Wish You Were Here
I’m on the open top double decker bus leaving Swanage steam railway station, bound for the ferry and flash Sandbank sands and Bournemouth’s mothballed sixties department stores. Ex hiker couples in matching faun windcheaters cower up top from grey rain clouds, a British Home Stores away day, the Derby and Joan Dignitas tour bus en route to a Home Counties crematorium. A certain kind of Englishness that suffocates, the Archers Omnibus on 24/7, ‘I think UKIP still have a point’, an allergy creeping up into my throat, I have to get off.
I disembark in Studland village, and thunderous autumn rain cascades like metal filings across the road. I seek shelter in a nearby much-coveted, much-reviewed hotel. A cursory glance at the Alfa Romeos, Mercedes and metallic blue convertibles in the car park suggest this is not the place for me so naturally I go inside. I avoid the restaurant and its passive-aggressive maître D smiling thinly from behind her arts and crafts oak pew, and take to the bar, the preamble anteroom to a ‘simply scrumptious’ sub Michelin Star meal. I order an unlikely cocktail with mint leaves and wait.
Clones of a certain kind of tall bore in purple slacks and lime cashmere sweaters saunter in, the over confidence of money and platinum life-insurance, the brittle peroxide second wife tottering in tow. Tall public school waiter boys in crisp blue jeans and white linen shirts, nasal upper-sixth buck-teeth vowels, sashay around with a posed, perky informality: ‘How are you doing, sir? 11 0’clock for a cocktail, how courageous. Can I perhaps interest you in the chef’s cheeky sausage roll then? Not for the faint hearted, pigs lips and deer offal in a blood pastry, but bloody tasty in my opinion.’
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‘No, but you can get me a drink and piss off.’ But I say ‘not today’ instead, an ambiguous potentially mischievous reply and wonder how to exact myself from here. The rain hurls itself at the bar window and soon I am beside a devilled Spratt bar bite (minute) and bottle of beer, followed by a strong coffee and a slice of artisan seaweed fudge (on the house).
The waiter sidles up to his imaginary, perfected Dad, a Grecian 2000 God in green deck shoes with a Ferrari owners crest on his sweater: ‘. . pigs lips and deer offal in a blood pastry, but bloody tasty in my opinion. I know you’ll like it, Dad.’
The rain stops. Time to escape the perfectly thatched roofs and luxurious yet studiously casual boho grounds. Down the winding wet track, climbing over the wooden stile onto a muddy bridleway, rising under a canopy of trees away from the village and then this soaring feeling as I arrive on open ground, under a dome of threatening sky, the coastline below snaking itself around a series of small white cliff coves, the long sweep of Studland’s beaches heading to the distant mouth of Poole bay, the sea stretching out in all directions enlivened by the rain, chucking spray, waving and changing direction with the winds, powerful, inhuman, exciting and dangerous at the same time.
Up on high ground, the moneyed Sandbank crowd that strayed west to the hotel are long out of sight, adrift from the chain ferry that will take them back to their lavish fortress villas. The ferry brings my thoughts back to my childhood in Kenya, the Word War 2 metal pontoon bridge to Nyali and the Likani ferry, the main routes off Mombasa Island. Back to our white cliff top colonial house beside Oceanic Drive, above Mama Ngina Drive (though it was called something different back then), the treacherous waterways to Kilindini docks below, the vast Indian Ocean spreading out to the horizon.
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Our home stood high above a coral reef. Walking on the rocks below, I trod on urchins lying in crevices and shallow pools, agonising when Dad sat me on the side of the bath and tweezered out sharp black spikes from the soles of my feet.
Along the shore, Dad water-skied by the pontoon bridge with his friend Bill. When they fell into the water one evening they attracted the attention of a pack of black sea snakes. The sea snakes reared up from the water and went in for the attack. They were fast, their bite as deadly as any Mamba. Dad and Bill shredded their legs clambering on the coral, just making it to safety.
Drinking Tusker beer at their favourite haunt, the Florida Club on the coast road below our house, fairy lights swaying below the dark southern sky, the hot African house band playing Wilson Pickett, the brothers in arms nursed their wounds and danced until morning.
Elvis Presley sang on the wireless at home, the lounge windows open to the sea breeze, Mum alone, nursing her gin and tonic, a liner on the horizon blinking its message to the shoreline.
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Walking out on the limb of the coastline, I stop to take photos of the sea and cliffs, balanced on the edge and buffeted by the wind, each shot a little marvel, a freeze-frame of my life now and my life then. I’d lived in London since 1980. I am a city person and yet I’ve longed to live by the sea again. My wife, too, has often talked of wanting to return to live by the sea as she had when growing up in Wicklow. We’ve chosen Swanage and the Purbecks: a hinterland of small bumbling fields encased in dry stone walls reminiscent of both the Aran islands and the Dales where we’ve often visited, the mythical shadowy Corfe castle sprung from childhood fairy tales, the ancient stone beaches ingrained with fossils that I’d treasured in encyclopaedia pictures as a child, the cliff top walks reminding me of the East Sussex coast where I’d lived in my teens, and the wide sweep of sandy beaches taking me further back to the years I spent playing along Mombasa sands. The town itself, a marvel too: a softly buzzing family holiday resort through the summer, its all year fishing harbour, a grey stone town invigorated by the changing sea through the winter.
If I ever feel my spirits drop I take to the nearby hills, stop on the way up and look down at the rolling roofs of the houses and shops, the white cliffs extending beyond, the sandy necklace of the bay nestling into the town, boats nodding in its harbour, and I feel this tingle of excitement. My children too are finding their place here: the lost meandering days spent playing on the beaches, the illicit trips to an amusement arcade, ice cream cones on the way back from school, the hide and seek games in the endless coastal fields that rise in each direction from our house.
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I walk out to the eastern tip of the coastline, the Isle of Wight’s cliffs shrouded in the distance, and step gingerly to the outer edge to take a picture of Old Harry Rocks, three chalk formations, a stump and two spikes, adrift from the mainland. A couple from Hull join me there, and we start chatting, laughing as the wind threatens to ruin the photos and pull us over the edge.
We talk about Hull and Beverley, places of student drunken abandon in the eighties, and about the wonders of the Purbeck coast. I am suddenly their guide, pointing them towards the best cliff top walk to get back to Swanage. In our interaction something happens, a new feeling in my chest, a pride for the place I live in, something that’s been difficult with my tarnished colonial past, eschewing patriotism for England for fear that any pride in belonging might morph into flag waving and jingoism.
Now I post pictures of my children in Swanage on Facebook for close friends to see, taking shots in spectacular, beautiful places, hoping friends will share our joy in living here. A bluff crow, daring to boast and rub it in a little to those still in the city: ‘it’s great here, I hope you wish you were here too!’