Besides The Seaside

Like many Northerners my memories of Blackpool were day trips on a coach to the Pleasure Beach and then, later, , home through the ‘lights’. One of my of memories of Blackpool as a child is seeing a fight spill out from a pub on the Golden Mile and having to be grabbed by my dad to avoid being knocked over by the drunken fight.

It was always a town of contradictions. Buses and buses come and deposit excited people from those sleeping in prams, who would remember nothing, to pensioners who were living with their memories. In the midst of this holiday excitement, a promenade of lights, gaudy plastic toys, smutty postcards and novelty hats, where the notion of a holiday resort is maintained. But just behind, a few steps away in the streets immediately behind the prom is a very different world. Here are the people sleeping in doorways, the spice statues, the empty shops whose names reflect the hopeful dreams of those that wanted to be their own bosses only to discover their dreams ending when the money ran out.

I found myself in Blackpool because of work. After twenty years living and working down South I finally came back up North, divorced and poor. At first, as a supply teacher, I saw little of the outside world, but then a contract came and as I  started to build a photography curriculum and school magazine opportunities began to present themselves. Everywhere I went with the kids I took a camera, every visitor, every event, every visit and over time the idea of documenting the town became stronger. This was the Blackpool (and my workplace) of Blackpool grime and Little T. A pre-teenage boy ‘sending’ for his rival grime artists, ‘spitting bars’, including his legendary first uttering, “yo yeah light the bifta, I’m going to rape your little sister...” He even featured in a Channel 4 documentary and The Big Issue! His haircut, the ‘meet me at McDonalds’ perm became much copied and there were stories of children being excluded from school for copying the style.

In 2019 however, the wheels came off. A move too far and I found myself in a strange mood experiencing new sensations that made me feel ill and panicky. I found myself doing home tuition. I started on this project at the North Shore end of town, walking along the elaborate but dilapidated Victorian promenade photographing the North Pier in the distance under a variety of light and weather. Lot’s of chocolate box lid shots followed, striking contre jour, metal structures silhouetted against the sky. Turner skies with heavy clouds, long shadows and so on. As I took more and more pictures, themes began to emerge. I’d already started a chair project years earlier after noticing how frequently a single chair turned up where it shouldn’t be, or otherwise how a group of chairs created interesting patterns. In Blackpool I seemed to stumble upon abandoned armchairs and settees everyday. Twice I stopped the car to photograph an abandoned chair only to discover another one. One day I found five in the space of an hour. Where the residents of Blackpool dispose of their fridges, tables, wardrobes, I don’t know but the street seems to be the natural home for chairs.

A photography book from the early 90’s, ‘Shots from The Hip’ by Johnny Stiletto was a big influence upon me at this time. I’d heard about this book in the mid 90’s but it took me nearly three decades to actually find a copy of the book! I loved the book, it even made me slightly nostalgic for film although I’d abandoned the darkroom, selling everything on Ebay a few years earlier. This book wasn’t concerned with the usual photographic technique, or photography as a means to keep buying new better gear, it focused on the stories around the pictures.

This whole project ground to an unexpected end in the middle of March 2020. The world was closed down because of Covid-19 or Coronavirus as it was initally known. Supermarket shelves were rapidly emptied of toilet rolls, pasta, rice and canned veg. There was a genuine and palpable panic in the air. The government held daily, televised press conferences, led at the start by the worryingly bumbling fool Boris Johnson accompanied by leading medical and public health officials. One by one they themselves became ill, a source of humour as much as concern. The media did nothing but make the panic worse.

Schools stayed open even after Boris had advised people not to go to the pub, the cinema, the theatre, a cafe, a restaurant. Even when these places were ordered to shut schools stayed open, largely empty but open. In an attempt to contain the infection everyone was told to stay at home. Teachers, being every parents unofficial baby sitter had to continue on until the point where either schools had neither teachers or students.

Lessons were cancelled, already demotivated kids had even less enthusiasm than before. I  felt the need to use the ‘free’ time to check Lidil, Aldi, Tesco etc. for food and essential supplies. Our house was full, no more food could fit in the freezer. I spent over £200. Money seemed irrelevant compared to ensuring my two young boys could eat okay. It was an scary time, but also oddly exciting for all the wrong reasons. It definitely felt like we were living through historic times. This was the background to this photography project. Blackpool was like everywhere else during the crisis but it wasn’t before it began. There’s nowhere like Blackpool, it is a museum and theatre as much as a town.