit car park and sprained it quite badly. My sensible friend wanted me to sit down and get it sorted: I refused and stood on it for two hours before trying to hobble back to the tube station. By the time we got home to Reading, I couldn’t get my shoe back on, or put my foot anywhere near the floor. Since then my ankle has regularly given up on its ONE JOB and hurled me to the floor so many times that I got used to being suddenly horizontal. On one occasion I managed to continue my phone conversation without a break. It’s also likely to be the reason I had to have my hip replaced at the early age of 51. Oh yeah, me and my ankle. We have history.

Anyway, we repaired to the holiday cottage where I emptied all the bags looking for strong painkillers. A couple of paracetamols and a bit of raised leg action later, I decided a little gentle exercise wouldn’t be so bad and we should go for a short stroll. We passed Adnams brewery and head office at the end of our road (interestingly located next to the Methodist chapel – wonder which came first), the glorious lighthouse featured in CBeebies’ Grandpa in My Pocket, got as far as the seafront and sat on the aforementioned benches for a bit. I didn’t have the confidence for the steep steps down to the lovely promenade and beach, so my beach-hut envy had to be exercised from above. But by the time we got back to our let, my cautious hobbling had also started my hip off, and God was openly snorting with laughter.

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Husband, who is in fact beyond noble, pointed out that even if I couldn’t walk anywhere we would still have a lovely relaxing break, neither at work or at home fretting about DIY and the garden. And this was a holiday cottage with an exceptional bookshelf: so many books I’d already read and loved and others on my to-read list. One in particular leapt out at me: Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the first of her Neapolitan novels. Virtually all of my reading friends had been telling me to read Ferrante, raving about her. And so of course, my inner contrariness monster had taken a stubborn stand and refused to have anything to do with her books. Anyway, crocked ankle plus book sitting right there on bookshelf seemed like kismet. I decided Ferrante’s time had come and I would immerse myself the next day. Perhaps I’d carefully hobble down to the beach and sit there to immerse. How little I understood of the extent to which plan-making is futile.

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There was a lot of thunder during the night which kept me awake (not in a bad way, I love a thunderstorm), so I wasn’t surprised that I felt tired when I got up. I was surprised that I felt so exhausted that I had to go back to bed for a nap by 10. Even more surprised that I slept for four hours, woke up shaking uncontrollably from cold, followed by raging fever and pouring sweats, went back to sleep for another four hours, rinse and repeat. And by then, God was literally rolling around on the floor laughing. No acronyms required.

I still don’t know what it was. Two days later I feel fine – a little woozy, tight breathing and slightly painful dry cough, but my brain works and I’m able to stay awake for hours on end without saturating my clothes with sweat. But I lost the best part of two days of my precious break. Still furious. If this is your idea of bants, God, try it on someone with a sense of humour next time.

Anyway, on our last full day away I finally got to read Ferrante, and I loved it. I read it in a day, and was completely immersed in the world of the ‘neighbourhood’ that she presented; the dark undercurrent of vengeance and feuds; the endemic, expected violence, especially that visited on women; the proud illiteracy; the intensity of the relationship between the two main characters, not even as a friendship, more a bonding. I did some work on Italian neighbourhood cinemas of the same period when I wrote my PhD and wonder if this helped to make it so easy to visualise. It also got me thinking about ‘sidekick’ novels. Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love is one of my favourite ever novels and certainly one of those, with plain, sensible, clever Fanny the narrator always outshone by her dazzling cousin Linda, but somehow never less than essential. I’ve had the experience of being a sidekick who was surprised to find that she was more than just a convenient accessory; I wonder if it’s a common experience for clever girls (“difficult”, as my cousin Rachael calls us). Let’s just say I was caught out by who the title referred to.

To be fair, it wasn’t the worst break ever, it just wasn’t the one I had planned. The sun shone, we saw the sea, read books, watched Sid the Stupid Seagull Chick trying to escape our narrow garden (the RSPB said leave him alone, he’ll sort it out eventually), and I slept more in two days that I do in a week at home.

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Anyway, here are four things we learnt from our stay in what is possibly the most middle-class seaside town ever (am prepared to be challenged by those who have visited Whitstable):

  1. Everyone in Southwold wears stripes. Whole families kitted out in stripes. Always horizontal, perhaps so they don’t disappear when they sit on the deckchairs. Joules are making an absolute killing there.
  2. There is a new shop called Harris & James selling ice-cream, cake and coffee: the three main Southwold food groups. In fact it could only be more Southwold if the ice-cream was served in a brioche. The girl who served our ice-cream took our receipt and said with great enthusiasm and a beaming smile, “Marvellous!” as if we’d given her some sort of prize. I had the most delicious blood orange ice-cream, and Husband had a very nice coffee ice-cream though he’d actually asked for marsala and raisin. As we ate we listened to a woman interrogating her partner over whether he’d checked the soya and wheat content of the ice-cream he’d just bought for their toddler.
  3. Small children are grown-ups in Southwold. A small girl passed us declaring plaintively to her mother, “EVERYONE wants me to BEHAVE like a FEMALE, but I JUST want to be TREATED like a PERSON.” Splendid sentiments, but a bit disconcerting coming from a child I strongly suspect of being aged no more than 5.
  4. Seagull cries sound like police sirens when you have a high fever. And there’s something vaguely comforting about that when you’re surrounded by so much niceness.

Till the next time, God.

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