by Dewi Lewis September 08, 2020

Looking Back #003

An occasional series about our backlist titles. 


I did a Zoom interview the other day with David Fletcher for and, as I already l knew him, it was pleasantly relaxed. I was surprised how much David focussed on my early life and in particular on how I’d been brought up in the seaside resort of Rhyl on the North Wales coast.
One of his later questions was about Martin Parr’s The Last Resort which I published in 1999 and have reprinted many times since. Originally the book had been self-published by Martin in 1986. David wanted to know whether the book echoed any of my own experiences in Rhyl – had it rung any bells?
My reply was “A mass of echoes, which is probably why I have never seen it as exploitative. I see it as a very fair picture of the holiday experience of so many people of that time. We had a lido very much like the New Brighton one, and the beaches were full of families with screaming babies trying to find somewhere to have a picnic. These were the same people I was talking to at the different places I worked in Rhyl.”
Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking more about that experience. Mine was almost certainly different to Martin’s in that it was almost twenty years earlier – from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s. And when Martin photographed in New Brighton it had already gone through the years of dramatic decline.
Rhyl in the 1960s was a bustling resort during the summer months, holidays abroad were still the province of the few, and most working people had to settle for a week by the British seaside. It was still the time of ‘wakes weeks’ when whole towns in the industrial heartlands of the North and the Midlands would close their factories and escape en masse to the seaside. Coaches full of families and friends – all from the same town - would descend on Rhyl each Saturday morning.
When they arrived at the bus station they would be greeted by a horde of boys each with a pram converted to have a flat surface for ‘casing’ - carrying luggage to people’s B&B. For them it was to save the cost of a taxi, and for us it was good money – though pushing an overloaded pram, perhaps half a mile or so, through the streets of Rhyl, with the family trailing behind, could be an exhausting task.
From an early age many of us took on Saturday and Summer jobs. My first was on the Fun Fair, alternating between the ‘one in the jar for a budgerigar’ stall and the ‘roll a penny’ stall. I later graduated to the amusement arcades and spent many days hidden away from the daylight in a tiny cash booth, surrounded by flashing lights,  the sound of one-armed bandits being pulled and the very occasional splurge of coins overflowing onto the floor. Other jobs included those at the holiday camps which, even then, stretched out for miles along the coast. At one, my weekly task was to scoop out by hand the congealed fat from an immense frying range.

Passing my driving test shortly after my 17th birthday was what eventually changed my job prospects to more money and less unpleasant duties.  I became a minibus driver for Pontins Holiday Camp in nearby Prestatyn. Here I would drive up to twenty miles or so to collect staff from their home villages and later, often into the early morning, take them back. They were always friendly, talked endlessly, asking about me - just as I asked about them and their lives. Most were women and, unsurprisingly because of my own age, older than me. Often they would tease me mercilessly, doing all they could to embarrass me – they almost always succeeded.

After I left University, I never lived in Rhyl again, though I visited regularly for much of the following 30 years. But it had already begun to change well before then. By the late 1970s the days of the British Seaside holiday had all but ended – the annual week’s holiday had shifted increasingly towards daytrips.  

And so, what’s this got to do with The Last Resort? By the 1980s when Martin took these photographs I would also have seen much of the same on my visits back to Rhyl. My father was a local councilor at the time and I had many an argument with him about the state of the town. Now, I can see that I should have been more understanding. The decline in visitor numbers, and the lack of spare cash that its few visitors had, meant that local councils were under impossible pressure as they tried to maintain public services particularly during the summer months. Streets were litter strewn, buildings run-down, investment was neglible. These were forgotten places, unknown to the middle-classes, unconsidered by the politicians.

This, to me, is what Martin showed. Not a contempt for the people he portrayed but a contempt for a society that had allowed these places to be so ignored and discarded. The remaining holiday makers were mainly those who couldn’t afford the luxury of a fortnight in Benidorm or Magaluf. They had to settle for so much less. These were people whose sole aim was, amongst all the debris and desolation, to enjoy the comfort of family and friends. To enjoy their day in the sun, no matter what.

And so, in my mind, they show a dignity, a strength, and a determination to have a good time - no matter what. And in these same faces and gestures I see the same people that I remember so well from my days in Rhyl all those many years ago.

Dewi Lewis
Dewi Lewis


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