Seaside Surrealism: Whitstable – April 2015

One day project

On Saturday 4th of April, 2015 I took a trip to the East Kent seaside town of Whitstable. As well as being a nice Easter weekend break, I saw this as the latest in a series of one-day excursions and ‘projects’ exploring the possibilities of what I have described before on this site, following Paul Nash, as ‘seaside surrealism’. I first became interested in this idea during my PhD, when I became aware of a sub-tradition of British art inspired by the strange and estranging possibilities of the seaside: the ‘surreal juxtapositions’ (Fiegel and Harris) found along the symbolically loaded esplanades of the coast. Key figures in this lineage include Nash in Swanage, the Mass-Observation movement in Blackpool, Patrick Keiller (also Blackpool), Iain Sinclair in Hastings and Margate, Andrew Kötting and his ludic jaunts around the coast in Gallivant, Derek Jarman at Dungeness. The list goes on, and you can read more on my take on this sub-tradition in The Communality of the Underdeck-Dirty Pretty Surrealism – a sample chapter from my PhD thesis, on Iain Sinclair’s 2004 ‘seaside’ novel Dining on Stones.

Seaside surrealism

In previous excursions documented on this site I’ve tried to reveal the surreal possibilities of Bexhill-on-Sea and, further afield, the astonishing Fisherman’s Wharf development in San Francisco (seaside surrealism meets David Lynch). This Easter I was drawn to Whitstable for two reasons. The first was that I have been dimly aware of this small seaside town for some time as an emerging ‘bohemian’ enclave on the coast – to which increasing numbers of East London hipsters and creatives have been draining away in search of cheaper housing and studio space and a higher quality of life. The second reason, in stark and ‘surreal’ contrast to the first, is the reputation of this part of the country as UKIP territory. In the context of the forthcoming general election in which Nigel Farrage is standing as an MP a short distance up the coast in South Thanet, there seemed to me to be an interesting mix of currents at work in East Kent. On the one hand, bohemian boutiques, galleries and bars creeping down from the capital; on the other a reactionary and decidedly anti-cosmopolitan politics blooming like algae along the coast.

With these ideas in mind, it seemed a good time to take a trip. Without any particularly grand aspirations, the aim of the day was simply to explore and create a sketch of the landscape: to travel to the coast on a bank holiday weekend in the shadow of a general election and to ‘drift’ through a seaside town recording impressions and images of the day – adding another entry to my sporadic and decidedly amateur ‘surrealist ethnography’ of the coast. To do this, I took a series of photographs and pulled together a sketchbook of collages during the day, some of which are reproduced below. All of these were created in a rough and ready fashion on the hoof, with the aim of capturing some impressions and associations that occurred during the day and creating something new out of the experience.

Surreal postcards

In Whitstable, I wanted to recreate the colours and textures of the seafront in a series of rough-and-ready collages. I wanted to create my own series of ‘postcards’ conveying my own impressions of the town and reproducing some of the strange juxtapositions from which the place seemed to me to be composed: the rust and the rope of the seafront, the new art gallery the clothes shops along the beach, the trendy bars at one end of the high street and the conservative club at the other, the oysters and the shingle heading out to sea, the pictures of the Queen and interviews with UKIP candidates in the local paper. I made a small series of quick images, and filled a book full of notes.

On the train home, somewhat elated, I scribbled these lines:

Whitstable is an encouraging sign of things to come – a seaside town that takes advance of its border status and leans into the sea with a cosmopolitan edge. If London continues to rupture and to become a place in which it is impossible to live without a trust fund or a six-figure salary, it would be nice to think that this atmosphere might spread, and that the salty edge of the south coast might be embraced as a space of possibility, not of threat. It might become a place where cultures can collide and where someone can drag a drum out onto the seafront without asking. There are more things coming out of the sea than contagious diseases. We should make a point of fishing for them.

A seaside manifesto

But of course we should be more cautious than this. As (relatively) monied bohemia drifts down from London, problems come with it. Property prices and inequalities rise and communities become more fragmented and unequal. As the old adage has it: ‘first come the artists, then the property speculators’. Finally, the worst fate of all: everything within commuting distance becomes a monumental suburb of the great metropolis. The tensions are already there, and should be acknowledged as one factor in the backwash feeding UKIP’s rise in the area. As local communities feel increasingly disempowered and misplaced, scapegoats are sought and found. What we might hope for, here and elsewhere along the coast, is that the uneasy frisson and weirdness of the seaside might after all be its saving grace. The inherent surrealism might hold. Indeed by accentuating that strangeness and potential radicalism of such places – via the creation of strange and self reflective art (self-reflectively strange art) we might be able to accentuate the surreal possibilities of the seaside. We might be able to cement it as a place from which to escape the increasing blandness and banality of the city, and of politicians who want to drag us back to the 1950s.


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