It was a couple of weekends ago when I remembered.
My parents were staying: it was my birthday, or, more accurately, the weekend closest to my birthday, because my (long retired) parents don't drive north to the seaside during the week because there will, my father tells me in dark tones, be traffic. That lull had come: the lull when the teatime dishes have been cleared away, the dishwasher is humming contentedly to itself and there's an air of expectation which says 'what next?' in an almost audible whisper. There was nothing on TV, or nothing which would please my mum and dad. And then my mum said it: the thing that reminded me of so many childhood Saturday nights so long ago forgotten.
'There's nothing on these days. Not a thing. It's a disgrace,' she said, the blank TV screen looking almost shamefaced in response. 'Terrible. Years ago, they used to put things on at night that people could watch. Do you remember Seaside Special? Now that was nice...'
It was almost as if someone had played a harp arpeggio in the corner. I was right back in my parents' sitting room as a child; a summer Saturday evening after tea, and the TV, which lived in the cupboard under the stairs, had been ceremonially wheeled out so that Seaside Special might be watched. The memory was so clear that I could almost taste the two strips of bubble-laden Aero I'd be awarded for being good, to enjoy while I watched the show that made me wish I lived at the seaside, where such riches of entertainment, I imagined, must go on all the time...
... and yet, thinking back, I can't really remember what exactly Seaside Special entailed. I remember it being called 'variety', and I can remember thinking that it reminded me of those Variety Packs of breakfast cereal I used to wish my mum would buy. The Variety Packs seemed almost magical, back then - little matching boxes of opportunity, seeming to contain an unimaginable possibility of the elusive, perfect breakfast, instead of just the same old thing each day. Variety entertainment seemed like that too, though looking back now I can't recall any great details of what it was I saw, or whether any of the acts were any good. Singers, comedians, dance troupes which made my father smile and my mother flap her magazine and clear her throat... inevitably a ventriloquist and dummy and sometimes, to my horror then and now, a clown... but the fine detail has gone.
And now, years later, there's no more Seaside Special on TV, but I have (without having planned it with those long-forgotten dreams in mind) ended up living in at the sea. In a holiday resort, no less: a place crammed full of neon lights and amusement arcades, bingo halls and beaches. As another seaside summer reaches its peak, it's hard not to think back and laugh at what I used to imagine living in a holiday resort would be like. I used to think it would be just like being on holiday the whole year round. Two words, maybe three: it's not. Living at the seaside is great: I mean, I often fall asleep to the sound of waves breaking just a mile away, having watched (and often photographed) a spectacular sea-reflected sunset. But I also often fall asleep to the sound of the racing-heartbeat bass-line thudding from a busy nearby nightclub, and in the winter time it's daunting to live in a north-east facing house on a hilltop near the sea, with hailstone-laden gales which try to push you back inside the house as you try to leave for work, having rattled the letterbox and startled you a hundred times the night before.
The Seaside Special of living here, these days, is a pattern which comes and goes like the rising and falling tides as seasons follow each other like the variety acts on an old time stage. It's summer now: walking around my local shopping town this morning, I saw red and orange-tanned mottled flesh and skimpy outfits; fake eyelashes, red lipstick, pink cheeks and straightener-tortured hair styles, as though a parade of disorientated dolls had invaded the area in ill-fitting cut-off shorts, just as the sun had emerged at last. Bewildered, blinking Northern Ireland man had unsheathed his blue-white legs, his shorts accessorised with all-terrain sandals and a pair of ankle socks, topped off with a polo shirt or a t-shirt with an attempt-at-humour logo. There seemed to be small, tubby, red-faced children everywhere - screaming, eyes bulging, pointing chubby fingers at everything, wanting everything, ice cream cones, souvenirs and lurid-furred toys in the crane game perspex cages. Mr Whippy and Mr Softee, the adjoining ice cream vans in the car park, their suggestive names so delightfully redolent of the seaside postcard, were whipping up good business. Old ladies of generous proportions were whisking their polyester skirts as they settled at the coin machines, waiting for the bingo halls to open, and I was stuck somewhere between outrage and amusement as the yummy mummies from the expensive holiday apartments, bedecked in Boden outfits like sprigged and stripy summer bunting, cleared the pavement for their parade of perfect offspring, all long shorts and light tans and takeaway babyccinos as I stepped, with a sigh or resignation, into the gutter...
Living in a popular seaside resort isn't like being on holiday all year round - it's not like that at all. It's not the seaside idyll of the Sunday colour supplements and their annual sea-themed decoration features. It's not a round of parties and entertainment and building sandcastles which is as bright and glittery and sparkling as the morning sunshine dancing on the lapping summer waves as you drink your coffee in the seafront café which hasn't quite woken up just yet. It's often much more likely that you'll inadvertently be shoved off the pavement, or have to search for too long for a parking space, or end up deciding that the crowds of half-drunk teenagers on the beach are just so noisy that you'll wait and have your walk much later on, even though the sharply falling temperature will make you catch a cold. But as the waves and the undertow trace the landscape of the coastline in your mind, and the prevailing wind angles your life into its shape like those trees which are exposed to its winter blasts, you find it's happened.
The place where you never imagined you'd end up living, the holiday resort of neon lights and crashing waves of tourist tribes, has become home: the riches of its entertainment in the variety of each season, as the tides turn, the cloudscape shifts, the neon brightness flickers and goes out.